“Friday, April 17, 4 p.m. — Venice, California. Huckleberry P. Jones, local pimp, narcotics peddler, and slumlord 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 …”
So begins Richard Elfman’s 1980 cult classic, Forbidden Zone, as wild a concoction of deliberately politically incorrect outrageousness as can be imagined — a love-it-or-hate-it proposition if ever there was one. When I first heard of the film, I couldn’t find a copy of it (things like that happen a lot in Lake Wales, Fla.), so I asked a friend in a more metropolitan area to seek it out. He did, and before sending it to me he watched. His response was, “It looks like somebody sat down and figured out how to make a movie that would appeal especially to you. You’ll love it. I mostly hated it.” For the uninitiated, Elfman is the founder of theatrical troupe the Mystic Knights of the Oingo-Boingo, which would become the cult rock group Oingo Boingo (later just plain Boingo), led by his brother, Danny Elfman (now of soundtrack fame).
Forbidden Zone marked Richard Elfman’s first filmmaking venture — and it remains his best, perhaps because it sticks closest to the Elfman brothers’ shared enthusiasm for “pissing people off” (something this film could very easily do … assuming you don’t succumb to its weird charms).
On the surface, the movie just should not work. It deliberately sets out to be a cult flick, it looks like it was made for $1.95, and it was put together by a bunch of friends and relatives (even including an appearance by the Elfmans’ grandfather, Herman Bernstein — “What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing in the Sixth Dimension?”). What a recipe for disaster. But the amazing creativity of it all, combined with the weirdly eclectic enthusiasms of all those involved, makes it anything but — so long as you’re in tune with it and its peculiar sense of humor. It also helps if you share the Elfmans’ enthusiasms.
Combining a mix of cheap sets, surprisingly good Max Fleischer-styled animation (and Fleischer references), old jazz (two Cab Calloway tunes and one Josephine Baker song show up, along with Freddy Martin’s “Pico and Sepulveda” ), a fondness for the avant-garde (Andy Warhol Factory veteran Susan Tyrell stars, while Warhol icon Viva has a small role), a dose of perverse sexuality and a whole lot of bad taste, Forbidden Zone is a triumph of strangeness and eclecticism. Hey, it made the Top Ten list for its year in the Village Voice. That should be a testament to both its quality and its…peculiarity. (The Voice was more interesting in the early 1980s.)
Largely taking place in the Sixth Dimension (that’s where the “mysterious door” leads), there’s a complete lack of anything like normalcy, which truly creates a world where anything can happen — and it usually does, often set to music. And anyway, where else can you see Danny Elfman (as Satan) perform Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” with specially altered lyrics for the occasion? You also get to see Martin von Hasselberg (aka: Bette Midler’s husband) as one half of the Kipper Kids (two bald-headed guys in jock-straps), a guy in a frog costume, one in a gorilla suit, Herve Villechaize as the King of the Sixth Dimension — are you getting the idea? No, probably you aren’t. Whatever you think, this is probably weirder.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Forbidden Zone Thursday, May 22 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.