(Not So) Famous Firsts: Richard Elfman’s “Forbidden Zone”

Written by (Not So) Famous Firsts, Film

My goal with (Not So) Famous Firsts is to remind myself that everyone has stumbling blocks to get over. Steven Spielberg wasn’t automatically a superstar when he directed the made-for-TV movie Duel. But filmmakers, for the most part, always maintained the same passions and ideas that they wanted to convey to their audience. Some directors just gained a larger canvas to work on as time went on.

But the opposite can also happen. I’ve been strangely addicted to watching Todd in the Shadow’s “One Hit Wonderland” series lately. It’s great to hear how many musicians tried their best to stay in the spotlight – and how some are still working today in ways we’d never guess. And it doesn’t just apply to the music industry. A director makes one film that seemingly marks them for future success. It’s a film that may still retain a cult following and that critics may love. But they’re not able to replicate their success and must spend decades resting their laurels on one film. They’re a variety of reasons for this. It could have been years before their film received any proper recognition due to a bad distribution deal. Maybe they did try but they were offered projects that weren’t as strong. Or perhaps making that breakthrough film proved to be such a stressful experience that they didn’t want to try again.

Some of these individuals are rightfully forgotten, but some had their careers unfairly marked for an early death. And we’re here to figure out which is which. We’ll be getting into some heavy hitters later, but today we’ll be starting with one of the weirdest musicals ever shot – Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone.

Background

Richard Elfman is the founder of a performance art troupe called The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo. It was original a theater troupe that, like fellow bizarro musician Tiny Tim, focused on pop culture from an era long since passed. They performed Cab Calloway songs and world music during their stage show, but never made a record. Practically the only thing that exists from this era is an appearance on The Gong Show, which they won. Richard’s brother Danny Elfman eventually took over leadership and, about a decade after its founding, the group started enjoying popular success as a straight rock band. Unfortunately, they broke up in 1995 and have never properly reunited.

While his brother was becoming more interested in the musical aspect of the troupe (eventually shortening its name to just “Oingo Boingo”), Richard was becoming more interested in film-making. He wanted to rework Boingo’s stage performances as a film. This wasn’t a new idea at first. Besides big films like Yellow Submarine and Tommy, several cult bands found the future was in video and film and not just music. Frank Zappa co-directed 200 Motels to showcase The Mothers of Invention, Devo became famous for their music videos before those were in the mainstream, and avant garde group The Residents tried to make their own film, Vileness Fats, under the same conditions that Elfman later made his film. Forbidden Zone was released only a year before MTV started and, for a while, the channel had to showcase cult bands as they were the only music videos available. Elfman certainly had the right idea. But would it translate to a mass audience?

Forbidden Zone

The most accurate description of the movie I’ve ever heard is that it’s “Eraserhead meets Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” That tells you everything you need to know. There’s nominally a story about the bizarre Hercules family who live in a house that happens to contain a portal to an alternate universe called either The Sixth Dimension or The Forbidden Zone. (The exact nature of this universe isn’t explained.)  Frenchy Hercules is obsessed with going their and actually manages to do so after running away from school. There, she attracts the attention of the Zone’s king (Herve Villechieze) and the jealousy of the queen (Susan Tyrell). The rest of the family goes to find her and…

Look, the plot is meaningless. It’s essentially an excuse for many weird vignettes featuring stop motion, dropped frames and sped up film, music that was 50 years old when the film was made (which admittedly leads to a killer soundtrack), performance artists talking gibberish, and (seriously) black face. 

Richard Elfman really wanted to capture the early days of animation, where the spectacle was enough for an audience and what was happening to the characters was largely irrelevant. What mattered was the presentation. Animation used to be a huge technical marvel and Betty Boop cartoons were enormously popular. People couldn’t believe that you could make just ink and doodles move. Of course, after almost 50 years of Disney films, that sort of marvel was impossible. So Elfman went backwards. Instead of polished special effects, he used cardboard props. Instead of great acting, he used vaudeville style clowning. And instead of easily accessible pop music, Elfman used pop from decades ago that sounded like it was from a different planet.

But even in the 1980s, the only way that would work is if Elfman injected a healthy dose of post-modern irony. And he kind of does via the music. Oingo Boingo had already created a strange combination of old pop music, world music, and Devo-style synth music. The film somehow manages to capture all those elements via the different mediums its working in. The soundtrack, on its own, is great. But when combined with the wacky performances of the film, something much weirder happens.

Take the “Pico and Sepulveda” number, the only completely straight musical sequence in the film. It’s lip-synced to the original record and the entire thing was shot using cardboard boxes standing in for cards. Combine it with bad choreography and amateurish blocking and it feels like some weird show public access TV used to play in the wee hours of the morning.

But despite that it’s utterly charming and, if it were more polished, it wouldn’t have the same effect. We aren’t transported back in time to Depression era LA nor are we transported into a parallel universe ruled by a dwarf king. We’re seeing a man trying to create the impression that we are. And to copy performance art Oingo Boingo originally made, that approach is the only way to capture the tone of their shows. They thrived props that looked barely put together and music that was the completely opposite of what was popular at the time.

A few paragraphs ago I mentioned something that was probably enough to ensure a lot of people won’t ever watch this movie – the blackface. I am nowhere near intelligent enough to explain that away, but it feels more like a Robert Crumb comic rather than something out of a white nationalist pamphlet. The point seems to be that, if you’re going to fetishize the past, then you must confront the warts that come with the past. Besides, Forbidden Zone does try to balance the scales by having one of the few actual black actors in the film call his white teacher a “honkey bitch.”

Richard Elfman demonstrated he was certainly smart enough to make the unworkable somehow work. Forbidden Zone is incredibly rough around the edges and doesn’t always hit the marks it means to. And yes, some of the gags have aged very poorly. But I could say the same thing about Yellow Submarine. What matters is that Elfman accomplished exactly what he wanted to. He demonstrated that the visual aesthetic was becoming just as important for music as the actual songs.

Follow Up

Despite a supposed newfound interest in film-making, for over a decade Elfman only directed Oingo Boingo music videos. He didn’t make a feature again until 1994’s Shrunken Heads, which was quickly followed up by Streets of Rage. The latter was an attempt to jump start professional wrestler Mimi Lesseos’ acting career, while the former was a Full Moon Studios production that somehow got released into theaters. After making the direct to video Modern Vampires, he seemingly disappeared again emerging only to direct two belly dancing documentaries. At the time of this writing, his new film Hipsters, Gangsters, Aliens and Geeks is in post-production and a trailer has been released. It stars his son, his wife, and French Stewart. Although I’ve no doubt some people will enjoy it, I don’t think it’s going to lead to a second Elfman wave. He’s also been teasing a Forbidden Zone for years, including an appearance on SyFy’s Monster Man and a teaser video made for Indiegogo. But considering it supposedly entered pre-production ten years ago and the campaign video was made in 2014, it’s unlikely anything will ever be made.

Elfman on the set of Hipsters with Verne Troyer.

The strangest thing is how many careers this kickstarted. Besides Danny Elfman, this was the first film Matthew Bright ever did. He came to prominence in the 90s by the directing the unique thriller Freeway, a breakout film for Keifer Sutherland and Reese Witherspoon. Unfortunately his career went down the drain after he directed, well…this. It also helped Susan Tyrell stay in the spotlight. She remained a cult character actor until her death in 2012. Villechaize tragically had his career cut short by declining health that culminated in a suicide, but his role in Forbidden Zone is still cited by fans of outsider music.

Yet Richard Elfman was left behind. Forbidden Zone slowly gained a cult following and some screenings even feature a “shadow cast” a la Rocky Horror. While I enjoy filmmakers who embrace their fans, it feels far too late for Elfman to jump on the bandwagon. Could you imagine Tim Curry in the 1990s regularly showing up to Rocky Horror screenings not only meet fans but to perform with them as well? After one time I would imagine the novelty wears off.

Could Richard Elfman Have Done it Again?

If Richard Elfman wanted to keep the momentum going, he needed to make the follow up immediately after Forbidden Zone was released. But it was a massive flop that bankrupted him, and he was reluctant to try again.

Not only that, but the band was quickly moving on without him. One year after the film was released, the rechristened Oingo Boingo released their first album. And the next year, one of their songs closed out Fast Times at Ridgemont High. And then, in 1985, Danny Elfman wrote his first film score. The band was moving away from the sort of performance material that lead to Forbidden Zone. Even if the band was on board for an immediate follow up, it would not have had the singularly weird tone and visual style that makes Forbidden Zone still stand out today. It likely would have been more of a concert film, and the 1980s had no shortage of those.

But, for the same reason Oingo Boingo hasn’t reunited in 24 years, it’s also possible Richard Elfman’s strange vision couldn’t have lasted as his unique vision became more mainstream. He was right on the cusp of the independent film boom and the direct to video market – two things that diluted Elfman’s unique vision. He couldn’t keep up with the new wave he helped start.