RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: ALICE [NECO Z ALENKY] (1988)

Alice has been placed on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time; the complete entry can be found here.

DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Kristýna Kohoutová

PLOT: Experimental Czech animator Jan Svankmajer crafts a decidedly creepier version of

Still from Alice (Neco Z Alenky) (1988)

Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland, moving the action to a decrepit house and replacing most of the characters with crude stop-motion dolls.  A live-action Alice moves among them, making her way through various rooms that correlate to scenes in the original story.


WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Svankmajer’s remarkably innovative visuals, haunting use of sound effects, and minimalist storytelling render a familiar tale almost unrecognizable, removing sugarcoated elements of childhood fantasy and replacing them with a macabre surrealism.  His unsettling animation techniques and intricate set design are undeniably bizarre, giving the proceedings a shiver-inducing aspect that’s difficult to identify.  It’s a strange, imaginative film whose weirdness is guaranteed to leave an imprint on viewers.

COMMENTS: Most casual filmgoers associate animation with twirling princesses, talking toys, and catchy music numbers—just pleasant family fun.  Jan Svankmajer rejects this notion.  In works like Alice, he employs the undeniably off-putting technique of combining live-action actors with stop-motion figures.  The effect is a memorably uncanny take on a classic story, making an already-weird children’s tale even weirder.  Alice makes her way through cupboards, paper walls, and doors of varying sizes in a seemingly never-ending, decaying house (sometimes inexplicably opening up into a woodland field), encountering numerous recognizable characters in unrecognizable forms.  The source material is naturally altered in this re-imagining, both in plot and tone.

The White Rabbit is a rejuvenated taxidermied bunny, with wide plastic eyes and a stomach leaking sawdust.  He chatters his large teeth menacingly and licks his pocketwatch with a humanoid tongue.  The Caterpillar is a torn sock puppet with human eyes and teeth, presiding over a litter of phallic cloth creatures moving rapidly within the floorboards.  The Mad Hatter is a bearded wooden marionette, and the Queen of Hearts is a 2-D cut-paper drawing.  Alice herself becomes an old-fashioned china doll whenever she’s miniaturized.  Each character design fits both the unsettling atmosphere of the film as a whole and the dusty, antique look of the “Wonderland” house.

An extraordinary facet of Alice is the sound design.  There is absolutely no music.  Svankmajer instead opts for a range of effective, often gratuitous sound effects.  There is very little dialogue, and the few spoken lines by any character are all said by Alice herself, often accompanied by a close-up shot of her mouth as she indicates who is talking.  The special attention to sound effects and lack of conversation among these fantastic creatures actually keep it from becoming a typical fantasy.  Despite the unreal nature of the visuals, it feels more grounded in reality without the specific music cues or over-scripted conversation typical of other films, even while we are consistently drawn back to its status as a fairy tale when Alice’s lips are shown narrating.

Alice is the kind of film that isn’t especially frightening—at least, not in a standard horror-movie sense. Viewers are thus affected because they can’t actually figure out what is so scary about it.  Perhaps it’s our innate fear of taxidermied animals coming back to life, or the unnaturalness of food moving about on its own, or the inherent creepiness of abandoned houses, or the frequent use of close-up shots, or the eerie stillness that comes with lack of a musical score.  Perhaps it’s just the utter uncanniness of everything that happens in this movie.  Whatever it is, it’s really weird, and completely captivating.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has an irresistible potency and allure. Watching it, we feel the enthrallment of the irrational.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Leslie Rae,” who called it “one of the most visually disturbing/surrealistic films I’ve ever seen.”  Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

4 thoughts on “RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: ALICE [NECO Z ALENKY] (1988)”

  1. Note to readers: this is a placeholder review to help whittle down the reader-suggested review queue, which is imposingly huge at this time. I do plan to revisit Alice later. I think Alex captured the hard-to-define appeal of this movie as well as anyone can; it’s something you have to actually see with your own eyes to appreciate. Anyone who has seen it firsthand probably has a good idea what its chances of making the List are.

  2. Weird is right! This is not the lavish, color-coated spectacles that people are familiar with. Very stark and desolate…and creepy as hell. Many images here are creepy, but the one that stands out is near the end when Alice grows into the tall version of the baby doll. Her human eyes peering out of the plastic doll mask…shudder. Another thing that resonates for me is the keen way Svankmajer uses the sense of taste. Each time Alice tastes something odd (the ink, the sawdust, and especially the key) you can amost taste it yourself. Strange. It was also a wise decision not to use any musical score and rely on sound effects only. Outside of this film, the only other movie that does this (that I can think of) is Hitchcock’s The Birds. Discordant sounds are eerily effective in both films. However, since I own Alice, I think the next time I watch it I may mute it and play my own soundtrack. Maybe some harsh vintage industrial soundscapes courtesy of Einsturzende Neubauten or Throbbing Gristle. That should fit nicely and make for a whole new watching experience.

    1. I like what you said about taste. I don’t know if you’ve watched much of Jan’s other work but that is a big theme for him; food in general. Also, the life size doll is not near the end, it is only half way.

  3. This is such an amazing piece of art. I was in love with it when I first saw it. So much inspiration. Along with the short film that was on the DVD, Light and Dark.

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