Susan Tyrell as Queen Doris

Topless girl menaced by frog

Danny Elfman is Satan

Pervy King Fausto

Susan Tyrell as Queen Doris

FORBIDDEN ZONE is one of those rare forgotten treats that occasionally crop up unexpectedly. Back in 1990, I had read about the film in Psychotronic Video No. 6, but the title soon disappeared from my mind along with thousands of other obscurities that I never got to see. Then, sixteen years later, it resurfaces on a UK DVD release courtesy of Arrow films. Now recently, the term “cult film” has been used erroneously in connection with the release of a few DVDs that have proved to be great disappointments. Cult films are not made to order, they grow from obscure seeds. A producer or distributor cannot tell you that he has a new “cult film” for you to see, it’s US who decide which films achieve cult status. Here, however, the term is well deserved.

After its initial cinema release in 1980, FORBIDDEN ZONE did the rounds on VHS before disappearing and acquiring word-of-mouth cult status. The film was finally unearthed and given a new 35mm print, struck from the original negative, in 2004. It was screened in Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles, and then shown around the rest of the USA in its original un-cut “R” Rated version.

The film opens with a drug-dealing landlord made up in black-face, wearing a white suit and boxing gloves, looking for a stash of herion in the cellar of his Venice beach home. His experience causes him to sell his home to the Hercules family. Who on Earth wants a house that contains a gateway to the Sixth Dimension? One day, Frenchy Hercules (Marie-Pascale Elfman) returns home from school - and her machine gun wielding teacher, intent on investigating the strange door in the cellar. As she opens the door she is sucked into an intestine-like passage and hurtles into The FORBIDDEN ZONE.

The FORBIDDEN ZONE is a bizarre world in the sixth dimension, that is ruled by lusty King Fausto (Hervé Villechaize), his wife, Queen Doris (Susan Tyrrell), and their spoiled and permanently topless daughter, Princess (Giselle Lindley). Their entourage includes obese maidens in bikinis, a dancing frog, robot-like boxers (The Kipper Kids), Satan (Danny Elfman) and the Mystic Knights of Oingo-Boingo. Fausto, of course, immediately takes a shine to Frenchy. Fortunately for her, her brother Flash (Phil Gordon), Grampa Hercules (Hyman Diamond) and her friend Squeezit (half boy – half chicken played by Matthew Bright) are in hot pursuit and determined to rescue her. But will they make it in time to save Frenchy before she suffers the fate of the other damsels who have tempted the king and infuriated the jealous queen?

Co-written with Matthew Bright and directed by Richard Elfman (REVENANT, SHRUNKEN HEADS, MODERN VAMPIRES), FORBIDDEN ZONE was an attempt to capture on film what Richard and brother Danny had been doing on stage with their chaotic theatrical troupe The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo. Their act included original works composed by Danny Elfman, and recreations of old jazz classics by the likes of Cab Calloway, Josephine Baker, early Duke Ellington and Django Rheinhardt. The theatrics were inspired by elements as diverse as the Theatre of the Absurd, Federico Fellini, the Three Stooges, and the cartoons of Max Fleischer. Fleischer was an important pioneer in the development of the animated cartoon. His most famous screen animations were Betty Boop, Popeye and Superman. Many of his animations had featured soundtracks by leading contemporary jazz performers, including Cab Calloway.

Shot entirely in black and white, and featuring a selection of cheap sets designed by Marie-Pascale Elfman, FORBIDDEN ZONE creates a world derived from a fusion of modernist art forms; German Expressionism combined with jazz age cartoon humour; Betty Boop enters THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI and becomes a sex slave.

FORBIDDEN ZONE features the first ever score by composer Danny Elfman (CORPSE BRIDE, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS), and probably his most interesting. It has original songs by Elfman and The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo, as well as the jazz covers. One of the highlights being the quirky future-pop theme song that could have been inspired by Devo.

The film stars cult actress Susan Tyrell, a veteran of Andy Warhol’s Factory; she starred in BAD (1976) and other noteworthy films such as THE KILLER INSIDE ME (1976), BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER (1981) TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS (1983) and FLESH AND BLOOD (1985). She has been renowned throughout her career for her attraction to Hollywood's darker side and her portrayal of various whores, harridans and grotesque figures. In the Psychotronic Video interview Tyrell speaks about how she loved playing Queen Doris, even though it was hard work, and she wasn’t paid. Instead she was taken on a trip to Paris for Christmas and New Year. She had been dating diminutive star Hervé Villechaize (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN and TV’s FANTASY ISLAND) at the time, and also knew fellow cult actor – the late, great Joe Spinell (MANIAC, THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, THE LAST HORROR FILM), who was cast in the film as an abusive, drunken sailor.

Elfman’s film succeeds in capturing the essence of the Mystic Knights, some of whose performances are included in the extras, but I daresay it’s one of those situations where it would have been better if you’d been there. The film represents a fine culmination of their work, and with a running time of about 70 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Imagine THE WIZARD OF OZ directed by John Waters, with a selection of characters from FREAKS and Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame”. Some critics have compared the film to David Lynch’s work, well I suppose if ERASERHEAD had been a musical - and Film Threat called it “The Citizen Kane of Underground Movies”. Well it’s funny, it’s weird, and where else are you going to see Susan Tyrell doing a song and dance routine - and a family meal where one character vomits over the grandfather, who is wearing a propellor beanie.

FORBIDDEN ZONE is presented with a high-definition widescreen transfer and a restored and remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround soundtrack. The extras include interviews conducted by Richard Elfman; he cites Terry Gilliam’s animation for Monty Python as an influence, although at times I was reminded of The Residents' music videos. Similarly the Mystic Knights' “Private Life” music video, also included as an extra, seems like a reworking of Bill Nelson’s “Furniture Music” (1979), thematically as well as musically.

And - once again, the trailer re-uses the most infamous line ever in the history of horror movie distribution - “It’s only a movie…”.

Features

Audio commentary featuring director Richard Elfman and writer-actor Matthew Bright
A Look Into THE FORBIDDEN ZONE – extensive behind the scenes documentary featuring interviews and archive footage, including scenes from Elfman's lost film, THE HERCULES FAMILY
Outtakes and deleted scenes
Two complete scenes from THE HERCULES FAMILY
Oingo Boingo music video for Private Life
Theatrical trailer