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Our review of Forbidden Zone: In Color, published September 3rd, 2008, is also available.
Chicken: You know Squeezit, we chickens will always be here for you. But as
Forbidden Zone has been deservedly called the Citizen Kane of cult movies, and there's hardly any flick I would rather see at a midnight screening. It's totally bizarre, politically incorrect, offensive, and downright degrading. I love it! It was made by Richard Elfman over a period of two or three years in the late '70s in order to chronicle and celebrate the onstage antics of The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (who were about to disband and become simply Oingo Boingo). It began as a simple 16mm shoot of some musical numbers from their stage show, but with the help of many friends (and a budget earned by renovating houses) it became a full blown movie. A very sick and twisted movie (to put it bluntly), but one with enough sense of wonder and fun to be totally entertaining. John Waters, Andy Warhol, and David Lynch wish they had made this one. It's that great; and more's the pity that this is the only film that ever came from this creative team. The whole affair is a black-and-white human-cartoon fantasy-musical that even becomes traditionally animated in certain sequences. You have to see it to believe it, and afterwards you'll probably doubt you just experienced it.
The plot revolves around the Hercules family, who for some indeterminable reason have bought a house with a door to the Sixth Dimension in their basement. The children are warned never to go near it, but naturally the sister (Frenchy, played by Richard Elfman's then-wife Marie-Pascale Elfman) ends up snooping around and getting sucked in. It's up to the rest of the family, along with some friends, to go into this brave new world and rescue her. She's being held prisoner by the evil King Fausto (Herve Villechaize, Tattoo from Fantasy Island) and Queen Doris (Susan Tyrrell, fresh off an Oscar nomination for Fat City). I don't want to give away much more than this—and to be honest, even if I tried you'd never believe the things I'd be saying. Women wearing only panties guard the prisoners, a frog is a butler, a performance art team appears nearly naked every once in a while, and offensive images such as people in blackface abound. Even when the Hercules family is in the "real world" anything can happen, so slipping into the Sixth Dimension might not be that much of a change for our intrepid troupe of interdimensional explorers.
The real star of the movie is undoubtedly the score written by Danny Elfman, who also makes an appearance as Satan (doing a modified Cab Calloway number). Elfman has scored huge movies like Batman, but this movie represents his initial foray into film scoring—and he pulls out all the stops. Classical motifs, odes to big band numbers, Josephine Baker torch songs, and rock opera are just a few of the sorts of things you will find in Forbidden Zone. It's a breathtaking collage of dizzying proportions. The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo were, in fact, a performance art company who did entire musicals of this type live onstage, so the movie knows exactly how to handle the material.
Forbidden Zone was a completely nepotistic affair. The director was married to the star and the brother of the composer. Susan Tyrrell was dating Herve Villechaize, who was also a roommate of the co-writer, who was a founding member of the Mystic Knights. The roommate, Matthew Bright, appears in the film as Renee and Squeezit Henderson (a dual performance as a transvestite and a boy obsessed with poultry). He would go on to write and direct classics such as Freeway (Reese Witherspoon as a modern Little Red Riding Hood) and Guncrazy (Drew Barrymore as a woman in love with a sociopath). Marie-Pascale Elfman not only starred as Frenchy, but also designed all the sets (made of cardboard!) She would later become an important painter. Richard Elfman would go on to make more movies like Modern Vampires. And little Danny Elfman (the true underachiever) would go on to score almost every Tim Burton flick ever made (as well as penning the theme to The Simpsons), besides guiding the reformed Oingo Boingo through a long rock career. You get the idea…this was a talented group who were making their early indelible mark on the arts.
The performances are deliciously campy, but I am always amazed by Susan Tyrrell as Queen Doris. She co-wrote her big song "Witch's Egg," and it's one of the moments where the whole film seems to stop and burn a hole right into your skull. She even gets a climactic catfight with a noted Warhol actress, and bares her teeth and tits with brazen wild abandon. Squeezit, or "chicken boy," is also a standout character…but in truth, they all are. Members of the Screen Actors Guild mingle with musicians and (literally) homeless men right off the street in a bizarre melange of the famous and subversive. There's a human chandelier, a sadistic frog butler, and a school teacher with a semiautomatic that she uses freely. Casting was wild and loose, and the Hercules' twelve-year-old son is played by an actor well into his sixties. Meanwhile, Gramps looks sprite and spry with nary a gray hair. Every aspect of Forbidden Zone screams eclectic mess. The animation is even a hodgepodge of Betty Boop, R. Crumb, Monty Python, and Fleischer.
The DVD from Fantoma Films is incredibly well done. The transfer is sparkling for a black and white movie that never looked all that great…until now. The audio is a modified stereo track tricked out into five channels. You get a documentary, audio commentary, deleted scenes, trailers, and early sequences from Richard Elfman's private collection. The commentary is priceless, with Elfman and Bright dishing information on every aspect of the film in a very clever and cool fashion. I couldn't be more effusive about a release, and this is what DVD dreams are made of. You take a very obscure cult film, and lavish it with extras and a great transfer. You couldn't ask for more.
Freaking genius movie! If you like John Waters or The Rocky Horror Picture Show this is your new favorite film. This is a cult film that has an incredible sense of joy and freedom, and is never afraid to shatter every rule. It was shot in black and white because they couldn't afford color film, but they made it work. The sets were just painted cardboard, but they were also surrealistically stunning. Desperation is the mother of invention; and clever, wonderful, kinky romps like Forbidden Zone are the result. It's certainly not to everyone's liking, but you can't help but admire the chutzpah that went into making it. If you see it once, you'll never forget it.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Richard Elfman and Co-writer Matthew Bright
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