Part of the joy of being a fan is finding odd and obscure gems that you end up falling in love with. For every Godzilla, there is a Pulgasari. For every Jaws, there is an Up From the Depths. Here at Fandom, we like to go hunting for some offbeat and off-the-wall films and television shows that might just become your own secret treasures. Strap yourself in and expect the unexpected, because this week’s Weird Watch is The Forbidden Room.
Every artist is, to some degree, a fetishist. They repeat motifs and techniques lovingly, obsessively. Their fetishes become their trademarks. Filmmakers might be the most fetishistic artists. Cinema is one of the populist arts, a thing for the global masses. And because cinema is everywhere we look, we see these fetishes all the time. They’ve become part of the permanent fabric of visual art. Hitchcock loved his blondes. Spielberg loves his closeup reaction shots of characters gaping at something unseen. Guillermo del Toro loves his clockwork and fetuses in jars. And Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin loves — fetishizes — expressionism and silent films.
Maddin makes films that seem to come from an alternate timeline. It’s as if he opens portals, Bioshock Infinite style, and pulls in stories from a strange forgotten history. Maddin’s The Forbidden Room feels like that, but it’s way weirder. Instead of being one story from god knows what dimension, the film intercuts 17 stories into a two-hour phantasmagoria.
Going in blind is a recipe for complete bewilderment. Trust me — I know. The Forbidden Room is nigh impossible to “follow” in the traditional sense of the word. It’s hard to tell where one story begins and the other ends, so you’ll want to fight the experience. Stories unfold from within stories. It’s an ever warping, shifting dreamscape. Images glitch-melt-morph from one to the next in hallucinatory splendor.
It’s the kind of film you could imagine playing on a loop in a darkened corner of a museum. You’d be walking past and catch a glimpse. It snags you because it looks cool, or maybe because you see that cult actor you know from somewhere. Maybe you’d spend the next few minutes watching it, trying to grasp some gossamer thread of an idea that holds the movie together. But when the men in the submarine are sucking the air out of their pancakes and are interrupted by the woodsman who has no idea how he got there, you throw your hands up. You walk away, looking at your museum pamphlet, wondering what bizarro exhibit you wandered into.
But there are threads holding The Forbidden Room together. Director Guy Maddin made The Forbidden Room as a sister project to something called Seances, in which he “recreates” lost films based on synopses or reviews. The Forbidden Room‘s stories are in a similar vein and feel like absurdist recreations of lost films. In fact, they are all original stories, each one overlaid with a unique psychedelic texture and told with fever dream logic.
Some recognizable faces temper the confusion. Fan favorite Udo Kier appears in several roles, including a man whose obsession with women’s butts (“I am plagued by bottoms!”) puts him in the hands of a brain surgeon. The surgeon “takes a little bit off the top”, shaping his brain into a smooth lump. Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter) plays the surgeon. Caroline Dhavernas (Hannibal) shows up as a motorcyclist who suffers a severe accident. Mathieu Amalric (Quantum of Solace), Charlotte Rampling (Dexter) and Maria de Medeiros (Pulp Fiction) also show up in small roles.
The Forbidden Room, which shares a name with a lost Lon Chaney flick from 1914 (that can’t be coincidence), may only make sense if you go in knowing what it is. It may be genuinely hilarious in parts, but as a blind watch on Netflix (where it’s currently available to stream in the US), it’ll likely baffle just about anyone. I’ve seen a lot of movies that defy genre and storytelling norms, but no film defies description quite like The Forbidden Room. But once you start to know Guy Maddin and his fetishes, the film might make a lot more sense.
Read more in our regular Weird Watch series here.