Tuesday, August 04, 2015

GALAXY OF TERROR (1981)

I don't think anyone is ever going to mistake Galaxy of Terror for a good movie. I know I certainly don't think it's very good but I must admit that I still really like this bizarre little Roger Corman produced rip-off of Alien. As Corman gleefully recounts in the Shout Factory disc's extras he had the barest of ideas about the crew of a spacecraft being confronted with their individual fears on a distant planet which he handed off to his creative staff to run with. Describing it as an "existential horror story" it's clear he had visions of a cheap copy with just enough variation in the mix to claim a thin veneer of originality. As most rip-offs do, Galaxy of Terror shows just how much of a leap forward in almost every way that Alien truly was by falling back into some of the standard pitfalls of the 1950s monster movies Ridley Scott and his team worked so hard to avoid. Not that there was a lack of talent or skill involved in this movie. Indeed, the high level of technical craftsmanship should be visible to even the most critical of viewers today. Other than a few minor but obvious gaffs GOT is a remarkably sharp-looking picture. According to the people involved the budget for the production was less than $2 million but it looks like a movie with far more money to toss around. It certainly looks like a movie that was carefully made and shot even if the script and direction often leave it looking like a project the creators were ashamed to be making. It's these warring qualities that leave the finished product both frustrating and fascinating at the same time — in other words it's a perfect cult film.


At some time in the future the starship Quest is sent on a rescue mission to the planet Morganthus. A ship has crashed and they are to locate the crew and save them if still alive. But after homing in on a distress beacon and nearly crashing themselves, the crew finds only corpses around the ruined ship. A huge pyramid-shaped structure nearby draws their interest and, since it appears that the remaining missing crew might have taken shelter inside, they decide to explore the creepy place. Once inside the various members of the Quest's crew begin to experience horrifying visions ending in violent attacks and, even after returning to the ship, a kind of madness starts to manifest for each survivor. Before long they are being attacked and killed by slimy monsters, re-fighting old space battles to the death and just generally facing their strongest fears in inexplicable ways.


This short synopsis doesn't really get across the joys, frustrations and outright confusion Galaxy of Terror has to offer the first-time viewer. At times completely disconnected and random, the movie will have almost anyone asking obvious questions repeatedly. Why is such a clearly loony captain given charge of this mission? Why does said captain treat the mission liftoff from Earth as if she were attempting to beat a high score on a video game? And why doesn't the pissed off crew talk to her about her erratic, dangerous actions? And these are just the questions that occur to the observant (i.e. non-drunk) viewer in the first 15 minutes! The confusing and bizarre sidesteps the film takes are so unpredictable I often found myself unsure if certain characters were still alive even after I'd seen them ripped apart by slavering beasts.


But although GOT lacks a coherent story structure or a logical, lucid sense of movement from one event to another, it does manage to consistently hold my interest. This may be only because it occasionally slings blood against the walls or tosses a severed arm across the room — but that's OK. Those are the elements I expect from a Corman-produced SF/horror rip-off. The truly unexpected elements are the cast assembled for this barely comprehensible story and the already mentioned excellent technical credits. The cast is stunning in its eclecticism, featuring TV stars, cult icons and great actors slumming for no good and/or discernible reason. The unforgettable Grace (Twin Peaks) Zebriskie plays the half-crazed Captain Trantor; Edward (Butterflies Are Free) Albert is the levelheaded, mustachioed hero; Zalman (Blue Sunshine) King is the hotheaded man of action; Erin (Happy Days) Moran is the crew's psychic agent with a phobia just begging for attention; Bernard (The Changeling) Behrens is the older commander in charge of the rescue; Corman veteran Sid (The Devil's Rejects) Haig is the mysterious, nearly mute master of the throwing crystals; pre-Freddy Kruger Robert Englund is bland crewman Ranger; and acting legend Ray (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) Walston plays the ship's cook. Or does he? That brings us to the oddest ingredient in this spicy stew. The film opens with a sequence in which we learn that the future Earth is ruled over by The Master — some kind of dictator/divine right king who has final say over any and all things. This is the mysterious man that assembles the Quest's crew and sends them on their way. There seems to be a reason he wants them on planet Morganthus and this reason only becomes clear in the final few minutes. Of course, this opening scene is so out of left field and unlike everything afterward that I had completely forgotten about it until the 'surprise' ending. Trust me — when a film features a maggot growing to human size and raping a woman to death you forget all about the man with the hidden face from 45 minutes before. I'm tempted to claim that this was a slick bit of storytelling designed to whipsaw the audience but it's far from that level of brilliance. It is chuckle-inducing, though.


Besides the nasty R-rated deaths, sexual attacks and generally sleazy tone the real reason to watch this film today is to marvel at the effective set design and special effects. A team headed by the young James Cameron really did a fine job creating very believable sets for the ship, the planet and the interior of the pyramid building. The ship looks both functional and well worn with lots of details that give the sense of a real place instead of a set. The crater-pocked planetscapes are beautifully dark and creepy with mist or fog adding to the feeling of immense size. The fine points of the carefully sculpted walls of the alien structure make things look rock-solid and alien at the same time. The pyramid's vast interior is often stunning in its scope with the characters fitting into view with a credible reality. As I've said, this is a very good looking film that hides its low budget and it's easy to see that Cameron tried out some ideas for his Alien sequel's look and feel. You might even call Galaxy of Terror a test run for some of the ideas that made that film such a success.

7 comments:

Nick Rentz said...

If you had to put in order the three major Alien rip offs from best to worst how would it go? I'd put them as Forbidden World, Galaxy of Terror, and then Creature. Kinski is the only thing I like about Creature.

Rod Barnett said...

I would agree with that order but I am well over due for a rewatch of CREATURE - its been thirty years since I struggled through that! Have you seen ALIEN 2: ALIEN ON EARTH?

Nick Rentz said...

I've seen a review of Alien 2 and I don't think I need to see the entire movie. Creature is very similar to Contamination in that both directors pay homage to '50's sci fi movies. However, I think Creature is a bit more blatant. If you were a character in GoT, whiChat fear of yours would materialize?

Rod Barnett said...

Geeze! What fear would appear? I don't know. I think a few ex's would say the physical personification of 'Commitment' but who knows. Maybe failure?

Good question, though. Tough one at parties!

Nick Rentz said...

Oh yeah, when I first watched Galaxy of Terror it reminded me of Journey to the Seventh Planet. Did you think the same thing?

Rod Barnett said...

No, strangely enough. That film is so forgettable I had to be reminded on Facebook today that it is basically the exact same movie!

Randall Landers said...

Got to admit that I'm the guy who loved Galaxy of Terror (Mindwarp). Each of its characters (save one) is deeply flawed, and the pyramid seems to draw out that flaw to use against them. The production values look better than anything on SyFy today, and the cast actually does a credible job with the material.

Of course, I also like Forbidden World and Creature (The Titan Find) too. :P