Sunday, April 8, 2012

Galaxy of Terror (1981) dir. Bruce D. Clark

Logline: A hand-picked team of space pilots is sent to the bleak, alien planet Morganthus to try and discover whatever became of the last team sent there. Guess what happens.

It would be quick and easy to label the Roger Corman-produced Galaxy of Terror a dollar menu Alien and leave it at that, but such a pigeonholing would be discounting the fact that Ridley Scott left out his own rape-by-giant-space-maggot scene. Thankfully Corman and director Bruce D. Clark have us covered.

Closer to the truth is that Galaxy of Terror pilfers the core concept from Alien—a bodycount picture in space—and dashes light-speed ahead with it. And in consideration of pure, guttural, goopy entertainment, this flick probably has the prissier Alien beat. The film is more-or-less a loosely tied assemblage of FX shots, all of which earn a gasp of disbelief or (at the very least) a chuckle. And despite its clearly low-budget origins and early 80s pedigree, Galaxy of Terror rarely looks bad (though some effects could have benefitted from never being conceived of in the first place. See: the supernova head of The Master, the rapid growth of the space maggot). It has a solid cast of b-movie actors at hand (early turns by Robert Englund, Grace Zabriskie, and Sid Haig), and fair set design for the alien planet and the spaceship’s interior (so fair that a few of its sets would be re-used the next year in Corman’s Forbidden World. Why waste?)

But do not mistake my tempering as a thorough endorsement, because this is a real piece of trash we’re talking about (some of us, sad to say, do enjoy the trash). The plot could fit on a post-it note and contains about as many inconsistencies as you can imagine such a scarcity of inspiration would produce. In fact, as the film played out, my list of notes turned mostly to questions dubious of the film’s many conceits. The quasi-Eastern mystical aspects that show up both early and late in the film seem at odds with the Federation-esque comportment of the rest, making it difficult to imagine what the society we’re dealing with actually looks like. The organizing principle (a game planet that materializes your deepest fears) is also open for question when we see what ends up killing these hapless folks. Dameia, the technical officer, expresses her dislike for worms a few scenes before being raped* by the giant space maggot (which is not exactly the same thing as a worm, by the way). A dislike is equivalent to a deepest fear on this tricky planet? I dislike many things, but I doubt the planet would choose to dispatch of me by forcing me to clean bathrooms. Add to this the fact that some of the deaths are downright vague (I cannot even begin to figure out how the captain ends up a charred corpse simply by walking into the airlock of her planet-side ship. Have I somehow neglected this very important part of airlock science?), and we’re left with one inconsistent celluloid beast.

What carries us through is a sense of reckless abandon: this is a film where the characters incinerate everything—even each other—with laser guns because the alternative is talking, which would only slow the proceedings down. Where else will you see a film that has its characters set aflame, brain-sucked, leeched, and squeezed to explosion by tentacle thingies? Or one that features Robert Englund miming the mirror scene from Duck Soup with his doppelganger and a mostly-silent Sig Haig running about hurling three-pronged throwing crystals at everything within range? That sort of film, if you embrace it, can be a lot of fun.

The Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, under their Roger Corman’s Cult Classics label, is an ample release. The film hasn’t been commercially available since the days of VHS and Laserdisc, and it makes a fine showing in high definition. While the image is overly soft at times (especially when the crew is on the planet’s surface and some distracting lighting is provided by bright bulbs attached to everyone’s backpacks), this doesn’t seem to be a flaw of the transfer but inherent in the film itself. Otherwise it’s a crisp and impressive-looking print for a thirty-year-old film. There’s also an informative array of extras, as is usual with Shout! Factory’s Blu releases.

*To death? To unconsciousness? Difficult to say for sure, but it hardly seems to matter as her crewmates incinerate her as soon as they stumble across her naked, slime-covered body. This scene is easily the film’s most infamous, but also one mostly undeserving of overly-thoughtful analysis. It’s a brief, tasteless, and sticky affair intended to titillate (and if your penchant is for thrusting space maggots, you won’t be disappointed). It’s easy to throw a blanket condemnation down on particularly superfluous sexualized violence like this, but doing so would shun a good majority of exploitation cinema. Still, this one’s particularly without tact or function. Perhaps the only aspect worth commenting upon is the scene’s Straw Dogs-like reversal of the victim’s position: as the attack progresses, her screams very clearly turn into those of pleasure. While this revelation isn’t in service of the story as it is in Straw Dogs, it does leave us with some curious after effects. After all, the initial confusion at the start of this paragraph stems from the fact that Dameia does not appear to have been violently murdered by her maggot attacker, but instead left slumbering peacefully. It’s an odd turn with some less-than-stellar implications: has this been a forced sexual awakening for her, perhaps even shaming the maggot into skulking away? Does it hint that submitting to your attacker is the only way to escape a brutal death? Some questions are best left open. This isn’t the first time that a Corman-produced film would revel in inter-species rape (it’s sort of the whole concept behind Humanoids from the Deep), but it is in some ways the most difficult to process.

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