Saturday, May 8, 2021

Warp Speed (1981)

... aka: Warpspeed

Directed by:
Allan Sandler

After making it through the not-as-good-as-it-sounds bloodsucking volcano rock monsters tale THE KILLINGS AT OUTPOST ZETA (1980), I decided to dive right into another of the ten Sandler / Robert Emenegger sci-fi productions released in either 1980 or 1981. And, surprisingly enough, I don't regret that decision. Like most of the other films in this series, this was produced cheaply, shot quickly, utilizes much of the same crew and features a few “names” (usually washed-up former stars or familiar TV actors) in the cast to help with distribution. Unlike most of the others, which found the men sharing directorial duties, Sandler receives sole credit here. Again, Emenegger did the synthesizer score (which is not bad) and Anne Spielberg (sister of Steven) was involved, this time as the executive in charge of production.

One of the known actors the duo had previously worked with was Cameron Mitchell, who narrated their documentary Death: The Ultimate Mystery (1975) and then starred in their aliens-take-farm-family-hostage thriller Captive (1980). It appears they then returned the favor by giving roles to both of his budding actor offspring. His daughter, Camille Mitchell, gets to play the lead role (and also receives top billing for the first - and I think only - time in her career) while son Channing Mitchell (who later started going by the name Cameron Mitchell Jr.) also gets a major role. Seeing how neither was a bankable commodity when this was released (both would eventually become better known for their stage work), Adam West has been tapped for "special guest star" duties this time.

The spaceship Atlas, which was once slated for a five-and-a-half-year journey to Saturn, is found adrift in space. The entire eight-person crew has mysteriously vanished without a trace and the flight log has disappeared. Perplexed as to what may have happened, the grumpy Commander Nivens (David Wiley) of Starfleet Command puts together an exploratory crew and heads out to the eyeball-shaped craft to investigate. He's brought along a secret weapon in the form of powerful, proven psychic Dr. Janet Trask (Camille). In preparation, she's had some kind of electrode censor installed on her neck so her psychic experiences can be monitored and recorded and the crew, led by project director Paul (John Stinson) and "psychic evaluator" Henson (Jerry Prell), can keep tabs on her vitals, stress levels, brainwaves and "index of fear" from the mother ship while she's exploring the Atlas all on her own.

Immediately upon setting foot on the Atlas, Janet starts hearing voices and seeing images of the previous crew. These visions are a bizarre mix of flashback, hallucination and fantasy and often done in a pseudo-surreal fashion, with "ghosts" of the doomed characters having their own abstract visions and sometimes even interacting with Janet. During one of the fantasies, a woman in some kind of Japanese setting is attacked by a man who's then killed with a samurai sword. In another, a man wins a track race only to stab another man to death. There are other little vignettes sprinkled throughout, including a childhood one with giant toys and a wedding ceremony. Each start out being positive but devolve into something more dark and sinister.

As we later learn, these visions were created by something called "The Pleasure Center;" a chamber where the space travelers sit in a special chair that causes euphoric hallucinations by tapping into happy memories. It was installed as a way to keep them from becoming too depressed, stressed out and bored from the monotonous, long journey. The ship also has an arcade, movie and TV screenings, games, a gym and other amenities meant for same but none of it ends up keeping tragedy at bay. A bleak story of tension, paranoia, insanity and death soon unfolds as Janet wanders the dark, creaky ship bearing witness to the events that led to their downfall.

Leading the ill-fated Atlas crew is West as Commander Lofton, who proves to be more interested in his reputation than his crew and is more than willing to risk their lives at the sacrificial altar of his own career. Lofton is opposed by pilot Jack Quantell (Channing), a cocky pilot with anger management / psychological issues, who eventually proposes mutiny and engages in a power struggle with Lofton. Also on board are Joanne Nail (from Switchblade Sisters and THE VISITOR) as communications expert Tanya Fletcher, David Chandler as psychiatrist Dr. Tim Weston, Gela Jacobson as exercise physiologist Marsha Osborne, Ghanese actress Akosua Busia (who'd soon move on to a lead role in the critically acclaimed The Color Purple) as computer expert Shirley Kelly, Barry Gordon (who voiced Donatello on the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series) as computer expert David Ingalls and Stanley Wojno as engineer Harvey Collins.

Things start to unravel when an explosion damages the ship so it can't fully function to get them where they need to go... at least not with the current weight on board. They begin jettisoning everything they can, starting with personal belongings and then all means of entertainment and then excess food and supplies (which eventually causes a food and fuel shortage) and then the landers and then their backup emergency equipment. Eventually they're forced to start eliminating one another and use poker games to determine who'll be the next to sacrifice their life. Of course all of this begs the question: If you're weightless in space and essentially in a constant state of free fall, would you really need to reduce your ship's weight to conserve fuel? And why are they forcing people to kill themselves when metal shelving, card tables, chairs and other things are just sitting around?

Reception for this one has been mostly terrible so I was surprised that I actually enjoyed much of this. Though the mixed-up chronology takes some getting used to and there are some really dumb story elements, the plot is interesting, ambitious and, dare I say, even somewhat innovative. While it can't fully realize its vision due to the lack of budget, I still appreciate genuine effort being put into the plot when this could have just been another generic monster movie. It actually reminded me a LOT of the later 60-million-budgeted Event Horizon (1997), which also features a rescue team investigating an abandoned ship and mixes its space horror with psychological elements, hallucinations and flashbacks. This one is also serious and grim and, though the ending is abrupt and raises a few questions this film probably isn't prepared to answer, it's also not as terrible as Horizon's "It was all a nightmare..." cop out.

Of course, you have to be able to overlook highly-variable acting and writing, and ultra low production values, to get much enjoyment out of something like this. Though this still has subpar effects and cardboard sets (many of which have been recycled over from other Emenegger / Sandler flicks), comparing it to the two others I've seen from the same team, they have at least made some improvements in regards to costumes, props, sound design and art direction. To be honest, keeping the sets shrouded in darkness much of the time probably didn't hurt matters.

Lee Harry, who'd go on to direct the notoriously awful SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT 2 (1987), was the editor, though another man is also credited for "editorial revision." IMDb claims this was made for television but I've found no real proof that's the case. I've also found no theatrical poster nor any proof there was ever any American VHS release. In fact, the only early home video version I'm aware of was in the UK on the Videoform label. In 2007, VCI Entertainment released it on a double feature DVD with the same team's Time Warp (1981), which also starred West.


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