The Star Chamber

August 5, 1983

THE STAR CHAMBER is the most grown up thriller I’ve come across in this 1983 retrospective so far. You can tell because it stars Michael Douglas. As a judge. It’s a crime/vigilante movie with a message about the flaws of the justice system and the temptation to take short cuts toward justice. Kinda like MAGNUM FORCE without the badass shit, but still good. Peter Hyams (between OUTLAND and 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT) directs the shit out of it, and is credited as co-writer with Roderick Taylor (a recording artist turned rookie screenwriter who explored related themes many years later in THE BRAVE ONE).

It takes place in L.A., with a great L.A. atmosphere. It opens around 6 am one sunny morning when two undercover cops decide to follow a suspicious pedestrian, who notices them and takes off running. They see him ditch something in his garbage can as he runs into his house, and are aware they can’t search it without a warrant, but decide to wait until a garbage man dumps it in his truck, and then search the truck.

Good thing they did, they think – they find a gun used in a string of monstrous crimes, murdering elderly women for their welfare money. But during the trial the defense lawyer argues that it was illegal to search the garbage while it was isolated in the scoop and not mixed with the rest of the garbage. Judge Steven Hardin (Douglas, between IT’S MY TURN and ROMANCING THE STONE) agrees that the evidence is inadmissable and that any conviction would be overturned by an appellate court, and the prosecutors don’t have anything else, so the guy gets off.

Then an even more stacked deck falls into Steven’s lap. A pair of cops discover the body of a murdered child, missing one shoe. The younger partner is so upset they have to leave the scene. On their way home they see a van driving very slowly and pull it over for unpaid traffic tickets. The twitchy weirdos inside, Monk (Don Calfa two years before RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) and Cooms (Joe Regalbuto, THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER), swear the tickets have been paid, but the cops pretend to smell marijuana as an excuse to search the van, and are shocked to find a child’s shoe covered in blood.

It gets worse. We’re told during the trial that they were part of a ring kidnapping little boys and torturing them on camera for kiddy porn. The worst possible sickos. But once again law enforcement are not doing their job properly, and the only evidence they acquired was improper. Steven stays up all night searching his legal books for a precedent to use as an excuse to allow it, but comes up with nothing, so the case is dismissed. We know he would feel shitty about it even if he weren’t personally approached and shamed by the victim’s father (Hyams regular James B. Sikking), who subsequently flips out in court and tries to shoot the defendants, hitting a cop instead. Steven visits him in prison, is explicitly refused any sort of absolution, and further blamed for a new child murder seemingly committed by the same guys after he let them off.

Steven’s friend and law school mentor Judge Caulfield (Hal Holbrook, MAGNUM FORCE, GIRLS NITE OUT) has been through it before, and has an answer. After hinting about it for a while, he reveals to Steven that he and eight other judges got fed up with having their hands tied in these type of cases (a horrible monster seems to be let off on a technicality every other day) and formed their own shadow court. They bring each other egregious dismissed cases, go over the evidence, and if they unanimously find them guilty they send an assassin (Keith Buckley, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN) to take them out. (That’s actually who burned Freddy Krueger, in my opinion.) They happen to have an opening they need to fill, so Steven joins them in looking over various fucked up cases and giving out the death penalty, followed by the assassin carrying out the sentence in gritty scenes like one where he kicks the door down to a dank apartment and puts two bullets in a shirtless guy snorting cocaine and listening to punk rock.

Meanwhile, other crimes are going on in the city, and there’s a big parking garage car chase to capture two car thieves. One of them, Flowers (DeWayne Jessie, DARKTOWN STRUTTERS), desperate to avoid another prison sentence, offers information to Detective Harry Lowes (Yaphet Kotto in his followup to FIGHTING BACK) about some guys he stole a van for, who he discovered had killed a kid. I don’t really follow why Monk and Cooms had the van but it turns out some other guys were actually the killers  all along.

Steven hears the news at a party. Everybody had come down hard on him for letting Monk and Cooms off, but now he’s vindicated. One problem: the Star Chamber (a historical reference not made in the movie, but we’ll use it as the name of the court) already convicted Monk and Cooms and sent the assassin after him. Steven makes them reconvene but they explain that for everyone’s safety they don’t know the identity of the killer or have a way to communicate with him, and there’s no way to recall the hit. Oh well!

So now our by-the-book idealist who got disillusioned and took the law into his own hands returns to being the by-the-book idealist. In an enjoyably wild finale he courageously tracks down those two scumbags in a condemned building hideout, and even after they realize he’s the judge who miraculously let them off they don’t believe his warnings that someone’s going to kill them, and instead try to fight him. He (SPOILER for the craziest part) discovers they’re running a PCP lab and throws a jar of ether that causes a massive explosion. A fun left turn you don’t expect in a movie about a judge.

(Or alternatively, as Roger Ebert put it in his review, “It loses faith in its own subject matter, turns to a series of bankrupt standard plot ideas, and ends up as just one more movie where the hero and the killers are chasing each other through another one of those colorful abandoned warehouses that 87 percent of all thrillers visit at one time or another.”)

The theatrical poster expected us to understand the dangers of a secret court, but the video poster is all “Crime is out of control, wouldn’t it rule if we had a secret court of vigilante hanging judges?”

I think this is a good high concept thriller story that goes in some interesting places. It starts out poking you to get upset about crime being out of control and bureaucracy getting in the way of justice, but the “actually, fascism isn’t the solution” part isn’t just at the end, it’s the whole last act. It’s easy to imagine a movie where an upper class character like this has to prove his salt by going into The Bad Part Of Town to try to kill the criminals who were let off, so it’s clever that his heroic act is trying to stop them from being killed. And in retrospect, the judge he replaced in the Star Chamber, who died in a public suicide, must’ve been overwhelmed by Star Chamber related guilt. All the quotes I could find from writer Taylor said this was a movie about victims’ rights, but you could say the same thing about DEATH WISH or I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. Whether it was always there in his script or if it got there in Hyams’ rewrites, it ended up being about more than that.

That all makes this movie interesting to me, but it’s Hyams’ strong direction that makes it exciting. It’s a real “oh wow, even movies like this used to be real movies” kind of movie, every scene smartly crafted to establish a sense of place, build up tension, give all the characters some personality. Lots of sun, lots of sweat, lots of sleaze. I knew we were in good hands when that opening scene led to an excellent foot chase similar to what Kathryn Bigelow will later do in POINT BREAK. These actors look like they’re really running as hard as their bodies will possibly let them, the handheld camera puts you in the action, the sound design emphasizes their breathing when it’s close on their faces, muffles everything when they run through a house.

The scuffle with the innocent-of-murder-but-guilty-of-PCP-manufacturing creeps also has some great choreography of stunts and camera work. Steven tries to leap over a big hole in the floor but lands on a stack of flattened cardboard that slides and drops him through a rickety floor and onto a metal spiral slide. There are shots from both in front of him and behind him that appear to be a camera operator just going down the slide with him. (The credited camera operator is Ralph Gerling [THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, McQ, THE GODFATHER PART II, THE ENFORCER] and the stunt coordinator is Glenn R. Wilder [Paul Stanley’s double in KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK]).

This movie looks so good and uses the camera so well I was surprised to see on IMDb that credited cinematographer Richard N. Hannah had only been d.p. for Knots Landing and Square Pegs, and only did a 1984 TV movie called GONE ARE THE DAYES after this. And then I was not surprised to read that the photographers’ union sued the studio and producers alleging that Hyams usurped Hannah ’s role as cinematographer. I thought it looked like he shot it himself!

There are many up and comers listed in the credits. I noticed that the camera assistant is Donald E. FauntLeRoy, later a prolific cinematographer as well as director of the Seagal movies TODAY YOU DIE, MERCENARY FOR JUSTICE and URBAN JUSTICE. The art director is credited as Robert “Bo” Welch, who would become well known just as Bo Welch, the production designer of stylized movies like BEETLEJUICE, JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, BATMAN RETURNS, and MEN IN BLACK. Twenty years after THE STAR CHAMBER he directed the Mike Myers CAT IN THE HAT movie, but I forgive him. He’s also married to Catherine O’Hara.

You barely see him, but apparently Steven’s son Tony is played by future Married… with Children star (and rapper) David Faustino. Speaking of future TV stars, Sikking would later be known to my generation as Doogie Howser’s dad.

According to IMDb trivia, Fox expected THE STAR CHAMBER to be their big summer hit, but it did so poorly in its first two weeks they pulled it and gave its screens over to MR. MOM, helping that grow into an unexpected hit. THE STAR CHAMBER did not make back its modest budget in theaters, and it’s too bad more people didn’t see it, because it’s a solid little movie of its type. Luckily it was too late to stop Hyams from directing 2010, which was followed by the fairly successful RUNNING SCARED. And by the ‘90s he was working with Jean-Claude Van Damme (who would’ve been a good star for STAR CHAMBER 2 or 3).

signs o’ the times:

Caulfield makes a Rubik’s Cube analogy (the puzzle was a massive craze from about ’81 to ’83; the Saturday morning cartoon Rubik, the Amazing Cube began airing that September)

Caulfield hates modern technology and refers to headphones as “those Martian radio things over their ears”

Tony plays some kind of Atari-type home video game (though the sound effects are from the arcade version of Pac-Man)

spin offs:

In 2020 it was announced that writer/producer Sheldon Turner (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING) was developing a STAR CHAMBER TV series for Amazon Prime. According to Deadline, “It follows a revered female federal appellate court judge in San Francisco. She leads a shadowy group of judges that decide to right the wrongs of the broken legal system as she struggles to balance her obligations to law, to religion and to her family.” So it’s possible it wouldn’t have shared the movie’s opinion that having a Star Chamber is a bad idea. But I couldn’t find any news about it after the initial announcement, so I assume it has been abandoned.

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7 Responses to “The Star Chamber”

  1. I remember this as a good one, even if I haven’t watched it since the ’80s. If memory serves – SPOILER ALERT FOR THE ENDING – the hitman turns up dressed as a motorcycle cop, which, combined with the casting of Hal Holbrook, makes the nod to MAGNUM FORCE fairly explicit.

  2. It’s cool that at least one 80s movie was willing to interrogate the then-accepted wisdom that the biggest problem the most incarcerated nation in the history of the world was facing was that we didn’t imprison ENOUGH people.

  3. This is one of those movies that were on TV a lot when I was younger and then weren’t anymore. Although I believe some of my memories about it are mixed up with the early 90s TV show DARK JUSTICE, which was also about a judge and a vigilante shadow court. Only probably way more positive about the topic.

  4. What was great about Magnum Force is it took the idea of police extra-legal justice, which people attributed to the first movie and just took it all the way and you could see Harry didn’t truck with that shit. Even though you can’t condone his actions in the first movie, there was no question who the killer was when he caught and tortured him to save the girl, and shit at the end even gave the guy a chance to peacefullly surrender even after a shootout. The bank robber did the smart move and Harry didn’t shoot him I think same would have been for Scorpio.

  5. wonder if the failure of this one convinced Douglas that he should take the next pro-vigilante part that came his way, and thus we got FALLING DOWN

  6. I have always loved this one, and I’ve been trying for years to get a couple of judges I know to see it. The nearest I got was when one of them got hold of the TV movie DARK AVENGER, with the tagline “An acid-scarred judge turns masked avenger, backed by an electronics expert and her crime lab.” Close, but no cigar.

    Mr. Sublety, please don’t even sniff around the lid of that can of worms. I’ve spent the best part of my life discussing FALLING DOWN online. I don’t have the strenght anymore.

  7. Crushinator Jones

    August 15th, 2023 at 10:45 am

    I enjoyed this review and I’ll be looking up this movie, which I have never ever heard of. Total blindspot.

    Oh, you know what was weird? I had not thought of Rubik, the Amazing Cube but the moment you mentioned it, the entire theme song just popped right into my head from 40 years ago. I was a very young guy then too! That is wild.

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