Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Strange, Strange Case of Galaxy of Terror, or A Rip-Off Comes Full Circle

In today’s world of re-makes, re-boots, and re-imaging, it’s easy to overlook the most humble version of capitalizing on the past, the straight up rip-off.  Rip-offs are often seen as just being derivative cash-ins, which they certainly can be (NEED FOR SPEED mostly reminded me I’d rather be watching a FAST and/or FURIOUS).  But sometimes, when you dump a bunch of familiar ingredients into a pot with a couple of oddball ones and mess with the cooking time, you get something unexpectedly satisfying.  Without the DIE HARD rip-off, you wouldn’t have UNDER SIEGE, without the JAWS rip-off, you wouldn’t have PIRANHA, without the STAR WARS EPISODE IV rip-off, you wouldn't have STAR WARS EPISODE VII. 

One of the masters of the rip-off was Roger Corman.  He was renowned for taking a hot property and churning out half a dozen or so variations on the theme, as quickly and cheaply as possible.  More importantly, he also had an eye for young, hungry, unique directors, and he gave them the latitude to be creative.  Even if they were saddled with making a rip-off, they could put their own stamp on it.  This often resulted in strange hybrids; chimeras that were one part blockbuster aspiration, one part low-budget compromise, and one part lunacy.  One of the looniest ever to come from Corman’s rip-off factory was GALAXY OF TERROR, (1981, Dir. Bruce D. Clark).
On paper it was an ALIEN rip-off with a dash of STAR WARS inspired metaphysics, but this was only the connective tissue.  The space in-between was filled with wacko characters, bizarre psychological horror, boobs, blood, and scenes no one had ever seen in a movie before.  Allow me to encapsulate:
Glow-headed videogame enthusiast, Planet Master, orders a rescue party to travel to the barren world of Xerxes to search for survivors of a crashed spaceship.  The hand-picked crew of mostly insane people includes Captain Laura Palmer’s mom from TWIN PEAKS, a mute Sid Haig who worships crystal boomerangs, a man steaming mad at corpses, claustrophobic psychic Joanie from HAPPY DAYS, and Robert Englund in nice guy mode.  There’s also the guy from MY FAVORITE MARTIAN as a simple cook and certainly not an android like Ian Holm in ALIEN.  I don't know why you would even think that (not foreshadowing).  Captain Laura Palmer’s mom, who is not the galaxy's most responsible spaceship driver, almost kills everyone three times before her ship is guided to the surface of Xerxes by a mysterious force.  The crew locates the crashed ship, finding only bodies, which the nutbag team leader immediately incinerates, not really helping the investigation.  He’s kind of the anti-CSI.  One by one, the crew are attacked by their deepest fears made manifest.  Sid Haig is killed by his own boomerangs (and his own arm).  A scaredy-cat astronaut gets a really aggressive scalp massage.  One tech officer is unfortunate enough to have an irrational fear of being fucked to death by a giant maggot.  I can't remember what the Latin term is for that phobia.  Robert Englund has a split screen fight with his inner Kruger.  Joanie definitely does not love tentacles.  Finally, the bland hero, who is not interesting enough to have cool or ironic fears, must face the ultimate evil in the bowels of an alien pyramid.  Does he have what it takes?  Will anyone escape the planet alive?  Can anyone figure out what the hell the ending means?  

This movie is bonkers, right from the get go.  The believable, lived in future of ALIEN is nowhere to be found.  It's more like BUCK ROGERS' sleazy, loser cousin on a mescaline trip.  Obviously, it is endlessly entertaining.  Even the super gross stuff, like the rapist maggot, is too ludicrous to really be offensive.  In the scene, a regular sized maggot grows as big as a VW Microbus and flops on top of the worm averse crew member.  Technically, I guess she suffocates, but it very strongly suggests that the maggot has other things on its mind.  It is clearly a fake, and comes close to Ed Wood Jr. territory.  However, like the best of schizocinema, it's played straight.  As straight as that sort of thing can be, at least.
It also has a number of legitimately solid touches, including one of my favorites, the alluded to, but unexplained back story.  Captain Laura Palmer's mom (who you should never, under any circumstances, accept a ride from) suffers PTSD from the ill-fated Hesperus mission.  It had something to do with aliens and she was the sole survivor, but we get no other details except that she's haunted by it (not a good thing on a planet that feeds on your fears).  Even better, the bland hero and the corpse hating team leader clearly have some beef about a previous mission.  The corpse hater has a MAD MAX style leg brace, so it's probably justified.  Neither one goes into the specifics, though.  If they had explained it in exposition, it probably would have boiled down to the old chestnut, "Your recklessness almost got me killed the last time!", or something equally predictable.  Instead, the director wisely decides to leave you guessing.  It's the mystery that makes it interesting.  
The set design can be impressive, too, especially for being a cheapie Corman movie.  Some of the matte paintings are truly spectacular, and the planet exterior scenes feel appropriately bleak and alien.  The reason for this is perhaps the movie's most interesting facet, the Production Designer and Second Unit Director is none other than a young James Cameron.  So the rip-off of ALIEN can actually be seen as a prototype for Cameron's official sequel, ALIENS.  Tonally, the films are miles apart, but there are unmistakable similarities.  The crew from GALAXY is sent to a desolate planet on a deliberate rescue mission, just like the Colonial Marines in ALIENS, and both are more militaristic than the reluctant explorers from ALIEN.  There are scenes in a tight tunnel like the one Bishop crawls through in ALIENS.  It is even more apparent in the art direction, which Cameron had direct control over.  The scene of the GALAXY crew walking through the wreckage of the crashed spaceship is almost a mirror of when Ripley's gang are surveying the debris of their downed dropship.   None of the wacked out characters filtered through to ALIENS (thankfully), though some of the names were direct nods.  Colonial Marine sergeant Apone was in honor of GALAXY's Mechanical Effects man Al Apone.  Bill Paxton even worked as a carpenter on GALAXY.  Now, we can all agree that ALIENS is an indisputable masterpiece (all of us), but who knew a cheap, goofball early '80's knock-off played such a large part in its creation.  That, and HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, but we'll get into that at another time.

The tale gets even stranger.  Not only was GALAXY inspirational for James Cameron, it also has a bizarre connection to Ridley Scott's own wacko semi-sequel/prequel, PROMETHEUS, 21 years later.  In Scott's mega-budget space epic, while inside an alien pyramid, a simple maggot is transformed into a large, phallic shaped monster that face rapes one of the investigating crewmen.  Hmm.  Now, I'm not saying that Scott stole the pervert maggot idea from GALAXY OF TERROR, but if he ever saw that movie, that is the scene he would remember.  

C Chaka    

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