By Jonathan Wojcik
ENTRY 13: GALAXY OF TERROR
Oh boy, we've got a trashy one today. While I won't discuss anything in detail too explicit, be forewarned that this movie goes notoriously farther than its Poster art, so the film itself may warrant more of a content warning than a lot of our others before you rush off to watch it. This infamously schlocky Roger Corman production was written by Marc Siegler, directed and co-written by Bruce D. Clark and released in October of 1981, a couple years before I was born and hot off the tail of Alien, which had almost single handedly rehabilitated the public image of extraterrestrials from "little green men" to seriously terrifying antagonists once more. Its success inspired dozens upon dozens of imitators hoping for a slice of the space horror pie while it was still fresh, and GALAXY OF TERROR was, by far, undeniably one of them!
Our very first sequence in the film has a spaceship crew getting tossed around and mauled by some sort of invisible force, before we cut to a scene of two mysterious beings - an old woman and a guy with a brightly glowing head - playing some kind of electronic board game together, or something, while they talk about "setting things in motion." The glowy headed man, whose name is actually Planet Master, arranges for Earth to send a rescue mission after the guys we just saw murdered by a poltergeist, and it's that rescue mission that we'll follow for the rest of the story.
The spaceship Quest is headed by Captain Trantor (Grace Zabriskie) a dangerously unstable woman who suffers PTSD from some terrible past event and was still selected to be the captain of a rescue mission for whatever reason. Also on board is officer Dameia (Taaffe O'Connell), the psychic Alluma (Erin Moran) the main hero guy Cabren (Edward Albert) and some other guys, who barely survive Trantor's reckless crash landing on their target planet Morganthus.
They soon find the wreckage of the previous ship and that possibly its entire crew has been killed, taking one of the bodies for study. This is when the youngest crewmember, Cos (Jack Blessing) becomes paranoid that something might kill them next, but even the psychic can't detect any other living beings, so everyone's pretty sure Cos is just a dumb rookie and the still-warm ground zero of an unexplained mass slaughter is nothing at all to worry about.
But sure enough, Cos is attacked by something the moment he's alone; some sort of big, brown arthropod that attacks him from behind with spiny mantis-like limbs and a mouthful of long, thin fangs that latch onto his head. Is this our first glimpse of this movie's "Xenomorph?"
The crew soon learn that their own crash landing wasn't just their edgy captain's fault, but that their ship had been dragged down by an invisible force now preventing their escape. Searching for its source, they find an ancient looking pyramid-like structure, almost certainly not built by humans, which gives Alluma a disturbing sense of a "dead" place.
When they try to enter through the top of the pyramid, their mission commander Ilvar (Bernard Behrens) is attacked by awesome tentacle worm things that suck him dry of blood in only seconds before vanishing back into the darkness. Are these connected to the insectoid from earlier? Sort of!
The next weird thing to happen befalls the crewmember Quuhod, a big tough guy who's really into these giant throwing stars he's apparently trained with. He unfortunately never really gets to use them, and in fact breaks them almost immediately, at which point a tiny sliver begins to tunnel up his arm. He severs his own limb in an attempt to save himself, but the arm reanimates and impales him with the rest of his beloved super-shuriken. The aftermath of this attack is then discovered by officer Dameia, horrified to find that the freshly severed arm of her coworker has maggots on it...one of her deepest fears!
Panicking, Dameia shoots the severed arm of her fallen crewmate in by far the movie's funniest three seconds. No, it had not started moving like it had before. Isn't that at least, like, evidence or something? What were you going to tell this guy's family if you got out of this mess and made it back to Earth? "Sorry the arm is gone, I found it lying around but it had bugs on it?"
Unfortunately for the brain genius here (who was, unfortunately for everyone else, still probably the smartest person aboard the Starship Quest), a single maggot survives her laser blast, and this is the moment when we finally know the kind of paranormal force we're dealing with, as Dameia's own fear magnifies the tiny worm to gargantuan proportions. It then also turns out that she has a second, much more disturbing phobia than wiggly baby flies, and I'll be keeping my promise not to show or describe the fine details, but you simply can't talk about Galaxy of Terror without getting into the backstory of The Maggot Scene.
See, back in the 70's and 80's, on-screen nudity and sex still carried enough novelty value to be a film's entire selling point; even the promise of a popular actress going topless for a few seconds could sell enough tickets to pack theaters in the dark and desperate days before the internet. This same promise was, therefore, an almost surefire way to secure additional funding from wealthy investors eager for their gamble to pay off. In this case, financial backers had been promised a full blown on-screen sex scene for actress Taaffe O'Connell, the no good arm shooter herself, but the contract didn't specify exactly how this sex scene would occur, or why, or with who, or with what, or how many gallons of fake mucus it would have to entail (it was a lot).
If the grotesque and shocking Maggot Scene was intended to rake in the dough, that definitely didn't pan out, as the film would only barely break even at the box office, but you can't argue the success of the scene itself, since Galaxy of Terror would never really be remembered for its storyline, its characters, the fact that James Cameron got his start as one of its crew or even the fact that this is where he got his ideas for the setup and story of Aliens, effectively making this movie the birthplace of the entire "Space Marine Bug Hunt" genre.
No, for decades since, Galaxy of Terror is almost entirely remembered as That Movie With That Maggot Scene, and even O'Connell, actually an accomplished actress, writer and publisher, is still known in some circles as That Actress Who Did That Maggot Scene...which, to her credit, is a reputation she doesn't seem to mind. She even brought her own creativity to the character when she felt that the scenario should be as much a fulfillment of Dameia's deep, dark desires as it is her ultimate nightmare, and Taaffe ran with this so convincingly that the originally much longer sequence was deemed too lurid for theaters. Yes, in the end, it wasn't the assault by a giant embryonic insect that the censors took issue with: it was the fact that O'Connell's character appeared to be enjoying it too much. Were our cultural standards ass backwards or what?
But where, exactly, do you even go from there? How do you follow up something like that with anything anyone is going to care about in a movie or in a play-by-play review article written forty years later?!
The scary captain dies by spontaneous combustion? Okay I guess. The psychic gets strangled and ripped apart by power cables that transform into living tentacles? Well, that's certainly no good, yeah. Another guy gets mauled by a big blackish reptile? Sounds like a pretty bad time, yeah, it's just, you know, a little anticlimactic at this point. You really expect this to be a movie that will seek to keep outdoing itself and pushing the envelope, but instead it's a movie that peaks in outrageousness before even the half-way point. It's hard to care as much about the other, quicker and much more conventional deaths when you're still processing the Very Horny Caterpillar.
The story does finally deliver more intrigue by the climax, when our last surviving crewman, Cabren, confronts the Planet Master, who had been disguised all along as the ship's cook in order to observe the mayhem and carnage up close. He informs Cabren that he has "won the game" and explains the true, original purpose of the Pyramid, a revelation so good I'm going to hold off just a moment on discussing it.
Planet Master proceeds to conjure up every monster we've already seen for one final, epic boss rush, but Cabren beats all of them, perhaps because none of them were his fears, but that still wasn't his true final test, as his fallen crewmates are reanimated as homicidal space-zombies in a genuinely eerie sequence bathed with intense, blue light.
Cabren very nearly succumbs to terror at least, but manages to pull through and kills Planet Master himself...or at least kills the body Planet Master was occupying. In our final twist, Cabren becomes the Planet Master's new vessel, evidently the grand prize of the "game" all along.
MONSTER ANALYSIS: THE PYRAMID
Let's get the elephantine maggot in the room out of our system, first: that REALLY should have been one of the last horrible things that happen and it should have been more important to the storyline, right? Whether or not you endorse its gratuity, nobody since 1981 has denied that it's the most imagination on display through the whole picture and its most outrageous horror imagery, something that really ought to have been saved for at least the latter half of the film instead of only the fourth or fifth on-screen death out of over a dozen. And if it really had to be one of the Pyramid's earliest kills, there really ought to have been weirder, nastier, and more unexpected as we went along. As it stands, many of the other deaths are so simple in comparison that you might forget half of them by the time the credits roll.
And at this point, I must admit, an anomalous force bringing everybody's personal fears to life has become such a writing cliche that it's more often than not pretty boring. Every television series with fantastic enough elements goes through the motions of it sooner or later, so we find out what's-his-face doesn't like clowns and whoever-she-is had a bad experience with a kinkajou, whatever, it almost always plays out the same way. But while Galaxy wasn't the first media example of this trope, it was certainly one of the first feature-length theatrical examples, and its B-movie notoriety would leave enough of an impression that it may have helped establish this scenario as a stock plot in the first place. I've even reviewed a similar episode of Extreme Ghostbusters that directly references The Scene We Are Done Naming, and I'm sure you can find even more obscure homages to this movie peppered throughout popular culture.
And while the tactics are often predictable, what really makes or breaks this setup it always why people's fears are coming to life, and this film's artificially intelligent nightmare factory is easily one of the more compelling cases once we're told that origin story I didn't want to spoil until now. You ready for this one???
The Planet Master calls the events of the film a "game," but that doesn't mean the Pyramid was actually built to narrow down his successor. What he reveals to Cabren is that the people of an ancient, extinct civilization designed the Pyramid to entertain - and test the power of - their children, literally identifying the whole thing as a toy. It's an artifact of beings so unfathomably powerful that every deadly, hideous, impossible thing we've now witnessed was their equivalent to Hopskotch or Candyland or maybe like, a Tamagotchi.
Galaxy of Terror is, when you get down to it, the story of what happens when humanity, in the hubris of its cosmic wanderlust, finally steps barefoot on the loose lego brick of the gods.
......YEOWTCH!!! Both pretty bad!
Up to this point, I've been keeping these reviews to movies I consider "unironically" good on some level, and this one sort of breaks that trend by being more infamous as a schlockfest. It's also still ambiguous even in-universe as to whether the Pyramid is a sentient force or not, but it certainly responds to fear by making things that are alive enough they can be killed, and I've always wondered whether those blood-draining tentacles we saw earlier were really just another of the fear-entities or a normal part of its internal structure, a sort of security system, since they emerged from cavities in the architecture itself that did not appear to serve any other obvious purpose.
Either way, the explanation that this is basically a Lovecraftian Nintendo Wii really cements the Pyramid's place as a creative enough monstrosity for this list; plus, I kind of wanted the Thirteenth entry to be either our top scariest or our most sleazy. In the end, I went with sleazy; the scariest will be mostly concentrated towards the end of the month!