Forbidden Zone Review
Forbidden Zone was born out of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, a patently bizarre musical troupe who specialised in extravagant theatrical shows, payed homage to Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, and would later drop the Mystic Knights bit and transmutate into eighties pop group Oingo Boingo. Amongst their number were future film score impresario Danny Elfman, his brother Richard and future writer-director Matthew Bright, best known the Little Red Riding Hood “re-imagining” Freeway. All three contribute here, with Danny providing the songs and score and playing a Calloway-esque Satan, Richard directing, and Bright both co-writing and appearing as Chicken Boy, the story’s unexpected hero. But more of that later…
The majority of the Mystic Knights were either related, married to each other or old high school/college buddies, and indeed there’s a gang mentality inherent in their output as a result. The effect onscreen is that, at times, Forbidden Zone resembles a particularly ambitious home movie, but then that shouldn’t be seen as a problem. This is low budget filmmaking, certainly, and it has to be. A trashy homage to sci-fi B movies, forgotten Yiddish musicals and pre-Hays Code risquéness, it simply wouldn’t have worked had it been blessed with higher production values or demonstrated even the slightest hint of slickness. Its efforts have been instead placed into the astute of the referencing – from Dave Fleischer to Josephine Baker – and the results are really quite distinctive. Imagine a blend of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Saddest Music in the World and you’d be almost there. Only you need to add a dose of Ed Wood’s mad scientist flicks as well, and some animated sequences. And the ethos of TV’s earliest sitcoms. Oh, and a screwball mentality as well.
Furthermore, Forbidden Zone has cult credentials abounding from all over. As well as the Oingo Boingo connection we also find some truly eclectic casting decisions. Susan Tyrell, still reasonably fresh from her Oscar-nominated turn in John Huston’s Fat City, dons a Bride of Frankenstein wig to play the chief villainess. Hervé Villechaice, Nick-Nack from The Man With the Golden Gun and star of TV’s Fantasy Island, also makes a prominent appearance, whilst ex-Warhol “superstar” Viva and the creator of Maniac, Joe Spinell, also perform their duties in smaller roles. An oddball mix, and self-consciously so, yet Forbidden Zone doesn’t feel like a cynical piece of audience chasing. Its vein of trash is knowing, of course, but only the manner of a George Kuchar, say, or John Waters – in other words, its pleasures are calculated, but altogether genuine.
That said, such pleasures are rarely derived from the plotting. In narrative terms Forbidden Zone is undoubtedly strange. A portal to another dimension, the sixth in fact, lies under the home of the Hercules family, a mismatched Jewish clan with odder friends (the aforementioned Chicken Boy) and even odder classmates. Of course, a number of them make the trip through this portal, thereby meeting up with Tyrell and Villechaice, Elfman’s Satan, sundry scantily clad sex slaves and a butler donning an oversized frog’ head. And yet, this all counts for very little – ultimately it’s the song and dance numbers which matter. Indeed, as a musical pure and simple, Forbidden Zone proves to be immensely entertaining. And furthermore, it hasn’t been blighted, as you could argue has been the case with its kindred spirit The Rocky Horror Picture Show, by overfamiliarity. Settling down to the film today, 26 years after its initial appearance, it’s surprising how fresh the whole thing feels. After all, homages to Calloway and Josephine Baker are fairly rare, as are titles which bring to mind Hellzapoppin’ or the ignored cinematic oeuvre of Eddie Cantor. Similarly, whilst Danny Elfman has gone on to a much higher profile courtesy of his Burton collaborations and Spider-Man scores, he’s never really done anything quite like this since. His work on Ed Wood and The Nightmare Before Christmas may share certain affinities given their styles and subject matters, but it’s unlikely that many would see them and make the connections to this, his earliest of credits.
And so we’re left with a film which, happily, lives up to its cult reputation. It’s ropey at times, of course, but then it also boasts some terrific lines (“You expect to take over the universe? You dumb fuck!”), plays out at just the right B-movie length of a little over 70 minutes, and comes – as said – with many a terrific song and dance number. In the right frame of mind you could ask for little more.
Releasing in the UK through Arrow, a somewhat variable label at the best of times, Forbidden Zone pleasingly arrives in packed special edition form. For starters, the presentation is really quite superb. The black and white photography is crisp and clear throughout, rarely blighted by damage. Admittedly some shots do appear a touch weaker than others, but then it seems more than likely that this is result of problems inherent in the film’s production as opposed to the DVD’s. As for the soundtrack, here we get both the original mono (as DD2.0) and a brand new 5.1 remix. In either case we’re dealing with a crisp and clear presentation and so ultimately it comes down to the viewer’s discretion – just how expansive do you wish for Elfman’s numbers to be?
In terms of extras, it’s difficult to choose to a particular highpoint. Richard Elfman teams up with his co-writer Matthew Bright for a wonderfully enthusiastic commentary (Bright piping up “God, I wanted to fuck her” during the appearance of one of the female cast members is particularly memorably and pretty much sets the tone for the rest). Elfman reappears, this time wielding a huge cigar, for a 35-minute ‘making of’ which takes us through the film’s production and talks to, amongst others, his brother, Bright and Tyrell. Also notable from this piece is the low-grade video footage of various Mystic Knights gigs, and talking of old footage the disc also finds room for 10 minutes of outtakes and material from The Hercules Family, Forbidden Zone’s initial, and abandoned, 16mm incarnation. Elsewhere we also find five deleted scenes totalling a little over four minutes, the original theatrical trailer and, a particularly nice touch, a vintage Oingo Boingo music video which sees Elfman and co adopt a more MTV-friendly style.
(As a final note, it is worth pointing out that the commentary is a little out-of-synch with the main feature. However, given the non-stop manner in which Elfman and Bright blabber on, this is barely noticeable.)
Last updated: 19/04/2018 04:50:00