Sunday, October 12, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 7: Galaxy of Terror (1981)

When someone says it's necessary to "face your fears," they generally don't mean literally. Oh, there's a degree of literalness in the phrase, but if your fear is being eaten alive by alligators most people aren't going to suggest jumping into a pool full of hungry crocodilians whilst bleeding.

Yet what if your greatest fear were to become real? Could you face it and survive? Or would it kill you in moments?

When Roger Corman set out to cash in on Alien with Mindwarp: An Infinity Of Terror--the original title of Galaxy of Terror--he didn't just decide to have a slimy space monster chase a crew of misfits through a spaceship. He would do that in other releases. No, what Corman saw was two things:

1. That Alien showed there was an audience for horror and sci-fi combined in one film.
2. That the film had worn its influences on its sleeve, which meant that an enterprising rip-off artist could just as easily cash in on the film by ripping off its influences.

And so, taking the framework of Planet of the Vampires and Alien (and even some Forbidden Planet, for good measure), Corman delivered something just new enough and familiar enough to be appealing to an audience eager for more of the same. Of course, Corman added a little something extra to the mix, as well. But we'll get to that soon enough.

We open on a an alien world, strewn with wrecked vessels and corpses of non-humanoid creatures. One of the vessels, however, still has a living and human occupant. Of course, he won't be living for long. He's running through the corridors of the ship as if something is behind him. He seals himself in a room with a mutilated human corpse--and then some invisible force slams him against the wall until he is hemorrhaging blood.

The next world we see, a voiceover tells us, is Xerxes. The voice belongs to Mitri (Mary Ellen O'Neill), who introduces herself as the interpreter and gamekeeper for The Master. The Master is a robed figure with a glowing head and is in charge of the entire planet. He receives a space Skype call from Commander Ilvar (Bernard Behrens), who informs him of the disappearance of the Remus near a planet called Morganthus. Something about that planet rings significant for The Master and, ignoring the seeming disapproval of Mitri, The Master informs Ilvar that he shall lead a rescue expedition to Morganthus and The Master will pick the crew.

The rescue ship shall be the Quest, and The Master sure can pick a crew. The Quest's skipper, Captain Trantor (Grace Zabriskie!), is fast on the trigger. Barely has the crew made it aboard when Trantor announces that the ship will lift off in 30 seconds. Nervous Cos (Jack Blessing), stoic Quuhod (Sid Haig!), and ship's cook Kore (Ray Walston!) get to their chairs and strap in as sneering Baelon (Zalman King) is rolling his eyes at the goo-goo-eyed reunion of Cabren (Edward Albert) and Alluma (Erin Moran), before they strap in. Dameia (Taafee O'Connell) ends up playing make-shift safety harness for Ranger (Robert Englund!) when Ranger's chair won't work. And then The Quest blasts off.

The Quest then jumps to hyperspace before anyone has caught their breath because Trantor is a maverick in the Sarah Palin vein, dontcha know. Ilvar and Trantor exchange some small talk once they return to normal speed outside, where Trantor makes a dig at Ilvar about his age and Ilvar's mention of "The Hesperus" seems to momentarily trigger a traumatic flashback for Trantor--which would explain the completely unconvincing gray hair she sports. She doesn't have much time to dwell before some kind of tractor beam grabs the Quest and pulls it down to the planet's surface. Trantor attempts to break free from the tractor beam, but quickly just gives up and sits back in her chair.

Luckily, whatever pulled them down wasn't interested in smashing them to bits on the landing and their descent slows until the landing rockets are able to bring them in relatively smoothly. Of course, that means that they're stuck on Morganthus because there's no way they can pull away from the force that grabbed them. Unless they can find the source, that is.

Well, luckily they landed relatively close to the Remus, so they don't have far to go for their investigation. After asserting his rank over Cabren (no doubt due to jealousy over Cabren's beautiful mustache), Baelon leads an away team consisting of himself, Cabren, Alluma, Cos, and Quuhod over to the Remus.

A word here about the costume design for this film. The characters' basic uniforms all consist of riding breeches, what appears to be thermal underwear shirts with bits of rubber glued to them to form "futuristic" patterns, and cargo jackets. (As my girlfriend observed, amusingly, the futuristic underwear tops are more flattering for the women than the men) Once they step outside of the Quest, they do not don space suits of any kind. Instead they just don bulky backpacks with headlights above their shoulders. It' interesting look.

"Would the owner of the white space backpack please come to the parking lot? Your lights are on."
Once the group enters the Remus, we get some bizarre bits of world-building. One, Alluma is a psychic of the typically useless movie variety. Two, Quuhod declines to carry a blaster as a weapon and instead carries a pair of futuristic crystal shuriken. Three, the second the group encounters a body, they incinerate it with blaster fire! Yes, they're here on a rescue mission and have just been confronted with the body of a person that has been killed under mysterious circumstances--yet they immediately incinerate it without any examination.

I am left to conclude that Xerxians belong to a strange religion where the soul cannot achieve peace until the body is cremated...and the thought of any soul rapped inside its body fills them with such existential horror that their first instinct is to incinerate it. I mean, if it were as simple as a fear of contagion then maybe they should be wearing helmets.

The away team, realizing that they are in a horror movie, split up to search the Remus. The interior of the ship has been torn apart and the only crew members they find are quickly incinerated. Cos proves to be a complete nervous wreck as he trips over debris and nearly shoots himself. Yet maybe he shouldn't be written off as a worthless coward just yet--something is definitely following him in the shadows. That something is barely glimpsed but it's some kind of stop-motion spider bug.

After Cabren proves the only one who thought to bring a body back for analysis, the away team regroups at the airlock of the Remus and discuss the fact that not all the crew are accounted for but all that were found were dead. Alluma confides to Cabren that she is sensing a lifeform--but it seems to be coming from Cos. Cabren shrugs this off and so Cos gets left in the rear as the others head back to the Quest--and the spider-bug pounces on Cos' back and crushes his skull with its jaws.

Back aboard, Dameia and Ranger do an autopsy on the late Cos and the corpse of the Remus crew member. There's no sign of contagion and both were killed by some tremendous outside force, but there's no clues as to what. Ilvar is particularly puzzled as Cabren found the dead crew member in a sealed room, yet there was no sign of what killed him. More puzzling still, Ilvar has been scanning the surrounding area and every time he gets to a particular point, the screen goes dead. Something at that point is putting out way more energy than the scanners can handle and overloading them. It's a safe bet that that power source is where the tractor beam is coming from--and it could be where the rest of the Remus crew is, if any are left.

The away team to investigate the energy source consists of Baelon, Alluma, Cabren, Dameia, Ilvar, and Quuhod. The six trek across the barren wasteland of Morganthus and suddenly find themselves atop an overlook that provides them a clear view of an immense alien pyramid. Alluma is instantly unnerved by the thing, as she senses absolutely nothing from it. It's definitely the source of the tractor beam, though, so the crew has little choice in the matter. They must investigate.

"So the Egyptians must have visited this planet and taught them how to build pyramids!"

The team splits up again, but this time into two groups of three. Quuhod, Alluma, and Baelon climb up one side of the pyramid while Dameia, Ilvar, and Cabren take the other. Ilvar begins feeling his age as he struggles up the side of the structure. Yet when the three come to some sort of vent shaft in the pyramid's side, Ilvar decides he must investigate it and ignores Dameia and Cabren's pleas to not go down into it himself. Ilvar rappels down into the shaft--and is suddenly set upon by worms or tentacles that launch themselves out of holes in the shaft wall. He wards off the first few, but quickly the worm-tentacles latch onto Ilvar and drain him of blood via some truly cartoonish slurping/squishing sounds effects. They apparently do more than that, because when Cabren goes down to find Ilvar after he and Dameia are unable to pull their commander up, all that's left is the empty harness at the end of the line.

Baelon, meanwhile, incinerates a dead Remus crew member lying on a ledge before either Alluma or Quuhod get a look at the state of his body, which is suddenly a bad thing to do. (Xerxes is not a planet of consistency)  Dameia and Cabren join them, explaining that the only thing they could find after Ilvar's disappearance were a bunch of "wormholes." Whereupon Dameia stares off into space and in a horrified tone informs everyone, "I hate worms." Just then an immense door on the ledge, leading into the pyramid, begins to open--Quuhod uses his crystal shurikens to jam it so it can't open further. However, the crystals are shattered to dust by the power of the door--to Quuhod's surprise and grief--and Baelon fires wildly into the opening.

Quuhod is ordered to guard the entrance and Baelon leaves him a blaster, to which Quuhod replies with his only line, "I live...and I the crystals!" (Supposedly all of Quuhod's original lines were even hokier and Sid Haig refused to say all but that one) The others go deeper into the pyramid, until Alluma suddenly begins sensing the same presence she felt when Cos died. Dameia infers that this means Quuhod is in danger and happily volunteers to go and stay with him to keep them both safe.

It's a bit late for that. See, while Quuhod is grieving over his crystals, they suddenly reform. Quuhod reaches for them, overjoyed--until one launches itself into his left forearm. He tries to remove it but a shard breaks off inside his arm and, under its own power, it moves up his arm beneath his skin. Acting quickly, Quuhod uses the rest of the shuriken to cut his arm off above the elbow. However, Morganthus isn't playing fair--Quuhod's severed arm comes alive and throws the other shuriken into the bewildered man's chest, killing him.

Back aboard the Quest, Kore is serving food to Trantor and Ranger. Trantor begins telling Kore a story when Ranger asks if it's about Hesperus and this stops Trantor dead in her tracks. She stares off into the distance and comments that, "They're out there," as if she were reliving the incident even more vividly than a PTSD flashback.

At the pyramid, Dameia finds and incinerates Quuhod--and then Quuhod's maggot-encrusted arm. (Supposedly the mealworms on the arm were made to wriggle by a young James Cameron rigging the prop arm so that an electric current could run through it) She incinerates the arm with extreme prejudice, in fact, not noticing that one worm wriggled away and is suddenly growing very large indeed. Dameia tries to radio the Quest, but her signal isn't getting through. Inside the pyramid, Alluma senses the presence again and against Baelon's objections she and Cabren hurry back towards Dameia and Quuhod's last known position, with Baelon begrudgingly following.

And here we come to the part of the film that, for better or worse, has gained it a significant amount of notoriety in cult film circles. For as Dameia heads back into the pyraid, she stumbles across a slime rail and--misjudging the direction it came from--she backs way from it...and right into the waiting tentacles of a giant maggot. The maggot seizes her, throws her to the ground, and falls upon her--whereupon it tears off all her clothes and rapes her. Her screams fade quickly into moans of pleasure as it brings her to what appears to be a fatal orgasm--taking "la petit mort" to its literal extremes, you might say.
"And I thought my last boyfriend was slimy!"
This was Roger Corman's idea, quite against the desires of the director or screenwriter (or, for that matter, Taaffe O'Connell's). However, Corman insisted that it would draw in more of an audience--this being during a time when cinema's idea of what was acceptable excuse for nudity was less discerning than a hormone-addled thirteen-year-old boy's--and he ended up being right. Love it or hate it (and hopefully not triggered by it), there's no question that being the movie where a maggot screws a woman to death has kept the film in the cult consciousness in a way it might otherwise not have been.

Moving on, things aren't going so well at the Quest, either. Ranger and Kore can't find Trantor and suddenly the ship's cannons are firing--and given that they're sitting on the ground, that risks tearing the ship apart. Kore secretly knocks Ranger out and goes to try and talk to Trantor, in the gunner pod. She is firing at the insect-like spaceship she sees on the targeting screen--belonging to the aliens she faced years ago, when she was the only survivor of the Hesperus. Kore clearly knows something about what's happening, because he tries to persuade her that there is no attack--and when the spaceship vanishes from view, it seems he might be right. But then she sees the ship again and ignores Kore's attempts to reason with her as she grabs the biggest gun she can and rushes to the airlock--only to be burnt to a crisp when the doors open and a laser blast strikes her.

Alluma and Cabren find Dameia's slimed, naked corpse--which has naturally somehow rolled over on its side to cover her bits--and then Baelon incinerates it. They hightail it back to the Quest to try and work out a game plan with Ranger and Kore. Clearly, something is picking them off one-by-one and it's connected to the pyramid. However, if they don't go back to the pyramid, then they'll never be free of the tractor beam and they'll just end up dead in their own ship, like the Remus.

So it's decided that they'll all go back, including Ranger and Kore (who volunteered). Ranger warns Cabren that he doesn't trust Kore, and he has a very good reason not to. For soon enough it will become clear that Kore is not who he says he is and he knows way more about the pyramid than he lets on, But by the time they figure out what Kore's secret is, will any of them be left alive?

"There's a liiiight, over at the Xenomorph's Place...."
The influences of Galaxy of Terror are none-too-subtle, but that's no shock, It obviously borrows a lot from Alien in things like set design--including a matte painting at the climax that is clearly James Cameron channeling H.R. Geiger--and, in fact, the "mysterious pyramid on an alien world" was an early concept in the development of Alien. But it plainly borrows much more of its plot from Planet of the Vampires and Forbidden Planet. From the former we have the rescue mission that encounters an ancient psychic force, and from the former we have the highly advanced children's toys from a long-dead race that prove lethal to the adults of lesser species--like humans.

For you see, we ultimately learn the pyramid was a toy meant to teach children how to conquer their fears--by giving physical form to those fears. Sure, it seems like a terrible idea--but then maybe that's why the ancient race that created it is no more. At any rate, if you don't know that that's what you're facing, it's pretty impossible to do anything but die horribly.

The idea of being confronted by your worst fears made flesh is a wonderful concept for a horror film, if not horribly original. And, indeed, it's a bit amusing to realize that that would more or less be part of Freddy Krueger's bag of tricks--and here he is in this film!

Before Shout Factory released the film on DVD and Blu-ray as part of their "Roger Corman Cult Classics" series, I had not seen the film since I rented it on VHS at least fifteen years earlier. I remembered bits and pieces of it, but like many it had stayed with me because of its most infamous scene. Witnessing it again, I discovered that it is much more than that scene. This is a highly entertaining little ghost story in space, with one major caveat of the sort that is expected in a film of this type--and yet is especially egregious here.

You know how characters in horror movies always split up, even when they know there's someone or something out there that wants them dead? Of course you do, it was one of those tropes that was skewered so delightfully in The Cabin in The Woods. Well, imagine if there was a scene where the characters say, verbatim, that something is "picking us off, one-by-one. Like a sniper." Then imagine that, not ten minutes later, they keep splitting up!

It's more than a little ridiculous. I suppose you could argue that it's the influence of the pyramid--and you'd pretty much have to, unless you want to assume the characters are complete idiots.

Beyond that, this is a very enjoyable flick. The actors all turn in pretty damn good performances, the set design and special effects are incredible (particularly for the budget), and the music is overall quite good. The only real negative I can lay on the film is it uses some very questionable sound design at several points--specifically that same cartoon slurping/squishing sound effect that gets used for parasitic worm things and someone's organs being crushed. It just sounds silly.

I definitely recommend it, provided the infamous worm scene is not a dealbreaker. If nothing else, you'll never look at a maggot the same way again...

This concludes day 7 of HubrisWeen! Check out what the other maniacs chose for their G movie by clicking the banner above.

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