When I first took a position in the composing department at a minor micropolitan newspaper sixteen years ago (-- wait. Sixteen years? Really? Wow ...), I soon struck up a friendship with one of the pressmen; an affable guy, with a thing for dragsters, classic cars, and the latter's restoration -- especially a certain chopped '49 Mercury. (That's him below making with the vroom-vroom.) Our friendship was soon forged and melded over a shared kinship for high-octane and existentially-charged road movies, obsessions over the minutia of classic cartoons and TV shows, and an unwavering fondness for Spielberg's comedic ode to mass-destruction, 1941, which most would call a colossal misfire while we championed it as one of the greatest movies ever made. Explaining why, most nights, as we waited for the last few pages to trickle in from the editorial side, before the presses rolled and belched out the finished paper, we would regale each other with tales of movies seen, venues experienced, and crack each other up with the mere mention of dialogue from the likes of Bob and Doug McKenzie's Strange Brew, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and, again, 1941. Seriously, walk up to him and say, "I don't think your gonna hit him, Ward" or "Check him for stilts" and just see what happens. "Yo."
Anyways ... on one particularly slow night back in the fall of 2001, my friend Bill (-- or Not Naked Bill, but that's a tale for another day...), while discussing the finer points of the 1970's version of Battlestar Galactica, told me how he and a couple of buddies, all still feeling the addling after-effect of Star Wars, would go and see anything and everything that even remotely smelled of that galaxy far, far away, science-fictionally speaking. Which is why he found himself at the local movieplex for a film he never forgot (-- except for one really important part, that is, and we'll be addressing that in a sec.) A film that was so unfathomably confusing in spots and equally boring in others that the group almost gave up and left, two or three times, until the film would explode in some insane action sequence, buying it a little more time as they settled back into their seats until the next left turn into sheer stoopidity had them threatening to abandon it again.
When asked for details, his most vivid recollection was a scene described as the Dukes of Hazard in outer-space, where some Rosco P. Coltraine space-cop, complete with a flashing cherry on top of his cruiser, chased a couple of hot-rodders in their souped-up rocket-cars through an asteroid belt, which ended with lawman augering his ship into a meteorite. Intrigued, as I pressed for more details, my friend remembered a trash-can robot that was more Twiki than R2-D2; a pinwheeling space-firefly hunt; a Darth Vader wannabe; lots of explosions; a spaceship that looked like a giant sailboat; and, perhaps strangest of all, something about magic space walnuts that granted magical powers -- or something, and how everyone was fighting to get their hands on one ... Well, don't know about the rest of you, but, he had me sold at Dukes of Hazard in outer-space. And as I listened, occasionally stopping with an incredulous query of Wait. What? for clarification or double-confirmation of these hair-brained details, being the gonzoidal cinema-junkie that I am, was, and ever shall be, had me determined to track this flick down as soon as humanly possible. All I needed was a title. Alas, a title my friend Bill could not remember, no matter how hard we massaged his brain.
Remember, this was back in 2001. In those yonder days, you still had to dial up the internet that was just beginning to stretch its legs, filled with competing search engines that took you everywhere except where you wanted to go, and streaming video was just an itch in some mpeg's pants. Still, I had to try; and over the next couple of days soon exhausted all of my online sources and a search through my sci-fi film compendiums turned up nothing even close to what my friend had described. But, I kept digging and failing, spurned on each evening when Bill asked if I had found it yet. And just when it appeared that all hope was lost, a sudden idea struck with the sound of a cracking space walnut.
I honestly think my love of film was cemented in my formative years by perusing the film ads in the local paper my folks subscribed to. Everyday I'd get the paper, check the index, find the ads, and then read the comics. Now, I had already visited my paper's morgue on numerous occasions, giddily immersing myself in all that history. (Alas, wanting to share my finds, it would still be several years later before I had another genius-attack and started taking my digital camera with me, thus birthing Scenes from the Morgue.) With that in mind, I asked Bill when and where did he exactly see this movie. Turns out he had seen at the Conestoga 4, a local theater no longer with us, and after narrowing it down to the winter of his first year in college meant the film played sometime between November of 1978 and February of 1979. With that established, I wagged a finger at my friend and said "Folly me..." Down into the basement we went, then, into the morgue, where I took the bound volume covering '78, Bill took '79, and, before you know it, I unearthed this:
"Is that it?" said I, pointing at the familiar sounding spaceship. "That's it." confirmed Bill.
So, we now had a title but the ads really didn't add anything else. Back to the internet, then, where we plugged Message from Space into the fairly new Internet Movie Database, which revealed Japan as the film's country of origin; and a quick check of the credits had me gaping at a cast that included Vic Morrow and Sonny Chiba. Wow. The director, Kinji Fukasaku, sounded familiar, too, and clicking on his link soon had me hooting and hollering and explaining to Bill the plot of The Green Slime, another completely insane space-epic Fukasaku had unleashed on the public almost ten years earlier in 1968.
Alas, even though we had a title, we still had no way of seeing the film as Message from Space never had a legitimate release on home video. A quick search of eBay and all the other gray-market sources I was aware of proved equally frustrating and fruitless. With a shrug, we both went back to work. But in between pages, I went back to the IMDB to do a little more research and noticed a squared-off text-box that showed Message from Space was due to air in two days on some cable channel called Flix, an offshoot of Showtime. And while I didn't have that channel, maybe Bill did. He didn't, and neither did anybody else we knew. Striking out for seemingly the last time, we took some solace that we had at least found out what the movie was called as the presses rolled and the evening wrapped up. However, that is not the end of this story...
The next day, see, Bill came into work with the biggest shit-eating grin on his face. As I returned it in kind, asking what's up, he went on to explain how he was talking to another friend about our quest. Turns out this friend's grandmother had a satellite dish with access to every channel known to mankind. And, apparently, this friend's grandma would be more than happy to tape it for us, even though it was airing at, like, 3 in the a.m. And so, three days later, Bill brought the tape to work. And after the paper was put to bed for the night, we retired to my place, popped the tape into my trusty VCR, and I finally got my first, glorious look at the gloriously demented Star Wars knock-off that Message from Space truly is.
Sure enough, there was a police chase through an asteroid belt, space fireflies, all of it, and then some, as an evil intergalactic overlord in Kabuki makeup invades a peaceful planet of Space-Hippies. But trusting in fate and prophecy, these Space Hippies launch a bunch of glowing Space Walnuts that will find the chosen ones, who are destined to deliver them from this evil despot. Now, these chosen ones include Chiba, Morrow (decked out in the most pimpinest outfit you'll ever see) and Bebe-II, Morrow's Twiki-like robot. The rest are four young rocket-jockeys, who spend most of the movie in a highly agitated state, who rescue the Hippie Princess, who was captured by the Evil Kabuki Overlord after he converted the entire Hippie Planet into a rocket ship! And once they reach Earth's orbit, the bad guys blow up the moon to show they mean business. Luckily, and eventually -- and I mean eventually, the Princess rounds up the chosen ones, and they eventually fight, and then eventually destroy the Evil Kabuki Overlord by taking out the entire hi-jacked planet with some well placed torpedoes at the end of a very familiar looking slit-trench. Then, all the good guys board that space boat and sail off on the solar winds to parts unknown.
Sounds great, am I right? And luckily for you all, if you'd like to see this tale of eye-popping space battles, fantastic miniature work, and general Japanese cinematic carnage and mayhem, you don't need to rely on one of your best friend's best friend's grandmother's satellite dish because Netflix has a gorgeous widescreen print ready to stream just a few clicks away. I know I haven't been the same since I saw it.
And as great as this internet age is, I honestly miss the thrill of this kind of hunt to find these obscure and offbeat films. And if you will allow me to continue this not-so-brief coda, after going through all of that, from vague description, to a title, to a dubbed copy in less than a week, two short months later I attended my first B-Fest. And, sure enough, I about crapped my pants when they announced a schedule that included Message from Space. And even though my love for the movie knows no bounds, apparently, I was in the minority as it played out on the big screen, as the audience began to riot due to its meandering pace and wackadoodle characters. I guess they had no faith in intergalactic Space Walnuts. Feh ... heathens.
Message from Space (1978) Toei Company :: Tohokashinsha Film Company Ltd. :: United Artists / P: Tôru Hirayama, Akira Ito, Yûsuke Okada, Naoyuki Sugimoto, Tan Takaiwa, Simon Tse, Banjiro Uemura, Yoshinori Watanabe / D: Kinji Fukasaku / W: Hirô Matsuda / C: Tôru Nakajima / M: Ken-Ichiro Morioka / S: Sonny Chiba, Vic Morrow, Philip Casnoff, Etsuko Shihomi,Peggy Lee Brennan, Tetsurô Tanba, Hiroyuki Sanada