Cult Cinema: Forbidden Zone

We finally review Richard Elfman's triumphantly bizarre Forbidden Zone. 

"I made a deal with the devil
so I could write the score
for Pee Wee's Big Adventure...
and it worked!!"
In 1972, years before turning to filmmaking, Richard Elfman formed with his brother Danny (now a renowned film music composer) a musical performance art cabaret known as The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, an elaborate theater act comprised of over 15 musicians.  In addition to playing over 30 instruments including some built by the band members themselves, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo included everything from complicated costumes, whiteface and clown makeup to oversized rubber props such as a dragon.  Largely steeped stylistically in Cab Calloway, Balinese gamelan and Russian ballet, with music dating back to the 1890s through the 1950s and a litany of their own original material, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo was an eclectic form of high end theater the likes of which was never seen before or since.  

After Richard passed the reigns to Danny around the time his interest in film production intensified, Danny found himself tiring of the time consuming physical labor of carting around heavy props, instruments and assembling the show’s otherworldly set pieces.  With his desire to jettison the overblown theatrics the group became known for, Danny downsized the band to Oingo Boingo and shifted the style from cabaret to traditional rock and ska.  Although videotapes of The Mystic Knights concerts and television appearances existed, Richard wasn’t ready to completely let the cabaret troupe’s antics be forgotten, and thus began a taxing labor of love that became one of the most celebrated midnight movie sensations of all time, Forbidden Zone.

Originally conceived as a 16mm short musical film consisting of 12 musical numbers before ballooning into a 35mm project with many reshoots, Forbidden Zone is a gleefully bizarre exercise in pure cinema.  Shot in black-and-white but also available in a director-approved (and preferred) colorized version with a cast largely made up of The Mystic Knights, friends and notable character actors including Joe Spinnell and Herve Villechaize (Fantasy Island), the film concerns a household with a door leading to the Sixth Dimension and the Hercules family members that fall through it or something like that.  To try and decode the inexplicable, truly surreal storyline is beside the point.  Much like the live shows, you are transported into an entirely new realm that’s perversely odd, shocking, hilarious, and all around compulsively watchable. 

"Check out this set. No. I mean THE set."
Burlesque, grotesque and highly artificial with intentional stage play set pieces, the weirder and more curiously offensive Forbidden Zone gets, the more we can’t take our eyes off the screen.  The centerpiece of the film involves a demonic rendition of Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher with a white-suited Danny Elfman as Satan, aka, The Nightmare Before Christmas’ Jack Skellington in the flesh.  Dancing and cavorting about like a wild man with a crazed look in his eye and a wicked grin, you just know Elfman and Tim Burton were destined to work together and even play off of each other’s unique sensibilities and penchant for the zany.  Linking the numbers together are sophisticated hand-drawn animated sequences that would make Terry Gilliam blush.  Much like David Lynch’s Eraserhead or Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the only reason we know we’ve reached something resembling a conclusion is when the picture simply ends.  Like any great work of surreal comedy, you could take any scene from Forbidden Zone out of context and they will make about as much logical sense as they are put together into a 2 hour film. 

Related Article:
Interview with
Richard Elfman
A truly independent feature never destined to please everyone, initial reactions to Forbidden Zone were almost entirely negative, with many taking umbrage to the film’s rampant use of white and blackface (sometimes layering the two on top of each other) and bawdy entourage of topless women doing burlesque performance art.  The parodying of a bygone era of archetypical Hollywood racism and chavunism exploited to a cartoonish level went almost entirely misunderstood by critics and those unfamiliar with the stage theatrics of the band it was trying to shine a spotlight on.  Amid arson threats, accusations of racism, sexism and even anti-semitism, the film was then moved to the midnight circuit where it quickly developed a cult following and became a sensation and catapulted Danny Elfman to both film composition and helped buffer the sharp transition from the cabaret act to a simpler, easier rock band.  

Over the years Forbidden Zone was performed as a live theater show with Richard Elfman’s blessing and talk of a crowdfunded sequel penned by Elfman has been in the works since 2009.  While Forbidden Zone most certainly isn’t going to be all things to all people, provoking every kind of reaction from shock and confusedly raised eyebrows, it is so committed to the concept of pure theater and free cinema it achieves a kind of transcendence.  Nothing like it has come before or since, and whether you love or hate it, you can’t help but laud The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo for showing the world just how tough life in the Sixth Dimension can be!

-10 out of 10 - Andrew Kotwicki

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