“Doctor, I wouldn’t know a gene from a jelly bean.”—Mike Colby
Released a month before John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982, Roger Corman’s New World Pictures’ horror/sci-fi Forbidden World posited the mutant intelligence as ruthless foe scenario as an evolutionary outgrowth, unpredictable and inevitable, like cancer. Crafted by scientists on the planet Xarbia with human DNA—and something else—for the purpose of stimulating an unchecked food supply to address a galactic food crisis, Subject 20, the experimental mutant life form, quickly overwhelms its creators. Cursorily, it’s a bit of Frankenstein meets The Thing meets Silent Running.
Dim-witted space cowboy Mike, played by Jesse Vint, even bears a resemblance to Kurt Russell’s R.J. MacReady with his ‘just kill the damn thing’ swagger, lack of scruples, and reservoir of pluck; and, like Bruce Dern’s Freeman Lowell, Mike has a loyal, if somewhat disgruntled, robot companion at his side. It’s not really clear what he’s doing on Xarbia; he’s muscle, no more, no less, but his employers are adamant that he not destroy the life form. Perhaps he’s just security, just in case things go awry. And of course they will. Having never seen Jesse Vint before or since this portrayal I can only guess at his motives, as he nails that arrogant, vague disinterest in the proceedings with aplomb—the actor himself, not his character. There are times he even appears drunk. Audiences will mistake a brawny, aloof actor for a hero every time.
Things kick off aboard Mike’s spaceship with the bounty hunter in cryogenic stasis; his robot awakes him just in time to fend off some undefined threat—battle footage recycled from Battle Beyond the Stars —before heading toward Xarbia at hyperspeed. While still asleep, curiously, Mike has flashes of future events, an actual montage of the film’s as-yet-unhappened events, a move repeated at the film’s conclusion for unknown reasons. Director Allan Holzman excels at opaque art-school touches.
Moving along, Mike really wants to get laid after all of his solo travels in space with only a robot for company. He ogles beauties Tracy (Dawn Dunlap) and Barbara (June Chadwick) right away, bedding Barbara within the first half-hour. Their union takes place amidst a sort of extended music video featuring one of the crew playing a space sax to the synth piano strains of Susan Justin’s (director Holzman’s then-girlfriend) frisky New Wave score. Scott Paulin, who some of you may recognize as one of the astronauts from 1983’s The Right Stuff, plays Earl, one of the maintenance guys, who eyeballs Mike and Barb as they couple via security cameras while tugging on one of those light-up yoyo toys from the ’80s in a rather suggestive manner. The whirring sound it creates becomes part of the soundtrack along with the sax, adding up to one of the zaniest and moodiest sex scenes in genre film history.
Vestiges of the film’s initial comedic bent when it was still being called Mutant can be heard in the film’s unique nomenclature—dingwhopper and dungbunny to name a couple of choice neologisms—as well as in the creative use of sets; the station’s heating ducts have been redirected to form a sauna room, the site of Mike’s intended seduction of Tracy. It can also be seen directly in the actors’ tongue-in-cheek delivery, notably in the quirky Fox Harris as Dr. Cal, the furiously spasmodic inventor, and eventual destroyer, of the metamorph. Ingeniously, it’s Cal’s cancerous tumor, having been cut out of him by Mike, that serves as a football for the mutant to consume, the only substance the creature can’t diffuse and repurpose.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Corman’s production company mastered the art of turning a profit on low-budget genre pictures, invariably with a pronounced focus on oddball comedy, sexual liaisons, downright weird situations and life-in-the-balance plots, all in less than 90 minutes. Forbidden World itself was recycled from Corman’s Alien-cribbing sci-fi from the previous year, Galaxy of Terror, an epic by Corman standards as it cost an estimated $700,000. Of course, his most ambitious project to date had been 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars, a simultaneous ode to the Star Wars saga and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and the film that first employed a young James Cameron as part of the visual effects crew. Cameron graduated to Galaxy of Terror1, his talents touching nearly everything in that film, especially the design of the sets—including the walls of the space shuttle made from fast food take-out containers—which can be seen again in Forbidden World if one looks closely.
The metamorph is almost symbolic of the kind of filmmaking which Corman’s talented underlings so excelled at: taking existing paradigms and retrofitting them (inexpensively). This is filmmaking that can be enjoyed from a purely logistic distance. Knowing who was involved, how they accomplished this or that effect, and why, these are the things that continue to intrigue so many about filmmaking in the ’70s and ’80s, genre filmmaking in general, and especially science fiction and horror. Actual drama is almost an incidental pleasure to be had when things go very well, and this is something that those who scoff at these films or the “so bad it’s good” crowd will never understand. Fortunately, Forbidden World has a lot to offer audiences these days, least of all the gorgeous figures of Dawn Dunlap and Tracy Chadwick, the outlandish music and sense of fun—and perhaps most of all it’s tireless, metamorphic ingenuity.
1 Fans of Galaxy of Terror, and Cameron for that matter, insist that his Aliens from 1986 owes a great deal to the visual design of the former film. Yet another example of Corman’s superlative influence outside of his own productions and another card to be played next time your friends come over for a game of Six Degrees of Roger Corman.