Shout! Factory // 1981 // 81 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // July 16th, 2010
Hell has just been relocated!
Shout! Factory's terrific series of Roger Corman Cult Classics continues with the HD release of the 1981 Alien rip-off Galaxy of Terror, never before available on DVD. It's cause for celebration, folks.
A mysterious figure (with a red, glowing head) called The Planet Master dispatches a ship, the Quest, to the storm-ravaged planet of Morganthus. Aboard the ship is its captain, Trantor (Grace Zabriskie, Armageddon), Alluma (Erin Moran, Happy Days), an empath; the ship's cook, Kore (Ray Walston, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and Dameia (Taafe O'Connell, Rocky II), the technical officer. Also aboard are crewmen including Baelon (Zalman King, the future sultan of soft-core), Quuhod (Sid Haig, The Devil's Rejects), Ranger (Robert Englund, Black Swarm) and Cos (Jack Blessing, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby).
When the Quest crash-lands on the surface of Morganthus, the crew leaves the ship to search the planet for survivors, instead discovering evidence of something horrible having happened to the missing crew. They discover what appears to be some sort of ancient pyramid and, before long, the Quest crew is being hunted, attacked and killed one at a time by horrible monsters. That's how outer space is, I guess.
There's nothing original about the 1981 science fiction horror film Galaxy of Terror. Why would there be? It's yet another long-lost title from the sprawling catalogue of low-budget producer Roger Corman, whose movies have never been about newness or originality. They're about combining elements of other, more successful films, trying to reproduce them in a purer, more immediate way. Galaxy of Terror is basically a stripped-down knock-off of Ridley Scott's Alien, minus the Hollywood sheen and A-list production values. The film's pleasures are totally immediate: gross monsters kill off a space crew in graphic, horrible ways. There is some attempt at twisting the formula a bit courtesy of a surprise ending and a cryptic wraparound device, and just that small change is enough to set the movie apart from other science fiction horror efforts. That's the thing with Corman's exploitation films; as long as they delivered the goods in the expected areas (this one does and doesn't; more on that in a bit), they're allowed to take some narrative chances. While Galaxy of Terror is hardly avant-garde, it's unique enough to at least be memorable.
One of the best things about Galaxy of Terror is its cast; where else would you get to see this mix of actors sharing the screen, being covered in slime and getting eviscerated by alien monsters? A veteran like Ray Walston acting opposite a TV lightweight like Erin Moran acting opposite genre movie staples like Sid Haig and Robert Englund. Combine that with the chance to see some early work from James Cameron, who worked as a production designer and unit director on the movie and you've got every reason in the world to check out Galaxy of Terror. For a low-budget effort, Cameron's work really is first-rate; the movie has that great, hand-made quality that you don't get to see in the science fiction genre anymore (even Cameron himself would rather render everything in a computer). Often times, I'd rather watch a movie like Galaxy of Terror, in which the filmmakers had to show ingenuity and problem solve, over a bigger-budget effort with all the money and resources in the world for special effects. There's something more tactile and immediate about the experience; you can feel the efforts and contributions of everyone involved right there on screen. That alone has always set Roger Corman movies apart from the rest of cinema, and is one of the reasons I return to his films over and over again.
Then, of course, there is "the scene" that anyone familiar with Galaxy of Terror (not a huge number of people, I'm sure) is likely best aware of: the giant larva rape/sex scene with Taafe O'Connell, in which she basically has her clothes sucked off and is brought to climax by an alien monster before dying. It makes no sense and is just as off-putting now as it was in 1981, and is such poor taste that it stands at odds with the rest of the movie. Don't get me wrong -- Galaxy of Terror, though a fun movie, isn't a "fun" movie. It's not lighthearted or innocent. It's gory, horribly violent, and altogether sleazy. With that in mind, I get producer Corman's desire to have one of the cast members show some skin (it would hardly be a Corman movie without it). I can even get behind the way it goes down, even though it makes no physical sense. Alien monster sucks a woman's clothes off? Whatever. I'm on board. But as the scene turns uglier -- and then attempts to pull some sort of Straw Dogs victim reversal thing -- it became difficult to watch. It's the kind of thing that stops the movie cold, and it takes a while to fully recover to where you're able to forgive the filmmakers and get back into the story. What a different experience it could be with just a few minor changes.
Galaxy of Terror makes its digital debut on another impressive Blu-ray disc courtesy of Shout! Factory. The 1.85:1-framed, 1080p transfer looks a little on the soft side, but that's not a surprise considering the fact that this is an ultra-low budget effort and nearly 30 years old. On the plus side, it's an impressively clean print, free from any scratches or dirt, and has a nice film-like appearance. It won't stand alongside the best HD transfers in your Blu-ray library, but still offers a first-rate transfer for what it is. The 2.0 audio track is much more problematic. The balance between the dialogue and effects is way off, requiring you to crank up your speakers to hear what's being said but then getting blown out every time there's a sound effect. It's a really frustrating track, and the lack of subtitles doesn't help matters.
As has been the case with all the titles in the "Roger Corman's Cult Classics" line, Shout! Factory has loaded Galaxy of Terror up with bonus features that are both informative and entertaining. First up is a commentary track featuring star Taafe O'Connell, effects designers Alec Gillis and Allan Apone and moderator David DeCoteau, who worked as a production assistant on the movie. The talk is interesting and often fun, providing some background on the production and how many of the effects were achieved. Plus, it's fascinating to hear O'Connell discuss the movie's most controversial and well-known scene. The film can also be watched with a pop-up trivia track that repeats some of the information included on the commentary, but for the most part provides all new factoids about the production.
The best extra on the disc is "Tales from the Lumberyard," an hour-long retrospective documentary on the making of the film that can be viewed as one long feature or broken down into six different components. The piece, presented in 1080p HD, features pretty much every one of the movie's surviving participants save for Cameron and Erin Moran, and covers the entire production from early concept art to its eventual reception and cult status. The piece is a lot of fun and doesn't shy away from being frank and honest about how it was to work with everyone -- particularly James Cameron, who was apparently just as prickly then as now (only without the billions of dollars in box office to back it up). There's some overlap with both the commentary and the trivia track, but not so much that it would ruin one's enjoyment of the documentary. Rounding out the supplemental section is the movie's original screenplay (available as a PDF), a gallery of stills and a collection of red-band trailers for Roger Corman titles, including Humanoids From the Deep and Forbidden World.
There's just enough creativity and artistry in Galaxy of Terror (mostly in the sets and effects) to make it worthwhile, and plenty of trashy violence and questionable sexuality to satisfy those of us who come to the movie expecting those elements. If nothing else, we should be happy that it's now on Blu-ray at all (a DVD is also available). Fans of exploitation movies and genre cinema ought to give it a chance.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Trivia Track
* Image Galleries
* Original Screenplay