The Forbidden Zone By Skizz Cyzyk. “Friday, April 17 4P.M. Venice, California Huckleberry P. Jones, local pimp, narcotics peddler, and slum-lord was seen entering a vacant house that he owned...
“Friday, April 17 4P.M. Venice, California
Huckleberry P. Jones, local pimp, narcotics peddler, and slum-lord was seen entering a vacant house that he owned. While stashing some heroin in the basement, he stumbled upon a mysterious door. Naturally he entered...Only to find...The Forbidden Zone. Jones retrieved the heroin and promptly sold the place. One month later, the Hercules Family moved in.”
So begins one of the strangest movies to ever deserve a cult following: Richard Elfman’s early ’80s masterpiece, Forbidden Zone.
Shot in glorious black and white, this live-action/animation hybrid is full of sex, nudity, creative set design, wild musical numbers, and outlandish stereotypes. Richard Elfman created the cartoonish hell of Forbidden Zone in the early ’80s, before most people were even aware of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the campy, kitsch, musical comedy to which Forbidden Zone is often undeservingly compared.
The music combines old records (Cab Calloway, Miguelito Valdez, Josephine Baker) and brother Danny Elfman’s compositions for Oingo Boingo. And-talk about creative casting-the film features Herve Villechaize (Tattoo from “Fantasy Island”) and Susan Tyrrell (Tapeheads, Crybaby); cameos from Warhol superstar, Viva; recurring Rocky character, Joe Spinell; and avant-comedy performance art group, the Kipper Kids.
The story is relatively simple: The Hercules Family (Ma, Pa, Gramps, Flash and Frenchy) discover their basement hides a secret doorway to the Sixth Dimension, a demented world of tortured souls ruled by King Fausto (Villechaize), Queen Doris (Tyrrell), and their topless daughter, The Princess (Gisele Lindley). Their kingdom is guarded by jockstrap-clad boxers (The Kipper Kids) and a half-man/half-frog named BustRod (Jan Stuart Schwartz). When the Hercules’ neighbor, Renee Henderson (screenwriter Matthew Bright-billed as Toshiro Baloney-in drag), accidentally falls into the Sixth Dimension, one by one, the entire Hercules family, along with Renee’s twin brother, Squeezit (also played by Bright), follow. Problems arise when the Queen captures Frenchy (Richard Elfman’s ex-wife Marie-Pascale Elfman). Frenchy quickly becomes the King’s secret love interest, thus driving the Queen into a jealous rage. Things get more complicated when Squeezit kidnaps The Princess and delivers her to Satan and his Big Band (played by Danny Elfman and The Mystic Knights Of The Oingo Boingo) in exchange for Renee’s and Frenchy’s safety.
That’s Forbidden Zone in a nutshell. But, let’s not forget the Busby Berkeley-inspired musical numbers and Max Fleischer mise-en-scene. A good part of the charm and appeal of Forbidden Zone derives from its sets and characters. Shot indoors with handmade sets that resembled art-student projects, the world of The Forbidden Zone is as unusual as its populace. None of the characters resembles an average human being. Take, for instance, Flash (Phil Gordon II), who wears a Boy Scout uniform minus pants; and Flash’s mute sidekick, Gramps (Hyman Diamond), a bearded strongman who, despite his name, looks a lot younger than Flash. Then, there’s Squeezit Henderson, who sports tighty-whities, hangs out in garbage cans, has an unexplained connection to chickens, and is the only character certain of his sibling Renee’s gender. That’s just scratching the surface.
There’s an entire classroom full of odd characters who break into song at the drop of a hat, making it obvious that the peculiarity of Forbidden Zone is not unique to the Sixth Dimension: it encompasses the entire world. Taste is pushed to the limits, while predictability is outright squashed. Forbidden Zone is a campy, kinky, bizarre, surreal cult film, and-unless you’ve already seen it-you’ve never seen anything like it.
How does a film like Forbidden Zone come into being? Richard Elfman’s career began as an Afro-Latin percussionist, a boxer, and food critic (not all at once). In the ’70s, he was working with a French avant-garde theater company called the Grand Magic Circus, with the French National Theatre’s Jerome Savary as director, and the Royal Shakespheare Company’s Peter Brook as executive director. He gained a lot of experience acting and staging scenes, spending summers touring Europe. His brother, Danny, joined the company one summer, playing violin. Eventually the brothers left for Los Angeles, where Richard formed his own musical theatrical group, The Mystic Knights Of The Oingo Boingo. “We were a twelve-person, ‘comedia del arte’ type group,” he says, “[founded] as an alternative group in the true sense of the word, that is, nothing contemporary allowed. Music was either totally avant-garde, or it was a killer recreation of cool pre-’50s stuff.” The industry and the times being what they were, resulted in Richard continuing on in theater and film, as the group became more of a band and less of a theatrical group.
It was during the Mystic Knight’s early-’80s transition from theater group to ground-breaking New Wave rock band that Richard got the idea to try to capture on film what the group had been doing on stage. With the goal to “satirize contemporary urban decadence,” Richard began working on The Hercules Family, a 60-minute, 16mm film. He never finished it. Instead, friends convinced him to remake it as a 35mm feature. A couple years later, Forbidden Zone was completed.
Most of the production’s relatively small budget went into music rights and animation. Although Danny composed much of the music with the Mystic Knights performing it, scattered throughout the film are old recordings to which the cast dances and lip-syncs, often adding new lyrics. Richard got his money’s worth on the animation. John Muto’s beautiful, short animated sequences tie scenes together, adding another facet to the weirdness of Forbidden Zone’s world. The animated opening sequence gets the entire movie off on the right foot.
Surprisingly, very little of the budget was spent on the cast, since many cast members were friends of people involved in the production, and were happy to be involved in it. Richard was a good friend to The Kipper Kids, and Matthew Bright knew Joe Spinell. Danny Elfman was in the 1977 film, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden with Susan Tyrrell, who was anxious to do some musical numbers. That same year, Danny and Marie-Pascale Elfman were in Martin Brest’s Hot Tomorrows with Herve Villechaize.
Everyone involved in Forbidden Zone loved working with Villechaize, who would often spend weekends helping to paint the sets. “He was a little angel with devilish aspirations,” says Richard. “Sometimes he and Susan Tyrrell would have terrible arguments that I would have to break up. It was tragi-comic. They had dated romantically briefly and passions were hot. Her voice box was about ten times more forceful than his was. But the emotion was all stuff we used in the film, so I took it as a positive.”
Forbidden Zone would have been perfect midnight-movie fare had it caught on earlier. Unfortunately, by the early ’80s, the midnight-movie circuit that kept cult-films and rock musicals alive was dying out in exchange for home video and cable TV, leaving Rocky Horror as the only midnight-movie young audiences knew of. Luckily, Forbidden Zone found a home on cable TV’s Night Flight, and The Movie Channel’s Max Headroom-hosted movie show. The film also had a brief VHS and Beta video release. The soundtrack LP found its way into most independently owned record stores, giving New Wave music fans a hint that the film existed. The opportunity to see Forbidden Zone was like finding the Holy Grail for die-hard Oingo Boingo fans.
Since Forbidden Zone, Herve Villechaize sadly took his own life in 1993; Matthew Bright went on to write and direct both Freeway movies, plus he wrote the 1992 Guncrazy and the TV special, After Diff’rent Strokes: When the Laughter Stopped; Kipper Kid, Martin von Haselberg married Bette Midler, while his partner, Brian Routh, has gone on to be an important figure in performance art theater; animator John Muto went on to be a production designer on films like River’s Edge, Home Alone, and Species. Danny took over the Mystic Knights of The Oingo Boingo, shortening the name to Oingo Boingo, and eventually just Boingo. Throughout the ’80s, they had a string of hits on alternative radio and MTV, with some of their videos directed by Richard. The band eventually fizzled out in the ’90s to make room for Danny’s explosive career as a film composer.
The Elfman family name has infiltrated the entertainment industry in similar fashion as the names Baldwin and Barrymore. Richard’s son Louis writes for Venice Magazine, while his other son Bodhi just co-starred in UPN’s futuristic/kung fu series, Freedom, and will appear in Elfman’s upcoming films. Jenna Elfman is Bodhi’s wife and star of the popular sitcom, Dharma and Greg. Richard’s mother, Blossom Elfman (AKA, Clair Elfman) is a writer. Her twelfth novel, The Pederaste’s Wife (ISBN: 0802313329), is slated to be a stage play and film under Richard’s direction, with music by Danny. Richard’s fiancée, Rachael Rowen, director of the feature documentary Kidney, hosts Rachael Rowen’s Radio Ranch.
Richard’s later films, despite maintaining involvement from writer Matthew Bright, unfortunately have lacked the same magic that made his debut so special. “If I had my way, I would be doing more and more outrageous stuff. Maybe with the upcoming digital age, films will be cheaper to shoot and we can let the untamed, creative side go amok some more.” Richard’s second feature, 1994’s Shrunken Heads, plays like a Goosebumps episode that forgets its audience, straddling between childish and adult fare while being something of a horror movie. His third feature, 1998’s Modern Vampires, despite Elfman’s intentions of satirizing contemporary urban decadence, comes off primarily as a Casper Van Dien vanity project, saved mostly by the comedic talents of Craig Ferguson and the pretty-to-look-at Natasha Gregson Wagner. Another plus is a supporting cast that includes the likes of Udo Kier and Kim Catrall, not to mention the fact that vampire flicks are just automatically cool. However, Richard personally demonstrates the horribly stale humor of the film with his cameo as a cop who, get this, is eating a donut! Meanwhile, Rod Steiger feasts on scenery as an elderly Van Helsing introduced to a world of street gangs, drugs, and rap music making Modern Vampires dated compared to the timeless Forbidden Zone.
A fourth film often credited to Richard is 1994’s Streets of Rage, which he denies directing. “I was a co-writer (as a favor to a friend), and it was directed by a group of persons over a four-day period,” he says. “I did a two day re-write and was one of a number of fellows, mostly Aristide Sumatra, who hung around the set getting drunk and shouting orders.”
Who is Aristide Sumatra? “He is a fascinating and very dangerous man from Haiti; a colonel on Duvalier’s notorious Ton Ton Macoute, which terrorized the population with Voodoo. People confuse his work with my own.” Aristide Sumatra is credited as the director of Streets of Rage. “Aristide Sumatra” is also the name of Julius Harris’ character in Elfman’s Shrunken Heads, and is the name of an actor who bears a strong resemblance to Richard Elfman in 1997’s George of the Jungle. Thus, you can see where the confusion may stem.
When asked if his fans can expect a return to the weird and wacky from him, Richard says, “I am not done with reaming the asshole of contemporary dullness and political correctness. No sir!” What can we expect? Hipsters, Gangsters, Aliens and Geeks is very outrageous. It tears at the very fabric of our universe! The Sclimazl of Sebriem (by Isaac Basheevis Elfman-no relation) is more of a kung fu vampire tale, an off-kilter but straight-ahead narrative. Not as much sex or political incorrectness, but it’s crazy!” Elfman’s website lists some more potential upcoming projects that sound equally interesting.
Whatever Richard Elfman unleashes on us in the future and no matter what you might think of his last two (or three) films, he will forever go down in film history as the director of one of the funniest, most bizarre films ever made: Forbidden Zone. For that alone, we should all be grateful.
For more information, visit http://www.richardelfman.com.
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