Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Forbidden Zone (1980): The end of an era; the foretelling of the next

Forbidden Zone (1980)
dir: Richard Elfman

Forbidden Zone serves as an ode to The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, just as everything about The Mystic Knights was completely changing. The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo was the original incarnation of the Danny Elfman-led new wave band Oingo Boingo. Throughout the '70s, under the leadership of either Richard or Danny Elfman, The Mystic Knights served as a form of musical-theater or cabaret where the band played either old school big band music or Danny Elfman compositions. The plan had been to play things you couldn't hear live anywhere else at the time.

Richard Elfman conceived of Forbidden Zone to be a cinematic equivalent of seeing The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo live in concert. It is an attempt to preserve a band whose main point was also preservation. But, Elfman didn't just want to preserve the band. He also was trying to recall and preserve an era which had been long gone: that of the early 1920s and 30s cartoons.

In the 1920s and 30s, there were a whole slew of black and white, hand-drawn cartoons that were pushing boundaries, and also engaging with some of the musical artists of the generation. The most well known of these were the early Silly Symphonies, before they were taken over by Mickey and the gang. For instance, Ub Iwerks' The Skeleton Dance was a playful, hand-drawn Halloween cartoon about skeletons dancing at midnight set to a minor key foxtrot. Less widely remembered are the cartoons featuring Cab Calloway, like the Koko the Clown/Betty Boop cartoons, or a cameo in 1944's Swooner Crooner. Elfman took everything from these cartoons. Everything. Not just the visual style, but the racism, sexism, and stereotypes.

Forbidden Zone is a silly movie about a bunch of weird cartoonish caricatures who discover that there is a door in their basement that leads to the 6th Dimension, the Forbidden Zone. The door was first discovered by a heroin dealer/smuggler. The next to go through the door was Rene Henderson (Matthew Bright), who became imprisoned by the King and Queen. Then, one by one, the other characters head down the rabbit hole in an attempt to rescue Rene and each other.

Of course, the plot is just a conceptual excuse on which to hang the musical numbers and the bizarre characters. There is Frenchy, a woman with a bizarre French accent (Mrs. Elfman). Squeezit Henderson, Rene's brother and also a chickenboy (Matthew Bright). Flash Hercules, a 12-year-old boy scout played by a 70+ year old man. King Fausto (Herve Villechaize) and Queen Doris (Susan Tyrrell), who rule the Forbidden Zone. The ex-queen who was overthrown for Queen Doris (Warhol superstar Viva). The Princess, a woman who runs around in her underwear whipping people. Satan, who leads the Mystic Knights (Danny Elfman). And, the Kipper Kids, whom one may recognize from UHF as the fill-in act after Stanley is kidnapped.

The musical numbers range from Cab Calloway to Freddy Martin's Pico and Sepulveda. The Three Stooges-originated Alphabet song makes an appearance, as do a few original pieces from Danny Elfman. All these numbers have high concept psychotic staging, and most of them have little consequence to the film itself. Pico and Sepulveda, for instance, is a worker song whose main purpose is to get Pa Hercules to the Forbidden Zone.

The influences of the look of Forbidden Zone also range widely. The sets take inspiration from German Expressionist sets of the UFA era (see The Cabinet of Dr Caligari), and the cartoons are from the Fleischers and Iwerks.

Elfman manages to offend everybody throughout the course of the movie. Everybody is a caricature of everything, which includes use of blackface, topless women, and a Jewish financier. Given that Elfman is Jewish, and he used his grandpa for the financier, it's hard to say that this is casual racism, but more just a crass sense of humor representative of the dark American subconscious. It's a movie whose belief that "I'm an equal opportunity offender" it a very valid defense (your acceptance of this will vary from viewer to viewer).

Forbidden Zone is a roller coaster into a twisted cultural history of America. It looks at the multimedia pop culture we started from, and creates something entirely new and wacky from it. In a sense, it is almost proto-hipster in its reuse of various American eras to subvert and also appropriate. But, Forbidden Zone isn't about appropriating only the powerful and good parts of the culture, but also acknowledging all the bad parts as well.

Of course, since I said it was proto-hipster, Forbidden Zone feels somewhat ahead of its time by like 25 years. It would foretell when pop culture started to truly eat itself. When we would be looking not just to reuse the culture of old, but to recreate it and reappropriate it to cleanse our past while also being casually racist in a chummy we're all buddies here kind of way.

Forbidden Zone is hilarious and original in the way it created something surreal and almost dada out of the culture of the past. It wasn't content just to reuse, but it created something new out of the pieces of America's past. It's pacing is, at times, a little plodding (even for a 73-minute movie), but the big set pieces are worth the time. From the Kipper Kids in jock straps shaking their booties (proto-Twerking) to Susan Tyrrell singing in a glittery impressionistic dress with her breasts being thrust out, Forbidden Zone is a movie guaranteed to entertain and, probably, to offend.

Final Note: Originally filmed in Black and White, Forbidden Zone was intended to be a colorized version, and sent to China upon completion for hand-colorization. Its ultra-low budget restricted this until 2003 when Legend Films gave Richard Elfman the money to do it. The colorized version looks amazing, and realistic, and should not be missed.

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