It really is staggering just how many Alien rip-offs there were in the early 80s. It’s possible there were more of this type of movie than there were rip-offs of Star Wars, if such a thing can be measured. The vast majority of them concern a crew of space-goers who come across a big, ugly, and usually crappily-made extraterrestrial and have to not die because of it. The monster is always a terrible, menacing force, but what if the monster could, say, manifest itself into the victim’s darkest fear? That’d be pretty scary, right? Provided, of course, that your darkest fear is some kind of tentacle-having or insectoid monster. This interesting yet ultimately misguided spin on the Alien formula belongs to 1981’s Galaxy of Terror.
I always applaud movies that try to do something, even if it fails. It’s a pretty intriguing notion that the alien they’re all fighting is actually some kind of higher-thinking entity that’s manifesting these horrifying creatures as part of some greater purpose. That’s a fun concept to explore and certainly not the same old tired slasher-movie-in-space storyline that had become clichéd in only two years. It’s a sci-fi/horror movie that introduces the supernatural, or at the very least the mystical, into the proceedings and speaking from a strictly in terms of broad story points, the film is successful. But the devil’s in the details, friends, and the closer we examine the movie, the less Galaxy of Terror succeeds in anything but moving production designer and second unit director James Cameron one step closer to King-of-the-Worlddom.
In the very distant future, an all-powerful, glowy-faced ruler known as the Planet Master handpicks a space crew to find and rescue another ship that’s gone missing on or near a mysterious planet called Morthangus. The crew consists of a Master-appointed commander who hasn’t seen combat in years, a ship’s captain with post-traumatic stress, a second-in-command who thinks everyone is questioning him, and several more with various peccadilloes. As they explore the planet in search for the missing ship, the crew are picked off by strange and hideous things until one, a headstrong guy named Cabren (Edward Albert) goes head-to-head with the thing pulling the strings.
I’ll say again: on the surface and just looking at the plot, this movie is very interesting, but the story doesn’t come together much at all. The main problem is that there are ten characters onboard the ship and the movie’s only 81 minutes long. As such, there’s hardly any time for development before they’re killed off. We don’t really find out what they’re afraid of or why, and in fact don’t even know that they were afraid of anything until right before the finale. Once we know this, it really doesn’t make all that much sense; was Sid Haig’s Quuhod (a near-mute who throws specialized crystal stars) afraid his shattered crystal would come to life, stab its way into his arm, and crawl toward his shoulder only so that he is forced to cut off the whole arm before being stabbed further by the disembodied appendage? Cuz that seems like a really weird, specific, and dumb thing to fear.
Along this same line, the film gives us its most famous (and infamous) scene when a character called “Dameia,” played by a woman with the improbable name of Taaffe O’Connell, meets her end. A big slug/earthworm creature grows behind her in the dark of the desolate planet and eventually becomes large enough to attack her with its gooey appendages. During this struggle, Dameia’s clothes get torn off (of course, why wouldn’t they?) and then she is, apparently, pleasured by this creature before dying. Is THAT her fear? What a creepy and creepily-specific fear to have. In truth, this scene was originally supposed to have just been her getting attacked and eaten by the creature but it was decided that since there was no sex in the film, they could use a little boobing-up. Surely a quick shower or locker room scene would have sufficed, though, right? Need we have a woman being pleasured to death by a giant worm? Fun fact: this scene was one of the ones directed by James Cameron.
This is one of the most eclectic and frankly weirdest casts of any movie I’ve seen. Along with the aforementioned Albert, O’Connell, and Haig, the movie also features Happy Days and Joanie Loves Chachi star Erin Moran, a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund, a pre-David Lynch Grace Zabriskie, a pre-softcore porn-writing Zalman King, and a way-post-My Favorite Martian Ray Walston. Odd, odd cast. Also, they all have really generic sci-fi names like “Baelon” and “Trantor” except Englund’s character who is called “Ranger.” Why? Fuck knows. It’s one of the most unsettling groups of disparate people ever compiled into one film. They all have a weird, bleary-eyed intensity to their performances that make them seem otherworldly. It’s important, I suppose, given the lack of character development, that each actor be able to bring something to their roles ti make audiences connect. Didn’t make any of them halfway interesting or likeable, but it did make me remember who was who.
If anything positive can be said about the execution of the material it’s that the sets and model work are quite good, given this film cost less than $1 million. I begrudgingly give credit to James Cameron; he is good at the design aspect of films. Early in the film, there is a very cool sequence of the ship taking off and flying out of the dock and into outer space. The scene doesn’t really need to be there per say, but it does make for a cool effects moment. There were also several matte shots (apparently done in-camera) involving a pyramid/mountain over the stormy alien background which are quite impressive. All the laser blasts, however, are a bit silly and slower than they ought to be. And the monsters all look fake.
Galaxy of Terror, despite having a known cast and a cool general ideal, fails to deliver scares or even, really, be intriguing. The best stuff in the movie is when Robert Englund is onscreen (Ranger is apparently afraid of himself) but everything else sort of falls flat. Event Horizon did the same basic idea a lot better about 15 years later, and that’s a pretty damning fact, I dare say.