In Cult Catalogue, I offer my thoughts on cult movies, and try to determine whether or not they are essential, forgettable, or somewhere in between. Throughout this series I will endeavor to focus primarily on cultish, lesser-known, or largely forgotten films, though in the age of the Internet, nothing is ever truly forgotten, so occasionally the movies may seem more familiar. These posts will be less academic, and more in the vein of straight up reviews or blog posts, though occasionally I will attempt to bring in some sort of scholarship or academic approach to these write ups whenever warranted. More than anything, these posts simply represent my attempt to put forth my thoughts on lesser known cult films and so-called “bad” movies. Anyway, I hope you enjoy. As always, I welcome your feedback, so please, let me know what you think of this entry in the comments after the article.
Unlike the last entry in this series, I was quite sure that I had never seen Voyage of the Rock Aliens. In fact, I had never even heard of the movie prior to this year, and only became aware of its existence when I bought a copy of Trailer War, the fantastic and fun compilation of old grindhouse, exploitation, kung fu, and horror movie trailers released by Drafthouse Films. My complete ignorance of Voyage of the Rock Aliens most likely results from the fact that the film never received any sort of wide theatrical distribution anywhere in the world. In fact, according to the film’s IMDb trivia page, Voyage of the Rock Aliens only ever “played in extremely limited release in America and Europe and debuted on television in Canada.” Furthermore, the film only made its way to home video in a handful of places during the three decades following its initial release. As a result, it seemed as though Voyage of the Rock Aliens was one of those movies destined to fade into complete obscurity. Thanks to the efforts of an enterprising YouTube user who posts under the handle KingTaco7, however, the film has been unearthed for all the world to see, and I, for one, couldn’t be happier about that.
In Voyage of the Rock Aliens, a group of five wacky aliens (played by Tom Nolan and 4/5 of the largely forgotten 1980s New Wave rock group Rhema) and their sarcastic robot assistant (voiced by Peter Cullen, known primarily as the voice of Optimus Prime in the Transformers franchise) head to 21st century Earth in a quest to find the source of rock and roll. Landing in the fictional town of “Speelburgh, USA,” the aliens meet the plucky Dee Dee (Pia Zadora) and her boyfriend, Frankie (Craig Sheffer of Nightbreed fame), the leader of a violent rockabilly punk band known as The Pack (played by rockabilly punk band Jimmy and the Mustangs). The alien commander, ABCD (pronounced Absid), falls for Dee Dee and attempts to win her heart, but the jealous Frankie does his best to put an end to the relationship. Meanwhile, the local sheriff (played by a slumming Ruth Gordon, best known for her work in classic films like Harold and Maude and Rosemary’s Baby) sets out to expose the aliens and send them back to wherever it is they came from. Along the way, a pair of killers escapes from a psychiatric institution, a lake monster torments the citizens of Speelburgh, and Frankie, Dee Dee, and the aliens all break into a bunch of spontaneous musical numbers. Then the movie gets weird.
That synopsis really doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the craziness that pretty much defines the entire film, which in many ways feels like a spiritual forerunner to movies like Spaced Invaders and Earth Girls Are Easy. Voyage of the Rock Aliens is terrible in the best way possible. In the parlance of the How Did This Get Made? podcast, the whole thing is just completely bonkers. Nothing in the film makes any sensesense; the narrative is not cohesive in any way shape or form because events do not logically flow from one to the next, and the movie feels completely schizophrenic as a result. A lot of this could probably be chalked up to basic incompetence on the part of the filmmakers, as the direction, cinematography, editing, etc. leave a lot to be desired. At the same time, however, the film is quite funny (often intentionally so), and the musical numbers are frequently pretty great, featuring excellent choreography and staging throughout. Additionally, the actors give it their all, and while their performances never really manage to transcend the material, they nevertheless make the proceedings much more enjoyable, as everyone involved seems pretty game and completely aware that Voyage of the Rock Aliens is nothing more than fun schlock. Plus, Craig Sheffer pretends to be a sexy panther at one point, during a sequence that could easily double as a cologne or perfume ad. In other words, while it never quite reaches the heights of other cult musicals (like the classic Phantom of the Paradise, for example) Voyage of the Rock Aliens is completely awesome.
Additionally, the soundtrack is actually pretty great overall, despite (or perhaps because of, depending on how you feel about her) the inclusion of loads of Pia Zadora songs (including a duet with Jermaine Jackson that was something of a hit in its day). While the songs all suffer from a terminal case of the 1980s (a disease which similarly afflicts the film’s costumes and hairstyles, particularly those sported by the completely under-appreciated Alison La Placa), they are nevertheless catchy and fun and completely memorable. Standouts include “21st Century,” “Justine,” and “Real Love,” all of which are not only really good toe-tapping tunes with catchy lyrics, but also manage to capture and convey the goofy, lighthearted, and altogether self-aware tone of the entire film. Best of all, they appear in sequences that could easily function as music videos in their own right, and display a level of cinematic competence that is mostly lacking from everything else around them.
Ultimately, Voyage of the Rock Aliens is a poorly-made, exceptionally silly little trifle that will only appeal to people who appreciate bad movies, but for devotees of trash cinema, it’s something of a long hidden treasure that has finally been dug up after far too long. Despite her limited acting chops, Zadora is adorable (Zadorable?) as Dee Dee, bringing a sort of all-American girl-next-door quality to her character who feels like a synthesis of 1950s wholesomeness and 1980s excess (which is appropriate, since the values of the 1980s were so deeply rooted in the values of the 1950s). At the same time, Tom Nolan is a bland but appealing romantic lead, Craig Sheffer has fun with his dangerously sexy villain role, and the guys from Rhema display some legitimately funny comedic chops throughout the film. Ruth Gordon is predictably great in a slight, exceptionally silly role, though it’s often unclear whether or not she knows where she is and what she’s doing at any given moment.
On the other hand, though, the film never quite reaches the level of “good movie,” and it’s not all that hard to see why director James Fargo never really went on to direct anything “respectable” (with the possible exception of Every Which Way But Loose, but I suppose even that is debatable). Nevertheless, the film manages to be bad in an appealing and enjoyable way, and therefore it would behoove cult movie fanatics to hunt it down and give it a look.
Final verdict: While not even remotely essential, Voyage of the Rock Aliens still manages to be a fun, enjoyably goofy musical that will more than likely appeal to fans of trash cinema and cult movies. If you love bad movies and are looking for a way to kill an hour and a half, you could do a lot worse than this mostly forgotten flick.
Next up: No Way Out (1973)