Exploitation films used to be about cars, sex, and violence, but by the late 70s they’re about sci-fi, cars, sex, and violence!
This film exists on Sci-Fi Saturdays solely due to the fact that it was shown often during the Los Angeles based TV-station KTLA’s weekend movie on Saturdays and Sundays, and as such became a part of my sci-fi upbringing.. The 70s and 80s masked some of the horribleness of this film, but now it’s visible to anyone watching. Please note: Any inconsistencies in the text of this article are due entirely to the sporadic and haphazard nature of the film, and does not reflect lapses in this writer’s prose.
First off, this trailer is a complete rip-off of the Star Wars trailer “this could all be happening right now, somewhere on this planet.” Apparently a young man finds an alien laser rifle left behind in the desert by two claymation aliens. He runs around shooting sagebrush, cars, and an old hippie. “It’s the story of the boy who found it. The girl who tried to help him. And the world that planned to take it away.” Does not look like it’s Shakespeare, but what exactly is it? It’s Laserblast!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
In the California desert, a strange mutant humanoid with a gigantic laser rifle lumbers through the sagebrush. He is killed by two reptilian aliens, vaporizing into a black stain on the desert floor. All that he leaves behind are the giant gun, and a strange crystalline pendant. Elsewhere in a neighboring community, Billy (Kim Milford) awakens to find his mother leaving for Acapulco. He then drives around town for a while arriving at his girlfriend’s house. He talks to her Grandfather, the Colonel (Keenan Wynn), who is ranting about “hush-hush” Operation Sand Dust and secrecy. He runs Billy off before Kathy (Cheryl Smith) shows up.
Billy then drives past Sheriff Deputies Ungar (Dennis Burkley) and Jeep (Barry Cutler), who pull him over for no apparent reason other than Ungar likes to give the youngster grief (and he’s bored). Stopping at the gas station for a Coke, Billy is bothered by Chuck (Mike Bobenko) a macho car enthusiast, and his nerdy and goofy sidekick, Froggy (Eddie Deezen). They want to race but Billy’s van won’t start. Billy is then driving off road in the desert. He throws his Coke bottle into the sand where he finds the lost laser rifle and pendant. He spends the next ten minutes blowing up scrub brush in the desert.
Back in town, a black Cadillac with Washington DC plates arrives, with a well dressed man, Tony (Gianni Russo), looking for the nearest hotel. Kathy meets Billy at a picnic spot where she notices a weird rash on Billy’s chest, while mentioning the birthday party at Franny’s that they need to go to. On board their spaceship, the aliens get a video message from their leader who orders them to go back to get the missing laser gun. In the desert, Tony discovers a broken Coke bottle, and the charred mutant outline, taking samples of both.
At Franny’s birthday, which is a pool party with lots of scantily clad women (and a few men), Billy is sad and sitting by himself. He goes to look for Kathy and finds Chuck and Froggy coming on to her (raping her??) so he wrestles with them for a few minutes before Kathy knocks out Chuck with a tennis racquet. She tells Billy he’s the strongest person she ever met. Later that night Billy, who appears to be under the control of the pendant (maybe?) heads back to the house and blows up Chuck’s car. Tony shows up at the Sheriff’s office and asks the Sheriff (Ron Masak) to seal off the town and produce all witnesses to the car explosion.
Kathy takes Billy to see Doctor Mellon (Roddy McDowell), who investigates the weird spot on Billy’s sternum. He removes a piece of metal from the open sore and contacts a local friend of his asking if he will investigate the object. Dr. Mellon says he’ll bring it by after midnight (he’s very specific about this), but his car is blasted by a mutated Billy with the laser rifle before he can get there. Tony investigates the car accident and takes the metallic sample, before the Sheriff and deputies arrive. Tony demands a list of everyone seeing the Doctor in the last 24 hours!
Deputy Ungar stops Billy for no reason, puts him in the back of the squad car, assaults him and takes him to the office for questioning. They all see the strange metallic object has regrown on Billy’s chest. Tony takes his sample to Mike (Rick Walters), the same man Mellon was going to see, and gets the alien metal analyzed. At a gas station that evening Billy, who is even more mutated, uses the alien weapon to blow up the outhouse with Deputy Unger and then shoots Deputy Jeep point blank. Billy awakens at the picnic spot with Kathy in their sleeping bags. They make love. She finds the pendant and matches it up to the open sore on Billy’s chest, which awakens the monster in him. She flees and he goes on a rampage through the town, blasting pinball machines and Chuck’s new car–which kills both him and Froggy.
Running into the desert, Billy is followed by a police sharpshooter in an airplane. When bullets don’t harm Billy, he blasts the plane to atoms. He hitchhikes back into town, killing a hippie that gave him a ride. In town (which now looks like a backlot from a movie studio), he proceeds to blow up newsstands, phone booths and several cars, including the Sheriff’s. Tony and Kathy show up just as the aliens return and zap Billy with a powerful ray beam. He collapses dead, but without the pendant or laser rifle (continuity error or intended consequence?). The aliens take off in their ship, and Kathy hugs the lifeless body of her former boyfriend.
“Just you, me, and the sky. Like a cup. A Giant Cup”
“Yeah, and we’re the dregs.” – Kathy & Billy
History in the Making
Laserblast showed that sci-fi was a growing trend in film. A decade earlier this film would have been made without the aliens and the laser rifle, but possibly with bikers or mafiosos who have lost a gun of some kind. Other than that, the film is a classic revenge inspired exploitation film, even having a cast with some actors already familiar with that genre.
It was one of the first productions for Charles Band, a low-budget film producer and director that made a splash in the direct-to-video market of the 1980s. His company, Full Moon Entertainment produced some of the best “bad” films of that decade including the Trancers and Puppet Master franchises (of which Band also directed a few). Band was also responsible for the more mainstream sci-fi film Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, and the horror films Ghoulies, and Troll (a 1986 film which featured characters named Harry Potter, Jr and Harry Potter, Sr).
People who have had the fortitude to sit through the film almost unanimously point to the stop-motion animation of the reptiloid aliens as the high point of the film. Built by Jon Berg (who worked on Star Wars, as well as Dragonslayer and Ghostbusters), and animated by David W. Allen, the scenes with these creatures were as good as anything else being produced at the time. It wasn’t up to the level of Ray Harryhausen’s work on Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (which was released in 1977), but for two characters that seemingly interacted with the live action plates in a low-budget film, it was pretty amazing.
Laserblast was only one of the two films that director Michael Rae (who appears as the police sharpshooter on the plane in this film) helmed. He worked to put almost everything in this film, and it could have worked if there had been a decent budget for the film. It also goes to prove that just including something in a film, like checking it off a list, is not going to ensure a successful film. The film contains, but is not limited to, aliens, laser guns, a spaceship, a mysterious project at the local military base, a mysterious government employee in a suit, explosions, lots of explosions, car explosions, special effects makeup, and tantalizing near-nudity from many female cast members.
Honestly, Laserblast is the evolution of the revenge fueled exploitation film like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! or The Young Runaways. Three moments are shown to depict young Billy as a disgruntled teen (early twenty-something–it’s not clear) at the very beginning of the film: his mother leaves for Acapulco without him, he is harassed by the local deputies, and a jock in a flashy car makes fun of him. He then finds the weapon of power and the way to exact revenge, except that he never consciously makes that connection. Somehow the device controls him and mutates him into a creature that exacts his revenge on everyone that has wronged him (except his mother, since she’s out of the country). It’s almost a Jeckyl and Hyde element, if it was ever addressed by the filmmakers.
Band and Rae have the beginnings of an interesting sci-fi flick, but the script wasn’t up to snuff when they started filming, and everything went downhill from there. I’m not one to try to second guess films about “what could have been.” I try to take the film presented and see what it contains, and if it’s at all worthwhile. But Laserblast feels like a film that had some interesting ideas that it only hints at. Kathy’s grandfather knows Tony, presumably from the work he was doing on the “hush-hush” Operation Sand Dust. Tony shows up almost immediately after the UFO leaves with the aliens, and seems to know what he’s looking for. Has the government been tracking these creatures? Is the gun an alien weapon or is it an experiment gone awry at the local military base? There’s so much that could be done with a re-make of this film that excites me.
As touched on above, the main theme of the film is the teenage angst of the male lead, Billy. He’s a poor kid who spends his time driving around the desert community, getting his frustrations out in the desert, and spending time with his girlfriend. But somedays it feels like the whole world is coming down on him, from John Law, to the Jerky Jock (with his nerdy sidekick. What’s that all about?) In terms of issues affecting society, or the larger issues regarding humanity’s place in the universe, these are about as petty as you can get.
It probably doesn’t help that the actors all look like they’ve been dosed with a healthy shot of thorazine prior to the director yelling “Action!” Billy wanders through the scenes with no real emotion, other than a sigh of complacency when the cop gives him another ticket (what was that for again?) or running a hand through his beautiful blonde hair after saving his girlfriend from Chuck and Froggy’s “attack.”
Of the characters that Billy gets his revenge on, the heavy set Deputy (Unger) is the most gratifying. Portrayed with a southern accent (because…Southern California?), he constantly harasses Billy, as well as making lewd suggestions about his mother. His comeuppance, getting blown-up in the bathroom, seems well-deserved. The killing of the dimwitted, pot smoking, skinny Deputy Jeep (yup, Jesse Jeep according to the credits) seems unwarranted. As does the shooting of the hippie that gives Billy a ride back from the desert. Is the pendant creating a monster? Is the power going to his head? Is his brain baked from hanging out in the desert too long?
The Science in The Fiction
The more that Billy uses the pendant and the gun (presumably in his sleep, as there never appeared to be a time that he consciously put it on), the bigger the sore on his chest gets. At first it’s just a red rash, but then the skin pulls back to reveal the alien metal below the surface. Is the pendant turning him into an armored warrior? Is it just a strange reaction to the alien rock? How do the gun and pendant work together? Anyway, Billy goes to see a doctor at Kathy’s insistence. And that doctor, Roddy McDowell, is a complete waste of the actors talent.
The doctor removes the metal organism and in an extremely contrived plot point, leaves his small town practice after midnight to drive to a neighboring town/university/friend’s lab, only to be blown up by Billy in his full-blown mutant phase. Presumably, the car accident could only be filmed at night, and that’s why Doctor Mellon says (twice!) that he can’t leave until after midnight when contacting his friend. Less than 4:30 of screen time for the man who played a talking chimpanzee in one of the finest sci-fi films of all time. It’s a shame.
This is all moot, since government Agent Tony finds the sample of metal at the scene of the accident the next morning, before the Sheriff arrives, and takes it to the exact same person that Mellon was going to visit! What are the odds? Tests get run and (surprise!) it’s alien metal that can’t be destroyed. It’s also regrowing on Billy’s chest. Why? No one is sure. It’s just one of those things that audiences are forced to go with.
The Final Frontier
Aside from the film’s continuity, performances, plot, cinematography (there are several scenes with blurry shots), and musical score, there are some really interesting things going on here. Like name dropping Star Wars (when Froggy begins babbling about lights in the sky not being lightning, Ungar says, “kids nuts. He saw Star Wars five times.”) and then later blowing up a Star Wars billboard. Is that a message? Because Laserblast is in no danger of beating Star Wars at anything, except being a worse film!
The cast was an eclectic mix of actors. Kim Milford and Cheryl Smith were B-movie actors appearing in Corvette Summer and Caged Heat respectively. Ron Masak was a character actor that would go on to be a better Sheriff (comparatively) in the CBS TV show Murder, She Wrote. Keenan Wynn was a veteran character actor, who appeared in The Absent Minded Professor and a number of other Disney comedies. Gianni Russo was in the first two Godfather films as Carlo. Roddy McDowall (whose name is even misspelled as ‘McDowell’) made numerous types of films throughout his career, and would return to sci-fi in The Cat from Outer Space and The Black Hole, as well as the horror/comedy Fright Night. This was also the first acting credit for Eddie Deezen, a perennial nerd-figure in such 80s films as Midnight Madness, Zapped, and WarGames.
Readers who are not up to seeking out the original version of the film can watch the MST3K version for free on YouTube. It makes the zaniness of the film a little more palatable. I’ll leave with a 1978 quote from Variety’s review of the film: “If Steven Spielberg advanced the likelihood of intelligent extra-terrestrial life in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, then Charles Band sets it back 20 years with his production of Laserblast.”
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.