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The Forbidden Zone
cast: Hervé Villechaize, Susan Tyrrell, Marie-Pascale Elfman, Matthew Bright, and Gisele Lindley

director: Richard Elfman

70 minutes (15) 1980
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Lucinda Ireson
The late 1970s saw Richard Elfman and Matthew Bright embarking on a movie project based on the stage show of their musical troupe, 'The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo'. The result was The Forbidden Zone: a bizarre musical/ fantasy/ comedy that sees a family transported into an alternate dimension via a portal in the basement of their house. Once there, they encounter a variety of strange characters, including a midget king and his domineering queen, a frog-headed butler, a permanently topless princess and a human chandelier. Still, given that the 'real' world features a gun-toting teacher and a 12-year-old boy played by a 60-something actor, maybe the sixth dimension isn't so strange after all.

With a synopsis like this, it's easy to expect that The Forbidden Zone is either a self-conscious attempt to ensure cult status or an outright mess. Thankfully, it's neither - offbeat though it is, the film has a unified vision and linear plot that help to keep it on track, and one gets the impression that the weird and wonderful ideas are of genuine interest to the filmmakers rather than calculated attempts to be wacky. Indeed, The Forbidden Zone is nothing if not earnest - the film comes across as imaginative and enthusiastic rather than grating or self-consciously zany, and its integrity is plain to see. It's also nice to see a film that's not afraid to try things out and, as Forbidden Zone wasn't intended to be a box office success, one never gets the sense that its creativity has been diluted by financial concerns.

The Forbidden Zone may have been made on the cheap, but it's definitely a case of lower budget leading to greater innovatively. The high contrast black and white cinematography is striking and adds to the film's kitsch retro appeal, while the set design is similarly stark and imaginative - the exterior of the Hercules family's house, for example, takes the form of a one-dimensional, childlike drawing, while images of dice appear throughout the film (no reason is given for this, but such motifs are visually arresting and give the film an aura of surrealism that's reminiscent of Alice In Wonderland). What's most impressive, however, is its use of animation as a way of creating fantastical scenes on a limited budget, and herein lies the appeal of the film - modern viewers are accustomed to slick, big budget moviemaking yet watching a film like this shows that imagination doesn't require big bucks in order to flourish and that the results can be more memorable than anything that the latest blockbuster can offer. In this respect, watching Forbidden Zone is a nostalgic experience, with the film possessing a simple, earnest charm and unbridled creativity that's not commonly found in today's cinema.

In terms of its musical content, Forbidden Zone goes for an eclectic retro approach that puts a new spin on classic jazz, ragtime, soul and big band numbers in the same vein as the Mystic Knights stage show. These days, of course, Danny Elfman is best known as a respected composer whose work includes The Simpsons' theme tune and regular collaborations with Tim Burton, but his work on Forbidden Zone (his first film soundtrack) shows that he knew what he was doing long before this commercial success. The revamped versions of old standards fit in well with the film's kitsch look and playful attitude, and Elfman's appearance in the film (as Satan, singing a Cab Calloway track accompanied by a backing group of ghouls) is sure to stick in the memory. The film also features a few original numbers, including the rock opera powerhouse The Witch's Egg and the quirky, ultra-catchy title theme. Indeed, these two tracks are among the highlights of the film and, as such, it would have been nice if a greater number of modern tracks had been added to the mix.

Most of the film's cast and crew were acquainted with each other prior to this project, with many of them being friends/ relatives or having worked together as part of the Mystic Knights. Due to this, one may imagine that The Forbidden Zone is a glorified home movie that's only of interest to those who were involved in making it, yet this proves a false impression - certainly the film has a home movie feel, but it never comes across as smug or in-jokey. Rather, we get a sense of the camaraderie between the actors (who all seem to be having fun with their larger-than-life roles), and the viewer feels part of this rather than that they're gatecrashing a party.

With bags of imagination and enthusiasm, The Forbidden Zone is an exhilarating experience - bizarre, but in the best possible way, and with a cheap and cheerful approach that's never less than endearing. It certainly won't be to everyone's taste, but those who are on its wavelength are in for an enjoyable ride. Either way, it's a dazzlingly original piece of filmmaking and, as such, it's a shame that it's languished in obscurity for so many years. Let's hope that the DVD brings it the recognition that it deserves.

DVD extras: director Richard Elfman and actor/ co-writer Matthew Bright provide a relaxed and very enjoyable commentary that features friendly banter and anecdotes, along with insight and background information. The other substantial extra is a 35-minute documentary hosted by Richard Elfman and featuring contributions from Matthew Bright, John Muto, Marie-Pascale Elfman, Susan Tyrrell (who shares some candid reminiscences about her real life relationship with Hervé Villechaize) and Danny Elfman (who talks about how working on The Forbidden Zone influenced his subsequent work). As well as discussing the film itself, this documentary also features a look back at the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo and includes rare vintage footage of them on stage. Other extras are a selection of deleted scenes/ outtakes, an attention-grabbing trailer, an Oingo Boingo music video, and footage from the film's abandoned 16mm predecessor, 'The Hercules Family'.
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