aka Mindwarp: An Infinity of Terror
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DIRECTED BY: Bruce D. Clark
FEATURING: Edward Albert, Erin Moran, Ray Walston, Robert Englund,, Taaffe O’Connell, , , Bernard Behrens
PLOT: On a mission to investigate the disappearance of a lost spaceship, the crew of the Quest confronts an alien monster that hunts them by preying upon their worst fears.
COMMENTS: No one ever accused Roger Corman of failing to capitalize upon someone else’s success. Having seen Alien reap box office gold, he and his mercenary studio New World Pictures quickly put together a film based upon a simple principle: an alien hunts a space crew one by one. Of course, what Corman and his cohorts never seemed to consider (or, more likely, could not be bothered to care) was that Alien was much more than merely a slasher film transplanted into outer space. The earlier film used foreboding and patience in a way that its imitator couldn’t even contemplate. Where Alien carefully developed the complex interpersonal relationships of the crew of the Nostromo, Galaxy of Terror just spits out one-line motivations and outsized character tics and hopes that will generate some empathy. We’ve got the blueprint here, but the only parts that carried over were the alien and the dead crew.
Galaxy of Terror is cheap. After all, it’s a Roger Corman production. But amazingly, it doesn’t look cheap, and a great deal of credit goes to the production designer, a promising young fellow by the name of James Cameron. (He also served as second-unit director and took on other behind-the-scenes roles.) The spaceship milieu is rich and convincing – the set is allegedly supplemented with spray-painted McDonald’s containers – while a walk through the chambers of an alien pyramid is vividly unfamiliar. The visual style readily evokes Cameron’s future endeavors, such as The Terminator and Aliens, and it’s entertaining to see him deploying his talents early on.
The story is considerably less accomplished. That notion of an enemy that can exploit your worst nightmares is intriguing (and would later be explored extensively by co-star Englund), but is only haphazardly pursued here, usually by a character announcing their worst fear and promptly being confronted with it in the next scene. Moran is claustrophobic, but her particularly grim fate is sealed less by confined spaces than by the vicious tentacles that attack her. Haig’s demise at the hands of his own crystal throwing stars is one of the film’s most effective pieces of visual horror, but makes little sense when you realize his weakness isn’t fear, but faith. In most cases, one has to assume that what the victims fear most is a large-clawed, bloodsucking monster, because that’s what most consistently does them in.
Which leads us to the film’s most notorious sequence, in which O’Connell’s character is raped and murdered by a giant space worm. In theory, it’s supposed to be a Freudian nightmare brought to horrifying life; in practice, it’s a nasty piece of exploitation that only becomes more appalling when the victim appears to become aroused by the assault. I shouldn’t need to fetch you the fainting couch when I tell you that Corman himself sought to appease investors by shooting additional footage to transform a scripted nude scene into the more explicit material we got. It’s bold, to be sure, but pretty icky all-in-all.
Part of what makes the scene push the needle away from “audaciously cheesy” and into the red zone of “offensive” is that, up until this point, we’ve seen O’Connell as one of the more appealing members of the crew, competent but quirky. (Among her moments of grace, she serves as an impromptu seatbelt for Englund, and wipes her brow with a bloody hand mid-autopsy.) Indeed, for every actor whose contribution is to be exceptionally irritating (let’s call out future softcore auteur King’s choice to play every single moment as aggressively defensive), there’s someone else who is finding something interesting to play. My favorite of these is Zabriskie’s PTSD-haunted pilot who is self-evidently terrible at her job and who constantly flashes back to a previous disastrous mission like she’s a cousin to Ted Striker; hilariously, she even gives up on flying the spaceship halfway through a crash sequence. She beautifully captures the go-big-or-go-home ethos that nearly pulls this movie out of the morass. It doesn’t, but you’ve gotta salute the effort.
It all ends in a pretty dumb fight featuring Albert – far and away the least interesting person in the whole film – and the insidious Master who instigated this whole doomed escapade. (The Master’s true identity will not be very surprising if you have any ability to recognize voices.) Then there’s some mystical nonsense and a confrontation with his dead crewmates, and Albert apparently becomes the new Master and the film just sort of stops. It’s not really clear, and the movie doesn’t really care if it makes any sense, so neither do I. Which means that instead of being a tale of a doomed crew, Galaxy of Terror is really the story of how Roger Corman successfully made a quick buck by blurring the concepts of originality and taste. The result has more quality than one has any right to expect, but a low bar cleared is still a low bar.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“This is exploitation nirvana, weird and outrageous and silly and strangely compelling, delivering everything it promises without actually coming up with a coherent story, and executed with imaginative solutions to production challenges by a crew of aspiring filmmakers who fill every shot with such visual personality that the shortcomings seem like petty criticisms.” – Sean Axmaker, Parallax View (DVD)
(This movie was nominated for review by MystMoonstruck, who marveled “The walls of the spaceship were made out of McDonald’s takeout cartons!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)