WTFW: Forbidden Zone (1982)

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

WTFW: Forbidden Zone (1982)

And a new standard for the weirdest thing I have ever watched has now been set.  Holy crap this movie is weird!

The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, formed in late 1972 by Richard Elfman, was a musical theater troupe in the tradition of Spike Jones and Frank Zappa, performing an eclectic repertoire ranging from Cab Calloway covers to instrumentals in the style of Balinese gamelan and Russian ballet music.  The name was inspired by a fictional secret society on the Amos 'n' Andy TV series called The Mystic Knights of the Sea.  Most of the members performed in whiteface and clown makeup, and a typical show contained music ranging from the 1890s to the 1950s, in addition to original material.  This version of the band employed as many as 15 musicians at any given time, playing over 30 instruments, including some instruments built by band members.  While this Richard Elfman-led incarnation of the group performed live, it did not issue any recordings.

As Richard Elfman's interest shifted to filmmaking, he passed leadership of the band to younger brother Danny Elfman, who had recently returned from spending time in Africa playing violin and studying percussion instruments. They gained a following in Los Angeles, and appeared as contestants on The Gong Show in 1976, winning the episode they appeared on with 24 points out of a possible 30 (and without getting gonged).  The Gong Show presentation included an accordion, a purple dragon and a gaseous rocket-man.  Later in 1976, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo released a doo-wop styled novelty single about kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst entitled "You Got Your Baby Back".  Both this track and the B-side "Ballad of the Caveman" were written and sung by Danny Elfman.  The band appeared as extras in hallucinatory sequences in the 1977 movie I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.

Forbidden Zone is a 1982 musical comedy film based upon the stage performances of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo.  Originally shot on black-and-white film, the story of Forbidden Zone involves an alternate universe accessed through a door in the house of the Hercules family.  Directed and produced by Richard Elfman, who co-wrote the film with fellow Mystic Knights member Matthew Bright, it was the first film scored by his brother Danny Elfman.  The film stars Hervé Villechaize, Susan Tyrrell and members of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, and features appearances by Warhol Superstar Viva, Joe Spinell and The Kipper Kids.  Hervé Villechaize kicked his check back into the production, even painted sets on weekends.  The only actual paid actor was Phil Gordon, who played Flash.  All the other SAG actors kicked their checks back into the show.

Forbidden Zone was made as an attempt to capture the essence of The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo's live performances on film, and also as a means for both Richard Elfman to retire from music to work on film projects, and to serve as a transition between Oingo Boingo's former cabaret style and a New Wave-based style.  Amid negative reactions to content in the film that had been perceived as being offensive, the film was screened as a midnight movie, received positive notice, and developed a cult following.  In 2004, the film was digitally restored, and in 2008, the film was colorized.

Forbidden Zone (1982)

  • Directed: Richard Elfman
  • Produced: Richard Elfman
  • Written:
    • Matthew Bright (Screenplay)
    • Nick James (Screenplay)
    • Nick L. Martinson (Screenplay)
    • Richard Elfman (Story and Screenplay)
  • Starring: Hervé Villechaize, Susan Tyrrell, Gisele Lindley, Jan Stuart Schwartz, Marie-Pascale Elfman, Virginia Rose, Ugh-Fudge Bwana, Phil Gordon, Hyman Diamond, Toshiro Boloney, Danny Elfman, Viva, Joe Spinell, The Kipper Kids
  • Music: Danny Elfman
  • Editing: Martin Nicholson
  • Cinematography: Gregory Sandor
  • Studio: Hercules Films Ltd.
  • Distributed: Samuel Goldwyn Company
  • Rated:
  • Release Date: March 21, 1982
  • Running Time: 73 minutes
  • Country: United States
  • Language: English
The film begins on "Friday, April 17" at 4 pm in Venice, California.  Huckleberry P. Jones (Gene Cunningham), local pimp, narcotics peddler and slumlord, enters a vacant house that he owns.  While stashing heroin in the basement, he stumbles upon a mysterious door and enters it, falling into the Sixth Dimension, from which he promptly escapes.  After retrieving the heroin, he sells the house to the Hercules family.  On their way to school, Frenchy Hercules (Marie-Pascale Elfman) and her brother Flash (Phil Gordon) have a conversation with Squeezit Henderson (Matthew Bright), who tells them that, while being violently beaten by his mother, he had a vision of his transgender sister René (also played by Bright), who had fallen into the Sixth Dimension through the door in the Hercules' basement.  Frenchy returns home to confide in her mother, and decides to take just a "little peek" behind the forbidden door in the basement.  After arriving in the Sixth Dimension, she is captured by the perpetually topless Princess, who brings Frenchy to the rulers of the Sixth Dimension, the midget King Fausto (Hervé Villechaize) and his queen, Doris (Susan Tyrrell).  When the king falls for Frenchy, Queen Doris orders their frog servant, Bust Rod, to lock her up.  In order to make sure that Frenchy is not harmed, King Fausto tells Bust Rod to take Frenchy to Cell 63, where the king keeps his favorite concubines (as well as René).  The next day at school, Flash tries to convince Squeezit to help him rescue René and Frenchy.  When Squeezit refuses, Flash enlists the help of Gramps instead.  In the Sixth Dimension, they speak to an old Jewish man who tells them how to help Frenchy escape, but they soon are captured by Bust Rod.  Queen Doris interrogates Flash and Gramps and then lowers them into a large septic tank.  She then plots her revenge against Frenchy, relocating all the denizens of Cell 63 to a torture chamber.  She leaves the Princess to oversee Frenchy's torture and execution, but when a fuse is blown, the torture is put on hold and the prisoners from cell 63 are relocated to keep the King from finding them.

After escaping the septic tank, Flash and Gramps come across a woman who tells them that she was once happily married to the king, until Doris stole the throne by seducing her, "even though she's not my type".  The ex-queen has been sitting in her cell for 1,000 years, and has been writing a screenplay in order to keep her sanity. Meanwhile, Pa Hercules is blasted through the stratosphere by an explosion caused by improperly extinguishing his cigarette in a vat of highly flammable tar during his work break at the La Brea Tar Pit Factory.  After re-entry, Pa falls through the Hercules family basement and into the Sixth Dimension, where he is imprisoned.  Finding a phone, Flash calls Squeezit and again asks for his help.  Finally, Squeezit agrees to go into the Sixth Dimension to help rescue Frenchy and René.  There, he is captured by Satan (Danny Elfman), with whom he makes a deal to bring him the Princess in exchange for Satan's help freeing René and Frenchy.  After Squeezit accomplishes this task, Satan tells him not to worry about his friends before having him decapitated.  Queen Doris sends Bust Rod to keep an eye on the king, and to ensure he doesn't find out where she's hidden Frenchy.  King Fausto catches Bust Rod and forces him to lead him to Frenchy and René, whom he orders to leave the Sixth Dimension to avoid the Queen's wrath.  However, en route to safety, René is stricken with pseudo-menstrual cramps, and they are again captured by the frog.  Squeezit's head, which has now sprouted chicken wings, finds the king and informs him of what has happened.  While preparing to kill Frenchy, Doris is confronted by the ex-queen, and the two engage in a cat-fight, with Doris eventually coming out as the victor.  Just as she is about to kill Frenchy, King Fausto stops her, explaining that Satan's Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo are holding the Princess hostage, and will kill her should anything befall Frenchy.  Flash and Gramps arrive, and Flash is knocked down by Gramps.  Ma Hercules enters and, seeing a seemingly dead Flash, shoots Queen Doris.  King Fausto mourns Doris, then marries Frenchy.  The surviving characters look toward a great future as they plan to take over everyone and everything in the Galaxy.

The film was given limited distribution during its initial theatrical release, and not well received by critics.  Some of the film's sequences and characters led to director Richard Elfman being accused of racism (because of its satirically surreal use of blackface), and even anti-Semitism.  According to Elfman, "I was attacked on every level. [...] We were kicked out of theaters; there were arson threats."  However, the film has since been rediscovered, and has gained new life as a cult film.

The film's overt use of racist caricatures are offensive to many viewers.  Some cult followers of the film see this as part of a larger critique of Hollywood films.  The racism, sexism, and simplicity of typical Hollywood films is taken to an absurd level in Forbidden Zone.  Instead of simple, poorly-written characters with racist undertones; the film almost exclusively uses bizarre overtly racist archetypes with no hint of character development.  Instead of female characters being cast and costumed more for looks than talent, the female characters here are overtly presented as sex objects in various levels of undress.  The violence depicted in the film, though portrayed with cartoonish non-realism, was more brutal than most films of the era.

The film's soundtrack has also become popular, and its theme song was eventually reused by Danny Elfman, who rearranged it as The Dilbert Zone for use as the theme for the television series Dilbert.
The film was released on VHS in the late 1980s and on DVD by Fantoma in 2004 for Region 1 viewers, and in 2006 for Region 2 by Arrow Film Distributors Ltd. with a region-free Blu-ray release by Arrow in 2012.  In 2008, the film was colorized by Legend Films.  This version of the film is being sold as a download and on DVD from RiffTrax.  In June 2009 it was revealed that a sequel was in pre-production.

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