“…[a] spontaneous creation without thought to logic, reason or consequences.”–Richard Elfman on Forbidden Zone
DIRECTED BY: Richard Elfman
FEATURING: Hervé Villechaize, Susan Tyrrell, Marie-Pascale Elfman, Phil Gordon, Matthew Bright (as “Toshiro Baloney”), Viva, Danny Elfman
PLOT: A curious girl wanders into the surreal “Sixth Dimension” located behind a door in her basement. There she encounters all manner of strange creatures and characters, including a lascivious dwarf king and his jealous wife, while her family members and a hapless schoolmate search for her. Numerous silly musical numbers are dispersed through their adventures.
- Forbidden Zone was initially developed as a short film project for the cabaret performance troupe Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, which included brothers Richard and Danny Elfman. They wanted to capture the essence of their live performances at their most grandiose; afterwards, their musical style and stage show moved toward a smaller-scale, New Wave sound (at which point they shortened their name to just Oingo Boingo and became especially popular on 80’s comedy soundtracks, but that’s another story).
- Composer and singer Danny Elfman, who also appears as the Devil, eventually went on to become a highly successful film composer, known especially for his collaborations with Tim Burton.
- Several of the songs are reworkings of jazz and swing tunes from the 1920’s and 30’s, including songs by Cab Calloway and Josephine Baker.
- Marie-Pascale Elfman, who stars as Frenchy, was married to director Richard Elfman at the time, and also designed the playful sets and backdrops.
- The violent, rowdy school scenes are inspired by Richard Elfman’s Los Angeles high school, which is located in the same neighborhood where Boyz n the Hood later takes place.
- Warhol superstar Viva was convinced to play the small role of the Ex-Queen because she was able to write her own lines, which mostly consist of a drawn-out monologue about her imprisonment.
- Hervé Villechaize was once roommates with co-writer Matthew Bright (who plays siblings Squeezit and René) and had dated his co-star Susan Tyrrell. He helped fund the film through its constant financial woes, and in fact most of the actors fed their paychecks back into the production.
- The film was met with controversy upon release due to its use of blackface and Jewish stereotypes, but eventually it gained cult status.
- Richard Elfman has mentioned working on Forbidden Zone 2 since 2005, but nothing concrete has materialized—yet.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: A lot of scenes stand out in my mind, especially the musical numbers. While Danny Elfman’s “Squeezit the Moocher” sequence is a personal favorite, Susan Tyrrell’s solo song, “Witch’s Egg,” exemplifies a lot of the film’s visual ingenuity, sexual abandon, and lyrical fun.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Between the puzzling storyline, psychedelic sets and animated sequences, frequent gender-bending, old-timey jazz/new wave fusion musical numbers, lighthearted sado-masochism, laughably terrible acting, and strange creatures, it’d be more of a challenge to discuss what’s NOT weird about Forbidden Zone. Its cartoonish visuals, eclectic cast, and memorable musical sequences make for a compelling experience, peppered with utterly bizarre additives throughout.
Short clip from Forbidden Zone
COMMENTS: Opening on a lopsided two-dimensional house, Forbidden Zone‘s prologue explains in text-format that a dealer who stashed his drugs there was briefly thrown into a terrifying journey in the Sixth Dimension, and after his escape the house remained empty until the unknowing Hercules family moved in. Ma and Pa Hercules warn their daughter Frenchy to avoid that spooky portal in the basement but after a scary first day at school she can’t resist looking for an escape. The odd and sinister world she discovers is filled with menacing figures who abuse her, and as her friends and family follow after her they don’t fare much better.
On paper the film sounds like any of the numerous riffs on “Alice in Wonderland,” albeit with more adult overtones, but it manages to emphatically distance itself from any one recognizable source and become its own singular experience. For a film that cites the likes of Betty Boop cartoons, German Expressionist film, and Cab Calloway as influences, it is in many ways clearly settled within its early-80s milieu thanks to its wacky characterizations and sexual fixations. At times the misguided attempts at creating a live-action cartoon (which somewhat explains the ignorant use of blackface for one of the characters) and obvious obsession with breasts and putting men in drag betray the juvenile tendencies of the screenwriters, but such factors also contribute to the film’s perverse appeal, along with the scattershot narrative that keeps the audience guessing and questioning. The fact that all of the children are played by adults adds yet another level of disconcerting oddity.
The cast of characters is as bizarre as it is talented, with the gruff, lusty Susan Tyrrell leading the way as the dominating Queen and Hervé Villechaize smiling gleefully at all the hot women he gets to ogle. Marie-Pascale Elfman distracts with her over-the-top (but reportedly genuine) French accent and former vaudeville actor Phil Gordon swears and humps his way across the scenery. Co-writer Matthew Bright might get the most mileage out of his performance, playing the twin roles of Squeezit and René, with make-up smeared freely across his face, a wincing demeanor, and chicken-like posture. But it’s probably Danny Elfman who gives the most memorable performance in his one scene as the Devil, dressed in a Cab Calloway-esque suit and gleefully belting out his own version of “Minnie the Moocher” as his Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo act as a demonic back-up band.
Forbidden Zone‘s music is wonderfully addicting, with some songs riffing on old tracks from Josephine Baker, Cab Calloway, and the Three Stooges, and others throwing together animal grunts, synthesizers, and twisted lyrical metaphors. Though the film sinks into physical abuse, attempted murder, and weird sexual fantasies at some points, the creative musical numbers cast a transfixing, often comedic, sheen over the entire production. This, coupled with the imaginative, artfully DIY sets and costumes, make for wonderfully weird viewing. It’s a world where nothing makes much sense, but that doesn’t stop it from being consistently entertaining, at times wickedly so.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“For those interested in the truly bizarre, the strange visuals and story herein are must viewing.”–VideoHound’s Complete Guide to Cult Flicks and Trash Pics
“…the strangest musical imaginable.”–Michael J. Weldon, The Psychotronic Video Guide
“You could toss definitions at this thing all day and never hit the bullseye. It’s Frank Zappa doing music hall. It’s a funhouse in a funny farm. It’s an MGM musical shot by depraved junkies. It’s Tiswas directed by the unquiet spirit of Ed Wood. It’s a punk rock Wizard Of Oz. Mixing ‘30s jazz with German Expressionism and the Three Stooges with performance art, it’s camp, low-rent, crass and… utterly irresistible, actually.” –Ian Berriman, SFX
IMDB LINK: Forbidden Zone (1982)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Forbidden Zone Official Site – Includes news and videos, as well as a shop with t-shirts, coffee mugs and buttons
Intestinal Fortitude – Interview with Richard Elfman in the Tuscon Weekly on Forbidden Zone‘s “25th anniversary”
Richard Elfman: News and Events – News about the status of Elfman’s various projects, including a promo music video for Forbidden Zone 2
Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone Friday – Elfman drops some tidbits about the progress of the sequel in this 2012 interview in the Long Beach Post
Forbidden Zone Live – official site for the stage version, which ran in LA in 2010
Grooveshark has most of the soundtrack available to stream
DVD/BLU-RAY INFO: There are two DVD versions of the film: the original black and white cut released in 2004 by Fantoma (buy) and the 2008 colorized version from Legend (buy). The British company Arrow Video released a Blu-ray in 2012 (buy) that contains hi-def versions of both, along with a behind-the-scenes documentary, deleted scenes, audio commentary, and other extras, some of which are also found on the DVDs.
UPDATE 11/11/2015: Richard Elfman self-released a “Special Edition” DVD (buy) with a commentary track, behind-the-scenes feature, outtakes, trailer, and a teaser for Forbidden Zone 2. This release is also available on Blu-ray (buy) and in an “Ultimate Edition” (buy) bundled with the soundtrack CD.