As exploitation fans know well, Roger Corman never allowed a successful mainstream genre film to pass by without attaching at least one imitation of his own to its coattails. For example, Alien was inspirational enough to earn two Corman-hatched knockoffs, the metaphysical space-schlocker Galaxy Of Terror and the slime & sex-a-thon Forbidden World. Thus, it was no surprise that when Aliens revived interest in astronaut-attacking space monsters that Corman would churn out a clone of his own. The result was The Terror Within, a solid little programmer that ironically owes more to Alien than it does to Aliens.
The plot keeps the sci-fi simple: after a chemically-spawned plague wipes out much of the world, a group of government types work in a Mojave Desert-based lab on a cure that will allow what remains of the human race to survive. Hal (George Kennedy) is the tough-minded leader of the skeleton crew, with the brave David (Andrew Stevens) serving as his right-hand man and Linda (Terri Treas) as the main scientist. Things are pretty grim for this group: not only are they working under primitive conditions, they also have to contend with murderous mutants they call “gargoyles.”
Things momentarily seem hopeful when they find a survivor named Karen (Yvonne Saa) who not only has managed to live but has become pregnant. Unfortunately, her “baby” turns out to be the spawn of a gargoyle that bursts out of her stomach (a messy scene that quotes Humanoids From The Deep) and escapes into the corners of the facility. This rapidly-growing beast wastes no time in attacking the crew and they find they must find a way to stop it with the practical means at hands (their weapons were used up long ago) before it slaughters them all.
The end result harkens back to Alien’s uncredited but much-acknowledged inspiration, It! The Terror From Beyond Space, right down to having a man-in-a-suit monster chasing the cast around the facility’s hallways. Thomas Cleaver’s script keeps things from getting too claustrophobic by setting the first act in the scenic desert locales for a bit of atmospheric suspense before the monster-mash hijinks kick in. Dean Jones’ creature design is pretty decent given the budget and his effects for the “mutant birth” sequence deliver the gruesome goods.
However, what really makes The Terror Within tick is Thierry Notz’s careful direction of this scenario. He plays the material straight and gets appropriate performances to fit this approach: Stevens makes a good square-jawed hero, Kennedy lends typically professional support and Treas offers a nice, low-key turn as the likeably intelligent and resourceful heroine. Starr Andreeff, a regular in Katt Shea’s flicks from this era, gets the most emotive role as Stevens’ coworker-turned-lover and she delivers the required intensity to make those moments work.
Better yet, Notz engineers the film to make the most of its premise: he takes the time to build a suspenseful atmosphere and milks that aspect of the setpieces for all they are worth. The results are suitably grim and intense, particularly the final battle between man and monster, and the film as a whole manages to sidestep its potential for campiness thanks to its no-nonsense approach.
In short, The Terror Within isn’t as crazy or wild as Corman’s earlier Alien knockoffs but its focus on craftsmanship pays off handsomely. The finished product plays like a 50’s sci-fi/horror hybrid updated with a bit of 1980’s gore — and that’s a combination that is likely to please cult flick fans with a taste for space-schlock.