Friday, June 22, 2012

The Once Over Twice: Forbidden Zone

(1980) Directed by Richard Elfman; Written by Richard Elfman, Matthew Bright, Nick L. Martinson and Nicholas James; Starring: Hervé Villechaize, Susan Tyrrell, Marie-Pascale Elfman, Matthew Bright and Gisele Lindley; Available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Rating: *** ½

Saying that Forbidden Zone won’t appeal to all viewers’ tastes is like stating that alligator wrestling isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  It’s a true cult flick, meaning that it will be an overlooked treasure for some, and an endurance test for everyone else.  I discovered this twisted little film in the late 80s while working as a video clerk, and have never been the same since.  I felt like a pop culture archaeologist, unearthing the missing link between one musician’s humble performance art origins and more ambitious commercial aspirations.   

Forbidden Zone showcased the talents of director/co-writer Richard Elfman’s avant-garde music/theatrical group The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (later just Oingo Boingo, under the guidance of his younger brother Danny).  Richard financed his ultra-low-budget film partially by selling homes, and kept costs down by employing a cast largely consisting of friends and family members.  Among the non-professionals in the cast were his real estate broker (credited with the pseudonym Hyman Diamond) as Grandpa Hercules and business associate Phil Gordon as Flash Hercules. 

Richard Elfman commented that he didn’t go to film school, which explains a lot.  He claimed to have learned about filmmaking by making this movie, which plays like a series of sketches, rather than a coherent narrative.  Many of the disjointed scenes were derived from the old Mystic Knights stage shows, which Richard had stopped participating in by this point.  The plot, such as it is, centers around the dysfunctional Hercules family (based on Elfman’s childhood experiences with a neighbor family) and their adventures in the Sixth Dimension, a hoary netherworld lorded over by King Fausto and Queen Doris.

Richard claimed that there were no drugs involved in the making of this picture, although the end results might suggest otherwise.  The black-and-white photography adds a surrealistic dimension to the film, which is augmented by Terry Gilliam-esque animation by John Muto.   The flimsy-yet-effective sets, owing much to German expressionism, were created by Richard’s wife at the time, Marie-Pascale Elfman (who also played the role of the plucky Frenchy Hercules).  While not technically a special effect or a part of the art design, weirdo performance artists The Kipper Kids, who seemed to have crawled out of another dimension, contribute to the movie’s bizarre tone and trippy atmosphere.

The late Hervé Villechaize, best known for playing the role of Tattoo in the Fantasy Island television show, and as the diminutive assassin Nick Nack in The Man with the Golden Gun, stars as the lecherous King Fausto.  Villechaize was a former roommate of Forbidden Zone’s co-star and co-writer Matthew Bright (who appears as the obsequious character Squeezit), which led to his consideration for the role.  He seems to enjoy his villainous turn as the ruler of the Sixth Dimension, who keeps women chained up in a subterranean dungeon, and pursues the affections of Frenchy Hercules, much to the chagrin of the Queen.

Susan Tyrrell* (who was Villechaize’s girlfriend in real life) provides the film’s best performance hands down, as the merciless Queen Doris of the Sixth Dimension.  She appears to be operating on another wavelength, putting her best into a role that other, lesser, actresses probably would have turned down.  Amidst the chaotic proceedings of the rest of the film, she manages to provide a performance that’s bold, funny and unforgettable.  Among the film’s several musical numbers her song “Witch’s Egg” is a clear standout.

* In a sad coincidence entirely unrelated to the timing of this post, Susan Tyrell passed away on June16, 2012 in Austin, Texas, at the age of 67.

Forbidden Zone’s eclectic score is by Richard’s younger brother, Danny Elfman.  His first film score represents a hodge-podge of different musical genres, including 30s scat, 20s jazz, Yiddish vaudeville ditties, post-punk and other unclassifiable bits and pieces.  In another memorable musical interlude, Danny appears as Satan, singing “Squeezit the Moocher” (a modified version of the Cab Calloway staple, “Minnie the Moocher”).  Fans of The Nightmare Before Christmas (also scored by Danny) will spot the obvious influences that this scene had on the Oogie Boogie segment in the latter film.  In many respects, the Forbidden Zone soundtrack contains many of the raw materials that Elfman would utilize and refine in his future work with Oingo Boingo in the 80s and early 90s, as well as his numerous film soundtracks.  Danny Elfman, who also cited Russian composers Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev as key influences, threw out the rule book while composing his score.  His wildly original and infectious soundtrack deftly keeps up with the frenetic pace of his elder brother’s film.

Richard Elfman pointed out in his DVD commentary how he’s been attacked by various groups over the years for allegedly depicting racist stereotypes in his movie, such as characters in blackface.  While a surface interpretation might contend that he’s only adding fuel to the fire with political incorrectness, much of the film is actually a post-modern reinterpretation of earlier film genres and styles (some of which were unabashedly racist).  By playing with these stereotypes rather than simply perpetuating them, he’s pointing out the inherent absurdities that existed in what passed for entertainment in decades past.

Forbidden Zone is a one-one-of-a-kind experience that will irritate some and fascinate others.  If you belong to the latter category, you’re in for a warped treat.  Aside from its general lack of narrative coherence, it’s a must-see for fans of weird cinema, Danny Elfman, or Oingo Boingo.  If you’re the right sort of person, it will reward on repeated viewings.  All others need not apply.

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