Photo by Lauren Everett
It is a thing of legend. People who were there get sappy and misty-eyed when they think about it. Those who knew about it and didn't go suffer with the stale taste of lingering regret. For one Friday night in June, nearly 400 people experienced a revelation, a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Richard Elfman's cult classic, Forbidden Zone, with a live shadowcast by Cell 63, live music by The Radioactive Chicken Heads, and the director's very active participation in the production. Words fail to adequately convey the buoyant and exuberant spirit of the evening.
After much pleading from fans, the Long Beach Cinematheque has again partnered with Cell 63, The Radioactive Chicken Heads, and Richard Elfman to present another live shadowcast screening of Forbidden Zone this Friday night at the Art Theatre. They won't try to recreate what happened last time. That would be impossible. Still, great things are afoot.
For example, the raffle. According to Elfman, two lucky people will win a visit to his home in the Hollywood hills where he will fire up the grill and cook lunch. That's pretty cool. (All you have to do is buy a ticket online!)
In case you don't know, shadowcasting is where actors, dressed as the characters in the film, act out the film live on stage as the film is being shown. They don't speak the dialog, though. This has its origins, I think, with the participatory exhibitions of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
In advance of the June screening, I interviewed Elfman. This time, I sat down with Logan Crow, the founder and Executive Director of the Long Beach Cinematheque, and several members of Cell 63.
"I’ve been a fan of Forbidden Zone since high school," Logan said. "Two of my friends, Gunther and Martin, introduced it to me. They had a little, bad, VHS burn of it, and we just watched it over and over and over again. We were all Oingo Boingo fans. We’d see them at Irvine Meadows when they’d play, and it was sort of like a little concert you got to keep and watch over and over, and hear the music and the zany feel their concerts would have, and the cartoonish story. It was so bizarre. The music was actually quite wonderful and strange. It is a very unique movie. I’ve just always loved it. I've seen it, probably, more than any other film."
Logan's early efforts at promoting art house cinema in Long Beach began with midnight screenings at the Art Theatre, and he chose Forbidden Zone to be the first film in the series. In getting the rights to show the movie, he was introduced to Elfman, who attended several screenings and met with fans.
"He’s very gracious," Logan said, "and he’s still a very passionate and youthful individual who loves to talk music and loves to talk exciting projects."
Diego Sanson with the Radioactive Chicken Heads
Diego Sanson, who portrays two main characters in the shadowcast performance of Forbidden Zone, has been part of the Rocky Horror shadowcast for 20 years. He's a long time and avid fan of Forbidden Zone, and takes some credit for getting the project off the ground.
"It’s a thing I used to bring up to Logan," Sanson recalls. “'Hey, Logan, how would you feel about doing Forbidden Zone a la Rocky Horror shadow cast?' He’s like, 'We’ll see.' He’s a busy guy. So I kept bugging him, bugging him, bugging him. Then more people got involved."
"There was a moment," Logan recalled, "when we said, 'We should really do this and stop talking about it. I threw the concept by Jack and Richard and they said, 'You know, we’ve never been approached to do that. That sounds like fun. Let’s see how it goes.' And they worked side-by-side with us, to the point where Richard ended up in the cast playing his own character and his brother’s character, and it was literally a crazy dream come true to see it come to life. The rehearsals themselves were just surreal for me. I’m like, 'This is actually happening. I’m bringing this movie to life that I used to watch when I was 14.' I would get giddy watching it."
Latham Malmsten is the casting director for Cell 63 and, when Elfman first started coming to rehearsals, he struggled to overcome his fan-boy impulses.
"I just kind of like waved, he showed his hand, and I ran away," Malmsten said. "As the rehearsals went on, he barbequed for us. We went over to Amy’s house and he’d go over to Bristol Farms and buy meat for 50 people or whatever it was, and he barbequed. We got very drunk. He’s a very good cook. So it became much more personal. We lost that celebrity/fan boy thing right away. We were very comfortable with him. He was very comfortable with us. He’s a good guy. It was really exciting. I mean, he’s Richard Elfman. He’s one of the founding members of The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, he’s the director of Forbidden Zone, and I love the way his brain works. It was a lot of fun."
Malmsten embraced the challenge of having to create costumes and props from scratch.
"What was exciting about that was that a lot of the costuming, and a lot of the props in the movie, are all handmade. They’re clearly hand painted by somebody’s friend or something like that; made out of cardboard, so we did that. I was working at a grocery store at the time and I would take home boxes and paint them white, and we made giant dice. It was fun and silly and stressful, but it was a lot of fun to do it."
Amy Welch plays King Fausto who, in the film, was portrayed by Hervé Villechaize, best known for his role of Tattoo in Fantasy Island.
"It’s an interesting character to play because he has so much bravado, like inner-strength," Amy said. "He’s a very big character played by a very small person. I’m naturally really tiny and short, and I do have this kind of big, over-the-top personality, so I thought it would be a good fit."
Diego Sanson plays Squeezit, a shy school boy, and his older, transgender sister, René.
"I could always relate to Squeezit," Sanson said. "He’s very shy. That’s me, to a point, but I can relate more to Renee. Renee’s more crazy and insane and likes to dress in drag [laughs] and look pretty. I have always loved those two characters. It’s a great part to play."
John Reynolds, known as 'Jesus' in shadowcast circles, played a number of characters in the film, including Pa Hercules, whose importance is unclear at the start of the film.
"In the beginning, he seemed sort of like just a father figure, kind of boring," Reynolds said. "But then you get to really see him, especially the in “Pico and Sepulveda” number, where he really is coming into his own, and taking his boring job and treating it as a glorious, brand new day. He’s very exciting, singing and going into work that’s at a dead end tar pit factory."
Reynolds plays 7 different parts, including Huckleberry P. Jones, a character in black-face that appears in the film's opening, and in the middle.
"I made a mask that I can throw on with the wig and the hat. It was fun trying to figure out how to change between the different characters. There was a scene where I wasn’t on screen for a while and we were doing the rehearsals and I said, 'Hey, there’s that character in the background there and we don’t have anyone playing that. I’ll jump in and do that.' I did that for some of the scenes just to get them more full because they have so many people in this film. I liked adding the detail to it to make it a more full production."
Nobody in the production really knew what to expect on the night of the show. The rehearsals had gone well, but who would actually show up?
"I really didn’t know how big it was going to be," Malmsten said. "I was expecting 150 people. I didn’t know how big a movie this was. I didn’t realize how well Logan had advertised it. And the last week, the theatre company emailed me: We’ve sold 200 tickets; We’ve sold 250 tickets; We’ve sold 300 tickets. We got to the door and there were five tickets left."
"The scope of seeing everybody onstage in their costumes, seeing an audience, seeing Richard, seeing everybody just enjoying themselves, you could feel the vibe," Sanson said. "Everyone was just having a great time there. It was a blast for me, and for everybody involved."
"I knew it was going to be exciting," said Reynolds, "but I didn’t really know what to expect with it. It was the audience. They definitely responded to the energy that Richard brought. It was so explosive. I didn’t really expect, completely, all of what it was going to be like. The crowd’s response afterward, when he did the Q&A, their enthusiasm for it was amazing. It was great to see."
"People were really just blown away not expecting such a spectacle," Welch said. "It was quite a spectacle. It was a very fun event. We all enjoyed it. The crowd did, too. They had so much fun, and I think that’s what really pushed us, as a cast. Having an appreciative audience makes all the difference. An audience that’s receptive will help you go that extra step."
"It was incredible," Crow said. "Next to probably my Zombie Walk event, the insane amount of photos that were shared on Facebook was incredible. On my Mondo Celluloid Facebook page I would scroll down and all these different people from Long Beach were posting their photos from the show. It was just non-stop photos of the cast, the pre-party, the Radioactive Chicken Heads playing at Lola’s, the shrine that we built for Susan Tyrell, all the way through the night’s performance. It really was incredible."
Logan admits that, in addition to the huge outpouring of praise from people who attended, there was an even larger outpouring of regret from those who didn't.
"A lot of people were saying, 'Oh, my God, we missed this. Are you going to be doing this again? Is this going to be a weekly thing?' And then people who were there were asking, 'when is the next one? I want to bring friends. We have no idea what to expect. That was so awesome.' It was really great to hear from two camps: from the camp that are fans of the film who said they never thought the movie could get any greater than it already is. That we just took it to that next level.
"The people who had never seen the film who were like, 'You just introduced me to my new favorite cult movie.' Both of those put a huge grin on my face. I know the cast was happy. Richard was over-the-moon. I mean, he had a permanent grin on his face throughout that entire night.
"We met up a couple days later, and you could still see the glow. He said things like, 'It took me back to that sort of playful dress-up grandiose feeling that I used to get when we put the Oingo Boingo shows together.' That, to me, was just the ultimate thing to hear.
"So, we have to do it again. An encore has felt very, very obvious. We’ve gotten a lot of requests for it. To give it a little Christmas holiday spin will be fun. It won’t be exactly the same experience again, but we’re going to bring the same energy and it’ll be a lot of fun.
Richard Elfman is pulling out all remaining stops for Friday night's show.
"We're doing a wilder pre-show this time," Elfman confessed. "We're including opera bass/baritone Jesse Merlin, best known for his roll of Dr. Hill in Re-Animator: The Musical. He'll be doing the song Sally from Nightmare Before Christmas, backed by a subdued Radioactive Chicken Heads. Also participating is Long Beach's own Brazilian percussion ensemble, SambaLa--of which I am now a member! Expect other surprises, too!"
"I’m always excited to sit in the audience and watch it all happen," Crow admitted, "because there’s a lot I’m not privy to. The cast is like a little family. They just put out such incredible shows. They’re all just topnotch performers. They care about making sure that the audience gets a quality performance."
The dinner contest ends tomorrow, Wednesday, at 5PM. Tickets are available here (and we suggest you get them quick considering they're only $11).