DVD Review: Galaxy of Terror (Roger Corman’s Cult Classics)

Galaxy Of Terror
Roger Corman’s Cult Classics
Blu-ray | DVD
Directed by Bruce D. Clark
Starring Edward Albert, Ray Walston, Grace Zabriskie, Bernard Behrens, Erin Moran, Robert Englund, Zalman King, Taaffe O’Connell, Sid Haig, Jack Blessing
Shout! Factory
Release Date: July 20, 2010

Until the rise of home video in the early 1980’s, the best place to get quality exploitation cinema was to fire up the car and head out for a night at your local drive-in theater or dilapidated grind house, and during the heyday of exploitation, Roger Corman was the king of unbeatable schlock.

Today the prolific producer/director is as much known for his ability to churn out low-budget B-movies that would always turn a profit thanks to a shrewd marketing strategy that the blockbuster filmmakers of today would take and run with for a while before perverting into blandness, as he is for discovering or at least recognizing the hidden talent in some of the most important figures in the New Hollywood group of filmmakers that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s: names like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante, John Sayles, Sylvester Stallone, Ron Howard, Carl Franklin, Peter Fonda, and so on.

In the early 1970s, Corman founded New World Pictures, the independent studio where he made most of his more well-known titles and provided a training ground for many of today’s finest directors, writers, actors, and technicians. Recently the DVD label Shout! Factory bought the rights to most of Corman’s finest B-movie gems and have been releasing them to DVD and Blu-Ray under their “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” banner complete with brand new high-definition transfers and tons of extra features, some of them holdovers from previous DVD releases. Several of these titles have never been available since the slow death of home video and I’ll be reviewing the two most recent releases from Shout! Factory, both making their first appearance on the little shiny disc, with my first review being Galaxy of Terror.

Galaxy of Terror, directed by Bruce Clark (here credited as B.D. Clark), a journeyman director who had made some successful films for Corman in the past, from a screenplay he co-wrote with Marc Siegler (based on an outline by William Stout, the celebrated artist who served as production designer on The Return of the Living Dead and has done creature design work and storyboards for films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Conan the Barbarian, and The Mist to name but a few).

In the far-off future, the spacecraft Remus has crash-landed on the distant and mysterious planet of Morganthus. The crew of its fellow ship Quest are mobilized on a rescue mission at the behest of the Planet Master, an unknown, all-seeing being with a glowing orange orb for a head. On this hastily-organized mission are out-of-retirement mission commander Ilvar (Bernard Behrens), who was assigned to this mission personally by the Master; overzealous ship pilot Captain Trantor (Grace Zabriskie), the haunted lone survivor of a past disaster that is alluded to a few times; cool-headed senior officer Cabren (Edward Albert); gung-ho second-in-command Baelon (Zalman King), who resents Cabren’s presence on the mission; “psi-sensitive” Alluma (Erin Moran), who has a romantic past with Cabren; Kore (Ray Walston), the ship’s cook; technical engineers Dameia (Taaffe O’Connell) and Ranger (Robert Englund), the latter of whom is old friends with Cabren; the silent warrior Quuhod (Sid Haig), whose weapon of choice is crystal throwing stars; and simpering greenhorn Cos (Jack Blessing), the requisite dead meat on the mission.

At Trantor’s insistence the Quest takes off for Morganthus warp speed, no questions asked, but the crew is already starting to question her judgment especially in light of that other incident involving the spaceship Hesperus … the one where she was the only survivor (which is played more for unintentional humor than drama). Soon the Quest lands on the dark, storm-riddled planet and begin their search for survivors from the Remus. They find nothing but an empty ship and a few corpses Baelon takes great pleasure in incinerating. Their search eventually brings them to a pyramid as dark and mysterious as everything else on Morganthus, but once inside they find something they could have never anticipated except in their scariest dreams. Each member of the Quest comes face-to-face with their greatest fear and either defeat it or succumb to it in the goriest and often most demeaning manner. Soon there will be only one left to venture further into the pyramid and discover its horrifying secret.

That’s about all I can tell you about the plot, although chances are even if you’ve never seen Galaxy of Terror you’ve probably heard of this crazy flick over the years and read or talked about its handful of memorable moments. My first contact with Galaxy came about when as a lad in the 7th grade I read an entry on the film in Jeff Rovin’s Encyclopedia of Monsters. It sounded like it could be the most terrifying and violent film I would ever see in my entire life, but when I finally got the chance to check the movie out via a copy of the long out-of-print VHS I snagged from a Mom and Pop video store in my neighborhood four enchanted summers ago, I was slightly disappointed, but only at first. Maybe it was the muddy picture and sound on the two-decades-old tape or the frame of mind I was in, but I had expectations this movie could never meet and that few films actually have met. In fact, I originally found the movie to be slow, despite its short 81-minute running time, and occasionally pretentious. But the filmmaking aesthetic of Roger Corman has never been to exceed impossible-to-meet expectations but to give you an old-fashioned good time at the movies. Watching Galaxy of Terror for the first time since that fateful summer evening in 2006 on Shout! Factory’s beautifully remastered DVD I found myself enjoying the movie immensely this time around, and as strange as it seems, I approached its story with more of an open mind and discovered many hidden virtues amidst the sex, slime, and sleaze that made this movie a hit on drive-in screens back in 1981.

One of several features Corman’s studio pumped out in the wake of the success of the original Alien, Galaxy of Terror would prove to be the most memorable of them for various reasons that I will get to shortly, not the least of which was that as he was making Galaxy Corman would be in the process of inadvertently building part of the creative team that would go on to help craft Aliens, the classic 1986 sequel to the very film his then-latest production was shamelessly ripping off, but no one could have known that at the time.

Although Galaxy appears on the surface to be an Alien clone, the monsters at the heart of this film are the ones that dwell deep in our subconscious. The pyramid on Morganthus has the power to bring the fears of the crewmembers of the Quest out and give them flesh. The psychological horrors that we have buried inside have escaped and are turning against us. Each character has a unique fear, and whether it be a fear of failure, fear of intimacy, or a fear of squishy insects, that fear can easily be turned into a harbinger of doom. There’s even a slight but fascinating subtext about how our faith can betray us. It’s an interesting take on post-Alien outerspace horror and gives Galaxy of Terror a bit more heft in the impact division, and the cartoonish gore makes this twisted tale all the more fun to watch, but I think Galaxy would have greater dramatic weight had the characters been developed beyond the status of one-dimensional archetypes. As it stands, the film’s lean running time doesn’t give us much time to get to know the crew of the Quest beyond an occasional throwaway line of dialogue or a proclamation that serves only to spell out the crewmember’s fear, which is ultimately how they will die (for example, Haig’s mostly mute character gets one line of dialogue: “I live and I die by the crystals”). Without having much in the way of personalities other than what is (barely) sketched out for them in the script, the characters might as well be in a Friday the 13th movie or on a episode of Melrose Place. I don’t know, maybe I’m reading too much into it all. There go those high-falutin’ expectations again.

Plus, there are a lot of questions brought up that are usually left vague and unanswered to the point where it starts to get pretty damn infuriating, a narrative shortcoming no doubt owed to the hastily-assembled screenplay. The animosity between Cabren and Baelon is never explained, nor is Cabren’s past with Alluma. Speaking of Alluma, her psi-sensitive abilities never really come in handy, it’s merely a poor attempt to give the character a useful trait that distinguishes her from the rest of the cast. One of the goofier moments in Galaxy of Terror is when Trantor’s haunted past as the lone survivor of the Hesperus disaster is first mentioned by Commander Ilvar. The camera slowly zooms on Trantor’s face as she starts to recount the incident as ominous music creeps up on the soundtrack, then the scene suddenly cuts back to Ilvar looking a mite perturbed without Trantor having the chance to finish the story, and the music cuts out too. It’s like the movie doesn’t even have the time for one fleeting moment of soul-baring catharsis and it never fails to make me laugh. After a while you must come to accept that memorable characters and scenes of high drama are not on Galaxy of Terror‘s agenda. In the words of Stuart Smalley, “And that’s”¦ okay.” You can’t ask much of a movie that wears its cinematic junk food label as a badge of honor.

At least Galaxy of Terror had some gifted individuals in front of and behind the camera to carry it over its many hurdles. Bruce Clark does a workmanlike job on the direction, ditto for the script he co-wrote with Marc Siegler. It’s far from top-notch but for a shameless exploitation flick it gets the job done. For the limited funds and materials available to them the technical crew did an outstanding job. The planet Morganthus and the monolithic pyramid that serves as the center of the action look menacing and oppressive thanks to the first-rate work by the film’s design team led by production designer, and future king of the world, James Cameron (who also served as Galaxy‘s second unit director). Cameron would go on to work on several of his future productions with several of his Galaxy colleagues who helped bring the dark horrors of Morganthus to life on a cut-rate budget, including visual effects technicians Robert and Dennis Skotak and prosthetics make-up artist Alec Gillis. The mechanical effects team is spearheaded by the talented likes of Allan A. Apone and Douglas J. White. Future Hellbound: Hellraiser II director Tony Randel served as the optical supervisor and visual effects editor, Hell Comes to Frogtown mastermind Donald G. Jackson was a visual effects camera assistant, future Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-A-Rama director David DeCoteau worked on the film as a production assistant (and also moderated the DVD commentary), and future Nightmare on Elm Street cinematographer Jacques Haitkin cut his teeth on cameraman duty for Galaxy of Terror. Even Bill Paxton, who would later find his greatest fame as an actor, started out working on this movie but as an uncredited set decorator. The music score by Barry Schrader is old school synth work occasionally hitting eerie and disturbing notes.

One thing that can definitely be said about the cast is that no one, not even the young turks, brought their A game to the movie acting-wise. It’s okay though, for a movie like Galaxy of Terror requires little more than the ability to spout expository dialogue with a straight face and look convincingly afraid while running from an eight-foot-long remote-controlled tapeworm. Edward Albert gets to play it cool and low-key for most of the movie but towards the end when he’s called upon to emote a bit his performance falls completely apart. It was good while it lasted. Sid Haig’s stoic, crystal-wielding warrior is a nice chance of pace for an actor used to playing heavies and assorted weirdos. I wish he talked more. Zalman King acts the entire movie like he’s trying to smash a lump of coal into a diamond between his ass cheeks. Dial it down dude. King later got of acting and became a director whose films like Nine and a Half Weeks and Wild Orchid which laid the foundation for Skinemax, so he made a worthwhile contribution to cinema after all. Grace Zabriskie hovers on an acting wavelength between Albert and King, sometimes cool, sometimes an unsmiling, unbearable martinet who does things her way and the hell with you if you don”˜t like it. Robert Englund’s Ranger is laconic and relatable but at the climax he does get to show off some of the seething menace that would come in handy when he donned the hat and razor-fingered glove of Freddy Krueger three years later. Bernard Behrens and Ray Walston are the two requisite old fogeys on board and they do fine work. Jack Blessing is okay but his character might as well have been wearing a red shirt with a neon target on the back. Taaffe O’Connell is here strictly for sex appeal and gets to show it off in perverse fashion thanks to a last-minute story change courtesy of Boss Corman. The worst performance by far comes from Joanie Cunningham herself, Erin Moran, as Alluma the ship”˜s literal mental case. She’s clearly out of her element here and her idea of expressing any emotion whatsoever is to bug out her eyes and deliver her every line of dialogue like a spoiled child throwing a tantrum in the toy section of Wal-Mart. It’s not spoiling too much to say her character has the most spectacular death in the film and it actually had me cheering. Ka-Boom Joanie!

Now let’s get into this DVD, which goes on my short list for one of the best cult classic DVD reissues of the year.

DVD Features

The picture has been beautifully remastered in high definition and presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It’s a slightly grainy but ultimately clear picture that preserves Haitkin’s dark, dreamy cinematography in fine detail. The soundtrack is a strong Dolby Digital 2.0 audio that doesn’t give your sound system a wild ride but it performs its task admirably. No subtitles are included on this disc.

Shout! Factory has packed the Galaxy of Terror DVD with a veritable bounty of extra features. Kicking things off is a rowdy audio commentary featuring Taaffe O’Connell, Alec Gillis, Allan Apone, and David DeCoteau (who also moderates). The quartet share jokes and fond memories of working on this strange film and for Roger Corman in general. It’s a good, entertaining track worth listening to more than once.

The centerpiece of this DVD is the all-new retrospective documentary Tales from the Lumber Yard: The Making of Galaxy of Terror” created for this release by Michael Felsher and the DVD documentary wizards at Red Shirt Pictures. Running 63 minutes and split up into seven parts (which you can watch individually or as a whole by pressing Play All on the submenu), Tales brings back most of the surviving cast and crew members for a candid and comprehensive look back at the making of this film and the reception upon its 1981 release. There are a ton of great stories here and everyone who returned for new interviews seem to have a good attitude and a certain amount of pride in Galaxy despite its sleazy reputation. One part of the documentary, Future King, is devoted solely to remembrances of working with James Cameron. Apparently he was just as dedicated, stubborn, and mercurial then as he is today. Robert Englund, Taaffe O’Connell, Sid Haig, and Grace Zabriskie talk about their experiences acting on a low-budget production, which for Englund and Zabriskie was pretty early in their careers (Haig had been a recognizable face on drive-in screens since the early 1960s). The creation of the visual effects is discussed in great detail, and you may be surprised to learn as I was how important empty Styrofoam take-out food trays were in the construction of the sets. You also learn how the film’s most memorable beast, the giant maggot that gets its freak with a comely crew member, was created and the methods employed by Cameron to make a bunch of smaller maggots wriggle on a prop severed arm. The interviews are intercut with lots of behind-the scenes photos and scenes from the movie. This is a fantastic documentary worthy of its subject material, a great DVD extra.

There are five extensive photo galleries: Behind the Scenes; Background Plates, Storyboards & Sketches; Lobby Cards & Posters; and Scrapbook Pictures. Lots of good stuff to behold here.

The film’s original screenplay is included and viewable in a PDF format on your computer, but you will need an internet connection to read it once it’s downloaded. It looks like they scanned an actual copy of the shooting script right down to the water and coffee stains.

Rounding the bonus features off are three theatrical trailers for Galaxy of Terror, a U.S. trailer and a German trailer both identical to one another, and a trailer for the film under its alternate title Mindwarp: An Infinity of Terror when it was released in the South. The strangest thing about the first two trailers is their confusing use of footage from another New World production Battle Beyond the Stars at the very beginning and an announcer intoning, “Prepare yourself for the ultimate battle!” You would think that people seeing these trailers back in the day would be made to believe Galaxy of Terror was another Star Wars rip-off. The Mindwarp trailer does a better job of selling the film. Also included are TV spots for Galaxy and trailers for other New World films: Humanoids from the Deep, Pirahna (both coming in August from Shout!), and Forbidden World (now available and I’ll get to that one in a separate review). The DVD also comes with an insert booklet of liner notes packed with a detailed synopsis of Galaxy of Terror (including major spoilage) and some interesting trivia about the film written by Jovanka Vuckovic, the former editor-in-chief of Rue Morgue Magazine.

Galaxy of Terror is far from a great film but it’s fantastic entertainment that I’ve come to enjoy in spite of its sizable flaws. It’s a sweet little relic of a bygone era before the advent of video and cable television when outrageous exploitation films could best be enjoyed on the biggest of screens, and after all where else can you find a grim and gooey sci-fi horror flick starring Freddy Krueger, Joanie Cunningham, Captain Spaulding, the creator of Red Shoe Diaries, and Mr. Hand? Until next time, as Mr. Hand would likely say, aloha bitches!

1 Comment »

  1. As always, excellent and informative!!

    Comment by Jerry — August 20, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

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