Nathan Hamilton, writer of Son of Celluloid, has done the Halloween Fifteen before. Last time, he grabbed Perkins’ 14 and was less than enamored with it, but this year he managed to snag the Roger Corman-produced Galaxy of Terror. It’s one of his favorite movies, and he’s even gotten to interview a couple of the stars from it (you’ll read more below). It’s safe to say right now that Nathan really, really digs Galaxy of Terror, but you’ll have to read on to see why his love for a film with rape-y worms, crystals, and a red, glowing master is so strong.
Warning: There are spoilers ahead regarding how certain characters die. The movie came out 32 years ago, so if you haven’t seen it you have no one to blame but yourself. Besides, I don’t consider anything that’s shown in a movie’s trailer to be a real spoiler.
I have to admit to taking the coward’s way out this year. Last time I participated in Halloween 15, I chose a film I had never seen before. Let’s just say that Perkins 14 did not reward my adventurous nature. This time around, I saw one of my favorite movies of all time on the list and jumped at it. Galaxy of Terror and I have had an interesting history, yet it’s a film I’ve never really written about before. So now, thanks to Ryne, you get to listen to the Son of Celluloid gush about some Corman gold.
It was a hot night in August of 2006. I was at the Drive-Invasion Festival; camping out at the drive-in for a weekend of bands all day and movies all night. It was about 4AM, and I was hammered. Invasion of the Bee Girls had just finished. The next thing I know, I’m looking at Freddy, Captain Spaulding, Joanie, and Glen Bateman in a spaceship together. What the hell was this awesomeness? At some point the girl I was with called me into the tent to do something illegal or immoral (I don’t recall which), and when I re-emerged a woman was being raped by a huge space maggot right there on the silver screen. Then Sid got killed by his own severed arm. Then Robert Englund was fighting himself. I was fascinated. The next morning I only remembered the highlights, and I decided that I had to find this flick and see what I had missed or had just lost in the haze. The problem was, it had never been released on DVD and VHS copies on ebay were WAY out of my price range. It became my last great Holy Grail movie. Remember back when those were a thing? I finally got to see it again in 2010 when Shout Factory finally gave it the special edition treatment, and it was even better than I remembered.
First of all, Galaxy of Terror looks great. It was made for $700,000 in 1981. Adjusted for inflation, today that would be 1.7 million. As a comparison, the last two Paranormal Activity movies, which are considered low budget and have next to no effects, cost 3 million a piece. Sharknado cost almost a million and a half. Freakin’ SHARKNADO! What Corman’s team was able to pull off on a shoestring budget is extraordinary. It’s trippy, gritty, futuristic, and eerie as hell. Sure, the optical effects look horribly dated; but the art direction, set design, and practical effects are fantastic. Today all of that would be done with CGI, and it would look awful. Seriously, I would put those sets up against all but the most expensive sci-fi that has come out since. It’s no wonder it looks so far beyond its budget when you look at the people that worked on it; James Cameron, Robert Short, Allan Apone, Peter Tothpal, Kenny Myers, Alec Gillis, Robert Skotak, and the list goes on. The list of Oscars, Emmys, Saturns, Geminis, and every other award under the sun that these men have won is staggering. We’ve all heard about the fabled “Corman School of Filmmaking,” and it’s never more apparent than the art and effects departments on this flick. Just look at Aliens. Like, eighty percent of this design team worked on that flick five years later, and it pretty much looks like a glossier Galaxy of Terror.
Some of the acting is definitely shaky. Zalman King (Mr. Red Shoe Diaries himself) shows us why he found much more success behind the camera, and Edward Albert is pretty bland as our hero. The rest of this amazing cast more than makes up for that. I don’t think I need to espouse the virtues of Sid Haig and Robert Englund to anyone reading a horror blog. Erin Moran shows a lot more range than had been seen
from her at this point. Plus, anyone who grew up watching Happy Days on Nick at Night will get a kick out of seeing her head get crushed. Ray Walston is a legend with a list of credits a mile long. His performance is subtle, nuanced, creepily effective, and more befitting of a much bigger production. Grace Zabriskie goes from bad-ass to crazy-ass in spectacular fashion. Watching Robert Englund freak out at the sight of her burnt face would become ironically hilarious in retrospect. Taaffe O’Connell, who endured giant maggot lovin’ years before GWAR co-opted the idea, has always been vastly underrated as an actress. On a side note, I got to interview Taaffe a couple of years ago and she’s one of the nicest convention guests I’ve ever met. She even gave me a piece of her uniform from this very movie.
Some accuse this of being an Alien rip off. We do start out with the same setup, but then it goes in a completely different direction. It becomes a riff on the haunted house formula in deep space. I would be willing to bet that Philip Eisner, who wrote Event Horizon, has seen this one a few times. It rises above just being a “monsters in space” flick though, not that there’s nothing wrong with those. Each crew member being attacked by and having to face their greatest fear opens up ideas that, while maybe not fully realized, are certainly interesting. It’s much more ambitious philosophically than most low budget sci-fi. Corman didn’t forget his core exploitation audience, however. Wrapped around those metaphysical concepts are boobs and a whole lot of nasty, creative gore. Galaxy of Terror is a perfect melding of high concept and low brow. It’s thinking man’s space schlock.
Even though I love this movie, I still recognize its weak points. Some of the writing is laughable. As a matter of fact, Sid Haig agreed to appear in the film only if he got to play his character as a mute to get out of saying some truly idiotic lines. It’s exposition heavy and gets really slow in a couple of spots. The score is monotonous. These negatives are counteracted and overcome, however, by the flick’s greatest positive… atmosphere. Man, Galaxy of Terror has atmosphere to spare. Helped in a big way by moody, shadow heavy, primary colored lighting, it’s a languid and off kilter tone that finds a way to be spooky, dreamlike, and foreboding at the same time. This all encompassing ambiance carries the viewer through the slow spots, smooths over the silliness of the dialogue, and manages to turn the droning background noise into an asset.
For the lover of intelligent sci-fi wrapped up in a gory, sleazy, b-movie coating, it doesn’t get any better than this. The cast of familiar faces and genre favorites carries off the sometimes cheesy material well. The whole thing looks phenomenal. It has interesting ideas and even more interesting deaths. In my mind, and I know this is a big statement, it’s the best movie Roger Corman ever produced that didn’t have Vincent Price in it. I cannot recommend Galaxy of Terror highly enough. 10 “Death-trap Pyramids” out of 10. Nathan says check it out.
So, Ryne, what did you think?
The Moon is a Dead World’s take
The clanks of boots on metal rungs echo through the spaceship. Cos (Jack Blessing) is frightened for his life, although he’s not sure what might be pursuing him. He’s lost the others in his search for life, and he’ll soon find his own soul lost to the grimy expanse of the galaxy of terror. The team separates for just a moment, and Cos is destroyed by a being no one saw, something that popped up on the bio-life scanner for only an instant before disappearing again.
Welcome to a place that uses your worst fears against you. Galaxy of Terror is a film produced by Roger Corman, but unlike some of the other cheapies that he made back in the ’80s, this one is grim and, for the most part, steeped in an unending atmosphere of dread. Where other Corman films reveled in the B-movie formula, Galaxy of Terror is undeniably a creepy affair, the sort of thing that inspired many of the space- and water-based films of the mid-to-late 1980s.
A team of explorers heads out to a planet to investigate the deaths of another crew; they’re there to solve the mystery, but they’re also well-equipped for the job, with lasers that obliterate anything they’re zapped at. Baelon (Zalman King) is the leader of the group, but he’s also a bit power-hungry; Cabren (Edward Albert) is a more fitting leader, but he allows Baelon the opportunity he has earned. The lone survivor of an earlier massacre, Captain Trantor (Grace Zibriskie), also tags along for the ride, although it’s clear very early that she’s not very stable. Did I mention Freddy Kreuger himself appears? Robert Englund plays techie Ranger, and Sid Haig gets a small role as Quuhod.
Director Bruce D. Clark (in this film referred to as B.D. Clark) moves things along very quickly – there’s no time to figure out what the Master is, or why these people are heading out to a distant planet other than some exposition about an accident. But Galaxy of Terror works best on this simple formula; the audience doesn’t need to know much about the trip or the intricacies of the government in the film. Instead, Clark leaves it to the audience to forge a lot of the details.
More time is allotted to exploring the planet, which is mostly a wasteland. It’s a dark planet with a bluish hue, very windy and sand-swept. There’s a large pyramid at the center of it, and the crew climbs and then enters it in search of the lost voyagers from the last trip. From here, Galaxy of Terror uses a familiar outline – separate the crew, then murder them.
Yet the way the film kills off its characters is very inventive. At first, Galaxy of Terror feels incredibly haphazard; first there are tentacles, then there’s a huge worm, then there are crystals that move by themselves. That is, until Dameia (Taaffe O’Connell0 mentions she hates worms, and then gets raped (and eaten or something?) by one. Maybe this planet is using the crewmember’s fears against them!
Unfortunately, the film explicitly states this in its finale, and a lot of exposition gets thrown at the viewer all at once. Clark forgets that the best-laid plots are the ones that don’t need explanation. When Dameia announces her fear of worms, it shows poor development of her character – this probably should have been done a while before she dies, not right before.
Galaxy of Terror is, however, one of the best Corman-produced films I’ve seen, and it remains tense and eerie throughout even after it becomes clear that the group is being targeted by their fears. Phobias are scary, and they’re shared with many others. Clark’s film recognizes that, and also disputes what it means to be a leader. It’s a heavy theme for a film like this, but one Galaxy of Terror accomplishes astoundingly well.