Laserblast (1978) Retrospective

SUMMARY
The reptilian alien creatures in the film were works of stop motion animation by animator David W. Allen, marking the first chapter in a decades-long history of collaboration between Allen and Band. The alien spacecraft model featured in Laserblast was designed and built by Greg Jein in two weeks, and the musical score was written in five days by Joel Goldsmith and Richard Band, the first film score for both composers.

A green-skinned man wanders through the desert with a laser cannon attached to his arm. A spaceship lands and two aliens emerge, one of whom shoots the man, which disintegrates his body. The aliens depart on their spaceship, leaving behind the laser cannon and a metallic pendant the man was wearing. Teenager Billy Duncan wakes up in his bed, seemingly disturbed, and learns his mother is leaving for vacation. He goes to visit his girlfriend Kathy, but her deranged grandfather Colonel Farley makes him leave before he can see her. As Billy drives around town, he is harassed by bullies Chuck Boran and Froggy, and by two police deputies who give him a speeding ticket. Billy wanders into the desert and discovers the laser cannon and pendant. He starts playing with the cannon, pretending to shoot things, then realizes he can fire the weapon while wearing the pendant. Meanwhile, on the alien spacecraft, the two aliens converse with their leader who shows them footage of Billy using the cannon, prompting the aliens to turn their ship around to head back to Earth. Context implies that the two aliens, upon departing Earth, left the cannon and pendant behind under the presumption that no other human would be able to use them as the green-skinned man had, but they have now learned that they were in error.

Billy and Kathy attend a pool party where Chuck and Froggy attempt to rape Kathy. When Billy discovers them, a fight breaks out but Kathy stops it; knowing Chuck and Froggy would outmatch Billy. Later that night, Billy uses the laser cannon to explode Chuck’s car, and Chuck and Froggy barely escape the explosion alive. Government official Tony Craig arrives to investigate both the explosion and the desert where Billy found the cannon. Tony informs the local sheriff that the town must be sealed off. Feeling sick due to an unusual growth on his body, Billy visits Dr. Mellon, who surgically removes a metallic disc from Billy’s chest. Mellon calls the police laboratory technician Mike London to arrange for the disc to be investigated. A green-skinned Billy opens fire on Mellon’s car that evening, killing him in an explosion. The next day, Tony investigates the wreckage and recovers unusual material, which he brings to Mike London, who concludes it is an alien material that cannot be destroyed.

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At night, the green-skinned Billy takes his revenge out on the two police deputies for interrogating him about Dr. Mellon’s death and kills both of them at a gas station. The next day, Kathy puts the pendant on Billy’s chest while they are laying together outside. Billy immediately wakes up with green skin and deformed teeth and attacks Kathy, but she escapes. Law enforcement officials shoot at Billy from an aircraft, but Billy destroys the aircraft with the cannon, and later kills Chuck and Froggy by blowing up their car. While Tony questions Colonel Farley and Kathy about Billy, the two aliens land on Earth and begin searching for Billy. After killing a man and stealing his van, Billy travels into a city and goes on a rampage, shooting random objects with the laser cannon and fires at his surroundings. Kathy and Tony arrive in the city and locate Billy, as the aliens spot Billy from atop a building and shoot him, which kills Billy and destroys the laser cannon. The aliens depart in their spacecraft and Kathy cries over Billy’s corpse.

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DEVELOPMENT
Laserblast was produced by Charles Band, who is widely known as a writer, producer, and director of B movies. Band described the film as a “revenge story” with a simple premise that he thought would be fun for the audience. It was Band who conceived the title of the film with the hopes that it would grab the attention of audiences. Band said, “Most of the films that I made, that I conceived, that I was very involved with and in some cases directed, definitely started with the title and usually a piece of artwork that made sense. Then I would work back to the script and the story and make the movie.”

The script was written by Frank Ray Perilli and Franne Schacht. Elements of the story were inspired by science fiction films, such as Star Wars (1977), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), while the characteristics of protagonist Billy Duncan  a disenchanted middle-class teen from a suburban setting mirror those of James Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

Laserblast was directed by Michael Rae, marking his only directorial credit. Filming took place over three weekends and was made “for virtually no money”. .Band wanted Laserblast to be a “mini-Star Wars”, and at one point in the film, a disparaging reference is made when Billy fires his laser gun at a Star Wars billboard, resulting in a tremendous explosion. During another scene, a police officer is confronted by a frightened teenager, who the officer dismissed as crazy by saying, “He’s seen Star Wars five times!”

Billy is ignored and abandoned by his mother early in the film, demonstrating the dangers that can result from uncaring parents, one of the major themes of the script. The film also highlights the hypocrisy of police officers, particularly during a scene in which the two deputies smoke marijuana they obtained from teenagers. Commentators[who?] have pointed out several inaccuracies and plot-holes in the Laserblast script. John Kenneth Muir raised several of these issues in his book, Horror Films of the 1970s: “How does Kathy’s dad know Craig, the government agent? Why do the aliens leave behind the rifle and the pendant in the first place? Why does the weapon turn its owner into a monstrous green-skinned brute?” Band explained in a 2006 interview that the more Billy uses the gun, “the more it sort of takes over his soul”. Janet Maslin, film critic with The New York Times, pointed out that originally, when Billy wakes up immediately after the aliens kill the man with the laser cannon, it appears that incident was a dream. Later, however, it turns out to have actually happened after all.

CASTING
Kim Milford, who had previously appeared in the original Broadway theatre production of Hair and the first production of The Rocky Horror Show, starred in the leading role of Laserblast, marking his first major motion picture appearance. Cheryl Smith, who later received greater recognition for her appearances in B movies and exploitation films, appeared in the lead female role of Kathy Farley. Smith disliked the role because she felt it was poorly written and that she did not receive enough rehearsal time. Gianni Russo, best known for playing Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather (1972), was cast as government investigator Tony Craig.

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Laserblast marks the screen debut of Eddie Deezen, who went on to play other archetypal nerd roles in films like Grease (1978), which was filmed before Laserblast started production, Grease 2 (1982), and Midnight Madness (1980). During a 2009 interview, Deezen remembered little about Laserblast, other than that it was a “shoddy production”. Roddy McDowall portrays Dr. Mellon in the film, and his name is misspelled “McDowell” in the end credits. Keenan Wynn, a long-time character actor from a show business family, portrayed Colonel Farley, who provides comic relief as Kathy’s crazed, paranoid delusional grandfather and former military man. The filming for Wynn’s small role was finished in one day. Screenwriter Franne Schacht made a cameo appearance as the sheriff’s secretary in the film.

PRODUCTION
The 3-Week Alien For Kim Milford, the star of Laserblast, his indoctrination into the world of SF film was an enjoyable but hazardous experience. Kim, who starred in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, went through the rigors of makeup and special effects for the first time, but managed to survive and smile about it. It was all great fun,” he states from his California home. I’ve always wanted to play an alien ever since I was a kid. And the ad copy is great … ‘Billy was a kid who got pushed around, then he found the power. One producer friend told me it was the story of my life. When I was a kid. I was pushed around. Then I was suddenly in show business, showing all these people up.”

Although the theme of Laserblast may have been slightly autobiographical, the alien transformation certainly isn’t. I have these strange eyes and a Phantom of the Opera-type forehead It’s all appliances, like the makeup in Planet of the Apes.” Kim, a novice at the tribulations of makeup wizardry found the initial alien experience a bit trying. It took about three-and-a-half hours to put on and was hard to get used to. In the beginning, they covered my head in plaster to make a life mask. I felt like I had a rock welded into my neck. They then designed my appliances using the life mask. When I had the actual makeup on, it was hard to keep my hands away from it. After seven or eight hours with it on, you just want to tear it off. You get very claustrophobic.”

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Another hazard of the alien role was the danger of the makeup peeling off. “That’s tough when you’re filming in the desert. I’m not used to wearing contact lenses, either, and I had to wear very strange alien eyeballs. In the hot sun, my own eyeballs really got messed up. I almost went blind from having the lenses in too long: scratched my cornea and everything. But that’s the price you have to pay to be a starring alien,” Kim laughs.

The rigorous lifestyle of Billy/Kim had its light moments. Kim winces good-naturedly as he recalls Laserblast ‘s hectic three week shooting schedule. For a while,” he confesses, “I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was. I was working on this film and Corvette Summer (1978) with Mark Hamill at the same time, day and night. I was working on Laserblast one day and that night I had to go to MGM for a wrap-up party on Corvette Summer. The only way the Laser crew would let me go to the party was if I promised to wear the alien makeup so, when I returned, we could start shooting again. I had to take my makeup lady with me to make sure

SPECIAL EFFECTS
Stop-motion animator David Allen talks about his new science fiction film and the problems of doing model animation special effects on a modest budget. What might seem at first glance as just another exploitation ripoff of STAR WARS is actually an interesting little science fiction film produced by the Charles Band company, featuring superior stop-motion sequences designed and directed by David Allen. The project began in earnest during late Spring 1977 and was slated for Thanksgiving release, but the producers were inspired by the eerie effectiveness of the animation and allocated additional time and money for new special effects footage. Oddly enough, David Allen’s involvement with the film was a fluke that stemmed from his association with Steve Neill, who designed the alien makeup appliances and special effects props, and played an alien in the film’s first reel.

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Dave Allen had gotten Steve Neill several jobs in fantasy films, one on Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) and another one building the full-size head of The Crater Lake Monster (1977). Neill had previously worked for Charles Band on one of his productions. While Band was preparing Laserblast, Steve Neill found himself extremely interested in Dave Allen’s PRIMEVALS project. Both Allen and animator Randy Cook had just finished an early draft of the script, and a note of optimism was raised when Neill remarked that he knew someone who might be interested in the property. A short time later, Neill mentioned PRIMEVALS to Charles Band and another producer. “I had several copies of the script printed,” recalled Allen, “and Charlie was given one. He read it, but it took him weeks to read it–so long, in fact, that I felt he was not that interested in it. However, Steve Neill was very enthusiastic about PRIMEVALS and asked me to send, via him, my sample reel of animation. Charlie looked at it, and although he thought it was interesting, he spoke in a somewhat distant way about the project. He did say, however, that he had a project of his own called Laserblast, and on the basis of the footage he had seen, he wanted me to create animated models of the aliens instead of having actors in makeup as originally planned. Steve was to do those makeups, so it might sound like he screwed himself out of a job, but Steve was very enthusiastic about the potential of animation. And I told Charlie that for the amount of time and money he was giving to the assignment, there was no way I could do all of it in stop-motion. I would have to have at least one of the aliens as an actor in makeup, while the two animated puppets would be chasing him as outlined in the story. So Steve wound up playing the part in his own makeup. I was able to play a lot of the shots to him so that I could cut away from the animation whenever I needed to.”

Dave Allen was given a schedule of about eight weeks in which to complete all of the animated scenes. Assisted by the husband-and-wife team of Steve and Ve Neill and camera assistant Pault Gentry, Allen went out to the Mojave Desert and photographed all of the background plates in one afternoon. Back at Allen’s Burbank studio, process projection setups were designed while Jon Berg began sculpting the prototypes for the lizard men and built armatures for them. Randy Cook, who co-animated THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER with Phil Tippett, was hired as the principal animator for Laserblast. Modelmaker Greg Jein designed and built the spacecraft seen in the film, and Dave Carson designed the interior of the ship. “I’m basically producing and directing these sequences,” said Allen, who also had to hold down his full time position as Stop-Motion Director at CPC in Hollywood while working on the film. “I’m animating some of it, but unfortunately I’m not doing as much as I wish I could be doing. I designed all the shots and supervised without trying to be a little Napoleon.”

Laserblast was originally projected for a November release, but new ideas began to generate. An answer print was made containing uncleared music from Bernard Herrmann scores, and due to the good reception that the stop-motion sequences received, more footage was requested by distributor Irwin Yablans and several other prospective distributors whom Charles Band met in Italy when he previewed footage to acquire overseas distribution.

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The new stop-motion additions carry the characters in the first part of the film and develop the buildup to a climax in a more exciting way. “We’ve created some new scenes in space inside a rocketship, having the aliens watch some scenes back on Earth, and being ordered by their commander to go back and resolve the mess that resulted from leaving behind a laser gun. This necessitated the building of the miniature interior. One new scene shows the aliens finding a car that gets burned up. They begin to look for the finder of the laser gun at the scene of a wreck, which brings us back into the shot already filmed where they gun him down. It’s a bit more interesting now you see them tracking the bad guy instead of having them suddenly appear at the end. It’s still a small amount of additional animation.”

The stop-motion puppets are a treat. There was a desire expressed at the outset to use the lizard man models Dave had built ten years ago for test footage on his RAIDERS OF THE STONE RINGS, but since new duplication of those figures will be used in PRIMEVALS, Dave was adamant on having different ones made for Laserblast. Jon Berg did some prototypes in wax, Dave Allen made suggestions, and Jon did the sculptures. The armatures came last. “I had to make the mold and cast three figures and paint them,” said Allen. “I think Jon did a really nice job with he puppets. Had I done them myself, however, it would’ve been quite different.”

The result was a sympathetic sort of creature with an almost cute, turtle-like lead and a gnarled, tree-like body. “I don’t know if Jon intended them to look sympathetic,” added Allen, “but it worked out to the advantage of the script because they turn out to be the good guys of the story, if you can call them that. They even get a few laughs in the picture. They’re not scary monsters tearing up the countryside. I think their features really helped to reinforce that impression.”

The two alien vigilantes were affectionately referred to during animation as Mr. Brown and Mr. Green, and the third alien the commander of the two appears on a telescreen inside the spaceship in the new footage. Only thirteen inches high, they appear to be seven feet tall and were animated in four basic sequences. Medium two shots of the puppets from the waist up were photographed from four different angles and animated by Dave Allen. Certain tricks were done in the camera during animation. A ray from the puppet’s laser gun, or example, was reflected in via a two-way mirror without resorting to opticals or super impositions. Interestingly, the stage on which the models were bolted down was made of a special acrylic plastic, and with good reason. “Using that material, you can see the bottoms of the feet from below and decide where to drill for your holes. It might seem here would be a problem with light reflections bouncing back up to the creatures, but in actual fact that rarely seems to happen. I have other stages that are pre-drilled, but I couldn’t use them because the holes were too large for the creatures’ tiny feet.”

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Stop-motion had applications not only or the aliens but for Greg Jein’s rocketship as well. While several shots used a cutout of the ship itself, many were done with the miniature braced on music wire in front of a process image. The trick is to photograph a slight pendulum movement to avoid strobe problems. It isn’t easy. “You want the model to swing during exposure. You don’t get a true blur you get an exposure on each end of the swing and a sort of blur in between. It’s better than an absolutely sharp frame. It depends on the scale of the model of course, but you shouldn’t try to move it more than 3/8 inch per frame.”

This technique might seem to smack of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), but it is rather obvious that Ray Harryhausen did not animate his saucer miniatures that way throughout the picture. “Ray no doubt used wires in some shots of his saucers,” observed Allen, “but for the most part the models probably had a rod brace that went back to a sheet of acrylic or glass, with the models matting out their own supports in front of the process image. Ray animated the spin with a much more positive system of control.”

Not only is the animation of aerial braced miniatures a difficult chore, it is often undesirable, especially with something like a rocket where the strobing problem can become almost unbearable. It happened in Laserblast despite the pendulum motion during animation. Unfortunately, it was in a principal shot of the ship zooming over the crest of a hill. After judging it as unsatisfactory, Dave decided to go for broke and do it live action on the roof of the Allen studio. “It’s just like a Lydecker shot and the only one in the film like that. We rigged it up on a boom arm and just swung it across the camera in an arc. It’s a little risky; if the model falls, you’re in trouble. We put some padding underneath it and didn’t break any wires, so it worked out rather lovely. I’m really delighted because what was almost the worst shot of the whole show is now one of the better shots in the sequence. The ship comes over the camera lens, goes off into the distance and banks. It’s almost the only believable shot of the ship flying, because all the other shots are done in single frame and it tends to look a bit stuttery.”

On the non-technical end, Laserblast is a mixed bag of relatively unknown newcomers and several seasoned actors, a trademark of recent Charles Band productions. With Kim Milford heading the fledgling cast as the discoverer of the abandoned alien laser gun, others include Cheryl Smith as his girlfriend, Ron Maydock as the local sheriff, and Dennis Burkley as the deputy sheriff. Brief appearances among the more established names include Roddy McDowall as a physician, and Keenan Wynn as a crazed old colonel. Michael Raye makes his directing debut, and the screenplay is by Raye and Frank Perelli. However novel in its approach to science fiction, the film admittedly has its weaknesses. “One problem,” admitted Allen, “is that the animation doesn’t really work well with the rest of the picture. The film seems to follow a non-structured, ambient, Cassavetes approach. Then you suddenly cut to these animated sequences which really are out of a different genre. It’s almost like cutting to puppet theatre.”

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Paul Gentry is busy filming scenes of the ship in deep space and Randy Cook is doing most of the animating. A few technical mishaps caused problems along the way. When the animation set was bumped during filming, it necessitated shooting a closeup of an alien as a “save” shot, to be inserted where the jarred set would have been distracting. “Randy Cook is a very talented animator,” said Allen, “but he’s still learning. Certain mistakes were happening which had to be absorbed within the job. There simply is no time to do things over again. I’m only sorry I had to serve more as a director or producer than as actual animator. On the first set of effects I did about half of the stop-motion. I did very few of the new scenes a few fast closeups, a headshot here, a turn there things that I’ve been able to do during the evening hours. The longer, ten to twenty-foot scenes required somebody working here during the day and half the night, if necessary. That’s something I just can’t do myself because of my full-time position at CPC.”

Working under such circumstances, Allen often finds himself unfairly skewered by critics of his work. He’s making no secret of his minimal involvement with the animation in Laserblast, but he still expects to get blasted for any technical blemishes which might surface in the film. “It’s distressing in a way,” muses Allen. Laserblast will undoubtedly have them hurling epithets at me and calling me the Bert Gordon of the stop-motion world, or something on that order.”

POST PRODUCTION: Joel Goldsmith and Richard Band Score
Joel Goldsmith and Richard Band, the brother of film producer Charles Band, composed the music for Laserblast, marking the first film score for both composers. The score was written in five days, and makes heavy use of synthesizer, particularly synthesized brass instruments, as well as electronic music. The music was also used in the Charles Band-produced film Auditions, released the same year, the 1986 science fiction film Robot Holocaust and the 1983 horror film The House on Sorority Row. The company Echo Film Services handled the sound effects. The alien language chatter between the aliens in Laserblast was later used as sound effects in the metal band Static-X’s song “A Dios Alma Perdida”, which is featured in their 2001 album Machine. During several points in the film when something explodes after it is shot by the laser gun, the scene is edited so that multiple shots of the same explosion are shown in succession. This type of editing became a trademark of Charles Band’s films, and was done previously in his 1977 films Crash! and End of the World.

CAST/CREW
Directed
Michael Rae

Produced
Charles Band

Written
Frank Ray Perilli
Franne Schacht

Kim Milford as Billy Duncan
Cheryl Smith as Kathy Farley
Gianni Russo as Tony Craig
Roddy McDowall as Dr. Mellon
Keenan Wynn as Colonel Farley
Dennis Burkley as Deputy Pete Ungar
Barry Cutler as Deputy Jesse Jeep
Mike Bobenko as Chuck Boran
Eddie Deezen as Froggy
Ron Masak as Sheriff
Rick Walters as Mike London
Joanna Lipari as Franny Walton
Wendy Wernli as Carolyn Spicer
Steve Neill as Alien at beginning of movie

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Cinefantastique v06n04-v07n01
Starburst Magazine#03

2 thoughts on “Laserblast (1978) Retrospective

  1. Much more than I ever knew about Laserblast here; thanks! Got a bit of a soft spot for this film; it really doesn’t make sense, but it does have some memorable images and I do remeber wanting to see this in 1978, I think after reading about it in Starburst.

    Liked by 1 person

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