Since it is unlikely I can make the opening weekend of the Music Box of Horrors series – it’s been a year since I’ve had a car – while not wanting to miss out, I figured I’d check out some of the offerings the good people at the Music Box have in store from the solitary comfort of my apartment. As both a science-fiction and horror fan, I thought I’d cover the first offering of the Rip-Off Saturdays: the one-two punch of Alien and Galaxy of Terror.
To say that Alien is foundational would be an understatement. The 1979 movie, directed by Ridley Scott and written by Dan O’Bannon, still reigns supreme in both the science fiction and horror canon of western cinema. To be honest, this is one of my favorite movies of all time, so be forwarned – praises will be sung.
If you either haven’t seen the movie before or gathered the elements of the plot through sheer pop-culture osmosis, the story of Alien is as classic as it is uncomplicated. In the year 2122, the commercial cargo ship Nostromo picks up a mysterious distress signal from the moon LV-426, which the crew is required to investigate. While most of the crew remains behind to repair the damaged ship – including Engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), and Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) – three members – Captain Dallas (Tom Skerrit), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt), and Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) – venture out to investigate the signal source. On the surface of the frozen, barren world the three discover a derelict ship of alien origin. In the belly of the derelict ship, Kane makes a terrifying discovery – a cargo hold filled with eggs. One of these eggs hatch and attaches itself to Kane, who is taken back to the ship for first aid. Soon the alien (Bolaji Badejo), a vicious beast that’s nigh unkillable, gets loose in the ship. Thus, the crew must try to get rid of the alien before it wipes them all out.
After rewatching Alien for the umpteenth time, I was reminded why it’s so highly regarded – plus why it’s one of my favorite movies. Almost like H.R. Giger’s iconic design for the titular alien, the movie is designed to be as efficiently terrifying as possible. The alien is a nightmare incarnate, a super-predator without reason that reproduces through violent sexual assault and whose design reflects those same dark fears. The isolation of the crew on the Nostromo, lightyears from any help and escape an option for at best a few, is a perfect environment that uses sci-fi to create unbearable tension. Behind all that is the cosmic horror of the alien and the derelict, physical manifestations of the cosmic horror tenant of the dangers of brushing against the indifferent unknowns of the universe. All that on top of being highly rewatchable. It is, put simply, a perfect horror movie.
When you watch it, it should be clear why this spawned a franchise that continues to this day. The alien (now dubbed the xenomorph) has since joined the pantheon of instantly recognizable movie monsters occupied by King Kong, Godzilla, the shark from Jaws. There’s the sheer number of science-fiction media inspired by the movie. Lastly, Alien helped launch the careers of then relative unknowns Ridley Scott and Sigourney Weaver into the upper-echelons of Hollywood. It’s a watershed movie that has yet to be matched.
Galaxy of Terror (1981)
Speaking of influential, you know who else was inspired by Alien? Filmmakers Roger Corman and Bruce D Clark aka the people behind Galaxy of Terror. Hoping to capitalize on the success of Alien, the Corman produced B-picture premiered in 1981. Unlike Alien, I can’t say I’ve watched this before. Knowing it was going to be a rip-off, I went in as blind as possible, and what I saw wasn’t not what I was expecting.
The story follows a similar path as Alien. At the behest of the mystic ruler of Xerxes known only as Master, the crew of Quest is sent to the fringe planet Morganthus to rescue a previous crew that has gone eerily silent. The crew – Mission Commander Ilvar (Bernard Behrens), Ship Captain Trantor (Grace Zabriskie), Rescue Unit Team Leader Baelon (Zalman King), Empath Alluma (Erin Moran), Ship Cook Kore (Ray Walston), Technical Officer Dameia (Taaffe O’Connell), Second Technical Officer Ranger (Robert Englund), Crewman Quuhod (Sid Haig), and Veteran/protagonist Cabren (Edward Albert) – quickly locates the previous crew, who were massacred by an unknown force. Their mission complete, they try to leave Morganthus, but find that they’re unable to due to a forcefield emanating from a nearby pyramid. Left with no other choice, the crew are forced to explore the foreboding and nightmare filled structure if they want any chance to leave the planet alive.
So, yeah, Galaxy of Terror isn’t exactly a good movie. In terms of being a rip-off of Alien, you can see the influence most acutely on the production design. Morganthus is basically LV-426 with a breathable atmosphere, the pyramid is the derelict without any of the sexual symbolism, and there’s at least one alien that’s meant to be a xenomorph proxy. On a story level, Galaxy of Terror uses the “trapped alone with a monster” story Alien uses so effectively while trying to replicate the cosmic horror of an ancient alien construct with a mysterious purpose. It just does all this much less effectively than Alien. The characters are thin, the kills (though memorable) are goofy as shit, the mystery and isolation are constantly undermined, and the story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. You know, like a Corman picture.
So you know what that means? It’s bad in a “so bad it’s good” way. While Galaxy of Terror ain’t winning any awards for being an effective horror movie, this is the kind of movie that would be great for a midnight showing at a theater with a bunch of like-minded fans. Because of this, plus the fact it’s a solid Corman flick by Corman flick standards, I can understand why Galaxy of Terror has gained a cult following.
So With All That Said
Both Alien and Galaxy of Terror are entertaining in their own ways. If you decide to go see these two – whether you’re coming for Alien or staying for Galaxy of Terror doesn’t matter – on the big screen or watch them from the comfort of your couch, know you’ll be in for one hell of a ride.
ALIEN & GALAXY OF TERROR
$40 per car / $35 Music Box Members
starting at 9:30 pm on Saturday, October 3rd
Chi-Town Movies Drive-In located at 2343 S Throop St, Chicago, IL 60608
Drive-in admittance begins 30 minutes prior to the films’ listed start time.