I love Netflix, but I also miss the days of going to the video store. Inevitably I’d make my way to the horror, science fiction, and cult movies sections, looking at the lurid cover art and wondering if I’d be able to persuade my mom to let us rent some of these things (more often than not I was unsuccessful at this). Nowadays I’m finally getting to see some of the movies whose VHS cover art fascinated me so long ago, and while many of these movies have ended up as disappointments, I’m glad to say that Galaxy of Terror was a perfectly satisfying B movie.
Transmissions from the spaceship Remus, last known to have landed on the planet Organthus, have abruptly ceased. The vaguely sinister Planet Master, who I think is probably not a nice guy, immediately sends another spaceship, Quest, on a rescue mission. After a bumpy journey with some delightfully cheesy special effects, the rescue ship arrives to find the Remus in ruins (along with a lot of other ships) and no sign of the Remus’ crew. And while there seem to be no inhabitants on Organthus, what the planet does have in an uncanny ability to tap into one’s deepest fears, and use those fears to alter reality.
Galaxy of Terror is fun to watch for a variety of reasons. Though clearly an Alien ripoff (motley spaceship crew sent on dubious rescue mission and hijinks ensue) it uses the stolen premise as a starting point rather than trying to slavishly re-create the source material. The central idea of a force that can tap into the subconscious and use a person’s fears against them is strong enough to make up for the weak screenplay. The characters are thinly sketched at best but the cast is game and for the most part put in good performances – an unexpected delight is seeing lots of familiar genre actors. Robert Englund, Grace Zabriskie, and Sid Haig are all on hand, along with My Favorite Martian himself, Ray Walston, future 9 ½ Weeks director Zalman King, and Erin Moran, best known as Joanie Cunningham from Happy Days.
The movie looks great. Though clearly shot on a low budget, the sets are effective and there’s some truly striking imagery throughout – particularly the scenes inside the mysterious pyramid found on the planet. And if bits of the production design look hauntingly familiar, there’s a good reason for that. The production designer and second unit director was a fellow called James Cameron – he went on to make a few movies you might have heard of.
Also of note are the special effects. These are old-school, practical effects and as such they have an organic quality that makes them all the more effective. There’s some nifty (if briefly glimpsed) stop-motion animation, and some startling gore effects that pack a real punch. Probably the only effects misstep is a giant worm – the prop itself is well-made but it lumbers around like the Snuffulufagus from Sesame Street, which doesn’t exactly terrify.
Galaxy of Terror’s problem point is its screenplay, which is satisfactory while it’s subjecting its characters to nastiness but weak in all other regards. The ending is particularly nebulous – frankly, I don’t have a clue what happened. These quibbles aside, the movie does exactly what it sets out to do – give you an entertaining time. And those of you who may have been avoiding it because of THAT scene (the one with the giant worm that made the movie semi-notorious back in the day), rest assured that the whole thing is too absurd to be disturbing or even very offensive
Shout Factory has done its usual admirable job with the DVD release. A great-looking transfer comes with a set of extras that include a cast and crew commentary, trailers, stills, a PDF of the script, and best of all, a lengthy feature about the making of the movie. Including interviews with producer Roger Corman, actors Englund, Zabriskie, and Haig, and a large number of production people, it’s an entertaining and informative look at low-budget film-making and all the special effects inventiveness, marketing strategies, and MPAA tussles that went on.
If you need a nostalgia fix for the good old days of B-movie ripoffs, look no further than Galaxy of Terror.