There’s a certain flavor of charm baked into every Roger Corman-era New World Pictures production. Cleverly manufactured with equal doses of kitsch, strategy, talent and entertainment, the company’s impressive run of films between 1970-1984 created a unique subgenre all its own. Much like Troma Entertainment and Full Moon Features, Corman films have a particular style unto themselves. Part of what allowed New World to thrive during this era was Corman’s uncanny ability to capitalize on an opportunity, spot new talent and turn it loose. Often gambling entire productions on unknown names, this crash course in quick-turnaround filmmaking regularly paid out big for the prolific producer. By simply giving young talent a chance, many Corman films became unexpectedly elevated above their shaky foundations by select key players. One such film is 1982’s Forbidden World thanks to Susan Justin’s iconic electronic score.
Originally titled Mutant, Forbidden World was Roger Corman’s continued attempt to bask in the Alien afterglow. Cleverly maximizing the yet-to-be written Forbidden World‘s budget by re-purposing select footage and sets (designed by James Cameron) from 1981’s Galaxy of Terror, Corman spun one Alien rip-off tale into two. Shooting the film’s opening sequence before the full story had even been hammered out, the clock was ticking for the rest of the pieces to fall into place. With these seeds of pre-production percolating over a time sensitive flame, Susan Justin became involved in the age old Hollywood way—she knew a guy who knew a guy.
A talented and dedicated musician, Justin’s path into film scoring was an interesting one. Earning her BA in music from UCLA, Justin also spent time studying music at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Copenhagen. After her studies had concluded, she then began teaching at Santa Monica College as a vocal coach, music director and staff pianist. Classically trained in both performance, pedagogy and theory it would be easy to assume that Justin followed a rather traditional, academic trajectory. However, you’d be dead wrong.
While Justin’s days in the late 70s early 80s were certainly filled with classes and classical music, her nights were a totally different story. An early adopter of electronic synthesizers, keyboards, tools and techniques, Justin became a staple in the burgeoning Los Angeles New Wave scene. Before long she had even formed her own band called Pink Plastic. Acting as the group’s lead singer, songwriter and keyboardist, Justin quickly made a name for herself as a skillful musician with a keen ear and firm grasp on new musical technologies. When her partner at the time, film editor Allan Holzman (Battle Beyond the Stars), got his first directing job on Forbidden World, he knew exactly who to suggest for the film’s otherworldly score. In the 2014 Death Waltz Records LP release of Justin’s score, Holzman reminisced on Justin’s music for the film in the liner notes saying:
I wanted the score to enter the new realm of electronic music, have the beat of a rock concert and the soul of singer. Susan’s voice and melodic tension filled themes continually haunted the corridors of the space station with rhythm, fear and outright fun. Whether the scene called for a new wave love theme set to the churning of a space yo-yo, witnessing the Mutant’s point of view through grates and slime, or jelly-fished bodies reproducing, her compositions consistently captured the crazed cinematic charm of a Roger Corman classic.
Science fiction and electronic music have long shared an intimate and beautiful relationship. With its natural ability to convey the cold, detached nature of outer space and worlds far, far away, synthesized sound is a natural choice for many filmmakers embarking on intergalactic adventures. It is also incredibly cost effective. Whereas orchestral scores require a bevy of performers and increased coordinated efforts, electronic scores can often be produced with a few key pieces of equipment and limited performers. Despite Justin having never scored a film before, her impressive background coupled with the practicality of it all sounded like literal music to Corman’s ears. And just like that, she was officially hired as Forbidden World‘s composer.
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At the time Forbidden World was being produced, fully electronic film scores were still a new concept. While electronic elements had certainly made their way into film scores like Alien, Star Wars and Apocalypse Now, the majority of films were still rooted in orchestral based compositions. Outside of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Halloween (1978) and Forbidden Planet (1956), mainstream examples for Justin to pull from were fairly limited. However, by blending her classical background with her unique brand of new wave sentiment, Justin managed to create a groundbreaking, fully electronic work all her own.
When watching Forbidden World, it doesn’t take long for the Corman essence to rise to the surface. Beautiful actors roam beautifully lit space age sets, charmingly built from fast food take-out containers and salvaged materials. Although high heel pumps, cut-off sleeves and teeny tiny robes may seem like unconventional space attire, this is the future according to Corman. And yet it is here in this ultra sexy, neon drenched glow that Justin’s music elevates the film from exploitative sleaze, to incredibly fun, top notch, titillating shlock. To dive into this idea more, let’s take a look at the film’s killer Main Theme.
As icy synths lead the way, low rhythmic bass pulses begin to set the groove. Overlaid with Justin’s eerie, distorted, breathy vocals, simple rock drums and driving piano chords, the resulting vibe is as mysterious as it is modern. Embracing the film’s sultry looks and simmering sexual tension, Justin exhibits her skill for songwriting as the track expertly evolves and progresses. Maintaining a delightfully lo-fi texture throughout, the theme reaches maximum impact when coupled with the film’s big sex scene. As these sonic swirls of digital dust settle around the scene, the action and edits become supported in a way that amplifies the film’s self-aware attitude. Catchy, melodic and groovy, Justin’s Main Theme track ultimately highlights Forbidden World‘s incredibly sexy atmosphere while simultaneously winking at the audience from a sweaty, 80s club dance floor.
“Despite [Susan] Justin having never scored a film before, her impressive background coupled with the practicality of it all sounded like literal music to [Roger] Corman’s ears.”
Similar to the way the Main Theme and its motifs highlight the more tantalizing aspects of Forbidden World, Justin also created a host of experimental soundscapes to highlight the horror elements of the film. As an example, let’s use the big end track appropriately titled, The End. A direct result of scoring the film to picture by hand, Justin’s emotional and instinctual musical reactions became entwined and captured through sound.
At times functioning as both score and sound design, Justin’s intimate understanding of both music and technology allowed her to create wide ranging progressions of sound to maximize emotional impact. As our surviving heroes begin their final battle with the dangerously hungry Subject 20, flurries of sounds bordering on static act as the alien presence. Muted rhythmic pulses stand-in for amplified heart beats and become joined by anxiety inducing pitch bends with sharp bursts of sound. Utilizing dramatic dynamic changes and layers of divergent atonality, Justin injects the moment with a terrifying, unpredictable dose of tension. Slow and steadily climbing upward in pitch, the track edges closer and closer to recognizable music as our heroes step closer and closer to victory.
While it’s understandably easy to let the score’s catchier moments of melody bask in the spotlight, Justin’s sonic experimentations with synthetic sound sprinkled throughout the film cannot be undervalued. Incredibly diverse and deliberately executed, her approach to Forbidden World‘s soundscape was as punk rock as it was academic. Never compromising her own creative style to fit genre stereotypes, the end result is one that remains remarkably fresh nearly 40 years later. By utilizing equipment both old and new, Justin effectively payed tribute to sci-fi sounds of the past while simultaneously pushing the genre forward into new, uncharted territory. Fearlessly integrating fresh tech like the Jupiter 8 synthesizer with iconic pieces of equipment like the ‘Blaster Beam’ Jerry Goldsmith used in his Star Trek score, Justin fabricated a new, futuristic vision entirely her own.
Following Forbidden World, Justin would go on to score a handful of films and TV projects including The Final Terror, My Marilyn and another Corman classic, Stryker. However, her passion for teaching and fostering young musical talent soon called her back to the classroom where she taught choral studies for many years. Despite her huge impact on electronic scoring for film and her various new-wave endeavors, the majority of Justin’s work remained unavailable for decades. Although originally released on vinyl in 1982 by Web Records, it wasn’t until Death Waltz Records re-released Justin’s Forbidden World score in 2014 that her work was once again available. A beautiful release and an incredible listening experience, Justin’s New-Wave dusted intergalactic expedition through sound is a must-own piece for sci-fi score enthusiasts.
What are your thoughts on Forbidden World? Have a favorite Roger Corman film? Talk all things New World Pictures with us over on Twitter or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! For more score talk, check out our previous installments of Terror on the Turntable, where I dissect an iconic horror score each month!