Some films take on the aura of myth for what they represent. Others become legendary thanks to unexpected facets of their post-production history. Forbidden Zone earns it's classicism on two similarly significant counts. First, it was one of the original touchstones in famous rocker turned Hollywood composer Danny Elfman's lauded musical career. From his time in Oingo Boingo to his present position as Tim Burton's go to guy, he was more than happy to help his brother achieve his arty aesthetic goals. Second, until the recent Fantoma release in 2004, this was one of those infamous "lost" films, one only experienced thanks to a rare late night cable channel showing or a visit with some friends beat up VHS tape. Now, with the advent of an obsessive friendly format like DVD, we have a chance to see if Forbidden Zone lives up to its notoriety. Even better, we now finally have a chance to see writer/director Richard Elfman's original vision for the film.
Under a row house in the middle of Venice, California, slum landlord Huckleberry P. Jones finds a mysterious door to the Sixth Dimension. Without blinking an eye, he rents the place to the unknowing Hercules family. One day, daughter Frenchy finds the entrance, and soon is lost in a surreal world of frogs, freaks, and frightening despots. While King Fausto takes a liking to the trespasser, insecure Queen Doris does not...and it makes sense, since she usurped the real bride of the ruler's place years before. Hoping to locate his sister, brother Flash tries to get friend Squeezeit to enter the underworld with him. Seems his pal also lost his sibling René in the void. Soon, several members of the Hercules family, including Gramps, find themselves struggling against the outraged royalty, undressed members of the court, a few crazy citizens, and old Satan himself. It's just the typical interpersonal politics of any trip to the Forbidden Zone.
Offensive, outrageous, and ridiculously over the top, Richard Elfman's Forbidden Zone is also one of the artform's true 'cult' creations. Indeed, it's the kind of movie that feels like the direct result of brainwashing techniques and a weekend at the People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana (complimentary Kool-Aid included). Made to showcase the then free wheeling surrealism of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo stage show, complete with Cab Calloway covers and various big band bizarreness, this party out of bounds pastiche of every kitsch cliché invented is probably the source for several of said avant-garde axioms. It's a mofo mega-dose of weird. It's vaudeville as Vileness Fats, a homemade tour de force that feels as fake and artificial as the cardboard sets and cribbed classic songs it utilizes. There's no denying Elfman's evil vision. It's the kind of madness that comes from having no clue what you are doing and being damned proud of it. And now we have a chance to see his mind's eye rendered in the manner he always wanted - and it's an even weirder revelation.
Don't let the colorization tag frighten you - there are only a couple of instances where Legend's post-production tweak let's the material down. And it was Elfman's intention to have the final print sent to China and hand tinted. Otherwise, seeing Forbidden Zone in this new version is like experiencing its zany zoo crudity for the first time. Elfman was clearly going for unconventional narrative experimentation, a mix of meaning and mess, and the addition of bright primaries and subtle shadings really help out the struggle for a suspension of disbelief. In black and white, the movie was nothing more than a homemade nutzo noir. This new version actually accents the innate zaniness present. Sure, one could also argue that it also ups the potential problems. The minstrel show styled character Huckleberry P. Jones looks all the more Jim Crowish with his blatant, bigoted lips. Similarly, little moments with the school children and Jewish dimensional envoy evoke a strong racial/non-PC bent. Still, it's mostly forgivable, especially when you consider that Elfman is not selling some kind of bias and agenda. In fact, he seems to be pluming the depths of pop culture to find images that would incite as much as illustrate. He really succeeded here.
In fact, everything about Forbidden Zone is set up to sabotage our said and set sensibilities. The antique musical hall routines become horrific and unhinged in the hands of Oingo Boingo and those performance art prickles, the Kipper Kids. Herve Villachaize gives a wonderfully well rounded turn as King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension, his persona a clever combination of lothario, villain, and schlub. Even when he has to get frisky with his co-stars, it comes across as nuanced, not nasty. Elsewhere, the rest of the no name cast fills out their parts appropriately, mugging and mincing for the camera in ways that would seem out of place anywhere else but here. But the real star of the show remains the sensational Susan Tyrrell. As the evil Queen Doris, her dark hair accented by a splash of ice cream white, she exudes sex, arrogance, and pure, unadulterated menace. From the moment she arrives onscreen, to her last act swan song, she captivates and controls this film. Without her, Forbidden Zone would be an amiable curiosity. With Tyrrell, it expands into something almost epic.
It has to be said here that the newly minted (and tinted) image by Legend Films is just stunning. Aside from the crispness of the details and the cleanness of the print, the color transfer never once gives away its technological updates. There's none of that typical "gray shading" that you usually associate with colorization, and everything looks sharp and slightly psychedelic. Indeed, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is almost pristine.
On the sound side of things, fans should be very pleased with the newly remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks. They capture the music brilliantly, and deliver a nice, if slightly overmodulated, aural backdrop. The dialogue is easily discernible, and the newly added subtitles provide insight into some already classic lines. Overall, the sonic situation here is first rate.
It's good news/bad news time when it comes to added content. If you own the original Fantoma DVD of this title (sans the coloring, mind you), you will instantly realize the material that is missing. Right up front, this version from Legend has no Elfman/Bright commentary. There is also no interview featurette with Susan Tyrrell. Gone is the major Making-of documentary that offered glimpses of the actual Mystic Knights review. In essence, that previous digital package provides the all important context as to what this movie actually means. Here, we are treated to a wonderful "Pop Up Trivia" option (also ported over from Fantoma), an introduction from Elfman (explaining his original intent for the film), a collection of deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer (both in color) and a Japanese promo. Toss in an extended bit from something called "The Passion of Squeezeit" and you got some decent, if not definitive, extras.
It seems shocking to actually be suggesting it, but decades after critics and filmmakers alike condemned colorization as a travesty and counterproductive to artistic intent, we have a wonderful example of the glorified gimmick fully authenticating the purpose of a project - and the man who made the movie in the first place. Just like everything else about its creation and concept, however, leave it to Forbidden Zone to buck the trends and conventional thinking. This wacked out wonder is easily one of the greatest underground films of all time, and this latest incarnation is a winner as well. Earning an easy Highly Recommended rating, the addition of the Fantoma extras would have mandated a DVD Talk Collector Series score. Without them, what we are left with is something equally valuable. Legend Films has done the near impossible with this release. They have literally made audiences feel like they are watching Forbidden Zone again for the first time. And as usual, it's still an overwhelming experience.