[FSR Retro] Review: Forbidden Zone

Editor’s Note: This article was part of our April Fools 2010 project, in which our site was transported back to April 1, 1980. To see all of the retro articles written for this event, please visit our April Fools 2010 Homepage.

The true glory of weirdness has rarely been in such high form as it is with Forbidden Zone – the new movie by performance-troupe leader Richard Elfman. Tossing aside what seems to be the current trend in digestible films, Elfman attacks the theater screen with a perverse, black and white fairy tale that seems like it was written by a troubled teenager while switching back and forth between his science fiction magazines and his father’s porno.

The Hercules family lives above the strange Forbidden Zone – a dimension that is ruled by a the midget King Fausto (Herve Villechaize) and his brutal Queen Doris (Susan Tyrrell). When they kidnap his sister Frenchy (Marie-Pascale Elfman), young Flash (Phil Gordon) heads down into the Forbidden Zone to get her back and join in on the musical numbers.

This movie is a celebration of oddities. It’s a celebration that doesn’t always work, but it’s undeniable that the production has a flare for controlled randomness. The opening scene makes that quite clear by displaying a family made up of a French-speaking girl, a geek, and a small child in a scout uniform played by a man in his 70s. They eat breakfast together while talking about tying Gramps (Hyman Diamond) up in the basement. Then, of course, their father breaks out into a vibrant, full-throated jazz standard (by lip-synching to a Cab Calloway record).

The film also celebrates grotesqueness and a puerile sensibility. The Forbidden Zone itself is full of bondage, S&M, toplessness as well as a giant frog servant and, of course, Satan (played by up-and-coming composer Danny Elfman). But the real world is a melee of awkward racial commentary, cross-dressing and a look that comes straight from the art house experimental-ism of New York City’s gutters.

Some will view the movie as trash, others as having a deeper meaning, and I fall somewhere in the middle. Giving into the pure strangeness of the event is a prerequisite for enjoying it, but once I did, Elfman provided the rest with glorious musical numbers and a creepy-sweet story about a damsel in distress.

Without getting too lofty, there is a commentary being made in the film about the saccharine quality of late 1950s television shows, and their version of Americana. The family is clearly based on that nuclear model and then twisted around a fetishist’s slant. It’s by-the-numbers satire: taking a host of socially inappropriate behaviors and responding to them with the saintly, sunny smile of a 50s sitcom. That duality is also found in the mirror relationship between the real world and the Forbidden Zone.

Herve Villechaize does an adequate job as King Fausto, and Broadway veteran Susan Tyrrell smolders as the vengeful Queen Doris. The rest of the actors are good, but they are living cartoon characters for the most part.

The true joy of the film comes from its musical numbers – a mixture of jazz, funk, rock and brimstone. These numbers are set in front of two worlds that both look as though an expressionist art school dropout took her talent and dementia to the skill of set building.  It just so happens that star (and wife to Elfman) Marie-Pascale Elfman is also the set designer.

Beyond the carnival of confusion, most of the film is amateurish. Richard Elfman has never studied film, and it shows. His director’s eye is not too bad, but the editing is aggravating, and elements of it seem thrown together. The best example of that is the animation which is clearly the work of a young artist who is obsessed with Terry Gilliam but can’t quite deliver one tenth of the talent. Some of the Do-It-Yourself nature and On-The-Fly elements are endearing, but they are all a hurdle to jump over in enjoying the flick.

Most of it makes no sense, some of it is jarring and uncomfortable, but there’s more hits than misses here. It’s light-hearted and fun even when wallowing in the filth – which is about as High Camp as it gets. It’s certainly a sloppy work from unseasoned artists done on the cheap, but it’s a refreshing antidote to the big box office.

Forbidden Zone is playing a limited run in and around New York City and Los Angeles.

A veteran of writing about movies for nearly a decade, Scott Beggs has been the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects since 2009. Despite speculation, he is not actually Walter Mathau's grandson. See? He can't even spell his name right.

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