Forbidden World (1982) Forbidden World / Mutant (1982) ***Ĺ

     When I jokingly refer to New World Pictures (or, to a lesser extent, Filmgroup, Concorde-New Horizons, and New Concorde) as the Roger Corman Academy of Film, Iím not just acknowledging the extraordinary number of significant directors, writers, producers, and so forth that got their start there. All of Cormanís companies were deliberately set up to foster the emergence of new talentó although the later firms obviously did so less successfully or reliably than their predecessors. Let me give you a concrete example of how it worked in practiceÖ

     One Tuesday during the production of Galaxy of Terror, Corman paid a visit to the main set representing the interiors of the Mission Ship Quest. That set was nearing the end of its allotted span, slated for partial demolition and redressing over the coming weekend. But after looking the place over for a bit, Corman instructed the crew to leave everything as it was until Sunday. He had a plan, you see. Allan Holzman, one of the New World film editors, had recently let it be known that he wanted to try his hand at directing, and the boss had decided to give him a shot. Holzman would get four days to write a seven- or eight-page script suitable for about two actors, structured so that it could function as either a self-contained short, or as the opening scene of a modestly budgeted feature film. He could have the Galaxy of Terror set on Saturday for principal photography, plus a free hand to raid Battle Beyond the Stars for completed special effects footage. Then, if the results were up to snuff, Holzman would have the next three months to prep the rest of the picture, by which point thereíd be room in the New World release schedule for a new sci-fi movie. That was the origin of Forbidden World, an Alien cash-in which test audiences saw (in a slightly variant cut) under the title Mutant.

     A similar training-camp approach applied to practically all of Forbidden Worldís behind-the-scenes aspects, too. Line producer Aaron Lipstadt pulled double duty as second unit director, not least because Holzman wanted to recruit an ally against Cormanís stinginess by getting him invested in the creative side of the project, instead of just the bean-counting side. Dennis and Robert Shotak, who usually built and filmed miniature models for New Worldís visual effects unit, got the job of creating and operating Forbidden Worldís full-scale creature puppets as well, although they received reinforcement later on from low-budget monster-master John Carl Buechler, who was originally hired to handle the gore makeup. The screen treatment was co-written by Jim Wynorski, who in those days was mainly employed cutting trailers, and special effects technician Don Olivera ended up on camera, wearing the robot suit that he built for the test reel. And of course Forbidden World was by no means exceptional among New World productions in any of that. Indeed, I believe that Cormanís general willingness to let just about anyone in his employ try on just about any hat, so long as they could make a reasonable case that it might fit them, goes a long way toward explaining why his companiesí output so often feels like a labor of love, even though the vast majority of the films in question are tawdry exploitation programmers. Rarely do you find one (at least prior to about the turn of the 90ís) that wasnít somebodyís chance to prove themselves, and people trying to do that are apt to give even the most cynically designed project their all.

     Anyway, once you understand that Forbidden World was made in two phases, separated by a matter of months, it looks a little less unreasonable that its pre-credits sequence has so little to do with the rest of the film. Aboard a flying saucer that weíre not supposed to recognize as Nestorís ship from Battle Beyond the Stars, robot pilot SAM-104 (Olivera) responds to an emergency warning signal from the vesselís computer by cuing up some relaxing classical music onto the PA system, and leaving the bridge to awaken its master, space ranger Mike Colby (Jesse Vint, of Deathsport and Silent Running), from hypersleep. The emergency in question is an oncoming squadron of Fu space pirates, whose fighters weíre not supposed to recognize as Sadorís, and whose command ship weíre not supposed to recognize as Caymanís. Mike and SAM may be outnumbered, but their ship is greatly superior to the Fusí in terms of protection and firepower. The pirates donít last long, but no sooner are they vanquished than SAM informs Colby of more bad news. While he was sleeping, orders came through from Federation headquarters cancelling the vacation on which Mike was just about to embark. Evidently thereís trouble at a biological research station on Xarbia, of exactly the sort that Colby specializes in.

     Federation headquarters ainít kidding. As lead scientist Gordon Hauser (Linden Chiles, from Eye of the Cat and Mr. Twistedface) explains upon Mikeís arrival, his team was doing research aimed at solving the galactic agricultural crisis; apparently humanity has found it challenging to feed itself ever since the species spread out beyond the homeworld. Xarbiaís sole indigenous lifeform is a fantastically prolific bacterial strain known as Proto B, and the hope was that the genes responsible for its phenomenal fertility could be spliced into the DNA of food crops fit for human consumption. Somehow or other, thoughó Hauser wonít specify, and his associates, Doctors Cal Finbergen (Fox Harris, of Warlords and Repo Man) and Barbara Glaser (June Chadwick, from The Comeback and Headhunter), are unwilling to oppose him by blabbing themselvesó work at the station got diverted into another channel. The teamís latest Proto B hybrid is an animal of some kind, and this morning it escaped from its cage and massacred all of Hauserís other lab critters. Currently, the thing is sleeping off its rampage inside a cocoon in the main genetics lab; the fact that it crawled into a specimen incubator in order to do so suggests that it has both acute senses and mammal-like intelligence. But as for what the creature actually is, Gordon and his staff canít help Colby there, even if they werenít trying to keep secrets. You see, Hauserís creation is a metamorphic mutant, meaning that it reshuffles its genome wholesale at each new stage of its growth and development. Whatever it may have been when it chewed up all those rats and rabbits, itíll be something else altogether when it emerges from its cocoon.

     Weíre the only ones around to witness it, but the metamorph wastes little time in demonstrating that anything it can do to bunnies, it can do to humans as well. Now that Colby has seen the carnage in the subject room, a lab tech by the name of Jimmy Swift (Michael Bowen, from Night of the Comet and Mortal Passions) is given the thankless task of cleaning it up. The creature hatches while Swift is at work, attaches itself to his face, and eats his cerebrum right out of his skull. Incredibly, however, Jimmy isnít technically dead when his girlfriend and fellow technician, Tracy Baxter (Dawn Dunlap, of Laura and Barbarian Queen), notices his plight on one of the monitors that security chief Earl Michaels (Scott Paulin, from Vampire and Grim Prairie Tales) should have been watching, but wasnít. Finbergen canít figure out how Jimmy could have survived such an injury even as a human vegetable, so he hauls Swift off to the medical lab at once to investigate. Meanwhile, Mike, Earl, and engineer Brian Beale (Childís Playís Ray Oliver) seal off the genetics lab, and go over every cubic inch of it looking for the creature. It isnít there, nor is there any indication of where it might have gone or how. Maybe Finbergen should have looked deeper inside Jimmyís hollowed-out skull before whisking him away.

     That night and the following morning, Colby sees action of a different sort when first Dr. Glaser and then the ostensibly bereaved Tracy throw themselves at him. Mikeís tryst with Barbara ensures that he misses all the excitement when Earl is ambushed by the mutant while he thinks heís hunting it, but the thing comes for Colby and Baxter next, right when theyíre starting to get serious about making their steam bath even steamier. Nobody, the audience included, gets a clear look at the metamorph on this occasion, but itís definitely grown a lot since making off with Jimmyís frontal lobes. At the very least, itís big enough and strong enough now to batter its way out of the sauna, and into the open air of Xarbia. The preparations which humans require for extended activities in the thin Xarbian atmosphere give the creature time to undergo another metamorphosis, and by the time Colby, Hauser, Beale, and SAM catch up to it, itís turned into something like a cross between a giant spider, H.R. Gigerís adult alien, and the droppings of a grizzly bear with dysentery. This time itís Hauserís turn for a fate grosser than death, as the mutant drags him along with it while breaking back into the station via one of the exhaust vents for the life-support plant. Even worse, the creature is able to follow that vent straight to the main control room, effectively depriving the crew of its use for the foreseeable future.

     With their boss out of the picture and their asses more obviously on the line than ever, the surviving researchers at last come clean to Mike about how this whole mess started. The non-Proto-B component of the metamorphís genome? Itís human. Specifically, itís Hauser and a fourth scientist named Annie Best (represented in photographs by Susan Justin, who composed and performed Forbidden Worldís memorably strange score). The team merged Proto B with one of Hauserís sperm, and implanted the resulting hybrid into one of Bestís ova. Then, astonishingly, Annie volunteered to carry the embryo to term in her own womb. Letís just say it went badly, which is why Colby never got a chance to meet Best. The important point for now is that the human contribution to the creatureís DNA could mean that itís even more intelligent than itís already shown itself to be. Glaser thinks that may be an opportunity as well as a threat, though, insofar as it introduces some possibility of communicating with the mutant and negotiating a settlement. Colby and Beale think thatís ridiculous. Especially now that Finbergen has discovered that the creature alters its victimsí genes so that instead of ever dying from their wounds, they degenerate into fast-growing, ever-multiplying blobs of undifferentiated protoplasmó apparently the metamorphís favorite foodó theyíre more determined than ever to shoot it, burn it, blow it up, electrocute it, or whatever else it might take to kill the fucking thing. Cal has an idea about that, too, as it happens, only itís not something he wants to talk about, for fear that the others will revolt at the plan, and try to stop him.

     John Carl Buechler said it best, I think. In an interview appended as one of the special features on the scandalously swank Shout! Factory Blu-Ray disc of Forbidden World, he assesses the film thusly: ďThis is a sleazy ripoff of Alien. Yesó but itís the best sleazy ripoff of Alien ever made!Ē It is a film completely without ambition to be anything more than what it is, which makes it a bit unusual among New World Picturesí output. Thereís nothing here to match the sharp wit of Piranha, the madcap absurdity of Death Race 2000, or even the stoner mysticism of Galaxy of Terror, let alone the surprising, subversive substantiality of The Student Nurses or the intoxicating visual artistry of The Velvet Vampire. The film it most resembles is probably Humanoids from the Deepó but you may recall that Iím among the few unapologetic fans of that much maligned exercise in hideously poor taste. Nasty, brutish, and short, Forbidden World really is the movie that Galaxy of Terror is often mistaken for by people who know it only for the infamous Rapeworm scene, but for me this is one of those situations where vice is virtue. Meanwhile, as was generally the case at New World, Forbidden World exhibits a journeyman craftsmanship and efficiency that renders its scuzziness more genuinely shocking than it would have been in something half-assed and inept. Its grossout sequences and gratuitous sex scenes have the technical acumen behind them to be legitimately repulsive and legitimately erotic respectively, and Cal Finbergenís desperate final gambit to destroy the monster is a minor masterpiece of grindhouse provocation.

     All that said, there are a few high points to Forbidden World that you donít have to be a reprobate to appreciate. Although this is truer of the pre-release cut than of the final version, thereís some good, understated humor in the dialogue. (Indeed, that understatement was apparently what led to so much of the humor getting snipped. Corman, who attended the test screenings as was his wont, thought the audiences were mocking the movie whenever they laughed at a joke that he didnít get.) Fox Harris is an oddball delight as Finbergen, his performance having a bit of the same flavor that I look for from Jeffrey Combs. Thereís an interesting tension between the scientists at the station and their support staff, making Forbidden World one of the few Alien copies to retain the originalís subtext of class conflict. For that matter, since Mike Colby is an atypically proletarian space hero, the sex scene between him and Barbara Glaser takes on an unexpected hint of Lady Chatterleyís Lover. And Iíve already mentioned Susan Justinís nifty music, which deserved to get cannibalized for future projects almost as much as James Hornerís New World scores, but seemingly proved too intimately specific to this one ever to be used that way in practice. My favorite small highlight, however, is the revised characterization of SAM-104. In Mutant, SAMís dialogue was rendered by some sort of electronic voice synthesizer. It was a neat idea, but the technology was in its infancy in 1982, and almost everything the robot said came out as a nigh-unintelligible burble. So for Forbidden World, SAM was looped by someone with the androgynous voice of a twelve-year-old boy; I wish I could tell you who, because they had a tremendous impact with only a few lines. It completely changes the interpersonal dynamic between Colby and his mechanical sidekick, in a way thatís difficult to explain. The only point of comparison I can think of is Peppermint Pattie and Marcy in the ďPeanutsĒ cartoons of the 1960ís, with SAM playing Marcyís role. Itís such a peculiar departure from all the cheap 70ís and 80ís sci-fi flicks that tried (and mostly failed) to ape R2-D2 and/or C-3PO! So while itís pointless to deny that Forbidden World is calibrated very precisely to the tastes of filth pigs like me, I do think it has something to offer viewers of slightly more genteel sensibilities.

 

 

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