Space Movie Madness: Roger Corman’s Shameless “Alien” Knock-Offs

Galaxy of Terror / Forbidden World (Shout! Factory)

I love to see classic movies debut on DVD and Blu-ray simultaneously. Even when they are low-budget exploitation drive-in movies? Hell, especially when they are low-budget exploitation drive-in movies.

Okay, that’s a little oversold, but yeah, I like seeing Blu-ray editions of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Death Race 2000. The point of Blu-ray is not to see flawless images. It’s about getting the most accurate representation of the original film experience that you can get at home. These editions deliver just that, complete with all the flaws that opening night audiences saw intact. What we see is likely a better presentation than those theatrical runs, thanks to home theater sound and perfect projection (no slopping reel changes or out of focus images for us), but they preserve the texture of those prints and remind us that imperfect production quality often has its own charms. They look handmade by real people, not manufactured digitally and scrubbed clear of individuality.

The all-star crew: Robert Englund, Zalman King, Edward Albert, Ray Waltson and Erin Moran

Thus I celebrate the minor cinematic glories and the major exploitation movie pleasures Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World, a double feature of Alien knock-offs produced by Roger Corman and his New World Studios in the early eighties, as they make their respective DVD and Blu-ray debuts from Shout! Factory, a label whose dedication to the strange and wonderful (and sometimes simply kitschy) cultural artifacts of the recent past is something else. Not because they are great films (they aren’t, even by the most generous stretch of the imagination) but because they are entertaining pieces from a distinctive period of B-movie filmmaking, as weirdly fun and perversely creative in their own exploitative way as kindred films from the forties and fifties and sixties.

Galaxy of Terror (1981) features the Corman company equivalent of an all-star cast: Edward Albert (with a ridiculous porn mustache that make him look like an understudy for the Village People) is offered up as the dashing hero and if nothing else delivers an enthusiasm that in this film passes for personality; Erin Moran (of Happy Days fame, before her Joannie Loves Chachi dive) as a whiny empath who keeps pulling faces like an adolescent schoolgirl when the mission leader questions her vague feelings; Ray Walston (between his Popeye and Fast Times at Ridgemont High turns) as the strangely chummy cook and all around servant guy; future softcore auteur Zalman King as the trigger-happy team leader; pre-Freddie Krueger Robert Englund as an amiable navigator; cult actor Sid Haig as the token alien who lives and dies by the crystals, which he tosses around like Bruce Lee throwing stars; and Grace Zabriskie as a maverick pilot whose reckless approach to deep-space travel threatens the mission before it’s barely begun. The mission begins when some character named The Master, sporting red glow in place of a head, sends them to investigate a distress signal on Xerxes (“A small world on the fringes of occupied space,” a narrator helpfully offers). The vagueness of their mission turns out to be both part of the narrative design and a reflection of the fairly vague story, which is mostly an excuse for a menagerie of pulp sci-fi creatures to attack the crew members.

They careen to a stop on a planet with a vague resemblance to the Alien landscape by way of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, full of industrial wreckage and howling winds and unearthly color, and as luck would have it, the atmosphere is breathable (strike helmets from the production budget). There’s also a giant pyramid sprouting from the detritus (borrowed perhaps from Blade Runner), and after searching the wreckage of deserted ship, it becomes the logical destination. Meanwhile, the crew is slowly dwindling, thanks to mysterious tentacles, possessed shard of crystal, zombies and a slimy maggot that grows to mammoth proportions and attacks a female member, ripping her clothes off and humping her to death. Yes, she is slimed, stripped and raped by a space slug and in one of the most tastelessly mad bits of the film, her screams of terror and pain become an orgasm released as her dying moans. That bit of invention came courtesy of producer Corman, who concocted a patently absurd bit Freudian mumbo jumbo to justify the whole affair. I don’t doubt that it help inspire the scene, but let’s face it, he just wanted something notorious to give audiences to buzz about after the film and he got it. Even an exploding head seems old hat (but still fun) after that mind-warping spectacle.

Galaxy of Terror is a crazy mish-mash of elements borrowed from the sci-fi blockbusters of years past (right down to Ray Walston as a Corman-styled Yoda) with a twist out of Forbidden Planet and Solaris (hand it to Corman to rip off high art and pulp cinema with equal vigor). But the budget-minded art direction (courtesy of a young production designer by the name of James Cameron) and special effects are engaging enough on their own thanks to the invention and creativity of hungry young filmmakers meeting the challenge. The planet is constructed via miniatures, forced perspective, matte paintings and optical effects. We see stop-motion miniature and full-sized articulated monsters, animated computer screens and laser blasts, and sets equally indebted to George Lucas and Mario Bava. 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. Valid, yes, but beside the point of this exercise in generic exploitation and production ingenuity.

Forbidden World (1982) is not a sequel to Galaxy of Terror but it is, in the Corman way, spawned from it. Never one to waste a good set or a dynamic location, Corman offered New World editor Allan Holzman a shot as directing a feature if he could write a scene to make use of the Forbidden World ship set, with a couple of conditions: he had to deliver a script in a couple of day, shoot it with a minimal cast over the weekend before it was to be struck, and make sure it was open ended, an action prologue for a script to be named later. And so he did, concocting a space battle that calls for two-fisted space adventurer Mike Colby (Jesse Vint) to be roused from suspended animation by his robot sidekick SAM-104 and engage via Star Wars-ish miniatures and Space Invaders computer graphics, set to a score of classical music (a nod to Stanley Kubrick, or just another reference to plunder?). Who are the attackers? Does it matter?

It certainly didn’t to the screenwriters (among them exploitation legend Jim Wynorski) who delivered another Alien knock-off, this one set in an isolated genetics lab on a remote planet where they scientists are free to conduct experiments that “would be unthinkable elsewhere.” One of the unthinkable creations has just gotten loose and, after slaughtering every test animal in the lab, is cocooned in a not-particularly-secure chamber as it goes into its next metamorphosis. “That thing is trouble, I can smell it,” proclaims our somewhat rustic mercenary man-about-galaxy Colby. “I couldn’t tell a gene from a jelly bean,” he confesses, but who needs science when you’re a stud in lab where the women look like Playboy bunnies and the male competition consists of a meaty moron, a voyeur and chain-smoking mad scientist (Fox Harris, the man with the glowing trunk in Repo Man)?

A rare moment with Tracy Baxter (in repose) and June Chadwick both clothed

The film depends on supposedly smart people doing absurdly stupid things, but for all dumb shit in the script (and there is plenty), it has some cool ideas, like a creature that devolves its dead victims into slabs of pure protein by changing its genetic structure (now there’s a 21st century solution to the food shortage!) and saves the humans on the hoof as cattle for future meals, or the weirdly ingenious solution to defeating a creature that apparently absorbs the genetic material of whatever it ingests. The rest is, well, pure exploitation: Colby beds one babe (June Chadwick) the first night (while the night watchman leers via video surveillance, his version of Cinemax at night) and lounges in the sauna with the even younger, cuter and more naked lab assistant (Tracy Baxter) the next morning. Apparently underwear is not part of the dress code and clothes are optional. When the men fail against the ever-evolving metamorph predator at every turn, the women plot a plan to communicate with the creature during a long, loungy sonic shower, delivering their dialogue without a stitch while scrubbing one another’s back. And for that, Forbidden World gets my vote for both the most gratuitous nudity ever perpetrated in a sci-fi movie and the most inventive distraction from dull exposition.

I can’t explain why Holzman opens the film with flashforward flash cuts of the action to come or ends it with another montage working its way back through the highlights, apart from padding the running time, but then I can’t explain a lot what passes for story, character and motivation here. In the right frame of mind, however, it can be awfully entertaining.

Galaxy of Terror features the superb hour-long documentary “Tales From the Lumber Yard: The Making of Galaxy of Terror,” which explains all via interviews with Roger Corman, director Bruce Clark, screenwriter Marc Siegler, production assistant David DeCoteau, cinematographer Jacques Haitkin and actors Robert Englund, Sid Haig, Taaffe O’Connell (the actress slimed and seduced by the amazing space slug) and Grace Zabriskie and many of the assistants and effects artists, and along with the story of the production, it provides an invaluable peak into the culture of Corman’s B-movie aesthetic and the freedom he gave his filmmakers to play around as long as they delivered the exploitation requisites he demanded. There’s also commentary by O’Connell, effects artists Allen Apone and Alec Gillis and production assistant (and future director) David DeCoteau, galleries of sketches and advertising art and trailers.

Forbidden World sports the less focused but almost as interesting half-hour “The Making of Forbidden World” featurette (featuring director Allan Holzman, composer Susan Justin, actor Jesse Vint and members of the production and special effects team, including future directors Aaron Lipstadt and Tony Randel), an interview with Roger Corman and a bonus DVD with the unrated “Director’s Cut” (from a low-definition video master) with optional commentary by Allan Holzman.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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