Long ago in a land far away, there lived a pair of cinematic visionaries/cousins named Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. They had a simple dream: to use their company, Cannon Films, to make as much money as possible cranking out low-budget genre movies for undiscriminating international audiences. To aid them in their heroic quest, these titans of independent film joined forces with the toughest guys in the world, manly men with macho monikers like Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris, and, to a lesser extent, Michael Dudikoff, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Dolph Lundgren.
For decades, Golan and Globus ruled as the John Lennon and Paul McCartney of unforgettably awful late-night cable fodder. Verily, they were gods among men. Some filmmakers have a touch of the carnie about them; Golan and Globus had entire carnivals inside them, complete with merry-go-rounds, bearded ladies, and lobster boys. They were, and remain, the kind of lusty sleaze merchants that make bad movies so much fun, especially Golan. When I interviewed Margot Kidder in 2009, she offered the following account of the myth, the magic, and the man the world knows as Menahem Golan:
MK: [Golan] is outrageous! He is really outrageous. I did a version, a very bad version, of Crime And Punishment that he directed in Russia, with Vanessa Redgrave and John Neville and John Hurt and Crispin Glover. Now, he was not a good director, but again, you had this humongous personality. [Laughs.] Just this humongous, humongous personality, who took it upon himself to rewrite Dostoyevsky, and got very flustered whenever Crispin Glover would point out that the script was betraying the book. At one point, I remember he screamed my favorite line in movie history, when we were arguing about a scene. I had this great death, initially, where I died in great sobbing heaps on a bridge, and I go mad and die of tuberculosis, blood spurting out of my mouth and lungs. Every actor’s dream. And we got there, and there was some demonstration and then a counter-demonstration by the communists that day, and it was really exciting coming to Russia. And I’ve always loved Russia, and Russian history. So I was kind of, again, having a really good time. But I remember getting to the set, and Menahem said, “I’ve cut the death. We can’t do it anymore, because the communists are demonstrating,” or something. And so Crispin said “Cut the death? You can’t cut the death, it says right here in the book—” and he brings out this dog-eared copy of Crime And Punishment and Menahem says “This book, I’m sick of hearing about this book. I wrote the script!” Which was just my favorite thing I’ve ever heard. I mean, it was just fabulous.
And then he tried to cheat people, as Menahem will do. There was some lawsuit going on where he’d taken some American ship that he’d rented, shot it full of holes for a movie, returned it full of holes, and said it had been shot up in one of the many Palestinian-Israeli skirmishes. I mean, he’s one of those characters that would only be in movies, and who is delicious. And I don’t have a clue what he’s doing now. I’m living in a little town in the Rocky Mountains, so all this is very, very, very far from my immediate life.
AVC: But he always had a bit of con-man—
MK: Well, in a cheerful way! Remember when The Producers first came out, Zero Mostel? There’s a bit of that. I mean he’s just—yeah, sure, he’s a con man. But he’s so much bigger than life that you just laugh. You kind of can’t resist him, even when he’s conning you. [Laughs.] I don’t think I got paid for that, and everybody’s checks bounced. And he told me I should have been honored to be working with Vanessa Redgrave, and that was true, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have to pay me.
It is a crime that this man does not have a cult following on the order of Uwe Boll or William Castle. Together, Golan (who once served as Roger Corman’s assistant) and Globus gave the world Death Wish and Missing In Action sequels up the wazoo. They also delivered Breakin’, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, The Apple, that movie where Sylvester Stallone must arm-wrestle to win his son’s love, and the Superman sequel where Superman battles Nuclear Power Dude.
It was a fruitful partnership, but like all good things, it had to end. In the late ’80s, Golan resigned from Cannon Films as it began to flounder toward bankruptcy and oblivion. As part of his severance package, he retained the rights to a pair of comic-book characters you might recognize: Captain America and Spider-Man. Golan had the misfortune to be ahead of his time: He signed big deals with Marvel, only to watch a long-in-gestation Spider-Man movie go nowhere. Sony and Disney later reaped literal billions from their associations with Marvel, but all Golan and Globus had to show for their premature alliance with the comic-book giant was a direct-to-video Captain America adaptation starring J.D. Salinger’s hunky son Matt.
Being an enterprising sort, Golan immediately began lining up projects for his own production company, 21st Century Film Corporation, including a project that sent him on a collision course with his former partner Globus: The Forbidden, a film that opened the exact same day as Lambada, Cannon’s contribution to the canon of timeless motion pictures about slutty would-be dance crazes. Golan rushed the film into production. The script was commissioned on December 7, 1989, and editors worked around the clock to meet the film’s March 16, 1990 release date. Alas, the market couldn’t support a single lambada movie, let alone two.
Where Lambada accomplished the formidable feat of removing sex from a film about a dance so sexy that it’s forbidden, The Forbidden Dance luxuriates in sex and sleaze. The difference between Lambada and The Forbidden Dance is less Betty Vs. Veronica than Betty Vs. Linda Lovelace.
The Forbidden Dance casts future Mulholland Dr. star Laura Harring as a hot-blooded Brazilian princess. She travels to the wilds of Los Angeles alongside a bat-faced shaman (Spider Baby star Sid Haig) in an attempt to stop an American multi-national corporation from tearing down the rainforest that houses her people. Clearly, this is the kind of intercultural conflict that can only be solved via sexually suggestive dancing.
Harring lands a job as a maid for a pair of stuffy, racist white snobs, but she has more on her mind than mopping floors and cleaning toilets. In this scene, she and love interest/total cad Jeff James meet cute when James spies his family’s new maid attempting to make sweet, passionate love to a curtain in her room.
Alas, James’ new dance partner doesn’t sit too well with his racist friends.
Harring introduces James to the erotic joys of the lambada, a dance she informs James was banned in Brazil 50 years ago for being “too sexy.” Little-known fact: John Lithgow’s glowering minister from Footloose was apparently in charge of the Brazilian government’s elite dance-censorship board throughout the ’30s and ’40s.
James’ parents are even less pleased with his polysyllabic new paramour than his pals are. “It isn’t right to date the help!” screeches James’ mother, who also sensitively implores her son not to have sex with their maid, because “there are enough of those people in the world without you fathering any more.”
A distraught Harring runs away and quickly learns a valuable lesson: If you leave the comforting confines of Beverly Hills and the security of a steady job, you’ll be at the mercy of a switchblade-toting madam within hours. In this scene, the predatory proprietor of a sleazy sex club cynically exploits Harring’s naïveté to devious ends.
Harring redeemed herself in Mulholland Dr., but here, she delivers her stumbling lines in an affectless monotone that registers as an unintentional homage to the creaky robo-speak of the lead character in the inexplicably beloved 1980s sitcom Small Wonder. Her chemistry with James, meanwhile, can charitably be described as nonexistent. Where Lambada cleaned up the titular forbidden dance for family audiences, The Forbidden Dance comes coated in multiple layers of sleaze and grime. The threat of sexual violence looms large, especially in this scene, where James’ racist “friends” attempt to fondle Harring upon discovering her working at a sleazy club.
With Haig’s help, James is able to free Harring from her bonds of servitude, but James’ family remains less than supportive. When James shows up at their palatial estate with Harring and Haig in tow, he has the following priceless exchange with his parents:
Racist Mom: [About Haig, who is lurking mysteriously outside a window.] Who is this man? What is he doing out there?
James: If you must know, mother, he’s a witch doctor and he saved my life.
Racist Mom: Jake, if you need to go to a doctor, go to a real doctor, not a witch doctor!
That is some good advice. At the risk of being Eurocentric, if you’re having migraines, dizzy spells, or a weird rash, it’s best to visit a licensed physician, not a shaman from the heart of the Brazilian rainforest. Then again, Haig’s voodoo gets James and Harring out of many a bind, so what the fuck do I know?
The Forbidden Dance proves edifying in other respects as well. For example, I learned that the best way to engender meaningful social change and protect the environment is to land a spot on Kid Creole And The Coconuts’ live television program and use it as a soapbox to rail against eco-unfriendly corporations. All meaningful social change begins with seemingly inconsequential banter on dance shows. People give Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks a lot of credit for the civil-rights movement, but one of the greatest movements of the 20th century didn’t really take off until Dick Clark asked a teen-dance fanatic on American Bandstand what he thought of “Rock Around The Clock,” and the young man replied, “It’s got a good beat and I can dance to it, but the segregation of races is a national tragedy, and a violation of the principles upon which our great nation was founded. I know a lot of Southerners like to talk about ‘states’ rights,’ but that’s ultimately just a smokescreen justifying legalized bigotry. Until these poisonous, unconstitutional laws are overturned, the very notion that our nation is a democracy is little more than a hateful fiction. Also, love the show, Dick, and I’d love to see Eddie Cochran perform here.”
So Harring and James are merely following in that noble young man’s footsteps when they win the big dance audition and use their TV spotlight to educate Kid Creole, and by extension the rest of the world, about the evil multinational corporation and its dastardly plans to burn down the rainforest. Creole is both intrigued and outraged. In this clip, he takes a bold stand:
Where Lambada was a heavy-handed message movie interrupted periodically by saucy dance sequences, The Forbidden Dance suggests an edited version of sleazy softcore porn bogged down with an awkwardly shoehorned-in message about protecting the rainforest. The film’s anti-racism message would be more convincing if the script didn’t present Brazilians as oversexed, shamanistic, uncommunicative exotics who have a deep spiritual bond with the land.
The Forbidden Dance died the same critical and commercial death as Lambada, but Golan lived to schlock it up another day. You can’t keep a man like that down. If anyone has the chutzpah to hold a Golan-Globus retrospective, Forbidden Dance should occupy a place of pride in the lineup as an unusually pure representation of Golan’s wonderfully warped, unapologetically opportunistic aesthetic.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure