I love genre cinema. I will always have a soft spot for horror, action, sci-fi, and all the subgenres that exist inside those larger categories. What I have never felt any real connection to are those films that exist in the realm of pure sleaze. You know the ones: the films from the ’70s and ’80s, filled with ugly violence and sex that is the opposite of titillating, usually shot on cheap film stock with semi-amateur casts. But knowing these films have a large following and several companies devoted to restoring them makes me wonder what I am missing. With that in mind, I am going to do a deep dive into the world of sleazy exploitation. This is My Exploitation Education. This week’s entry is THE TERROR WITHIN.
There is a simplicity to how blatantly THE TERROR WITHIN rips off ALIEN that makes me admire it. Sure, it’s cheap and lacks originality, but it also moves quickly, doesn’t waste time with building characters when it can just let recognizable faces like George Kennedy and Andrew Stevens fill in the personality blanks, and features some decent gore and a reasonably effective man-in-a-rubber-suit monster…at least, at this price level.
A team of research scientists and engineers live in an underground bunker in the desert after chemical warfare has reduced the population of the planet practically to zero. The chemicals have created a race of monstrous mutations that are referred to as gargoyles. When the movie begins, the research team is running low on food and are close to being forced to make a decision to stay or try a dangerous trip to a possibly deserted research station over a thousand miles away. Into this tense situation, one of the gargoyles manages to make its way inside the bunker, forcing the small team to play cat-and-mouse with the monster as they try to improvise weapons and strategize ways to make their escape.
What gives THE TERROR WITHIN a leg up on lesser ALIEN knockoffs is better than usual acting for a late ’80s Roger Corman production and a script by Thomas M. Cleaver that does not make any of the human characters villains. While Hal (Kennedy), the leader of the team, is gruff and hesitant to make any tough decisions, he never is turned into an idiot and cares about the lives of everyone he works and lives with. The same goes for David (Stevens), the hot-headed lead engineer and the comic relief duo of Andre (John Lafayette) and Neil (Tommy Hinckley) who are introduced as drunken goofballs shirking responsibilities but who rise to the occasion when called upon. It struck me how rare it is to see actual teamwork portrayed in such a straightforward manner when these sort of low-budget creature features often pad out the film with unnecessary infighting even when a bloodthirsty monster is trying to eat everyone in sight.
This being a Corman production, there is the obligatory scene of the monster raping a woman, but director Thierry Notz manages to keep it brief and shadowy enough that it is not as gratuitous as it could have been. Where Notz does indulge is with a gnarly scene of a small gargoyle exploding from the stomach of a character. It may lack the intensity of the famous chestburster sequence it’s ripping off, but Notz makes up for that with plenty of gore and the slightly silly, yet fun image of a baby gargoyle that is clearly a rubber puppet covered in blood, slime, and human flesh. THE TERROR WITHIN might be light on originality, but it doesn’t skimp on the red stuff, which is the main reason this flick exists.
The film loses steam in the third act as it cribs far too much from ALIEN with too many sequences set in ventilation shafts and Notz makes the mistake of showing the gargoyle too much, revealing it to be a silly design when seen under harsh lighting (in a close-up, no less). But Stevens remains a committed performer, spitting out clichéd tough guy dialogue with utter conviction and Terri Treas as a scientist who channels her inner warrior when the shit hits the fan is a lot of fun, keeping the film watchable all the way through to the end.
As far as cheap exploitation knockoffs go, THE TERROR WITHIN succeeds as an entertaining diversion. It is the cinematic equivalent of a cheap, but icy cold beer and a better-than-you-expected microwave burrito–satisfying as long as you don’t think too much about it. Believe it or not, I consider that a compliment.
–Matt Wedge (@MovieNerdMatt)