Return to the sixth dimension

Pub date May 29, 2007
WriterCheryl Eddy
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review


It’s nearly impossible to describe Forbidden Zone to the uninitiated. It’s a musical, a surreal fairy tale, an avant-garde live-action cartoon, and a strangely alluring jab at the boundaries of good taste. It’s black-and-white and nutty all over — and has become a cult sensation since its 1980 release. A film as singularly odd as Forbidden Zone obviously has one hell of a backstory. Fortunately, I didn’t have to sneak through any basement portals to track down director and coscripter Richard Elfman. Now the editor of Buzzine — an entertainment and pop culture mag with a bustling Web site, — Elfman e-mailed and chatted with me over the phone about what’s possibly the strangest movie ever made, featuring the first film score by his brother, Danny Elfman.

Surprisingly, Richard revealed quite a few San Francisco ties; he lived in the Haight and in Berkeley in the 1960s and ’70s, playing in an Afro-Latin percussion ensemble that later gigged in Las Vegas. He also spent some time working with the Cockettes, who introduced him to Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop cartoons, a Forbidden Zone influence. A fateful trip to a Toronto theater festival introduced him to the Grand Magic Circus, a French troupe that encouraged his eclectic theatrical tastes.

SFBG How did you move from the Grand Magic Circus to form the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo?

RICHARD ELFMAN Shortly [after the Toronto festival], the Magic Circus opened a major show in Paris. I was invited to join the company, which I did, and soon brought my younger brother Danny in. I married the leading lady, Marie-Pascale — Frenchy in Forbidden Zone. The show was billed as an avant-garde musical, but in fact much of it had roots in both turn of the century absurdism and French classical comedy.

After a year of touring Europe and beyond, I, along with Frenchy and my childhood friend Gene Cunningham [Pa in Forbidden Zone], formed the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo back in Los Angeles. My brother Danny, who went from the Magic Circus to a year in the African bush — I’m not joking — joined us shortly thereafter. The Mystic Knights incorporated absurdist comedy with an eclectic mix of great older music, pieces [by Cab Calloway and others] that could no longer be heard live elsewhere, along with original avant-garde pieces by Danny. As the ’70s moved along, I went off to other projects; under my brother’s direction, the Mystic Knights were ultimately bent into a rock band, Oingo Boingo.

SFBG Obviously, several of the performers in Forbidden Zone were from the theater troupe — but how did Susan Tyrrell and Hervé Villechaize get involved?

RE Well, the film had Frenchy [who starred and was the production designer], Gene, my brother, and all of the Mystic Knights, along with Danny’s childhood friend and original Knight, Matthew Bright, who played Squeezit and René Henderson. He also cowrote Forbidden Zone and went on to write and direct films like Freeway [1996]. Matthew’s roommate at the time was Hervé Villechaize, the king. Hervé’s girlfriend was Susan Tyrrell, the queen. Et voilà!

SFBG What were some of the challenges you faced during filming?

RE I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing when I started, but I eventually figured things out and got — over three arduous years — something that gives the sense what our Mystic Knights shows were like. The music was easy, as I had experience staging and choreographing musicals, and my little brother is Mozart. The animation bankrupted me, however. We inked things cell by cell, the old-fashioned way. Susan and Hervé had their occasional spats, although they were both supreme troopers who kicked their Screen Actors Guild checks back into the production. Hervé even helped Frenchy paint sets on weekends.

SFBG How much of the film was scripted?

RE It was all scripted; nothing was spontaneous. In the number "Bim Bam Boom," I had a really shy guy whose lips semifroze when it came time to lip-synch the song. So I had Matthew Bright’s lips superimposed over his. I use that example even today as an admonition for actors to do as I say.

SFBG The film is now known as a stoner classic, so I feel like I have to ask if there were any chemicals involved — and if not, where’d you come up with the story? Were you inspired by other filmmakers or artists?

RE Personally, I don’t take drugs. Wine and women, or woman — I am presently remarried — are as many intoxicants as I can handle. In terms of other inspiration? Along with Max Fleischer, the Cockettes, and Jerome Savary and his Magic Circus, I was influenced by Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, Latin great Miguelito Valdez, and Aaron Lebedeff of the Yiddish theater. Design style? Definitely German expressionism, which serves one well if your whole art budget is only 40 rolls of paper and 12 buckets of black and white paint.

SFBG When the film came out in 1980, what was the reaction? Did it have a regular theatrical run?

RE Well, it had a brief summer run of scattered midnight shows. It was banned from the University of Wisconsin and other institutions of higher learning. I remember there was an arson threat in Los Angeles one night. Censorship rears its head in many guises; in our case the politically correct tried to kill Forbidden Zone, although they were not entirely successful.

SFBG Did you have any idea Forbidden Zone would be a cult hit?

RE I had thought the film had totally disappeared. About five years ago, when I put my first Web site up, I received e-mails from fans from around the world. Apparently bootleg videos had been going around for years, picking up new fans. I was knocked on my ass, truly.

SFBG Forbidden Zone 2 — true or false?

RE We’re planning Forbidden Zone 2: The Forbidden Galaxy. Ma and Pa Kettle are driven from the dust bowl along with their kids — gray-haired Stinky and the slutty, lumbering Petunia — and they move to Crenshaw, down in South Central LA, only to purchase that fateful little house whose basement is connected to the sixth dimension. "Just wait until those dead babies start marching!" *


With Richard Elfman in person

Another Hole in the Head Film Festival

Sat/2, 11:45 p.m., $10

Roxie Film Center

3117 16th St., SF