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Weird Old Sci-Fi: “Galaxy of Terror”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJO07ylhTu4&w=615&h=346]

It really is staggering just how many Alien rip-offs there were in the early 80s. It’s possible there were more of this type of movie than there were rip-offs of Star Wars, if such a thing can be measured. The vast majority of them concern a crew of space-goers who come across a big, ugly, and usually crappily-made extraterrestrial and have to not die because of it. The monster is always a terrible, menacing force, but what if the monster could, say, manifest itself into the victim’s darkest fear? That’d be pretty scary, right? Provided, of course, that your darkest fear is some kind of tentacle-having or insectoid monster. This interesting, yet ultimately misguided, spin on the Alien formula belongs to 1981’s Galaxy of Terror. (Note: the opening shots in the above trailer are actually from Battle Beyond the Stars, for no reason at all.)

Galaxy 1

I always applaud movies that try to do something, even if they fail. It’s a pretty intriguing notion that the alien they’re all fighting is actually some kind of higher-thinking entity that’s manifesting these horrifying creatures as part of some greater purpose. That’s a fun concept to explore, and certainly not the same old tired slasher-movie-in-space storyline that had become clichéd in only two years. It’s a sci-fi/horror movie that introduces the supernatural, or at the very least the mystical, into the proceedings, and, speaking strictly in terms of broad story points, the film is successful. But the devil’s in the details, friends, and the closer we examine the movie, the less Galaxy of Terror succeeds in anything but moving production designer and second unit director James Cameron one step closer to King-of-the-Worlddom.

In the very distant future, an all-powerful, glowy-faced ruler known as the Planet Master handpicks a space crew to find and rescue another ship that’s gone missing on or near a mysterious planet called Morthangus. The crew consists of a Master-appointed commander who hasn’t seen combat in years, a ship’s captain with post-traumatic stress, a second-in-command who thinks everyone is questioning him, and several more people with various peccadilloes. As they explore the planet in search for the missing ship, the crew are picked off by strange and hideous things until one, a headstrong guy named Cabren (Edward Albert), goes head-to-head with the being pulling the strings.

Galaxy 2

I’ll say it again: On the surface and just looking at the plot, this movie is very interesting, but the story doesn’t come together much at all. The main problem is that there are ten characters on board the ship, and the movie’s only 81 minutes long. As such, there’s hardly any time for development before they’re killed off. We don’t really find out what they’re afraid of or why, and in fact don’t even know that they were afraid of anything until right before the finale. Once we know this, it really doesn’t make all that much sense; Was Sid Haig’s Quuhod (a near-mute who throws specialized crystal stars) afraid his shattered crystal would come to life, stab its way into his arm, and crawl toward his shoulder only so that he is forced to cut off the whole arm before being stabbed further by the disembodied appendage? Cuz that seems like a really weird, specific, and dumb thing to fear.

Galaxy 3

Along this same line, the film gives us its most famous (and infamous) scene when a character called “Dameia,” played by a woman with the improbable name of Taaffe O’Connell, meets her end. A big slug/earthworm creature grows behind her in the dark of the desolate planet and eventually becomes large enough to attack her with its gooey appendages. During this struggle, Dameia’s clothes get torn off (of course, why wouldn’t they?) and then she is, apparently, forcibly aroused by this creature before dying. Is THAT her fear? What a creepy and irrational fear to have. In truth, this scene was originally supposed to have just been her getting attacked and eaten by the creature but it was decided that since there was no sex in the film, they could use a little boobing-up. Surely a quick shower or locker room scene would have sufficed, though, right? Need we have a woman being “pleasured” to death by a giant worm? Fun fact: this scene was one of the ones directed by James Cameron.

This is one of the most eclectic and weirdest casts of any movie I’ve seen. Along with the aforementioned Albert, O’Connell, and Haig, the movie also features Happy Days and Joanie Loves Chachi star Erin Moran, a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund, a pre-David Lynch Grace Zabriskie, a pre-softcore-writing Zalman King, and a way-post-My Favorite Martian Ray Walston. Odd, odd cast. Also, they all have really generic sci-fi names like “Baelon” and “Trantor,” except Englund’s character, who is called “Ranger.” Why? Fuck knows. It’s one of the most unsettling groups of disparate people ever compiled into one film. They all have a bleary-eyed intensity to their performances that make them seem otherworldly. It’s important, I suppose, given the lack of character development, that each actor be able to bring something to their roles to make audiences connect. Didn’t make any of them halfway interesting or likable, but it did make me remember who was who.

Galaxy 4

If anything positive can be said about the execution of the material, it’s that the sets and model work are quite good, given that this film cost less than $1 million. I give credit to James Cameron; He is good at the design aspect of films. Early in the movie, there is a very cool sequence of the ship taking off and flying out of the dock and into outer space. The scene doesn’t really need to be there per se, but it does make for a cool effects moment. There were also several matte shots (apparently done in-camera), involving a pyramid/mountain over the stormy alien background, which are quite impressive. All the laser blasts, however, are a bit silly and slower than they ought to be. And the monsters all look pretty fake.

Galaxy 6

Galaxy of Terror, despite having a known cast and a cool general idea, fails to deliver scares or even, really, be intriguing. The best stuff in the movie is when Robert Englund is onscreen (Ranger is apparently afraid of himself), but everything else is a bit too rushed to really connect. Event Horizon did the same basic idea a lot better about 15 years later, and that’s a pretty damning fact, I dare say. Still, this is by no means the worst Alien-esque movie of the ’80s, if you can believe that. It also had a really cool, completely unrepresentative poster. I can dig that.

Galaxy 5

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6 comments

  • 1981’s GALAXY OF TERROR (aka Mindwarp) from Roger Corman’s New Pictures) delivers on so many levels to become a cult classic that I can break it down to

    Cast – Eddie Albert jr / Erin Moran / Ray Walston / Zalman King / Robert Englund / Sid Haig (plent of industry vets with some young actors getting their 1st taste of it)

    Special Effects – Yes, James Cameron, was both the Production Designer and Second Unit Director on this film and he did a competent job ( in fact? the practical effects are better then the crap on SyFy Channel’s Saturday Night Movies)

    Explicit Rating – Actress Taaffe O’Connell’s nude scene where she’s “raped by a giant maggot worm” is epic (good and bad). Too bad the scene was considered too graphic by the MPAA (Corman shot extra explicit footage using a body double for O’Connell), who gave it an ‘X’ rating (New Pictures needed an R rating to get theatrical distribution, so there were some liberal cuts made).

    Classic Ending – I’m not going to spoil it, you have to watch this film (the new blu-ray from SHOUT FACTORY is worth buying)

    http://www.movieposterdb.com/posters/11_05/1981/82431/l_82431_9589de15.jpg

  • Ok, I’ve already dropped hints that STAR CRASH (aka Scontri stellari oltre la terza dimensione, (“stellar clashes beyond the third dimension”) 1979) deserves mentioning based on Actress Caroline Munro’s wardrobe (yes there’s so much in this cult classic that I don’t want to spoil it – just watch it!) and so do these other cult sci fi gems:

    SATURN 3 (1980) – stars Farrah Fawcett, Kirk Douglas and Harvey Keitel with plenty of what the fuh’hell was that taking place on Saturn’s third moon

    The Brain (1988 film)

  • THE BRAIN (1988 Canadian cult classic) – literally lampoons Scientology while borrowing from the same plot involving another Alien wanting to take over the Earth (via mind control from an alien organism – The Brain)

    CONTAMINATION (aka Alien Contamination, Contamination: Alien on Earth, Toxic Spawn (1980) – there’s one thing the Italian Film industry is great at it is churning out cheap take offs of blockbuster films (this is by far thee worst Alien rip-off ever that Corman’s New Pictures distributed in North America). directed by Luigi Cozzi and starring Ian McCulloch / Louise Marleau with plenty of embarassed Europeans in one of the earliest video nasties in the UK (due to scenes featuring graphic depictions of human bodies exploding violently in slow motion)

    CREEPOZOIDS (1897) – directed by David DeCoteau, and starring Linnea Quigley, Ken Abraham, Michael Aranda, Kim McKamy (aka porn star Ashlyn Gere) in another low budget Alien rip-off (but the practical effects are still better then any SyFy Channel saturday night movie)

    EMBRYO (1976) – Ralph Nelson directs Rock Hudson and Barbara Carrera in a low budget version of DEMON SEED (1977) and yes that’s Diane Ladd, Roddy McDowall
    and Dr Joyce Brothers co-starring

    HARDWARE (1990) directed Richard Stanley and starring Dylan McDermott, its based on a short story in 2000 AD (most assume its a Terminator rip-off, but this film is better then any Terminator sequel). Those self-repairing cyborgs in a post-apocalyptic world dominate enough low budget films in the 80s

    INSEMINOID (aka Horror Planet (1981) – a british low budget rip-off of Alien / Demon Seed (this is actually a favorite cult classic of mine). Yes we have another rape scene, only its for insemination purposes only (the practical special effects are quite good) and I won’t spoil the rest (go watch it!)

  • LIFEFORCE (1985) – how can you not love this big budget sci fi zombie vampire flick from Tobe Hooper? Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Mathilda May, Patrick Stewart (Mathilda May spends enough time in this film nude) face a devastated by a plague London

    PARASITE (1982) – starring Demi Moore in her first major film role (& its in 3-D). Has one of the best practical special effects scene involving parasites coming out of human bodies (a real cult classic)

    PLAGUE (aka M-3: The Gemini Strain (1978) – Canadian sci fi film about a genetic engineering accident caused by bacteria that escapes from a lab (way ahead of its time warning what can occur when chemicals cause mutations)

    STAR CRYSTAL (1986) – one of the last of thee Alien rip-offs from Britain. Its such a bad movie that it deserves a Riff-Track ….

  • I always imagine that scripts for movies like Galaxy of Terror, with their collection of two dimensional characters and linear plots, were developed out of roleplaying game sessions. This probably started as a D&D adventure, and whether it was successfully or not in game terms, the DM thought it would it be his ticket to the big time. The original script probably contained all the elements of a D&D game — including characters known only by their class, like Ranger — but the success of Alien made the studios hungry set the movie far from the shires where no one can hear you scream. Why else the monsters and the fantastic melee weapons?

  • I just watched galaxy of terror, To remember it from a long past viewing it on hbo. Yes, The movie was close to the mark on story and You must not forget the man who put this thing together.
    The great part for me was the master and That charatar stood out, Though even back for the first time I new who was playing him by watching the movie and Knowing recurring b-movie plots.
    As young kid I admitt to being turned with maggot rape scene( I know, I’m a sicko). It did catch my on going interest in the film.