A couple of sermons back I spent a little time considering the relative opportunities for batshittery in the genres of horror and sci-fi. If you'll recall, I came down rather decisively on the side of science fiction as the genre with the least imaginative restraint and thus the greatest potential for true cinematic madness. While horror will always be where my heart is, in the face of the overwhelming data presented by the esteemed Dr. Hasselhoff and others in Starcrash, I must admit to the sci-fi genre's superiority in at least that one respect.
Of course creative people are always drawn toward the medium in which they can express themselves most freely, and thus once the freedom offered by the science fiction of the 70s became clear--from gravity, from Earth, from the need for basic storytelling logic--it might have been predicted that the vacuum of space would suck a few intrepid horror filmmakers through the hull of their genre and out into the horrible, terrifying void. The resulting hybrid beasts exhibit at their best the most satisfying traits of both their parents--think Alien and The Thing, or else think mmmmmovie favorite Inseminoid. At worst, they can spiral into gibbering madness and ineptitude. Like the Darwinian Milkshake Sweepstakes inherent in any cross-breeding attempt, it's a crapshoot.
Luckily 1981's hard-to-find sci-fi/horror mash-up Galaxy of Terror comes up sevens rather than snake-eyes. Packed from one end to the other with sci-fi action, goopy practical FX, and even some poorly developed fantasy mythology thrown in for no extra charge, Galaxy of Terror takes a bite out of each of its parent genres and spits up something truly delectable.
are being shot out of a laser cannon! (I never get tired of that shit.) A veritable galaxy of past and future stars twinkle merrily before our eyes, including Erin "Joanie" Moran, Ray "The Devil" Walston, Robert "Fucking" Englund, Sid "Fucking" Haig, and future David Duchovny flesh-peddler Zalman King! And produced by the ubiquitous Roger Corman! When a movie's credits list fewer people who are NOT b-movie royalty than those who ARE, you can't help but salivate at the prospect.
The drool continues as the requisite Alien-inspired wasteland exterior gives way to a lone spaceman on the interior of the base startled by a jump-synth scare! Cradling a laser rifle--and I mean cradling it, like a baby--he finds himself surrounded by corpses with exposed brains before being attacked by an invisible monstrosity we can just glimpse in the station windows! Soon he's missing the top of his brain-bucket as well, gone before we ever got the chance to know him better.
Next a witchy old-lady voice-over informs us that we're looking at a painting of "CERES--a small world on the fringes of space!" Down on the planet's surface we find the old woman herself--or as she v-o's enthusiastically, "Mitris! the Oracle of the game! Interpreter of the Signs!" Thanks, do you have a business card? The Oracle is engaged in some kind of fantasy board game with The Planet Master, a man-like being with a head composed completely of red cartoony luminescence! Which is a great look for him, it has to be said.
Apparently the Planet Master is some kind of deity who controls just about everything in the society of the movie--his name is even used in the spacemen's oaths, such as "The Master knows what kind of shit was in that grub last night!" or "Master Damn it, my balls are on fire!"* Ceres is his Olympus, and Mitris his Delphic Oracle. Except that unlike Zeus, the PM is very hands-on--so much so that when a Moff Tarkin-type pops up on the view screen to tell him about a distress call coming in from deep space, PM hand-picks a crew of space marines to go out and see what (the fuck) is up.
*not actual quotes, but should have been
Now we pretty much abandon the fantasy trappings and go straight into hard sci-fi--after all, Alien isn't going to rip-off itself, people! In the space of about a minute we're introduced to our crew, comprised of all the stars mentioned above plus two or three extra bits of alien fodder. The captain of the rescue ship is a crusty Ratchitt-esque broad with PTSD thanks to a failed mission she can't stop talking about, and when she's ready to go, she's ready to go! She gives the crew 30 seconds to ready the ship--whose control panels operate ENTIRELY on the "toggle switch" principle, as all ships in the future will--before they jump to hyperspace. She almost blows up the whole ship and everyone on it before they even GET to the Galaxy of Terror. Nice pick, PM, she's a real winner.
Actually the reckless, frenetic pace of the pre-launch preparations is a good indicator of how the movie will go from here on out, as director Brian D. Clark stomps on the gas pedal and doesn't let up for 80 minutes. Once they arrive at the planetary source of the distress call, more dangerous piloting by the Cap'n soon has the ship tumbling through orbit toward almost certain death. The captain is saved from posthumous court-martial by a combination of supernatural intervention and belatedly competent steerage ("Hang onto your shorts!" she shouts into the intercom, "We're gonna DUMP!") and before long the crew sets out to explore the decrepit space station from the credit sequence while the Captain supervises repairs.
We get Cliff's Notes introductions to the various crew members by way of Immediately Explicated Distinguishing Traits. Erin Moran is Alluma, psi-sensitive and "paid to SENSE things." Sid Haig is Quuhod, a silent warrior type with some kickass Krull-like crystal throwing stars. Zalman King is Baelon, second-in-command control freak and sufferer of Roid Rage sans Roids. Robert Englund is Ranger, high-strung engineering officer. Ray Walston is Cook, the ship's cook. Moustachioed hunk Cabren (Edward Laurence Albert) is the Voice of Reason and Studly Man, Erin's love interest. Rounding out the crew are short-lived Commander Ilvar, busty blonde bombshell Damelia (Taaffe O'Connell), and scared-of-everything Private Cos (Ralph Malph-lookalike Jack Blessing). Why? Just cos.
Once inside the space station the intrepid crew starts searching for survivors. Their recovery methods leave a little to be desired, however, as standard protocol upon finding a prone body or having a corpse fall out of an overhead storage hatch is to IMMEDIATELY incinerate it with laser fire! Three piles of ash and surprisingly zero living survivors later, our merry band head back to the ship--all except Cos, who is so terrified by being on an alien planet he stays behind to whimper and hyperventilate. (Seriously, how did this guy make it through basic space marine training?) Left alone by his teammates, Cos is quickly dispatched by a stop-motion brain-eating bug! Which, you know, is probably pretty much what he figured was gonna happen.
Faced with the torn-apart body of one of their own crewmates, the rescue party shows the appropriate remorse, as Cabren opines to Cook, "If it weren't so gruesome, it'd be fascinating!" I want that on my tombstone. Erin apparently sensed a life form around Cos just before he died which vanished as soon as he snuffed it--a fact she doesn't see the need to mention till they're bickering over it in the mess hall. Deciding the only course of action open is to track down the origin of the distress call, they trek happily out again, presumably after giving Cos the Big Barbecue.
INSIDE THE HOUSE! I mean, inside the giant, spooky alien pyramid structure just a few hundred yards from the station. Commander Ilva is overwhelmed by the responsibility of his position, allowing Baelon to take control with his testosterone-fueled barking of commands--which is just as well, as within minutes the good Commander is completely devoured by space leeches! This leads Damelia to utter the not-at-all-foreshadowing line, "Ugh! I HATE worms!" which is pretty much the extent of her character development.
In fact it's a kind of trademark of the film's writers that they only give you any kind of character backstory JUST before it becomes relevant. For instance, upon entering the pyramid, Sid Haig's character uses his crystal stars to prop the massive door open, then is emotionally shattered (HA!) when they break under the pressure. Zalman tries to give him a gun for a weapon, but Sid (who has been MUTE up until this point) spits dramatically, "I LIVE...and DIE...by the CRYSTALS!" So he's like, what, a Quartz Jedi, or something?
a shard flies into his forearm and creeps under the skin toward his shoulder, in a wonderfully cringe-inducing practical effect. Sid uses the other star to slice off his own arm before the shard enters a major artery, only to watch the severed arm come to life and spin the broken crystal into his chest! Hey, he SAID he'd die by the crystals, and he did! Whattaya know?
Damelia returns later--alone, of course--and finds Sid's body already wriggling with maggots. (Lest you've forgotten, Damelia HATES WORMS.) Following protocol she immediately torches the body, but one little maggot gets away...and soon grows to gargantuan size! (The practical effects here are again a highlight--if you watch, you can see the puppeteer's fingers playing the "mandibles" of the worm.) Apparently worms don't feel the same about Damelia as she does about them, though, as this one quickly grabs her, rips off her clothes, and pours hot mucous all over her writhing, naked body! She screams, grunts, and groans under the beast's phallic bulk, and before you can say "OMFG WORM RAPE!" she's nothing but a slime-covered corpse.
(Nota Bene: this is probably most infamous scene in the movie, and was excised from many of the home video prints. Accept no substitutes!)
OMG NASTY to not quite as bad, as the Captain's PTSD is predictably the end of her (she's incinerated while still living, giving us a nice screaming charred-skull exit), Baelon gets offed by a devil-headed penis monster (not really a penis, but the symbolism is obvious...at least to me), and Erin--who is claustrophobic, as it turns out--gets stuck in a tight squeeze before getting crushed to death by surprisingly non-rapey tentacles. (She doesn't go out like a punk though--she gets the prized EXPLODING HEAD death, and it's a beaut.) Meanwhile Cabren and Ranger have figured out that it's their own fears that are killing them, and that "There's no horror here we don't create ourselves." So wait...Damelia was a worm-rape-o-phobic? It all makes sense now.
The flick wraps up with a return to the fantasy elements of the opening, as Cabren must fight the Planet Master--who sloughs off his Ray Walston disguise for the battle--in order to succeed him. He fights all his zombified crewmates and their killers before offing the Lord of Space and Time and getting a cartoon glow of his own, and all is right with the Galaxy. Or at least this planet. Or, you know, the haunted pyramid. Or something.
Galaxy of Terror holds up surprisingly well. The practical effects are a real treat throughout, particularly the rapey giant worm puppet and Erin's cranial detonation. The set designs rip off Alien shamelessly, just like everyone does, but the organic sets are done even more suggestively here, with our crew and going through veiny shafts and falling into puckered openings right and left, giving you the feeling that they're not in the belly of the beast, but up its asshole. And while the fantasy elements are not fleshed out very well (WTF happened to the Oracle, for instance?) the machine-gun pacing means you never have the chance to get bored between grody demises. And a throwaway bit where Robert Englund catches Ray Walston reading a book (obviously an ancient artifact) and seems terrified of the idea of reading it, means nothing in the grand scheme but still made me smile.
So for the intriguing premise, the refusal to be boring, the opportunity to watch several well-loved stars slumming it up before they made it big (or in Erin Moran's case, after), and most of all the OMG practical effects extravaganza, I give Galaxy of Terror 2.75 thumbs. If you're a fan of 80s horror and Happy Days, I think you'll give it an "Ayyyyyyy!"
PS--I must give a shout-out to the X-Y-Z Cosmonaut over at Cosmobells for providing the pixels here, as Galaxy of Terror is still criminally unavailable on DVD. If you've never jetted over to see the embarrassment of sci-fi, horror, and comic booky riches he's giving away for free over there, do yourself a favor. All it takes is interest and a little patience, which is more than amply rewarded.