Saturday, July 24, 2010

I Live And I Die By The Crystals

Roger Corman produced this notorious science fiction movie, which is mostly remembered for a sleazy scene in which a female astronaut is raped and killed by a slimy two-ton space maggot.

Despite a budget somewhere around $1 million, GALAXY OF TERROR manages to look much more expensive, thanks mostly, I suspect, to the skills of production designer James Cameron (yes, that James Cameron), who also worked on the visual effects and directed the second unit. The screenplay by Marc Siegler and director Bruce D. Clark is surprisingly ambitious for a New World drive-in movie, though also derivative of FORBIDDEN PLANET and especially ALIEN.

Astronauts are sent on the spaceship Quest to a fog-bound planet to investigate the disappearance of a previous expedition. The crew includes hot-headed second-in-command Baelon (Zalman King), psychic Alluma (Erin Moran, the fresh-faced HAPPY DAYS teen whose appearance here surely raised a few eyebrows), square-jawed hero Cabrin (Edward Albert) and grizzled old cook (!) Kore (Ray Walston). I’m not sure why these space soldiers need a cook, but there you are.

Not long after landing, the crew discovers a very large pyramid where they are killed systematically in creatively gory ways. Jason Voorhees has nothing on the mysterious force inside the pyramid. One astronaut chops off his own arm (which then stabs him to death), another is immolated, another strangled so tightly by grisly tentacles that her head explodes. Clark and Siegler have structured GALAXY OF TERROR almost like a slasher film—a death occurs about every seven or eight minutes—and the New World effects artists did their creative best to make the kill scenes effective and original.

So much happens in the film’s 81 minutes and the production so attractive that the script’s lack of logic and taste goes forgotten. Clark was not an experienced director—his previous film, HAMMER, was made nine years earlier—but his work on GALAXY OF TERROR is assured. Cameron perhaps has not received as much acclaim for this film as he deserves, since he was apparently responsible for directing many of the scenes involving on-set effects (Cameron’s next project was PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING, which marked his directorial debut). Almost every SF film at the time was stealing from either STAR WARS or ALIEN, and GALAXY OF TERROR’s Gigeresque look leaves no doubt where Corman’s inspiration lies.

A headier brand of low-budget science fiction than New World usually provided (like BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, for instance), GALAXY OF TERROR is earnestly played by its talented cast, and Taaffe O’Connell deserves a Good Sport award for her role in one of the genre’s most notorious moments, allowing special effects guys to rip off her costume and smear goop over her naked body while a foam worm wallowed on top of her.

Corman first released it as MINDWARP: AN INFINITY OF TERROR and PLANET OF HORRORS before it finally became a hit as GALAXY OF TERROR in the fall of 1981. It’s an excellent example of Corman’s skill as a discoverer of talent; in addition to Cameron, other future directors who worked on the picture include producer Mary Ann Fisher (LORDS OF THE DEEP), production manager Aaron Lipstadt (ANDROID), FX supervisor Tony Randel (HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II), assistant director Peter Manoogian (ELIMINATORS), graphic designer Ernest Farino (STEEL AND LACE), and even Bill Paxton (FRAILTY), who was a carpenter on the set.

Although his performance is fine, GALAXY OF TERROR may have been the last straw for Zalman King, who gave up acting to become a fulltime producer (9 ½ WEEKS) and director. Moran, meanwhile, went on to JOANIE LOVES CHACHI a year later. After a healthy box office run, GALAXY OF TERROR appeared on a long-out-of-print VHS by Embassy Home Entertainment, but found a new life nearly three decades later when it appeared on a Special Edition DVD and Blu-ray by Shout Factory.

One could argue Shout Factory gave GALAXY OF TERROR way more love than it deserves (I wouldn't!), but you can't argue with the results. This is a terrific disc, jam-packed with entertaining, informative extras, including an audio commentary, a one-hour-plus documentary, and dozens of behind-the-scenes photos and advertising art. Plus, Shout Factory has provided reversible cover art, so you can turn the insert around and display the disc on your shelf as MINDWARP if you want.

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