The world of motion pictures is loaded with brilliant films and original visions, but few are without precedent. Forbidden Zone is a one of a kind movie that is both highly intelligent and unafraid to be broadly stupid. It mixes the most nightmarish elements of hundreds of film moments, unintentionally of course, with some of the most emotionally stirring music ever to prop up celluloid. If it weren’t for the snatches of dialogue, it might be considered the greatest prog rock opera.
Forbidden Zone is a work of pure originality. It is a fever dream from the mind of a musical interloper that has no peer. Characterizations mean nothing in Forbidden Zone. Neither does storyline or continuity. The basic laws of physics don’t apply so why should the rules of cinema? Or music video?
It’s not just that Forbidden Zone is a one-of-a-kind movie, it’s that there is no other movie like it. That may sound like a roundabout way of saying the same thing, but most movies that are considered to be one-of-a-kind have something that they are the same kind as. Forbidden Zone is not so kind. No other movies came out that were of its kind, so the one-of-a-kind movie classification still stands as a standalone. This would make more sense if you spent more time in Forbidden Zone.
Some movies show their genius through a collaborative conception of perfection: perfect framing, lighting, score and performance. The Godfather and Casablanca don’t have a millisecond of celluloid that’s less than perfect. Yet, Casablanca was just another piece of popcorn sales on the studio assembly line and The Godfather was made almost in defiance of the studio. Forbidden Zone had none of this. It was in defiance of nothing and yet everything. It was a good hearted jab at political correctness with a kinky center.
And you could dance to it.
That’s because Forbidden Zone was made as a kind of long-form music video for the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. Not quite the secret society it sounds like, Oingo Boingo was a modern big band with the heart of prog band. For the uninitiated, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo came from the Spike Jones and Frank Zappa skewl of music and was comprised of over a dozen multi-instrumentalists. Band geeks, basically, all grown up and looking for quick cash and cheap thrills to spend it on. They ranged in style from big band jazz to ballet to gamelan and back again, sometimes in the same song.
Just wait until those dead babies start marching, then you’ll be eating your words
The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo were named after The Mystic Knights of the Sea from the Amos ‘n’ Andy TV series. They were probably most famous, at that point, for their appearance on the 1970s cult show The Gong Show. A trio from The Mystic Knights took the stage and launched into “the rarely performed Hayden trio for piano, accordion and triangle” for comedian Buddy Hackett, sock puppeteer Shari Lewis, and closet CIA hitman and “smarmy” “fuck” Chuck Barris who Richard Elfman wanted to throw into the audience. The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boing went home with the grand prize of $516.32.
The band performed in clown costumes, white face, drag, as purple dragons or maybe nothing at all, like “White Punks on Dope” band, The Tubes. Forbidden Zone was an attempt to capture the essence of their live performances on film.
Forbidden Zone was directed and produced by the Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo founder Richard Elfman, who co-wrote it with Matthew Bright, another member of the order who plays siblings Squeezit and René. Bright would go on to write Shrunken Heads and Modern Vampires (aka Revenant…not that one) and write and direct Freeway. The funky forced perception sets were designed by Marie-Pascale Elfman, who was inspired by the silent German Expressionist masterpiece Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Steve Bartek was the orchestrator. The music was scored by Danny Elfman (yes, Richard’s brother), the future singing voice of Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Forbidden Zone was the first film scored by Danny Elfman, who had to do it in two weeks. Elfman would eventually score, among other things, Batman, Desperate Housewives, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But he is probably best known as the guy who wrote The Simpsons’ theme.
When Danny Elfman took over the band from his brother, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo released “You Got Your Baby Back,” a doo-wop song about brainwashed bourgeoisie bank robber Patty Hearst. They were featured in Martin Brest’s film Hot Tomorrows in 1976 and in a trippy scene in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden in 1977. Richard Elfman directed Shrunken Heads and Modern Vampires.
The Elfmans were a musical family. Their father was a jazz trumpeter. Richard put the band together in the early ’70s. He was the creative director and percussionist. His brother Danny was four years younger and a self-taught musical prodigy. When Danny was 16, he picked up a guitar and figured out a solo by the digitally challenged Gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Then he picked up a violin and figured out the backing.
The brothers performed with Le Grand Magic Circus, a gang of “gonzo, avant-garde types” corralled by Argentinian-French theater director Jérôme Savary, who mixed musical theater with opera, operetta, and musical comedy. Savary wrote the song “Pleure” for Forbidden Zone. The sensual song “Witch’s Egg” was written by Georg Michalski and Susan Tyrrell. Richard Elfman shot the “Yiddishe Charleston” scene using an old recording to lip sync to, but they couldn’t get the rights and had to record a new version of the song to match the footage.
The other-dimensional characters lip synch to Josephine Baker songs, swing tunes from the jazz age and Cab Calloway’s cokey classic “Minnie the Moocher” in the “Squeezit the Moocher” sequence. The alphabet song was inspired by the song “Swinging the Alphabet” which appeared in The Three Stooges short Violent Is the Word for Curly. Richard Elfman shot the “Yiddishe Charleston” scene using an old recording to lip sync to, but they couldn’t get the rights and had to record a new version of the song to match the footage.
One thousand years and I still can’t get enough of you.
I didn’t see Forbidden Zone when it was first released. This is actually inexcusable because I’d managed to catch Oingo Boingo live already, though they were a ska band opening for Squeeze at that point.
Shot on 35mm black and white film, this movie looks like it might pull a Wizard of Oz at any moment. It is one of the most colorful black and white movies ever made. This is also one of the greatest musicals rendered visually. It harkens back to the surrealistic jazz cartoons Max Fleischer shot in the roaring twenties. Fleischer is best known for his work with the character Betty Boop, who was half “It” girl Clara Bow and half Cotton Club jazz singer “Baby Esther” Jones. His cartoons had a spooky element to them even when they were just music shorts, the forerunner to today’s music videos and tomorrow’s dental implants. Fleischer made The Ouija Board (1920), Swing You Sinners (1931), Bimbo’s Initiation (1931) (who wouldn’t want to be initiated by a roomful of Betty Boops?), and, as discussed above, Minnie the Moocher (1932).
Forbidden Zone stars Hervé Villechaize, best known for his role on Fantasy Island and the 1960s gangster comedy The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, as King Fausto, the libidinous but unfair ruler of the Forbidden Zone, a boro of the Sixth Dimension. What could this world offer hatched out of witches’ eggs? Life imitating art making fun of life. Villechaize had dated his co-star Susan Tyrrell, who played Midge Montana in Big Top Pee Wee, plays Queen Doris.
It also stars Marie-Pascale Elfman, who was married to Richard Elfman and swears her accent is genuine, as Frenchy. Toshiro Boloney plays both Squeezit and his twin sister Rene. Danny Elfman plays Satan. Former vaudeville actor Phil Gordon plays Frenchy’s brother Flash. Gene Cunningham plays Huckleberry P. Jones. Hyman Diamond is Gramps.
Other members of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo are caught acting. Forbidden Zone features Giselle Lindley and Kendrick Wolfe with special appearances by Joe Spinell and The Kipper Kids: Martin Rochus and Sebastian von Haselberg. Warhol Superstar Viva appeared on the condition that she could write her own lines and not pull her punches.
The film was shot in a kind of forbidden zone. The actors didn’t do it for money. Villechaize, whose agent begged him not to do the film, was as beneficent as his King was horny. Not only did he and all but one of the actors, Phil Gordon, kick up their paychecks into production, but Villechaize also spent the weekends painting sets, swept up the place and made sandwiches. Villechaize was a champion of underground and experimental art and was in a wide range of films, including Oliver Stone’s first film, Seizure, which had Dark Shadows’ Jonathan Frid as lead. He was much more than just his Tattoo character.
What Happens Beyond the World of the Sixth Dimension?
If you’re watching the film very carefully and looking for certain clues, you wonder, what’s actually going on? Forbidden Zone begins on Friday, April 17, at 4 p.m. in the vacant Venice, California, home of Huckleberry P. Jones, a local pimp, dope pusher and slumlord, while he is stashing heroin in the forbidden basement at the bottom of the stairs of the home that he sells to the Hercules family.
The Hercules family was inspired by Richard Elfman’s next-door neighbors in Venice, “a poor, white-trash, hillbilly family. The drunken father would yell at the mother, who’d hit the daughter, who’d yell at the son, who’d yell at the dog,” Elfman explained in an interview at the time.
Ma and Pa Hercules warn Frenchy to steer clear of the spooky portal in the basement. Their daughter recently returned from France. The French, we are told, are the master race and this descendant of god is stuck going go a public school. And, well, that’s when things get really weird.
Why does it feel so good to be so bad?
As much as I appreciate the classics, I’ve always had a thing for otherness in film: Movies that give you a sense of the uncomfortable, a feeling close to dread, but a happy kind of dread. Films that come from a place the viewer isn’t normally invited or from an askew angle. Flawed masterpieces like The Rocky Horror Picture Show carry this off with a sense of self-assured fun. Polished gems like A Clockwork Orange subvert expectations and the audience finds themselves rooting for a completely unsympathetic character because of his charm and the topsy turvy world around him.
Forbidden Zone was politically incorrect before anyone had even finished reading Chairman Mao. It caught flak for using blackface and committing other racial and sexual insensitivities. Forbidden Zone was the film that dared ask when that mentally challenged Swedish husband was comin’ home, anyhow? The film was banned by the University of Wisconsin. Elfman said the movie was a human cartoon and nobody was painted more cartoonishly than anyone else. The film didn’t spare anyone. Certainly, it was very liberal with its offense. The classroom even has a chubby Hitler dancing with the pimped out thugs. It isn’t really so much dangerous or threatening as it is absurd and childish. But it is also childlike in its sense of wonder.
A mix of commedia dell’arte, German expressionism and French absurdist theater, Forbidden Zone is so silly and yet so funny and deals with such serious subjects as heroin, child abuse, astral projection, and the sixth dimension. It captures such simple beauty. Or does it? Maybe it’s the music that transforms ugliness into aesthetics. You can hear snatches of nightmare in the music.
The dancing is funky, frenzied and acrobatic. The pacing is always quick. The lines are hysterically timed. “Don’t go through any trouble over me,” one character says while a torturer readies her instruments of pain. The performances are over-the-top parodies of acting. They are cartoonlike and so very broad. That doesn’t mean you don’t get into the characters and have a real feel for them. When the fake queen dies, I choke up. I don’t know if this is the Vaseline under Hervé’s eyes, the music, whether I was emotionally invested in that character or because the Queen promised to ream us with twenty inch cattle prods, and I’m still waiting.
Everything looks different but nothing has changed.
For a movie that deals mainly in the sixth dimension, Forbidden Zone doesn’t mind folding in on itself. It opens in 2D, the lopsided house where a drug dealer hid his stash before he lammed it to the Sixth Dimension. The first take on documenting Hercules Family, was an hour-long experiment shot on 16 mm. Elfman added another 20 minutes in 35 mm. Then he replaced the original Hercules Family footage, because it didn’t look right together.
Richard Elfman always wanted to shoot the movie in color and got the chance to have the movie colorized in 2008. “I was going to have the ‘Forbidden Zone’ sequences hand-tinted in China or Korea, like they did in art films form Paris in the Twenties,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015. “I went broke way before the slow boat arrived in China.”
According to endless reports, Richard Elfman is planning a follow-up to Forbidden Zone where a new family moves into the house with the inter-dimensional basement. Rumors say Richard’s daughter-in-law Jenna Elfman, does a “surrealistic aerial dance routine” dressed like Dr. Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Richard Elfman told everyone that Danny already wrote songs for it, turned the song Oingo Boingo played on The Gong Show into the National Anthem of the Sixth Dimension and will play Satan again, this time singing Cab Calloway’s “St. James Infirmary Blues.”
“I haven’t really started anything for it yet,” Danny told Rolling Stone a few years ago. “He’s my big brother and it’s like, he says, ‘OK, we’re doing Forbidden Zone 2, and you’re going to do songs.’ And I’m like, ‘All right.’ Our relationship hasn’t changed. When I became the musical director of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo it was right after I’d come back from Africa at age 19; he picked me up at the airport and said, ‘I started a theater troupe, you’re the musical director.’ I was like, ‘OK, I guess so.’ It’s like getting called up into active duty.”
Living without protection really sucks. Moving in the wrong direction brings bad luck. At one point the sequel was threatened to be called The Sixth Element. There have been unofficial trailers and an official YouTube channel. But there has still never been anything like the original Forbidden Zone.