Wolf’s Waste Of Space: 1. Galaxy Of Terror (1981)
Director: Bruce D Clarke
Starring: Edward Albert, Erin Moran, Ray Walston
Here we go, the first in a trilogy of space based shenanigans, beginning with a shocker (choose whichever connotation suits yer) from 1981. Generally, if I mention Galaxy Of Terror to anyone, I’ll get one of only two answers: (a) “Never heard of it – is it one of your shitty ‘80’s films?” or (b) “Is that the one where the woman gets raped by a giant maggot?” Yes. And, lord forgive us, yes.
Sometimes known as Planet Of Horrors, at others, Mindwarp: Infinity Of Terror. There have been a number of drafts where I did studiously avoid any mention of Alien or Forbidden Planet (or Planet Of The Vampires, for that matter) but it’s nigh on inescapable: the camera pans across a debris strewn landscape to settle on a crashed spacecraft. In the craft, a man is running around with a mollusc up his arse about something. Luckily, he gets himself locked snug and safe in… well, it looks like the ship’s morgue. Oh dear. Next thing you know, that ‘something’ gets him. Impossible, you say! How did it get in there? A rescue vessel arrives in due course and the intrepid crew go off to investigate, unaware that one of their team isn’t all he seems. Before you can say “monsters from the id” they’re being assailed from all angles. Safe to say the studious Alien-esque build-up shifts into Forbidden Planet territory as their subconscious fears take physical form. Gloop ensues.
It’s a Roger Corman production, but one with a decent budget, no doubt boosted by the relative success of Battle Beyond The Stars. Indeed, some of the design, matte and prosthetic work is of a very high standard (James Cameron, plus Robert & Dennis Skotak worked on it). Nifty set dressing turns the ‘Hadley’s Hope’ interior corridors of the wrecked ship Remus into the streamlined, Ron Cobb aesthetic of the rescue ship Quest. Also check out the doorways, a little nod to the Krell here. I do like the split-level design of the cockpit and the fact that while there is action in the foreground you see a crew member moving around on the upper level, not to mention personnel moving along an adjoining corridor in the background. I bet Clarke was proud of those shots. It just helps sell the idea of a working environment. Prop-wise, my favourite has to be the backpack. No one’s told the crew they’re actually wearing a vacuum cleaner with motorcycle headlights plonked on the top. Mind you, they need those headlights to penetrate the constant gloom outside the Quest. At least the dark serves to mask any budgetary shonkiness – though to be fair cinematographer Jacques Haitkin does generate a degree of atmosphere, so kudos to him.
The characters go off to explore the planet Morganthus (the soundtrack suggests the wind doth howl like disembodied voices – quite effective) and find a huge ‘Mayan’ pyramid. Now, you may recall a discarded Alien concept involved a pyramid and the reckless dangling of a crew member into an opening at the top. End result; one fucked up astronaut. I reckon Clarke just thought ‘I’m having that then’ and ran with it. Further interesting design elements are incorporated into the interior of the pyramid. Damp tunnels and tubeways appear almost organic, lined with ‘veins’ and you get the impression the crew could be exploring the inside of a living being. They wander onto a walkway spanning a vast nothingness and are humbly dwarfed by a huge structure of interlaced framework built over misshaped glowing panels. Deeper still, they find transparent walls and a neon triangular ‘door’ – sure this was part of Gary Numan’s stage set, circa-1979! – which deposits our heroes at random points in the maze-like confines. Speaking of triangles, there’s a lot of that tri-imagery going on in the movie…
So, it’s got okay production design and a halfway decent story going for it. Is that enough to float Galaxy Of Terror into the dizzying realms of above average? Sadly, no. The screenplay is all over the fookin place, featuring a wealth of abandoned plot threads and riddled with half-arsed poetry; “The human mind is as dark as Morganthus,” Kore (Ray Walston) intones without qualification. And Commander Ilvar (Bernard Behrens) goes all quasi-Biblical on us; “Doubt is brother demon to despair…” Come again, mate? There appears to be something going on with him and Dameia (Taaffe O’Connell) despite an apparent age gap but this character thread, as with many others, is never explored.
Captain Trantor (Grace Zabriskie – is she always unhinged?) is a mental case. She’s maybe the victim of a script determined to cram some gripping action into the mix before the spooky creeping about starts. Trantor whirls in and launches the Quest before the crew are even strapped in! They’ve barely survived that when she’s hitting the “ludicrous speed” button just as everybody’s getting unstrapped again! It’s grossly unprofessional. Having reached the planet Morganthus and the ship predictably decides to crash, she just gives up – “There’s nothing I can do.” No fighting to the last second to save the lives of her crew. Fortunately, fate intervenes. The script tells us she was the sole survivor of a massacre on her first mission 20-odd years ago. If you’re looking for an explanation for her behaviour, that’s all you’re getting. There are a couple of moments when you think there’s going to be a flashback but we’re left dangling each time.
It continues; we see that Cabren (Edward Albert) and Baelon (Zalman ‘Softcore’ King) don’t get along. Why not? What happened on a previous mission to drive a wedge between these two fine gentlemen? Did Cabren prankishly rub a whole tub of Maximum Hold Hair Mousse into Baelon’s perm while he was having a kip? And what the fuck is up with Baelon’s limp? Did he hurt his foot during the text book landing (understandable) or has he got a permanent raging stalk-on for Erin Moran? Then there’s Quuhod (Sid Haig), utterly distraught at the destruction of his 3-pointed throwing stars. We don’t know why it’s such a blow to him, except for the one and only mystical line he speaks; “I live and die by the crystals…” Not exactly informative, but blindingly prophetic. ‘Silent’ Sid is at least slightly interesting, unfortunately we are left to speculate on what appears to be a possible symbiosis with his throwing weapons.
There are one or two splatterific death scenes; Quuhod is mugged by his own throwing stars. It’s quality, one of them sticks in his arm and when he tries to pull it out, the point breaks off and begins to burrow under his skin. In desperation, he hacks his own arm off to stop the shard burrowing any further. The disgruntled arm responds by lobbing the other star at him. I’m not sure what happens to Trantor, she runs off with a big fuck-off laser cannon under her arm then – poof! – she’s gone up in a flash. Worth it though, for Ranger’s (Robert Englund) reaction – he screams like a big girl’s knickers and bites his fist. And poor old Joanie… sorry, Alluma (Erin Moran) winds up squeezed to death by the suddenly animated wall ‘veins’, all in fantastic, head-popping Goryscope™. I feel sorry for Erin, she spends the entire film with an expression on her face that says, ‘Is this all I’ve got to look forward to now my Happy Days career is over?’ In fact there’s one part when she screams “I hate it!” I don’t think she’s acting.
All of which inevitably brings us to the giant mutant maggot rape. Instead of simply getting chomped as originally scripted, Dameia is assaulted by several tentacles that rip her clothes off, cover her with, errr, slime and hump her to death. Now, if she survives and then later, I dunno, starts convulsing and is eaten from the inside out by mutant maggot spawn, there’s a point. Here, there is none; she’s found dead, lying naked in a puddle of sticky stuff. It’s purely exploitative. Clarke doesn’t even have Dameia kicking and screaming to get away, instead suggests borderline pleasure and she virtually dies in orgasm. Well dodgy, that. I say Clarke, but there is a rumour that a certain James Cameron directed this scene. I’ve always called bullshit on that – but just compare the composition of Dameia backing up and turning slowly as the giant maggot looms unseen behind her to the shot in Aliens, of Dietrich unknowingly backing into a xenomorph at the onset of the first battle. Come on, Jim, spill the beans…
I’ve just remembered something else; when they find a victim from the Remus, the crew incinerate them on the spot. Shouldn’t they be conducting autopsies on the bodies to establish what happened to them? There’s more illogical daft stuff with a rookie crewman. Clearly, this nervy kid needs a steadying influence beside him. Not according to the security chief, that limping, perm-headed nitwit Baelon. He sends the rookie off to search the bowels of the Remus alone. Not surprisingly, he starts coming apart faster than Don Murphy in a cake shop. That’s another thing, while I’m at it; Baelon, Cabren, Quuhod… There is a “human” reference in the script but these character names are anything but. They sound very 1950’s sf and may be a homage to that era.
Anyway, it all becomes fairly incomprehensible. The pyramid is some kind of training ground of the mind for the children of an alien species (fookin hell, Paul WS Anderson – is AvP a loose remake of this?), overseen by The Master. What is The Master’s relationship to the crew and the planet Morganthus? I could try, but I can’t be bothered. Cabren, irritated by the loss of his crew mates, takes the entity on. His dead crewmates (and their manifestations) show their appreciation by tag-teaming against him. It’s really quite nonsensical; they completely overpower him, but then disappear – so he gets up again! Besides, Ranger is the first to work out what’s going on, how come it isn’t him up there challenging The Master?
Worst of all, Galaxy Of Terror is devoid of humour and I think it’s because Clarke wanted to make a serious psychological horror movie. But those lofty ambitions tend to get scuppered when one includes an unnecessary tentacular assault. The cast don’t look like they’re having any kind of fun at all so crap acting might be a product of disenchantment. One or two other worthy names in the credits, as well as Cameron and the Skotaks, you’ve also got Aaron Lipstadt and Don Opper who went on to make the superb Android. Bill Paxton is rumoured to have been an uncredited set dresser.
So, despite them trying to make it about the horror of the mind, Galaxy Of Terror will always be ‘that movie where the woman gets raped by a giant maggot’.
Tune in next time (somebody, please) for another entirely coincidental Corman production that bears no resemblance to Alien whatsoever…
See the stunning Galaxy Of Terror trailer here – http://tinyurl.com/39umuek
Or watch in full here http://tinyurl.com/34uk6op
ThereWolf, May 2010