Pretty In The Past: Caroline Munro

For the first (but definitely not the last) time in my life, I felt compelled to watch an ineptly made movie simply because its leading lady was so breathtakingly gorgeous, the thought of looking away for even a second never once entered my mind.
Publish date:
November 14, 2012
pretty in the past, Caroline Munro

I’m 10 years old and it’s a cold winter Sunday afternoon. It’s one of those slow, exhausting days where time has frozen as solidly as the icicles hanging outside from the trees. There is NOTHING to do and each turn of the television dial is a lesson in bitter disappointment. That is until I return all the way to the beginning and hit Channel 2. A new movie is just about to start and with any luck it might prove to be something worth watching.

It’s a science fiction flick - just like Star Wars, only much, much cheaper and full of actors whose dialogue emanates from their mouths in strange, unconvincing ways. As someone who sleeps on The Empire Strikes Back bed sheets and who once timidly shook the hand of Darth Vader at a crowded store opening, I am both fascinated and appalled by the blatant attempt to trick me into thinking I’m watching the genuine article. But that’s not why I keep watching.

This is:

At the time I had no idea who Caroline Munro was. I only knew her by her character’s name - Stella Starr. Stella was an intergalactic smuggler, just like Han Solo, if he wore costumes clearly inspired by Barbarella and travelled around with a douchy guy with curly hair instead of a wookie. As the film went on I only became more convinced of how terrible it really was, but despite this I could not stop watching it.

This had never happened to me before. For the first (but definitely not the last) time in my life, I felt compelled to watch an ineptly made movie simply because its leading lady was so breathtakingly gorgeous, the thought of looking away for even a second never once entered my mind.

It’s the kind of experience that leaves a lasting impression.

Born in Windsor in 1949, Caroline was 16 when a photo taken by a friend won a contest that named her Britain’s “Face of 1966”. This led to a modeling career, which culminated in her becoming the face (and body) of Lamb’s Navy Rum in one of the most famous ad campaigns of the 1970s. This brought her to the attention of Hammer Films, the British production company best known for its sexy-violent remakes of the old Universal monster movies.

She’d had a few small film roles before this (most notably as Vincent Price’s dead wife in the classic The Abominable Dr. Phibes), but made her first real onscreen impression in the two movies she made for Hammer - Dracula 1972 A.D. (where she played a mod party girl doomed to be Christopher Lee’s first victim) and Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (where she stole the film as the beautiful peasant the good Captain frees from the punishment she’s received for dancing on a Sunday).

Her work on Kronos directly led to her being cast as the slave girl Margiana in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, where her costumes were easily as impressive as Ray Harryhausen’s famous stop-motion special effects.

Her next two films, At the Earth’s Core and I Don’t Want To Be Born (aka The Devil Within Her aka the Joan Collins movie about an adorable baby possessed by the angry spirit of a killer dwarf, which manages the difficult trick of being even stupider than it sounds) did little for her career, but didn’t stop her from earning “Bond Girl” status with her role as The Spy Who Loved Me’s Naomi, the psychotic helicopter pilot and bikini-clad henchwoman of the genocidally-inclined Karl Stromberg.

But those performances were all prelude to the role of her lifetime - the one that so entranced me seven years after it had originally been filmed.

Writer/director Luigi Cozzi was an Italian genre-buff who had been tasked to create a film “inspired” by the enormous success of Star Wars just months after its initial release. In fact, it all happened so fast George Lucas’ film hadn’t even made it to Italian movie theaters yet and Cozzi was forced to base his “homage” on Star Wars’ novelization and the few stills and posters he had managed to find. The result was a screenplay whose structure was more inspired by films like Hercules, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts and the already-mentioned Barbarella, than A New Hope.

Because of this, as well as Cozzi’s clear affection for the material, Starcrash managed to transcend its cash grab origin and became something wholly audacious and unique. As a child, watching it for that first time, all I saw were the seams barely holding it together, but now as an adult I watch it and am struck by its glorious shamelessness and innocent wonder.

It’s a giddy, delightful, colourful film that refuses to be constrained by such petty concerns as physics or logical consistency and instead embraces the ethos of imagination and chaos - as if it were a film not made for, but instead by the children who were expected to enjoy it the most.

Truth is, these days, I actually prefer it to Star Wars.

As Stella, Caroline gave a big, unrestrained performance that works despite the fact that another actress (American Graffiti’s Candy Clark) is actually speaking her lines. Like all Italian productions made during this period, Starcrash was filmed without sound, which meant all of the dialogue had to be added during post-production. Rather than fly Caroline in to do this, the producers decided to save money and have Candy record Stella’s part instead*.

Starcrash did very well at the box office, but did little for Caroline’s career. Onscreen she spent the 80s as a slasher movie “scream queen”, finding herself stalked by her Starcrash co-star Joe Spinell in both 1980's Maniac and 1982's The Last Horror Film. By 1986 she found herself (badly) faking an American accent and playing a 17 year-old student (at the age of 37) in Slaughter High, a dreadful wannabe-spoof made by folks who clearly thought horror movie fans were drooling idiots.

In-between these efforts, she tried to extend her career in other directions. In 1984 she recorded a synth-pop EP, produced and distributed by Gary Numan, spent several years co-hosting the ITV game show 3-2-1, and—most famously—danced with Adam Ant in his video for Goody Two Shoes.

By 1990, her opportunities dried up and she started a family with her second husband. While she enjoyed her retirement, thousands of folks around the world began remembering experiences extremely similar to my own. In many cases these memories involved Sinbad or James Bond rather than Stella Starr, but it all lead to one result—an unofficial Cult of Caroline that lingers on to this day.

Caroline Munro may not have been my first film crush (that honour belongs to The Pirate Movie’s Kristy McNichol), but she was the first performer to ever cast a spell on me with a presence so entrancing it made a once-interminable Sunday afternoon pass suddenly in the blink of an eye. That’s a very special kind of power and I’m grateful that she chose to only use it for good.

*This wasn’t the first time someone else’s voice came out of Caroline’s mouth. The same thing happened to her on The Spy Who Loved Me and (more bizarrely) I Don’t Want To Be Born, despite the fact that she possessed a sultry speaking voice that did little to take away from her natural onscreen charms.