Sid Haig as “Quuhod” in Galaxy of Terror (1981). Words to live, and I guess, die by.

Credited to Bruce D. Clark, but it bears the visual stamp of James Cameron, who was production designer and did second unit work. Parts of this movie look uncannily like Aliens, and that’s due not only to Cameron, but to the presence of effects artists Robert and Dennis Skotak, who later collaborated with him on the 1986 sequel to Alien. (Bill Paxton also worked on the movie, but as a set dresser.) And like Aliens, this movie is enormously indebted to Alien — there’s a stormy planet, a lived-in Earth ship, a dysfunctional crew getting picked off one by one, and a sinister ruined civilization, here represented by a creepy pyramid with organic interiors reminiscent of H.R. Giger’s work, including a setpiece straight out of his Necronomicon. For a movie that cost less than a million dollars to make, the production values are surprisingly decent; there are a number of effects shots that wouldn’t look out of place in a big budget movie.

Yet despite the attempts to ape Alien’s look, this is less a ripoff of that movie than an updating of Forbidden Planet, with perhaps an even stronger emphasis on ‘30s and ‘40s pulp SF elements. Grace Zabriskie’s captain is named “Trantor,” which suggests a passing familiarity with the genre’s history. And there’s a lot of weird, almost Jack Vance/Roger Zelazny-ish science fantasy elements lurking in the background and during the opening scene set on Earth, with a sinister “Master” consulting a computer-assisted witch for counsel on the mission to the mysterious planet, which figures significantly in a great “Game.” There’s also an eleventh-hour Nietzschean psychic battle which reminded me of the fight between Charles Xavier and Amahl Farouk in Uncanny X-Men #117. (The script is credited to Clark and Marc Siegler, but the uncredited outline was written by cartoonist and illustrator William Stout, best known for his 1981 book Dinosaurs and his conceptual work and poster art for numerous Hollywood films.)

That said, this is still a Corman picture, designed to showcase T&A and gore, and there’s a lot of both, including the infamous sequence in which Taafe O’Connell is violated by a giant worm (shot by Cameron), and a pretty impressive exploding head scene in a year renowned for cinematic cranial bursting (see also Scanners, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Outland). That also means a lot of stuff is recycled from other New World movies — I recognized props and set elements from 1980's Battle Beyond The Stars (which Cameron also designed), as well as the ginormous weapon from Laserblast (1978). The sets were later reused for Forbidden World (1982), which despite the title is definitely an Alien ripoff, albeit a goofy one.

Weird cast. In addition to Haig and Zabriskie, there’s also Zalman King (yep, the guy who gave us Two Moon Junction and Red Shoe Diaries — that’s him with Haig in the clip above), Edward Albert Jr. (sporting a very Magnum ‘stache), a pre-Freddy Robert Englund, a pre-Joanie Loves Chachi Erin Moran, and Ray Walston as the ship’s cook, who hides a sinister secret. Yes, the star of My Favorite Martian and Mr. Hand from Fast Times At Ridgemont High. It’s a surprisingly understated, even multilayered performance in a movie that’s full of strange little surprises.

Streaming on Amazon Prime (also available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Shout! Factory). Almost a perfect candidate for the MST3K revival, except for the business with the worm. At 81 minutes, you could probably squeeze in a viewing with a bunch of other space horror cheapies from the period, but Galaxy of Terror stands out for its mix of classic genre tropes and ‘80s sleaze.