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Galaxy Of Terror – film review

April 6, 2013

GALAXY OF TERROR

The rise of Jim Cameron – king of the lumber yard.

galaxy of terror - approaching the pyramid

Directed by Bruce D. Clark. Written by Marc Siegler & Bruce D. Clark. Produced by Roger Corman. Starring: Edward Albert, Erin Moran, Ray Walston, Bernard Behrens, Zalman King, Robert Englund, Taaffe O’Connell, Sid Haig and Grace Zabriskie. Year of release: 1981. Running time: 81 mins.

The crew of a spaceship are marooned on a planet where their worst fears become manifest – as they are picked off one by one.

Inspired by the success of Ridley Scott’s Alien, this Roger Corman-produced homage to 1950’s B movies (hence the lurid title) is notable for two things. Firstly, a notorious scene where a young woman is screwed to death by a gigantic sex-crazed maggot – no, seriously. And secondly, the distinctive production design by an aspiring young filmmaker named James Cameron.

As with virtually all of Roger Corman’s productions from the 70’s and 80’s – right through to the present day – the seed for the idea for Galaxy Of Terror began with Corman himself. Although his desire to emulate the success of Alien was indeed the jumping-off point for this movie (as he felt the major studios were beginning to encroach on his B movie territory with films like Jaws and Star Wars) – Corman also wanted to combine his personal interest in metaphysics into the mix (as he had done previously with X – The Man With The X-Ray Eyes) – particularly the pop psychology idea that we create our own reality.

From the film’s opening moments as the camera pans across a blueish, wind-swept alien landscape – we can immediately recognize the visionary hand of James Cameron at work here. Cameron was hired in 1978 by Chuck Comisky, then head of Corman’s newly-established visual effects facility, in preparation for the production of Corman’s upcoming $2 million space opera – and unabashed Star Wars cash-in – Battle Beyond The Stars. Initially installed as a model builder (Cameron was hired on the strengths of a 12 minute special effects sequence he and a bunch of friends had created for an aborted feature called Xenogenesis) – Cameron soon impressed his new bosses with his boundless energy, enthusiasm and ingenuity – to the extent that within a month he had effectively taken charge of the visual effects department (located at Corman’s Venice studios in Los Angeles – a converted lumber yard). He was just 24 years old. As Corman recalls in his book How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime, “I always had a theory that the people who ran while they were doing their job were going to turn out to be the best people. And I don’t think I ever saw Jim walk. He was always running.” It was also Cameron’s development of a cheap, yet effective front-screen process projection system (at a cost of $600) which contributed to his rapid promotion. As Cameron admitted in 1986, “I told Roger I was an expert in the process which was total bullshit. I was no expert.” Front-screen projection is a process whereby actors can be integrated into painted backgrounds or shots with miniatures via images projected onto huge screens behind them. Essentially a cost-effective in-camera alternative to blue screen compositing, Cameron suggested the technique to Corman after seeing it used so effectively by Stanley Kubrick in the ‘Dawn Of Man’ sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a process which Cameron and his VFX crew would continue to perfect on Galaxy Of Terror and John Carpenter’s Escape From New York – as well as Cameron’s own The Terminator (the future battle scenes) and Aliens (the drop ship crash).

james cameron - galaxy of terror

Nice shirt, Jim.

With a budget less than half that of Battle – but with Cameron firmly in command of the visuals – the look of Galaxy Of Terror is far more cohesive than its predecessor.   The sets, the costumes and the visual effects all blend seamlessly together to create a very particular aesthetic – an aesthetic which can only be described as, well, Cameronesque. And, as with Battle, the now 26 year old Cameron was charged with multiple roles on the film – in this case: production designer (along with Robert Skotak) and 2nd unit director.

Aside from the impressive look of the film, Roger Corman’s lofty metaphysical aspirations are never fully realized and the movie itself becomes little more than an exercise in grisly ‘ten little indians’ dispatchings – a catalog of creative deaths in the manner of the Friday The 13th franchise. It’s also interesting to note the similarities between Galaxy and Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon, which was released sixteen years later.

As played by a cast of veteren TV actors, the crew of the spaceship Quest are a relatively humorless bunch – making it difficult to connect with any of them emotionally. This is perhaps more a problem with the exposition-heavy, predominantly nonsensical dialog, than with the actors themselves. So underwhelmed was Sid Haig with his dialog as written that he pleaded with Corman to allow him to play the role as a mute!

galaxy of terror - sid haig and erin moran

Out of print since a perfunctory pan-and-scan rental only video release back in the 80’s, Galaxy Of Terror was unavailable on dvd until 2009 – and only then as an Italian import (a beautiful widescreen transfer, despite the annoying Italian subtitles). In 2010, however, the film finally garnered a proper HD release as a remastered blu-ray via the Shout! Factory label in the US. Special features contained in this edition include a commentary track, stills gallery, trivia pop-ups, a 12 page booklet and best of all – an hour long retrospective documentary on the making of the film entitled Tales From The Lumber Yard: The Making Of Galaxy Of Terror.

galaxy-of-terror-1981

Sure it’s no long-lost masterpiece, or even a particularly great movie for that matter – but Galaxy of Terror is still good cheesy fun and well worth a look for those with an interest in seeing the seminal work of visionary filmmaker James Cameron.

2.5 stars out of 5

Blu-Ray Special Features: 4.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4  – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos   and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

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