When the landlord of a house in Venice, California, ventured through a door in the basement, he found something that made up his mind to sell the place as quickly as possible. And so it was that the Hercules family moved in, discovering that in the basement was a door to the Sixth Dimension, which was ruled by King Fausto (Hervé Villechaize) and his wicked queen Doris (Susan Tyrrell). One morning, daughter Frenchy (Marie-Pascale Elfman) is curious about what would happen if she entered the Sixth Dimension, but it's time for school so she and her brother Flash (Phil Gordon) tie up their grandfather as usual and head off. But when they get there, they hear from chicken boy Squeezit (Matthew Bright) that his transvestite brother has been abducted into the other world...
Films don't come much cultier than Forbidden Zone, which was written by performer Matthew Bright, Nick James, Nick L. Martinson and the director Richard Elfman from Elfman's original story. Obviously influenced by the work of animators Max and Dave Fleischer, it has been designed to resemble a cartoon from the nineteen-thirties brought to life, with surreal set ups and characters bursting into song at frequent intervals. What it also resembles is a black and white film of a dizzyingly bizarre amateur play, which in a way it is, with its elaborate but largely shaky sets and an abundance of over the top acting to give it that unmistakeable earnestness on a low budget feeling, even with the off colour jokes. Nevertheless, the air of a project undertaken solely to please its creators never quite ebbs away.
The scenes in the Sixth Dimension don't look that much different than the scenes in the "real" world. For instance, in the classroom all the unruly children are played by adults, each one heavily made up in weird fashion, and the teacher brandishes a machine gun to keep order. For the musical moments, the actors either mime to classic jazz records by the likes of Cab Calloway from the thirties, or sing songs written by Danny Elfman, the director's brother who would go on to great film score success; here his work is played by his own band, Oingo Boingo. Everyone behaves strangely without exception, the first time we see the meek Squeezit, for example, he is sitting in a bin, flapping his elbows to give himself that ever-popular chicken appearance.
It's not long before Frenchy has gone through the basement door to emerge, after much buffeting in a huge intestine, through a large, two-dimensional arse in the Forbidden Zone - the journey there is realised with animation, and there are many excellent cartoon sequences scattered around the action. She joins in with the musical number danced to by a giant frog butler, but having attracted attention to herself as an intruder, she is brought to see the royals. Fausto immediately takes a liking to her because she's French (the master race, according to the King), raising the Queen's jealousy, and Frenchy is put into a cell. Meanwhile, her brother and grandfather set out to rescue her as Fausto tries to seduce Frenchy without the Queen getting suspicious.
Seeing the little guy from Fantasy Island sharing a love scene with Susan Tyrrell is not the only sight you'd never think you'd see during Forbidden Zone. The attention to weird detail is terrific, with a chandelier consisting of a man hanging from the ceiling holding candles, or all the prisoners wearing Mickey Mouse ears for no apparent reason, and there are references to Greta Garbo, The Three Stooges and Bettie Page apropos of nothing. The humour, mind you, is relentlessly peurile and lacking the wit of the Fleischer cartoons or R. Crumb comic strips it visually emulates, but some would say this is not necessarily a bad thing, and adds to the subversive atmosphere. The plot, such as it is, may be repetitive, and having the cast act like cartoons throughout can be a little wearing, but the combination of distinctive music and the attention-grabbing style means there's nothing that entertains quite like it.
[The Region 2 DVD from Arrow has the same extras as the Region 1, with an audio commentary from Elfman and Bright, a documentary, outtakes and deleted scenes, an Oingo Boingo music video and a trailer.]
Offbeat American director. Made his debut in 1980 with the musical cult classic Forbidden Zone, co-written with Matthew Bright, who also provided the screenplay for two of Elfman’s other films – urban voodoo comedy Shrunken Heads and the vampire yarn Revenant. Brother of composer Danny Elfman, with whom he founded the band Oingo Boingo and who often provides music for Richard’s films.