Galaxy of Terror Review
Hats off to Shout! Factory once again, exploitation-fans, as they unleash Roger Corman's 1981 haunted planet spectacular, Galaxy Of Terror, on Blu-ray!
We've already had a look at his hastily knocked-off Forbidden World - arguably the more notorious of a brief SF stampede from his stable of celluloid surplus that also included the family fun of Battle Beyond The Stars - and this more lavish production (comparatively speaking, that is) is as famous for those who laboured behind the scenes as for anything that we actually get to see on the screen. With James Cameron's redoubtable and extremely effective production and art design and Bill Paxton's, ahem, set painting holding the atmosphere together like scenic glue, the film had growing cult status smothered all over it. A wackier, gorier, more oddball brain-twister you couldn't hope to see. Well, that was probably the intention behind this patchwork quilt of ideas. That the film never approaches its full potential and ends up squandering a fair chunk of its redolent atmosphere in a melange of generic set-pieces bathed in woeful dialogue and character-development that only ever threatens to arc doesn't mean that this illogical and often ham-fisted exercise in xenomorphic spookiness doesn't still conspire to entertain.
“Aren't you afraid?”
“Too scared to be.”
Assigned to investigate the mysterious loss of the crew of the spaceship Remus, which has been left seemingly deserted on the eerily dead planet Morganthus, a rescue party find themselves at the mercy of the dangerous forces at work in a storm-ravaged world of weird nightmares, hallucinations and demonic manifestations. The surface of the barren rock is littered with the hulks of previous adventurers who have been lured there, and the existence of a massive alien pyramid seems to be hellishly drawing the search party. The time-honoured genre device of history repeating itself is happily trotted out with colourful gusto as the same phenomena that laid waste to so many before them strikes the crew of the Quest. We've seen the like in The Thing, in Alien, in Even Horizon, and in numerous other examples of course, and Corman's quickie folds the conventions around its beleaguered and ill-fated characters without too much fuss or originality to cloud the screenplay from old film school buddies Marc Seigler and Bruce Clark. The pair had worked for Corman on The Naked Angels (1969) and The Ski Bum (1971), and their Freudian treatment of a sketchy story outline by William Stout (entitled Planet Of Terrors and then retitled Planet Of Horror by the duo in a far more appropriate moniker than the one that Roger Corman eventually settled for) was long on premise but disappointingly bereft of thematic progression. With Bruce Clark directing the film and Corman looking over his shoulder the whole time, it seems fair to suggest that a lot of the intelligence originally invested in this metaphysical and psychological horror story was inevitably allowed to bleed out in favour of the conventional set-piece slaughter of straggling individuals. Ideas occur and then fizzle out. Grand aspirations can be found in the architecture of the alien world but not in the structure of the adventure that takes place within it. Characters begin to show signs of life, but are then cruelly wiped out, and the relationships between them are so economically composed as to be virtually subliminal.
As such, you really have no idea who to latch onto ...
After a totally confusing prologue scene-setter, we aren't given more than a minute's worth of introduction to the protagonists, which would normally work out just fine if the crew of the Quest was merely swollen with its fair share of hackneyed stereotypes. But although the clichéd “platoon-mechanics” naturally goes with the turf, there is a concerted effort to produce some slightly off-kilter characters for this mission. For a start, we've got Grace Zabriskie's crusty old barnacled space captain, Trantor, someone that recalls the bizarre incarnation of Beryl Reid's Briggs in Doctor Who, a driven old Ahab-type with a comically-conveyed haunted past. De-glammed with a frightful old age bun atop her swarthy brow, Zabriskie is giddily over-the-top but, just when we think we're going to learn something relevant about that dark secret from early in her career, her colourful cliché is simply eradicated from the story. Then we've got the psychic Alluma, played by Joni from Happy Days, Erin Moran, and her porn-moustachioed hero/boyfriend Cabren (Edward Albert - an actor who always seems to me to try a little too hard). Once again, there is promise here. Alluma's empathy with the unseen powers at play on Morganthus should serve to provide a clue or two to help spice up the momentum, but her bug-eyed terrors of everything dark and tunnel-like, coupled with the blink-and-you'll-miss-it kiss with Cabren, ensure that her character is virtually forgotten about even when she is on the screen. Albert's Cabren fares much better, but all the po-faced conviction and overly dramatic reactions to some hideous revelations, not to mention some hilarious last-minute acrobatics, won't convince us of his inordinately wooden uselessness in the story.
Zalman King would go on to earn some repute as a director, and on the basis of his ludicrously starched performance as the kill-crazy Baelon, a move behind the camera was definitely the wisest one to make. Ray Walston's ship's cook, Kore, and Bernard Behrens' aged Commander Ilvar, summoned out of retirement and clearly not up to the job, are both much older blokes, which means that the film crosses a different demographic border than usual for such a bodycount flick, although this is probably also a little nod to the Nostromo's across-the-board crew. Both, however, seem a little ill-at-ease with their dialogue and move uncomfortably in their “futuristic” garb. A young, but still gnome-faced Robert Englund creeps about with tufty-curled pre-Freddy weirdness as Ranger. Now here, at last, we find someone that has an extra layer or dimension to them. Everyone is affected differently by the pyramid's variation of Forbidden Planet's Id-monster, and Ranger's ordeal brings nothing especially new to the genre, but Englund is still refreshingly intense and strangely believable, even when forced to confront his innermost demons, quite literally. Even though he isn't playing a baddie, you can surely see that mischievous, somehow untrustworthy gleam in his eye that would eventually enable him to portray one of the screen's greatest and most terrifying villains.
“I live and die ... by the crystals!”
Having the satanic-bearded Sid Haig hulk out the part of a semi-mute, crystal-loving Quuhod (isn't that twinned with where Peter Griffin lives?) is a great treat. After over a decade of wacky high-camp/high grunge performances in the likes of House Of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, it is somewhat heart-warming to see him playing a simple tough guy once again, akin to his henchman roles in Busting, Foxy Brown, Diamonds Are Forever and a zillion TV shows from Starsky And Hutch to The A-Team, if you know what I mean. Haig was always keen to work for Corman and his recruitment here is a welcome one. But he took one look at his character's dialogue and pleaded with both Corman and Clark that Quuhod be played as a mute. And, with the exception of one daft line (seen quoted above), he got his wish. Again, this is a great character that is a touch unusual to the form, and even if his possibilities within the story erred on the dark side it is clear that neither Clark nor Siegler knew what to do with him. With a twist or two regarding his obviously formidable presence, the film could have been lifted out of a final act doldrum but, once again, the production fails to pursue it full potential. But, of course, let's not forget the sexy Taaffe O' Connell as the tech/med/whatever officer Dameia. Having appeared briefly alongside Erin Moran in Happy Days, the ditzy and obviously game-for-it actress would also be seen in the slasher pic New Year's Evil, the infamous Caged Fury and the raunchy Hot Chili. Although another largely squandered character - she actually starts off quite resilient and dependable but winds-up succumbing to an exploitation “high” point - there can be no doubt about what attracted Corman and Co to drafting her in to their SF spectacle ... as we shall see later.
So, as you can gather, even for a low budget genre-quickie in which cast members are generally little more than FX-fodder, Galaxy's crew were given some definite thought in the preparatory phase, but then mostly neglected once the film got underway.
But it doesn't really matter ... as that old Corman magic still coats the production and almost goes to prove that you can, in some cases, polish a turd.
“Doubt ... the demon-brother to Despair ...”
Also known as Mindwarp: An Infinity Of Terror, Galaxy is one of those perfect pitches whose chances of being green-lit were boosted considerably by provocative pre-conceptual artwork - namely a fabulous poster depicting a scantily-clad space damsel lying, partially chained, before the slavering advances of two hideous alien monsters and set against a backdrop of fantastical mountains and city-spires. This was the sort of thing that adorned the book jackets of Michael Moorcock or could even be used to illustrate an adventure of John Carter On Mars, and it remains the official poster for the movie, as you can see on the BD packaging. It is an immediately captivating image and New World should, being honest, be hauled over hot coals for false advertising because nothing of the sort actually happens in the film. But this is just part of the fun, folks. The hook may be inaccurate but it does provide a garish and lurid flavour of the sort of thing that you will find herein.
Although made before Forbidden World, Roger Corman's scrape-barrel SF/horror Galaxy Of Terror is actually a much bigger film in terms of cast, theme, effects and visual scope. You sort of get the feeling that the second film was made with all the leftovers from this - both in terms of money and sets. Which, of course, is precisely what happened. But whereas Forbidden World seems to enjoy far more of a cult status because of its flimsy, makeshift approach, Galaxy Of Terror is probably the better film in spite of its low budget. Even if most of the more visually interesting locations are simply painted backdrops, there is a much grander scale to the film and the story does seem to move about and drift through areas of greater variety, even if a lot of them eventually contrive to end up in deep, dark tunnels. The space flight sequences, featuring the quite unusual-looking winged Quest, are thankfully brief, but they are reasonably well accomplished considering the lack of funds for such optical effects. The miniatures, on the other hand, are terrific and quite agreeably detailed. The starship graveyard is coolly rendered and properly evocative of some dreaded hell-hole at the end of the galaxy. A very simple set that has the characters crossing a narrow bridge above a deep chasm lit by geometrical lights is surprisingly breathtaking, and there can be no doubting that the film was heavily influenced by Mario Bava's retina-seducing Planet Of The Vampires as well as the unparalleled classic of Fred McLeod Wilcox's seminal Forbidden Planet. The theme of an alien power allowing man to create and unleash the monsters from his own mind was liberally re-interpreted by Siegler and Clark at least as much as the visual design that were inspired by Alien's H R Giger.
“There's no horror here that we don't create, ourselves.”
You can see the things that Jim Cameron worked on and certainly the things that must have stuck in his mind as he visualised the future landscape of The Terminator and the bleak LV426 vistas that would lend such a dismal realism to Aliens. Endless scenes of characters exploring dank, partially wrecked corridors in ruined spacecraft certainly put you more in mind of Ripley and the Colonial Marines than they do of Dallas, Kane and Lambert probing the derelict in the original Alien, although it was definitely Ridley Scott's film that provided the basis for what the future King of the World crafted here. After Star Wars had shown that space travel would probably not be gleaming, silver and super-sterile, the quest was to show vehicles, planets and environments that looked lived-in and authentic. Well, the ironic thing is that the more money you have the more “natural” you can afford to make things appear, yet despite the often thin walls and wobbly consoles on display here, and the rather dated colour schemes, the ships in Galaxy do carry a stark utility about them - especially when they are trashed. Mind you, you just have to laugh at the “big launch” sequence that has everybody legging it, hell-for-leather, to get themselves strapped down before lift-off. They sit in little seats and pull a single safety belt around their bodies. Considering that the g-force they undergo must be tremendous, this seems like a pretty poor precaution. And just who thought up those wretched plastic backpacks that these intrepid rescuers wear? They have to be the most uncomfortable and impractical things in the history of the universe. What are they made of - Formica?
Creatures of all shapes and sizes bedevil the crew as they forage around the wrecked hulks of downed spacecraft, the ominous shafts gouged into the sides of the leviathan temple and Crystal Maze-style warren within it. But sadly nothing we see comes close to reaching the warped ferocity of the beasts in the poster. Mostly, we see tentacles or fleeting shadows barely glimpsed. A blazing eyed demon that plagues Baelon looks like something that George Lucas rejected from the Cantina in Star Wars, but the little bug that grows into a BIG bug with a rather dubious appetite for the ladies is terrific, although it is once again apparent that liberal lashings of gloop can hide a multitude of sins.
The centre-piece alien-rape scene is, once again, lifted from the Scott/Giger groundbreaking theme of human violation. Norman J. Warren had already enjoyed milking its more obviously gratuitous overtures when poor Judy Geeson was assaulted and impregnated by a randy alien in Inseminoid, and the notion was actually far nastier and better thought-out than the slobbery, molestation by super-maggot that Taaffe O' Connell undergoes in Galaxy Of Terror down in one of those skanky caves. Even though it culminates in a total pregnancy nightmare, the theme of a “monstrous ravishing” was better constructed and more affecting in Humanoids From The Deep, as well. Here, the emphasis is just on flesh and frolicking, O' Connell's clothes literally sucked off her writhing body (as well as that of her double) by the bloated and gloopy beast that is straddling her. Inseminoid used the incident as the catalyst for the events that would follow, justifying its inclusion - as with Kane's impregnation and birth scene in Alien - as a necessary, indeed vital device in the plot. But, with good ol' Roger overseeing the production, Galaxy's slimier variation is merely there to add a nicely surreal and largely superfluous slice of purely gratuitous sexual debasement. And you don't need me to tell you that the whole sequence feels incredibly tame by today's standards, let alone by the scenes that inspired it. Corman's films, barring the excellence of his gothic chillers, are designed to cut straight to that cathartic guilty pleasure bone that we all have. The basic ingredients are flung at the screen - the titillation of both sex and death - but they completely circumvent that far more common denominator of being offensive by virtue of an almost child-like zeal for simply being rude. You know what you're getting with a lot of Roger Corman flicks. Sex and gore, but none of it too excessive (besides a great head-eruption at one point in this), and nothing that will actually shock. His controversial days were over by this stage, although he would strive determinedly to keep the flame burning. Once Piranha had nibbled its way through the box office, Corman's films became almost the Benny Hill strand of the exploitation clan, more renowned for the family community style of filmmaking and the skill-school framework that would train a new generation than for anything else. So newcomers to Galaxy Of Terror should be forewarned that so-called infamous scenes such as this do not pack the punch that genuine cult shockers from, say, Lucio Fulci, still do.
Galaxy Of Terror is actually a very stylish film. The matte paintings of the alien world, the junked freighters and the warped Mayan-esque temple are wonderful. Images of the cast moving about against this vast backdrop are, with a few considerations made for the vintage of the live-action blending effects, quite breathtaking. The colour scheme is subdued but highly atmospheric - the use of blues and purples almost bruising the image - is a little bit like the storm-brewing skies of the old cartoon 60's Spider-Man show which supplies heaps of oppressive dread and really does make you think that we are a long, long way from home. The sort of puzzle-playing angle of the beings who seem able to control facets of this universe is like a touch of the old role-playing game, Traveller - the SF answer to Dungeons And Dragons, and this allows for a completely new tangent to be explored beyond merely the Ten Little Indians stalk 'n' slash scenario that most people are expecting. In other words, there is a genuine effort to wring some science fiction through this crazy set-up. It may not be very profound this science fiction, indeed it is as juvenile as the trashiest of Doctor Who adventures, but there is a level of imagination used here that is still light-years ahead of many bigger budgeted, better cast productions that followed in the wake of Alien, and it is this ambition that gives the film a much more enjoyable dimension than it may otherwise have attained. It is true that the film loses it way and becomes as aimlessly lost as the characters wandering around all those blue shadowy tunnels, but for some unfathomable reason it is easy to stick with its cast-whittling (lack of) narrative.
With that dubious “worm-rape” sequence heading up the horrors, Galaxy Of Terror is required viewing for fans of sleazy/cheesy exploitation. The fact that they may also find themselves smitten with the visual panache that James Cameron embroidered it with is just the icing on the cake for those who like their chills 'n' thrills served up with a large slice of ham. Viewed alongside Forbidden World, you've got yourself a fantastic old school double-bill of gratuitous exploitation that titillates, tickles and tries to terrify. In the case of Galaxy, you've even got a scenario that attempts to tease the mind as well. No matter how limited the scope and the budget, you can't argue that a Corman flick doesn't at least pack more ideas - some clever ones, too - and entertainment value than far too many lavish tent-pole big efforts from big studios with big names stars and big budgets. There's always something refreshing and energising about the happy-go-lucky underdog that punches above its weight ... and Corman's cult classics certainly aim high and go-for-broke!
Galaxy Of Terror is silly, but ambitious. It also represents the hard-grafting lower-rung of the industry and this seedbed of talent should never be overlooked. Great fun for a select few, then, but probably nothing more than a cult curio for most. Me? Hell, I love this stuff!