Tuesday, November 02, 2010

It Wants To Get Out

Even ten years later, producer Roger Corman was still ripping off ALIEN. 1989's THE TERROR WITHIN has the formula down cold, trapping a handful of actors inside a dark confined space and letting a rubber monster loose to cause all kinds of bloody hell. THE TERROR WITHIN proves the formula can still work so long as the actors are committed to the sensational material and the creature delivers plenty of action and gore.

Eight military scientists are among the few survivors of some kind of virus that destroyed all life on Earth. From their underground base in the Mojave Desert (represented by Bronson Canyon and Vasquez Rocks), they seek a cure. Sometimes they have to venture outside, where roam murderous creatures called gargoyles, but are actually mutated humans.

While scouting, lovers David (Andrew Stevens) and Sue (Starr Andreeff) find a survivor and bring her to the base. Doctor Linda (Terri Treas) learns the young woman is pregnant with a mutant baby. During an attempted abortion, the monster fetus escapes into the air vent. It grows to full size almost immediately—a six-foot scaly creature with big teeth and nasty claws—and stalks the base, slaughtering the men and snatching the women for mating purposes.

So Thomas Cleaver’s (HEROES STAND ALONE) screenplay is rote, and the monster designed by Dean Jones looks exactly like what it is, which is a stuntman wearing a rubber suit. Okay, that’s fine; horror fans are used to that, and it can even be kind of fun. And THE TERROR WITHIN is a perfectly adequate time-killer with better-than-usual acting for this type of movie, some occasionally snappy dialogue, and good use of its limited budget.

Top-billed George Kennedy, who plays the commanding officer of the underground base, is unfortunately not used very well, limited to barking a few orders before his early demise. Stevens, just making the move from television actor to leading man in B-pictures, is an agreeable hero, flocked by the determined Treas (next on ALIEN NATION) and the appealing Andreeff, an unusual-looking actress with large brown eyes who was a regular fixture in exploitation movies for a decade.

Cleaver’s story of a scaly beast that rapes women is tastefully handled by director Thierry Notz (WATCHERS II), who gets good mileage out of the few sets at his disposal, shooting them at visually inventive angles that make the sets look varied and provide suspense. Sharp editing and a good orchestral score by Rick Conrad (THE NEST) help make THE TERROR WITHIN one of Concorde’s last memorable films. Stevens got to write and direct the sequel, THE TERROR WITHIN II, which Corman released in 1991.

Moving on to 1991's DEAD SPACE, producer Roger Corman’s uncredited remake of his own FORBIDDEN WORLD has the novelty value of co-starring Bryan Cranston, today an Emmy-winning star of MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE and BREAKING BAD. It is, unfortunately, inferior in almost every way to FORBIDDEN WORLD. It has less sex and gore, less imaginative sets, duller characters, and less production value. I wouldn’t be surprised if Corman spent less money on DEAD SPACE than he did on FORBIDDEN WORLD a decade earlier.

Space troubleshooter Steve Krieger (Marc Singer) and his robot sidekick Tinpan (Rodger Hall) are summoned to investigate an emergency at a scientific facility on the planet Phaebon. Experiments there have accidentally created a nasty monster that roams the base bumping off the cast in more or less reverse billing order. At this point in his career, Corman seemed less concerned with quality than in holding the pursestrings tighter. One exterior scene was probably shot in the New Horizons parking lot, and you can see studio buildings and telephone poles in the background.

Of course, budget was always a concern on Corman movies—he earned his reputation as King of the B’s by stretching a dollar as far it could go—but he wanted them to be good too. By the time he sold New World Pictures and started Concorde/New Horizons, I feel making good movies was no longer as much a priority as making profitable ones.

Because it apes FORBIDDEN WORLD, an ‘80s sleaze classic, so closely, DEAD SPACE is an ideal example of Corman’s ‘90s approach to filmmaking. DEAD SPACE lacks the excess and imagination of its inspiration, and Catherine Cyran’s (BLOODFIST II) screenplay seems determined to ignore what was most interesting about FORBIDDEN WORLD. It gives us less action, less sex, and more of the stupid robot. Singer, who earlier fought aliens in V, is a fine approximation of Jesse Vint, but the rest of the cast—yes, including Cranston—is completely forgettable. It’s difficult to even tell one character from the others.

The monster is actually pretty good. However, in his debut feature after earning a Master’s from the USC film school, director Fred Gallo (DRACULA RISING) struggles to generate suspense, and Cyran doesn’t give the actors anything colorful or juicy to say.

As part of Shout Factory's Roger Corman's Cult Classics collection, THE TERROR WITHIN and DEAD SPACE make for a thematically coherent but dramatically inconsistent DVD. THE TERROR WITHIN, by far the superior film, is given preferential treatment, presented in a very attractive 1.78:1 print. DEAD SPACE, even though it did play a few theaters, is shown in a full-frame version and was shot using so much fog that it's unlikely it ever looked good.

Director Fred Gallo joins Jeff McKay on an alternate commentary for DEAD SPACE, which is really the best way to watch the film. Gallo is very good telling the tale of what it was like to work at the Corman factory in 1990, and has plenty of stories and how-to tips for low-budget filmmakers. I wish someone could have provided an audio commentary for THE TERROR WITHIN too, but be sure to listen to DEAD SPACE's. Shout Factory has also included trailers, though not for either film on the DVD, and you can watch both films together as part of the "Grindhouse Experience," which includes trailers and an intermission.

THE TERROR WITHIN/DEAD SPACE is not likely to be one of the best in Shout Factory's excellent series of Roger Corman productions, but the decent quality of the former film coupled with the educational value of the latter's director commentary makes the disc worthwhile for drive-in fans.

1 comment:

Stephen said...

Thanks for another great review. I've been digging these Roger Corman-produced Alien knock-offs. The Terror Within sounds pretty good. I recently watched Forbidden World and was actually quite impressed. For a low-budget rip-off it was quite entertaining, and it made me realize that emulating Alien can actually be a worthwhile pursuit if done right. Pretty much every sci-fi TV show and many directors have done a story where the characters are trapped in a dimly lit ship or lab with some sort of monster crawling around in the ventilation system, so why shouldn't Corman be allowed to? Especially if he does it with a bit of style. Thanks again.