How a Low Budget Film Led to James Cameron’s Aliens

A cult gem in its own right, 1981's Galaxy of Terror also gave James Cameron his start in big-screen filmmaking...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK

In most respects, it’s pure Roger Corman: low-budget, swiftly made, and loaded with gratuitous gore and bare flesh. But take a closer look at Galaxy of Terror, the amiably tawdry sci-fi horror flick released by Corman’s New World in 1981, and you’ll see the creative fingerprints of one James Cameron.

Directed by Bruce D. Clark – who also co-wrote – Galaxy of Terror slams together the plots of Ridley Scott’s Alien and the 50s classic, Forbidden Planet. A group of explorers land on the planet Morganthus, where they discover a huge ancient pyramid; one by one, the visitors are terrorized and killed by monsters from their subconscious. One luckless character is torn apart by claws and tentacles; another is fatally assaulted by his own severed arm.

Today, Galaxy of Terror is broadly remembered for its eclectic cast: in there you’ll find a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund, a pre-Captain Howdy Sid Haig, a pre-Twin Peaks Grace Zabriskie, and veteran character actor Ray Walston (South Pacific, Paint Your Wagon, The Sting). Then there are the startling images: Joanie out of Happy Days (Erin Moran) having her head squeezed until it explodes, like a ripe zit. Actress Taaffe O’Connell being suggestively smothered by a huge, randy maggot – a gratuitous scene that, even in its edited form to avoid a fatal X-rating, has helped turn the movie into a trashy cult item.

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Beyond all that, Galaxy of Terror is noteworthy as one of several movies that James Cameron got involved with before he made his breakthrough with The Terminator in 1984. Like so many filmmakers, Cameron cut his teeth in the Roger Corman school of filmmaking – and, indeed, it’s fascinating to rewatch Galaxy of Terror and see how the movie would inform the early movies in Cameron’s career.

While still in his early 20s, Cameron made Xenogenesis – a short film designed as a proof of concept for a feature film. A low-budget sci-fi with some inventive special effects, the short didn’t lead to the full-length movie Cameron wanted to make, but it did catch the eye of Roger Corman. Within months, Cameron found himself on the production of Battle Beyond the Stars, Corman’s answer to the space opera of Star Wars, and the most lavish film he’d produced up to that point.

Cameron first found favor with Corman early in that film’s making, where the future Terminator director was working in the model shop. The first day of shooting was on the horizon, so Corman gave his team of model makers the task of creating the central ship in the movie – and gave them just two days to come up with something impressive. 

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“So it sort of became a design contest,” Cameron recalls in Chris Nashawaty’s book, Roger Corman, King of the B Movie. “I thought, ‘OK, it’s Roger Corman. He does girls-in-bamboo-cages movies. What is he selling? He sells tits!’ So I designed a kind of Amazon warrior spaceship — basically a spaceship with tits. It was a cool design.” 

Two days later, Corman returned to inspect the designs dotted around the shop. Turning to Cameron’s, he said, “What’s this?”

“This is a spaceship with tits,” Cameron replied.

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“Yes, that’s exactly what it is. You build it.” 

And so it was that, thanks to Cameron’s understanding of the Corman psyche, sci-fi cinema got one of its most eccentric spaceships – a red craft that, with those bulbous mammaries jutting from the front, wound up taking centre stage on Battle Beyond the Stars poster.

One year later, work began on Galaxy of Terror: a movie that was to Alien what Battle Beyond the Stars was to Star Wars. Thanks to his impressive work on Battle Beyond the Stars which saw him move from model maker to the rank of art director – Cameron was put in charge of its production design. 

Like Battle Beyond the Stars, Galaxy of Terror was made in an old converted wood yard in Venice, California. Over a frenzied few weeks, Cameron and his team of set builders constructed spaceship interiors and planet surfaces using anything they could find – polystyrene burger boxes, bits of metal, electronic components. (Among the painters working on those sets was Bill Paxton – a budding actor who’d get his big break in Cameron’s The Terminator and Aliens.)

Given the budgetary limitations, what the crew managed to create was quite remarkable. Sure, you can see the familiar shapes of McDonald’s trays here and there, but Cameron undoubtedly achieved the desired effect: the grubby, “used future” look of Star Wars and Aliens but at a fraction of the cost.

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The way Cameron saw it, though, all those ingeniously put-together sets would mean nothing without decent lighting and cinematography – something he thought was conspicuously lacking as shooting on Galaxy of Terror began.

“They had no idea what they were doing,” Cameron recalls in Rebecca Keegan’s book, The Futurist. “I’m watching them shooting the sets and just blowing it, not getting the shots, not getting the performances.” 

It was at this point that Cameron first had the idea of stepping behind the camera himself. Surely, he couldn’t do a worse job than they, he thought.

“I didn’t think I had that much to offer as a filmmaker. Design, yes, absolutely. I knew that part of it. But I’m watching these guys just fail and I’m thinking, ‘I can do that.'”

Look over Galaxy of Terrors end credits, and you’ll see James Cameron’s name listed as production designer alongside Robert Skotak (more on him shortly). But according to Cameron, he had far more to do with the film’s direction than the official crawl suggests. With the production falling behind schedule, Cameron tracked Corman down and managed to convince him to let him help out with some of the filming.

Initially, Cameron worked on the second unit, spending long nights shooting brief inserts: one of them being a close-up of the severed arm that kills Sid Haig’s character. Gradually, however, it seems that Cameron’s roll in shooting Galaxy of Terror became even more central. 

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“I kind of also became an alternate first-unit director because they fell so far behind that I had to do actual scenes with the actors. That was my first experience directing.”

In one particularly amusing anecdote, Cameron recalls how he managed to get a small collection of maggots to writhe on cue. Before the infamous giant maggot scene mentioned earlier – something Cameron is quick to point out wasn’t his idea – there’s a shot of a severed arm with lots of regular-sized maggots moving around all over its flesh. The problem was, the maggots – actually mealworms – didn’t willingly wriggle that much, so Cameron came up with an ingenious solution: he hid a piece of electrical cable around the set, connected it to the prop arm, and sent a small electrical current through it. As Cameron called “Action,” a stage hand behind the set flipped the switch, triggering the flow of electricity and prompting the maggots to writhe for the cameras.

While Cameron was doing all this, a couple of producers walked by and, unaware of the stage hand behind the set operating the switch, were treated to a bizarre sight. Whenever Cameron called “Action,” the maggots would move around. Whenever he called “Cut”, they’d stop. To the producers, it looked as though Cameron had some kind of Dr. Doolittle control over primitive life forms.

“What I hear back later,” Cameron says, “is they go off and talk and say, ‘If he’s that good with worms, I wonder what he can do with actors!'” 

With this level of involvement, and it becomes clear why Galaxy of Terror looks like a low-budget dry run for Aliens, which James Cameron went on to direct in 1986. The movie opens with a slow tracking shot across a desolate planet surface, which with its use of model effects, cool colors, and smoky lighting, looks uncannily like the terraformed planet LV-426 that Cameron would bring to the screen in Aliens.

As you might expect from a film of this budget and vintage, the acting’s hammy, the dialogue’s ripe, and the interiors are flatly shot. But when the explorers land on the planet and start wandering around, the lighting makes a notable change for the better: the use of intense white side-lights and blue fill lights immediately recalls the future war sequences from The Terminator and, again, the LV-426 exteriors in Aliens. We haven’t found documentary evidence that Cameron shot these sequences personally, but it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to think that he did.

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There’s also another good reason why Galaxy of Terror resembles those later Cameron movies: the film’s other production designer,  Robert Skotak. Skotak worked with Cameron on Galaxy of Terror‘s miniature effects, including the spooky alien pyramid that creates all those monsters from the id. Four years later, Cameron hired Skotak to work on the visual effects in Aliens. The partnership proved to be so fruitful that they collaborated again on The Abyss in 1989 and Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991. 

Indeed, Cameron’s work at Corman’s studio was pretty much instrumental in his early career. It was while working there that Cameron first met Gale Anne Hurd, Corman’s assistant who went on to produce The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, and Terminator 2. Composer James Horner, who provided the rousing score for Aliens, had previously cut his teeth on Corman’s Humanoids from the Deep (on which Hurd was a production assistant) and Battle Beyond the Stars.

Elsewhere in Galaxy of Terrors credits, you’ll find Alec Gillis, who worked on the movie’s prosthetics. Gillis would later work as a creature effects coordinator on Aliens, and continued to work on later films in the franchise, right up to 2007’s Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem.

Then there were those producers who were so impressed by Cameron’s maggot-wrangling skills. One of the producers was Ovidio Assonitis, who soon hired Cameron to direct his fishy horror sequel, Piranha II: The Spawning. As geek legend now recalls, Assonitis wound up firing Cameron two weeks into the shoot – the producer claimed the footage didn’t cut together. Cameron has always maintained he was fired because Assonitis wanted to direct the film himself. At any rate, the stress of being thrown off Piranha II, and being stuck in Rome, almost penniless, led to the fateful, fiery nightmare which inspired The Terminator.

Without Corman, Cameron’s path through filmmaking would have been very different. The director didn’t know it at the time, but Galaxy of Terror provided the low-budget groundwork ahead of The Terminator and Aliens – like an artist making a quick sketch before embarking on a big oil painting.

Although Galaxy of Terror is a clear Alien rip-off, it’s curious to note how its effects have rippled back into the franchise from which it borrowed. Aside from Aliens, there are the parallels between Galaxy of Terror and Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, Prometheus. The characters in Prometheus are, like the ones in Galaxy of Terror, roundly neurotic, paranoid, and clumsy. Rafe Spall having his arm broken by a space snake has echoes of Erin Moran being crushed to death by tentacles; the Engineer being smothered and impregnated by a giant, amorous octopus could be Prometheus‘ analog of Galaxy of Terrors maggot scene. Prometheus even has an exploding head.

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Cheap, quickly made, and not widely seen outside its circle of cult devotees, Galaxy of Terror is nevertheless a quietly important sci-fi horror – a movie that had an impact on cinema that its makers could never have predicted.