Monday, December 27, 2010

Forbidden World aka Mutant (1982, Allan Holzman)

Roger Corman productions had a conflicted duality towards including humor; a sly love of camp warring against a pragmatic mistrust of overt irony. This was based on the financial consideration that audiences were wanting more and more to take silly ideas dead seriously after Vietnam, Watergate et all clogged the drive-in with worldly cynicism. Allan Holzman was hanging around Corman's New World Pictures when they made their defining title of the 70s, Death Race 2000 (1975, Paul Bartel) and claims that Corman did as much as possible to scissor out the comedy. One wonders if he ever read the script, and if after seeing the first rushes he honestly thought some occasional excising of absurdity would convince some people that what they were watching wasn't the gonzo camp masterpiece Bartel clearly had in mind. Mutant exists in two versions, a strategically shortened cut entitled Forbidden World and the original full length version which has never been available until now. Mutant is the funnier and better version, although the slightly more serious Forbidden World is almost as good. While not as bold as Death Race, the farcical nature of Holzman's vision is simply too pervasive to eradicate. 

The alterations make the official cut only a smidgen less amusing by removing the lingerings on the silly parts which effectively wink at the audience. Taking these bits out casts doubt on the genuinely humorous intentions of what is frequently ridiculous and makes the film seem dumb. This forced restraint also puts more of an edge on the violence insofar as watching someone scream three or four times can be jarring, until the fifth time or sixth when the repetition becomes a deliberate joke. Removing pithy dialogue meant to lighten the mood when someone has just died is another example. Corman apparently didn't want anyone hungry for an Alien ripoff to think they were watching a borderline spoof, while director Alan Holzman seems to have agreed with Pauline Kael's dismissal of the Ridley Scott blockbuster as a "haunted house with gorilla movie set in space." Not in the perforative sense; as a simple equalizing formula for entertainment that also allows room for personal style. For Alien that meant the designs of H.R. Giger and supporting cast of character actors like Harry Dean Stanton or Yaphet Kotto. For Holzman, the details are such as the fact that in the future, women are apparently required to wear high heels at all times.

Rarely do movies utterly lacking in originality have the good taste to incorporate a variety of influences that perfectly suit them. Mutant has a hipness which has now well aged into retro-hipness. Even the title Mutant slightly predates the Ninja Turtles and was only changed to Forbidden World after Corman polled some illiterate Los Angeles teens who didn't know what "mutant" meant. Market test research is never good, even for b-movie makers. The look of the laboratory station where most of the story happens certainly imitates the used-future grunge of Alien with flickering lights and leaky water pipes. The stronger influence however is actually John Carpenter's 1981 Escape From New York, which had a million and one cheap tricks to create the future on a budget. Holzman's team appears to have studied them carefully and implements them with even less money. Every workroom has colored blinking lights. There's an elaborate system of security cameras displaying everything on TV monitors embedded in the walls. The attention to detail on functional illustrations, like the stylized font on a glass placard reading CENTRIFUGE, is exquisite. Also straight from Escape is the brilliant use of animation to emulate simple computer screen graphics. The Carpenter influence can also be felt from the synthesizer score by Susan Justin, whose occasional porniness isn't exactly incongruous with all the sexy lady scientists getting naked as often as they do. Owing a little more to Alien is the omnipresence of modular walls and going all the way back to Star Trek is the uniformity of automatically opening doors. These are all small details that collectively go a long way. The only influence which doesn't fit is naturally from Star Wars and is mercifully minimal, mainly an unrelated pre-credits space dogfight prologue using recycled footage from one of Corman's Star Wars cash-ins, Battle Beyond the Stars.

Jesse Vint and a short guy in a robot suit are the spacefarers first seen pretending to evade spaceships from another movie. The strangest difference between Forbidden World and Mutant is the rerecording of the robot's voice; in Mutant he has a generic robot monotone while Forbidden World distractingly gives him what sounds like a young woman imitating the voice of an eight year old boy. Vint is kind of distracting as well; not miscast as a mercenary yet too closely resembling Robert Englund than Harrison Ford for me to believe as a chick magnet. They're summoned to where the movie begins proper, a desert planet laboratory consisting of four scientists, three staff and the titular hungry genetic experiment gone wrong. Two of the scientists are women who take turns getting naked with Vint, and they couldn't have been more obviously cast to cover their bases with contrast in physical types: June Chadwick the leggy take-charge blonde and Dawn Dunlap the sensual mouse. At least Chadwick can act. Dunlap's only prior experience was in a French soft core erotic drama and she's awful. The rest of the cast are generically competent actors with the one standout of Fox Harris as a chain smoking scientist. He does most of the heavy lifting with ponderous pseudoscientific exposition. People with good taste may remember him from Repo Man (1984, Alex Cox) as the loony driver of the radioactive Chevy Malibu and he basically does the same crazy shtick here.

Holzman is the co-editor as well as director and the film has a huge number of meticulous edits. A few are nonsensical for the sake of style, such as when Jesse Vint wakes up from hypersleep (thanks, Alien!) at the beginning of the movie and has split second flash forwards to the rest of the movie which hasn't happened yet. There's also an unfortunate music video style sex scene between Vint and Chadwick. Fortunately the majority of creative edits are directorial decisions that work miracles for the budget. When the mutant grows from bean bag to jumbo size unwieldy giant, cutting around him a few seconds at a time makes his rampage actually seem animate. The space dogfight prologue also wouldn't work if Holzman weren't a skilled enough editor to patch two different movies together. When laser guns go off indoors there are accompanying inserts of white frames to simulate muzzle flashes. Between these edits and the thrift store production design, this film is a master class in making the most of a low budget. The only special effects that don't need to be cleverly cut around are the splatter makeups, which result from the mutant leaving some of its victims half chewed, melting into ooze and still alive (!) Those are excellently gloppy and we get to take long gross looks at them.

Being the best ripoff of anything is a dubious distinction. Ripoffs of exploitation movies can be better than originals through one-upmanship. Alien was a good simple horror movie with astonishing production values that legitimized the horror/sci-fi subgenre to mainstream critics, similar to the way Star Wars inaugurated the long eradication of any distinction between adult and kiddie tastes by finally making Flash Gordon hokum look real. Fans of both films really hate when anyone intimates the content beneath the special effects isn't worth taking too seriously. The fact is, what made Alien a sensation was that razor toothed hand puppet bloodily exploding out of someone's chest and not the Freudian intellectual undertones. Corman and Holzman correctly recognized this. They also understood that just because Sigourney Weaver was the sole survivor didn't mean that the guys most likely to check a movie like Alien the other 99% of the time - and they are guys - wanted to see more strong leading roles for women. They were the readers of Heavy Metal magazine, hence the boobs and slime and good natured silliness. Mutant is handily the most amusing imitation made before the more serious-minded imitations naturally hit the breaking point of self-parody, as in those SyFy Channel original movies with titles like Sharktopus

Of all the New World Pictures directors from this particular era, Holzman may have come the closest to Joe Dante (who did Piranha for Corman in '78) in terms of gently kidding monster movie conventions while still delivering the goods. Corman's trims to Holzman's director's cut make a lot of the film's best moments come off as accidental or naive - such as when Jesse Vint has to perform emergency surgery on Fox Harris and Corman cuts a shot of Harris smoking his cigarette while Vint's hands are still in his belly - but in both versions the scene remains. Shout! Factory did a great service in unearthing the original Mutant and packaging them together. For anyone with a sense of humor and taste for 80s sci-fi pulp, Forbidden World / Mutant is a wonderful scuzzy indulgence.