Canadian installation artist and filmmaker Guy Maddin teams up with newbie director Evan Johnson to create an absurdist, nonlinear ode to early movies that is like what might happen is you took clips from a bunch of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 candidates, chopped up the celluloid, and watched this melange of disparate grade-Z genre movies circle a drain for two-plus hours while desperately attempting to impose some sort of connective meaning between them all. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that something interesting, enlightening, or just plain fun could come of that, and if you think my description makes The Forbidden Room sound like any of those things, then this might appeal to you. I found it to be a grueling marathon of cinematic masturbation, a mind-numbingly empty exercise in self-conscious style with absolutely nothing to say.
Maddin and Johnson created their own “vintage” footage, digitally aping period processes for creating early Technicolor images, far-flung locations, and other FX, but that means that they were not constrained by the dictates of archival material: the forced interweaving of the various cross-genre plot threads is by deliberate plan; mishmash is the intent. How can a lumberjack on an alpine quest, men on a submarine that cannot surface, a singer in a jungle nightclub, and a “train psychiatrist” all interact? Through the most affected and artificial “magic” of cinema, as long as it is unbound by the rules of narrative. What is conceived, I suspect, to be intellectually ticklish is merely trying. And what may be the overall thematic aim — to highlight the entire history of cinema as celebrating men as violent and competitive actors upon the world and women as beautiful and imperiled objects (though once in a rare while a reversal of this is shocking, ain’t it?) — is so obvious and banal that it scarcely needs underscoring. This is nothing more than high-toned arthouse exercise in faux “found-footage” that thinks clichés are clever if they are presented with an overwrought wink. They aren’t.