‘The Terror Within’ (1989): Corman ‘Alien’ knockoff hits Blu-ray

If you had any idea how difficult it’s been for my editor and me to sober up to the point where we can just function figure out just what the hell Shout! Factory is releasing this week and what we have to review…you wouldn’t believe me. So. Let’s just get on with it, shall we?

By Paul Mavis

This week, Shout! will be releasing a Blu version, via its Scream Factory imprint, of Roger Corman’s umpteenth Alien rip-off, 1989’s The Terror Within (in a double-feature with its sequel, The Terror Within II), starring George Kennedy, Andrew Stevens, Starr Andreeff, Terri Treas, John Lafayette, Tommy Hinkley, Yvonne Saa, Joseph Hardin, Al Guarino, Jack van Landingham, Joal Corso, and um…Butch Stevens, the dog. Once this drops, get ready for a tsunami of Shout! Blu-ray reviews from us (after this…they’ll be powerless to withhold review copies from us).

The post-apocalyptic American Southwest, sometime after Ronald Reagan. At the underground Mojave Center for Disease Control lab, events are fast spiraling out of control. First, 99% percent of Earth’s population has been wiped out by a virus (couldn’t they just wear a mask and social distance, a la Dr. Fakey?). Second, food and water are running out for the small band of survivors at the Center (2 months…that’s when the groceries run out), including ennui-saturated Commander Hal (George Kennedy), tiny second-in-command David (Andrew Stevens), who, dammit, can’t follow proper procedures, completely fine medical personnel Sue and Linda (Starr Andreeff, Terri Treas), and drunk, cowardly techs Andre and Neil (John LaFayette, Tommy Hinckley). Third, there’s been no radio contact for ten days with the nearest CDC lab…which is 1800 miles away in case our merry band were thinking of walking there.

Fourth, a mutant form of humans (we assume?) have evolved into what our heroes call “gargoyles” (not Cornel Wilde’s kind), and they are steadily making their way towards the above-ground shack entrance to the lab. Fifth, two anonymous lab security guys, Michael and John (Joseph Hardin, Al Guarino) are zapped in the movie’s first five minutes by the gargoyles during a food sortie. And sixth and most deadly, a female human survivor, Karen (Yvonne Saa), is rescued and brought underground, but there’s only one problem: she’s pregnant…and the little bugger (thank you, George and Martha), isn’t human.

Indicative of the “limited run” Corman‘s Concorde Pictures gave The Terror Within, sure enough it got dumped into my smaller market back in February, 1989, premiering at our AMC multiplex/second-run house. Now, I lived at that Southwyck Mall theater (R.I.P.), but whenever a movie premiered there, there was a distinct—if sometime inaccurate—presumption that the debuting title wasn’t “good enough” to bow at the bigger, fancier first-run Redstone Showcase theaters (R.I.P., as well…). Sometimes that proved false (that February, the brilliant Joe Dante comedy, The ‘Burbs flopped at the AMCs), but most of the time, it sadly proved true. With a tiny ad in our local rag, with no star featured and only one line of ad copy (“It Wants to Get Out!”), it’s not surprising The Terror Within was a “one and done” in our area, disappearing without a trace after a mere 7 days.

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Ahhhh…but what about VHS? That’s where I first saw The Terror Within some months later, when its snappy cover art (definitely an intentional Freddy Kruger vibe there…), its promise of “…one of the most horrifying moments ever on film, as the embryonic mutant literally explodes from within her,” and of course George Kennedy’s name above the title, got me to plunk down a buck and change at my local Video Connection (again with the R.I.P.). After all, by this point in Corman’s career, a limited theatrical run for one of his movies was nothing more than an ad campaign for a future video sale/rental.

Watching The Terror Within now, it works best as a goof, particularly when you can spot all the same script structuring and character dynamics from the much-better movies its aping—in this case obviously Alien—but also all those old “an alien is going to defile/impregnate our women” outings, such as I Married a Monster from Outer Space, or even more directly, those marvelously lurid “armpit sweats” covers, depicting rapacious extraterrestrials and fantastic jungle creatures carrying off scantily-clad, colossally-endowed pin-ups (I need a minute…).

Most everything here is an Alien carbon copy, with the techs a direct lift of Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton, the ostensible lead Kennedy’s demise coming halfway through the pic, like Tom Skerritt’s, and a feisty, spunky female (the marvelously smirking Terri Treas) showing down against the alien (with admittedly, a little—very little—macho help from Andrew Stevens). The only thing missing (which we keep expecting, considering cat-eyed Treas’ frequent quizzical looks whenever the gargoyles are discussed), is an intentional governmental interference/guidance subtext in the gargoyle evolution (well…technically it’s there, since they became that way from the escaping virus).

And while there’s nothing too terribly out of the ordinary for such a low-grade, derivative number like The Terror Within, its coming out a full ten years after Alien and its countless rip-offs necessarily lessens any minor impact it was going to deliver. By 1989, we had already seen all of this many times before, so the only thing that could possibly hold our interest would be the cast, the gore, and some laughs (intentional, fine…but better if they weren’t).

As for that cast…I particularly liked Butch Stevens, Andrew Stevens’ real-life dog (typical Hollywood nepotism—it never ends). For the life of him, that big ‘ol sweetums can’t be enticed to do anything that looks like he’s attacking a gargoyle in a frenzied rage. He’s just wagging that behind and smiling. He at least gets what’s going on here.

The rest of The Terror Within‘s cast is a mixed bag. The techs are anonymous (that clichéd Neal character is so lazily, insultingly etched it’s a relief when he’s offed), while Starr Andreeff’s biggest obstacle is not convincing her audience that her character is emotionally destroyed by alien rape and impregnation, but rather surmounting the natural off-putting notion that she would willingly choose Andrew Stevens as a sexual partner. Speaking of the former Mrs. Kate Jackson, Stevens tries for a Bruce Willis muscular jauntiness in the face of danger, but often it comes off as entirely inappropriate to the moment, such as his chipper, “You’re doing a terrific job!” to Treas—as they face likely death—delivered like he’s the night manager at Walmart congratulating the new hire for sticking out her first shift (okay, okay..I’m not being fair to Stella Stevens’ kid. So sue me).

Oscar-winner George Kennedy (baby you are a looooonnnng way from Cool Hand Luke), the big marque name on this sci-fi/horror opus, has a classic entrance: he strides into the lab, putting on a scowl that’s simultaneously intimidating and completely disinterested, a facial representation of the ordered state of his mind that one would not have a problem believing was aimed at, metaphorically no doubt, his agent. It’s a remarkably uninvolved performance. That’s not to say he isn’t a professional. He’s there; he’s doing the work. But inside, he is gone, man (even at The Terror Within‘s most horrific moments, his mental focus seems aimed somewhere slightly past the honey wagon, as he calculates the amount of California withholding tax from his paycheck). Even his kiss-off is strangely muted, as he delivers an acceptably terrible epithet (“Die you miserably ugly fuck! DIE!”) at about one-quarter Joe Patroni power.

Terri Treas in The Terror Within (1989)

Granted…Thomas McKelvey Cleaver’s dialogue is of no help to these performers. Andre seemingly dismisses the entire movie with an early, “Gargoyles, shmargoyles!” blow-off that kept running through my head. Mr. Buddy “Deke” Hudson, not surprisingly, gets all the best/worst lines: after the gross-out C-section scene, in the span of 5 minutes, he rattles off, “Holy shit it’s in the air vent!”, “Awww! Goddamn Murphy and his Law shitting all over us!”, and my personal favorite, “When’s the last time you saw a premature fetus move like that?” Classic.

Amusing missteps, big and small abound. Should Stevens take the point in that narrow hallway…with the flame thrower behind him? And isn’t the “laser gun” that Kennedy carries just an oversized 1966 Volkswagen Beetle tire jack? And why does the previously smart Treas thoughtfully take off her dog whistle—the one that drives the gargoyle crazy—that was hanging safely around her neck, so it can dutifully drop down the air shaft, right when the monster is going to slash her? And what’s with that verkakte gargoyle—it’s a lot less Alien and way more Predator crossed with a duck-billed platypus.

If there’s nudity I missed it (Kennedy is such a tease), but the gross-out set pieces are quite nice, actually. The slicing and dicing looks convincing, while that C-section from hell is a bloody mess…in a good way (lots and lots of gore, not bad puppetry…but when Treas got her hand caught, they should have had her finger get clipped or something, to draw out the sequence and ramp up the suspense). By the time we get into Die Hard territory, with director Thierry Notz having Stevens and Treas scrabbling through the air ducts like fiddler crabs, the audience already knows how everything is going to work out—no surprises whatsoever. Still…plenty of laughs were had along that familiar, well-worn path.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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