Monday, October 31, 2016

Galaxy of Terror (1981)

Directed by: Bruce Clark
Screenplay by: Marc Siegler and Bruce Clark
Starring: Eddie Albert Jr., Ray Walston, Erin Moran, Sid Haig, Grace Zabriskie, Robert Englund,Taaffe O’Connell
Running Time: 81 min.
Tagline: “Hell Has Just Been Relocated.”

On the desolate planet of Morganthus, the last surviving member of the starship Remus attempts to escape some unseen threat by sealing himself away in the ship’s morgue but whatever it is chasing after him, the crew member’s barricade does nothing to stop it and the man is violently killed by the seemingly invisible assailant. Back on the Remus’s homeworld of Xeres, the strange, god-like Planet Master, a robed figure whose face is obscured by an orange glow, is taking part in a strange game with an old crone named Mitiri (Mary Ellen O’Neil) when he receives word of the disappearance of the Remus on Morganthus. Surprisingly, Planet Master seems pleased by this news and is prompted by it to make a particularly daring move in whatever this game they’re playing is. Mitri is taken aback by his boldness but he sees what has happened on Morganthus as a sign to put a long gestating plan into motion and will not be deterred. A rescue mission by the starship Quest is quickly arranged, to be headed up by Commander Ilvar (Bernard Beherns) – a puzzling request since Ilvar seems to have been retired from active duty for a number of years – and manned by a crew personally selected by Planet Master himself. 

And what a crew it is! Captain Trantor (Grace Zabriskie) is an absolute lunatic suffering from severe PTSD as the result of being the lone survivor of something called The Hesperus Massacre, the mere mention of which triggers traumatic flashbacks in the woman. Officer Baelon (Zalman King) is, to not put too fine a point on it, a complete asshole, who is particularly hostile to fellow crew member Cabren (Eddie Albert Jr.), very likely due to Cabren’s relationship with Alluma (Erin Moran), who also joins the crew. Alluma is a psychic and you’ll be happy to know that in the grand tradition of movie psychics, her abilities end up being completely useless. Rounding out the crew are cook Kore (Ray Waltson!), Quuhod (Sid Haig!), a monastic warrior who eschews firearms for a pair of crystal throwing weapons and barely speaks (Haig agreed to do the movie on the condition that he could play character as a mute to get out of having to say some apparently horrendous dialogue.), rookie Cos (Jack Blessing) who’s so nervous about his first mission out he’s barely holding it together from the looks of things, and tech officers Dameia (Taaffe O’Connell) and Ranger. (Robert Englund!) To call the Planet Master’s choice of personnel a tad questionable is a bit of an understatement. 

Things go wrong as soon as The Quest reaches Morganthus. While in orbit, the ship is seized by some unknown force and pulled down to the planet’s surface, a rather inhospitable looking graveyard of wrecked ships, and while the crew comes out unscathed, the rough landing did the Quest no favors. Not that the ship being fully functional would be much help at the moment, as whatever snatched the Quest out of orbit won’t let go of it unless they can find its power source and shut it down. Fortunately, the Quest was put down in relatively close proximity to the wreck of the Remus and Ilvar dispatches a team to look for survivors. All they end up finding is corpses, which for reasons never remotely explained, Baelon immediately incinerates upon discovery. However, a thorough search of ship reveals there’s still several crew members unaccounted for and so it’s possible that some remnant of the Remus’s crew is still alive somewhere. Strangely enough, Alluma’s psychic radar does detect a lifeform of some sort, though it’s identifiably not human. Even more confusing, the presence she’s detecting seems to originate with Cos, who spent the better part of the search through the Remus jumping at shadows. Well, turns out that Cos had a very good reason to be afraid, because as soon as everyone else is off the Remus, he gets attacked and killed by a dog-sized creature that seems to be a mixture of insect and reptile. 

Dameia and Ranger, who are apparently also the ships surgical team as well as tech crew, perform an autopsy on Cos and the one corpse found in the Remus that Baelon didn’t reduce to charcoal briquettes but are unable to determine what killed them. That mystery will have to wait, because Commander Ilvar’s scans of the nearby area have turned up something interesting. Something nearby is putting out enough energy to scramble the Quest’s scanners and that’s enough to convince Ilvar that the source of whatever is trapping the Quest on Morganthus may lay in that direction. Another team is dispatched to investigate and this time Ilvar will join them. What they discover is a massive pyramid, which immediately spooks out Alluma, as she says she’s never encountered anything in her life that feels so empty when scanned by her psychic abilities. Despite her protests, heading inside that pyramid may be the only way for them to find answers to what is going on.  

It goes without saying that the discovery of the pyramid is the cue for whatever is behind all this to start picking off our cast in earnest. Ilvar is killed by another alien life form as he rappels down into a shaft on the side of the pyramid. Quuhod gets attacked by his own weapons before bizarrely being finished off by his own severed arm! Trantor, believing that they’re under attack by the same alien force responsible for the Hesperus Massacre, ends up burned alive and in the most infamous scene in all of GALAXY OF TERROR, Dameia is overwhelmed by a giant maggot that tears her clothing off and um, has its way with her before she dies. Ew. As their numbers are whittled down, the remaining survivors realize that something within the pyramid is tapping into their subconscious fears and siccing their own personalized id monster on each of them. They’ll also discover that their walking into this deathtrap was very much part of that mysterious plan of the Planet Master’s alluded to in the early scenes and if they want to get out this alive, they’ll have to figure out what his game is. 

In 1970, after spending the previous decade and change directing several dozen films for American International Pictures, Roger Corman parted ways with A.I.P. and with his brother Gene, founded New World Pictures Ltd. Corman’s intent was to take a brief sabbatical and work primarily on the production side of things for about a year or so before he hopped back into the director’s chair. Well, as it turns out, New World Pictures would keep Corman so busy on that end of things that he would never direct another movie but since production and supervisory roles were where Corman’s real talent lay, I think we can all agree that things worked out for the best there, right? Anyway, much like A.I.P. before it, the independent New World’s focus was to be on the creation and distribution of small scale, low budget exploitation films made to cater to popular tastes that could be made fast and recuperate their budgets quickly, while also bolstering their library by picking up the distribution rights for foreign films by the likes of Kurosawa, Fellini, and Bergman. And also STARCRASH, for which we are eternally greatful. Think of them as the 70’s and early 80’s counterpart to Cannon Films and hey, guess who Menaham Golan got his start with?

As I mentioned, where Corman’s excelled was on the production side of things, in particular his knack for spotting potential great talents and motivating them to learn and grow as filmmakers by doing. You were given an idea to develop into a script and you had so many days to shoot the movie for so much money. If you’re capable of working under those restrictions, then you can pretty much do whatever the hell you wanted on the movie. Corman would be relatively hands off most of the time but wasn’t afraid to pop in and suggest (often insistently so) changes or ideas that he felt would make the film more appealing to the markets he would be selling the films too. It was an approach that worked and if you need evidence thereof just look at the numerous heavyweight directors, writers, and others who inform so much of modern day filmmaking that got their start and proved themselves working for the man, a list that includes the likes of Joe Dante, Paul Bartel, John Sayles, James Horner, William Stout, Ron Howard, Jonathon Demme and Gale Anne Hurd, not to mention special effects experts who would work on everything from NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET to AVATAR.

However, this was also the time period where the arrival and massive success of films like JAWS and STAR WARS initiated a major shift in Hollywood filmmaking for better or worse. “What is JAWS,” Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote, “but a big budget Roger Corman picture?” The Hollywood studio machine was now catering to the exact same audiences that Corman was but were able to throw a ton more money into it. If he wanted to compete, the famously pennywise producer was going to have to risk opening up his pocket book a teensy bit more. Therefore, he needed to be certain that people would come out to see the movies he produced, and so got into the practice of making movies that mimicked whatever film was popular at the time just enough to grab the attention of fans looking for a something familiar. The difference between the best of these and say, the “mockbusters” shoveled out by the Asylum a couple of decades later is that for the most part they aimed for something different than simply recreating a more successful movie for (a whole lot) less money. Instead, they would look at the most basic, core concepts behind these movies as a jumping off point for something unique. Yes, Dante’s PIRANHA is about a resort town getting chewed up and spit out by an aquatic menace but the movie itself is a gleefully self-aware mixture of ‘50’s “science run amok” and black comedy. BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS pared down STAR WARS to “Kurosawa jideki film meets WWII dog fight movie” and gave us SEVEN SAMURAI in space, even bringing in Robert Vaughn to play a riff on his character from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

GALAXY OF TERROR – submitted as PLANET OF HORRORS, produced under the title QUEST, and initially released under the truly god-awful title of MINDWARP: AN INFINITY OF TERROR to tepid response until, in true Corman fashion, they slapped a new title on it and re-released it -- is an ALIEN cash-in and isn’t afraid to admit it. But despite the repeated swipes from Ridley Scott’s film and of H.R. Giger’s design sensibility, I wouldn’t say that it’s wholly accurate to describe GALAXY OF TERROR as a complete ALIEN knock-off. Certainly, the film plants itself firmly in much of the same territory as its inspiration for a good chunk of its first act, what with a crew setting down on a hostile alien world to explore the wreckage of a derelict spacecraft. It even cribs the ominous alien pyramid structure from the original script of ALIEN. (Coincidently, back when ALIEN was known as STARBEAST, O’Bannon and Shusett had intended to sell the script to Corman to help pave the way for their dream project, an adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”) But as GALAXY OF TERROR moves along, it reveals a movie that shares as much if not more in common with the likes of FORBIDDEN PLANET or Mario Bava’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES as it does Scott’s film. Furthermore, the fictional universe its set it couldn’t be further removed from ALIEN and is more like something you’d run across in the pages of HEAVY METAL or 2000 A.D. magazine. Certainly, off the top of my head, I couldn’t name any other ALIEN-like which featured a psychic as standard part of a spaceship crew, a warrior order that wields crystal shuriken, a ruling body led by an alien demigod who governs by playing what amounts to a gussied up Atari game with a freakin’ witch or a nebulous psychic threat that unleashes a whole menagerie of different beasties to dispatch our cast of characters. The result is something that feels like a grindhouse STAR TREK episode.

That sort of off-kilter, throw it at all wall strangeness grants GALAXY OF TERROR a considerable amount of charm and part of the allure of the movie is watching to see just how bizarre it’ll get. That’s certainly helped by the film’s cast, as you’d be hard pressed to find a movie of this type with such an eccentric mix of recognizable faces. We’ve got Freddie Krueger, Captain Spaulding, Laura Palmer’s mom, the guy from THE RED SHOE DIARIES, Joanie from HAPPY DAYS, and the star of MY FAVORITE MARTIAN all in one package. (And it could have been even screwier. Mark Hamill was apparently game for a role in this.) But if GALAXY does have one major stumbling block though, it all has to do with this cast of characters. If there’s one aspect of ALIEN that GALAXY OF TERROR could have benefited more from following, it’s the way in which ALIEN takes time establish the personalities, relationships and tensions of the Nostromo’s crew members before their nasty little stowaway shows up. GALAXY OF TERROR has an even larger cast and the fact that so much of what befalls the Quest’s crew hinges on their psychological make-up makes getting to know these people even more vital. As it stands, the characters are more memorable because of the disparate actors in the roles and their outlandishly gruesome death scenes and more often then not, you’ll be left scratching your head trying to figure out how exactly each person’s death translates to their “greatest fear.” Trantor’s PTSD, Alluma’s claustrophobia, and Cos’s paranoia aren’t too hard to figure out but how exactly does one character fearing that he’s too old and out of touch to be a competent leader lead to him getting killed by blood sucking worms? Or Quuhod’s weapons and eventually his own body turning against him? Sure, seeing Freddy Kruger getting menaced by his own evil doppelganger is fun, but why is he the only one that gets a human manifestation? And for the love of God, how does Dameia’s disgust at worms translate into her getting raped to death by what looks like friggin’ Mothra’s larval form!?

Well, I can actually answer that one: it was all Corman’s idea.  Corman had sold GALAXY OF TERROR to distributors due to the promise of a certain degree of sexual content, most of it involving Taaffe O’Connell. Apparently he even promised a sex scene between her and Eddie Albert without telling anyone involved in the actual making of the movie. So, to add in the sleaze he had sold the film on, Corman decided at the last minute to change what was originally supposed to be a straight forward monster attack scene into not only a monster rape scene but one where the victim seems to actually enjoy the experience! (Corman’s explanation would be that what Dameia truly feared was her own sexual desires. Sure thing, Rog.) The film’s director, screenwriters, and Taaffe O’Connell, who had taken the job because she was drawn the idea of getting to play a rare non-sexualized role, were not amused. According to the commentary on Shout Factory’s Corman Classics release, O’Connell even had to talk with her priest before she agreed to do it -- would I have liked have been a fly on the wall during that conversation -- while Clark refused to do it, forcing Corman to come in and handle it himself. Shooting the scene itself was also a trial, with O’Connell just narrowly avoiding getting crushed by the immense hydraulic puppet at one point, and it was subjected to numerous edits and cuts to keep the film from getting slapped with an X-rating. Thing is, Corman was right. This moment is so completely out of left field and thoroughly “what the hell?” that it sticks with you more than any other scene in the film. Being “that movie where a lady gets screwed to death by a giant slimy maggot” gave GALAXY OF TERROR the kind of sleazy infamy that translates to ticket sales, video rentals, and cult fascination years later.

Fortunately, the other major reason why GALAXY OF TERROR managed the longevity its had is considerably more pleasant than That Scene. Reports vary on how much GALAXY OF TERROR cost to make exactly – one apocryphal story has it that Corman was able to recoup the film’s budget by simply renting a couple sets out for an Italian watch commercial one weekend – but it couldn’t have been much. Therefore one can’t help but be impressed at what the film’s production team was able to accomplish on such a limited budget. You wouldn't believe that much of movie's sets a props were built out of spray-painted cardboard and discarded scraps as the production design on the ship and pyramid interiors, the effects of the ship’s take off, the matte paintings of Morganthus’s storm wracked surface, and the creature work are all of a surprisingly high standard. Of course, that means when the production design does slip up, such as how it doesn’t try to hide the fact the restraints used by the Quest’s crew to strap themselves down during hyper space jumps are just car seatbelts, complete with visible logos, it sticks out all that much more. But we really shouldn’t be too surprised that they were able to accomplish this much, as the teams in charge of these aspects of the movie were headed up by a hungry young filmmaker by the name of James Cameron, who Corman had hired on as a production assistant and effects technician for BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, wherein he was responsible for designing a number of the spaceships featured in that film.
GALAXY OF TERROR would be his second feature for Corman, (between the two films Cameron and his crew would also work on a little film called ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) and you could make a fairly strong argument that GALAXY was more the James Cameron Show than it was Bruce Clark’s. The future TERMINATOR director not only had a hand in painting the concept art,  designed most of the creatures -- an exception would be the one that settles Baelon’s hash. That had been donated to the production by a former Corman  EFX artist and written into the movie at the last minute – acted as a second unit director, and by all accounts, served as Roger Corman's representative there on the set. It shows and with Cameron's fingerprints all over this movie, it wouldn't be too hard to view GALAXY OF TERROR as a warm-up for what he would eventually do with ALIENS. Some scenes even presage the later movie: try not to think of the Space Marine's initial sweep of Hadley's Hope when the Quest's crew investigate the wreckage of the Remus or how the alien pyramid paved the way for the xenomorph's hive. And Cameron wasn't the only GALAXY OF TERROR alumni to work on ALIENS either, the two films also share visual effects supervisor Robert Skotak and Hudson himself, Bill Paxton, worked on GALAXY as a carpenter.

By the way, if you ever get your hands on Shout Factory's disc, I recommend watching the behind-the-scenes documentary on it. There's a whole segment of it devoted to anecdotes  about what it was like working with the famously confrontational filmmaker and not all of them are positive ones.

Would I recommend GALAXY OF TERROR to just anyone? Probably not. The lack of characterization, sometimes odd performances from its eclectic cast, and moments of gratuitous sleaze and extreme gore would likely turn a quite a few people off to it. But, if you have a love for a bygone era of B-movie filmmaking, are interested in seeing a small if notable step in the career of one of the most influential popular filmmakers of the past thirty years, or are just hankering for something incredibly strange, give it a try.

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