Tag Archives: Czech

CAPSULE: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST [PANNA A NETVOR] (1978)

AKA The Virgin and the Monster

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Zdena Studenková, Vlastimil Harapes

PLOT: A virtuous, virginal merchant’s daughter pledges to live in a magical Beast’s castle to save her father’s life after he plucks a rose from the Beast’s garden; she falls in love and transforms him.

Still from Beauty and the Beast (Panna a Netvor) (1978)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Panna a Netvor is almost a Czech color remake of ‘s more famous film version of the fairy tale, with a few unique weird additions. It makes for an appealing Gothic fantasy, but one which does not distinguish itself enough from its classic inspiration to count as one of the 366 most notable weird movies.

COMMENTS: Identical source material explains a lot, but there are so many similarities between Juraj (The Cremator) Herz’s version of the “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale and Jean Cocteau’s better known classic that Panna a Nevtor almost strikes me as a Czech remake of the French film. The similarities occur especially in the unseen hospitality of the invisible servants of the Beast’s chateau, and shots from a candelabra’s POV and of Beauty running down a dark corridor with billowing curtains seem like direct nods to Cocteau.

The one big difference is that this adaptation takes pains to bring out the story’s horror elements. Netvor starts out like a Hammer film, in a lonely mist-shrouded wood, before segueing into an unsettling semi-animated title sequence of twisted flowers, animal skulls and lost souls that sits somewhere between Hieronymus Bosch and ‘s Fantastic Planet designs. The score is a portentous recurring dirge played on a pipe organ. Netvor focuses on the Beast’s cursed role as a reluctant killer; rather than simply seeing Cocteau’s poetically-rendered smoking paws, this Beast gets blood (both human and animal) under his talons. If Cocteau’s cursed prince was sometimes criticized for being too cute to be frightening, Herz solves this problem with a strange bird-of-prey interpretation of the Beast: it might look a little silly, but at least it’s not something a sane Beauty would consider cuddling with.

Bravura surreal moments include Beauty’s drugged dream, where human bedposts lower the canopy until it turns into a coffin-like box, and a second monster who hangs around in the shadows and telepathically encourages the Beast to give in to his animal side. There are not enough of these touches, however, to transform the movie into a Surrealist version of the tale (although Cocteau’s treatment was not literally Surrealist either). All told, Panna a Netvor is a worthwhile variation on the familiar story, one that will appeal to horror fans, but it shouldn’t displace the classic version in your heart.

A word of warning: animal lovers may want to boycott this feature, which definitely would not have been approved by the ASPCA due to a scene of a horse trampling a frightened doe. It’s an unnecessary lapse of good taste in a film that is otherwise elegantly appointed. Also be aware that the only available DVD, while not region coded, is in PAL format, meaning some U.S. players will not be able to handle it; and although there are English subtitles for the film, the menus and extras are all in Czech. Check your system’s compatibility before ordering.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Many viewers may takes issue with the unusual Beast design, which does take some getting used to, as do such odd sights as what is essentially a giant bird galloping around on a horse. Thankfully, that ends up hardly even mattering in the long run. The film is so beautifully-crafted, visually arresting and richly atmospheric the Beast could have been wearing a paper bag over his head and I still would have bought it.”–Justin McKinney, The Bloody Pit of Horror

(This movie was nominated for review by “Leaves,” who advised “[f]or crazy Czech films… Beauty and the Beast is a great choice.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

Spalovac Mrtvol

“The Lord arranged it very well when he told people: ‘Remember, dust thou art and to dust thou returnest.’ A crematorium, dear friends, is clearly a God-pleasing object, because it helps God to speed up the transformation of people into dust.”–Kopfrkingl, The Cremator

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, Jana Stehnová, Jirí Lír

PLOT: Kopfrkingl is a crematorium operator in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s who holds odd opinions about the liberating nature of death, based largely on his self-study of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Because he has German blood, an old army buddy recruits him into the Czech branch of the Nazi party. His beloved wife’s half-Jewish parentage, however, soon becomes an issue that threatens his advancement both in the party, and in his chosen profession.

Still from The Cremator (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie is based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, a Czech who had been a forced laborer (arbeitseinsatz) during the Nazi occupation. Fuks collaborated with director Juraj Herz on the screenplay.
  • Although he was their contemporary, Herz did not consider himself part of the In school he studied puppetry (in the same class as ) rather than film, and had few friends in the New Wave clique. (One exception was director , who plays the small role of Dvorák in The Cremator). He did sneak in to film screenings at FAMU (the national film school that incubated the New Wave movement) and filmed a segment for the 1966 anthology Pearls of the Deep, which was rejected because of its length (30 minutes).
  • The Cremator began filming during the Prague Spring, but was interrupted by the Soviet invasion in 1969, which made completing it a challenge. The film was released and screened but removed from circulation soon after.
  • Czechoslovakia submitted The Cremator to the Oscars as Best Foreign Film, but the Academy did not grant it an official nomination.
  • The Cremator won best film, actor (Rudolf Hrusínský) and cinematography (Stanislav Milota) at the Sitges Film Festival, but not until 1972, three years after its initial release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most likely it’s frequently tuxedoed cremator-in-chief Rudolf Hrusínský’s round face, the subject of so many closeups, that will stick with you the most. We chose to highlight the moment when he is invited into the rear tent at the freaskshow to gaze at the embalmed two-headed specimens and faces ravaged by syphilis, in which he shows a strange fascination.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Buddhist Nazism; the throne in Lhasa; girl in black

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A WWII drama soaked in an atmosphere of Gothic psychological horror, The Cremator seems like a screenplay might have written if he’d lived to see the Holocaust. Distorted lenses and madcap montages track the cremator’s bent descent from eccentric mortician to megalomaniacal tool of ultimate evil.


Second Run DVD trailer for The Cremator

COMMENTS: The IMDB categorizes The Cremator as, among other Continue reading 250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

CAPSULE: THE OSSUARY AND OTHER TALES (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Various

PLOT: The collection of short films on this disc range from people-puppet tellings of classic opera to unconventional documentaries, as well as examples of what Svankmajer is most known for: stop motion animation with a decidedly macabre aura of cheekiness.

Still from The Ossuary and Other Tales
“The Last Trick”

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It would be easy to argue that these short films are all very well done, and easier still to contend that a handful of them are disorientingly bizarre. However, the overall degree of weirdness fluctuates greatly, and seeing as this is a compilation of shorts anyway, Mr. Svankmajer will have to make do with his feature-length Certifications.

COMMENTS: Jan Svankmajer’s influence is well known to the visitors of this website. His body of work, beginning in 1964 with “The Last Trick,” has inspired everyone from ‘s to the Pennsylvanian duo, the . The Ossuary and Other Tales is something of a scatter-shot collection of his short films from the mid-1960s through the late 1980s, and is intriguing both for its content and its omissions. Over the course of two hours, the viewer gets to marvel at increasingly surreal sleight-of-hand from a pair of competing magicians (“The Last Trick”), watch a summary of the earth’s life forms put to classic dance riffs (“Historia Naturae [Suita]”), see ominous social commentary (“The Garden”), and even catch up on some classic opera (sans opera) with “Don Juan.” The overall result is a nice showcase of Svankmajer’s scope and talent, but it leaves one feeling that there are some gaps.

Two of the highlights of the anthology are “The Ossuary” (1970) and “Castle of Otranto” (1979). Both are documentaries. The former is made up entirely of shots of the famed Sedlec Ossuary, home to the remains of forty to seventy thousand people whose bones are arranged in intricate formations. Most notable are an enormous bone chandelier and the coat of arms of the royal house that funded the project. The voice-over from the never-seen tour guide provides commentary, challenging the school children the guide is ostensibly lecturing to contemplate what they could hope to make with all this human material, and constantly reminding them that there is a 50 crown fine (“to be paid immediately!”) for touching the remains.

“Castle of Otranto” is more conventional in that it features an interviewer speaking with an amateur archaeologist who is convinced the fabled story from Horace Walpole’s Gothic tale is based on an actual castle, the Otrhany ruins found in (then) Czechoslovakia. The documentary bits are interspersed with Gilliam-esque (Svankmajer-esque?) animations of Walpole’s story, one that involves love, betrayal, and a truly massive knight. The amateur archaeologist contends that the Otrhany ruins show evidence of both the existence and gargantuan size of said knight as described in the book; the interviewer is skeptical, providing some mundane explanations for the archaeologist’s circumstantial evidence. In a nice twist, the words of doubt prompt a tumbling of rocks and debris on the pair and the camera pans up to a massive gauntlet smashing through the tower above them.

There is too little space to cover everything included here, but at the same time I was left wanting more material. Those who enjoyed the “uncanny valley” effect of the Certified Weird Marquis will revel in Svankmajer’s “Don Juan,” with its people dressed as marionettes. The dangers of solitary drinking and soccer obsession are explored in “Virile Games,” which features a man slowly getting hammered while watching a match on TV, and combines live-action, cut-out animation, and stop motion (the last of which showcases the offing of the soccer players in various clever ways). So there is a wealth of material here: but not nearly all of it. Looking over a list of Svankmajer’s shorts, it appears that maybe just half show up in The Ossuary. Hopefully a truly comprehensive Blu Ray disc will come along to put things right; until then, I advise completists to pick up what they can where they can.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a great compilation of truly odd little films.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk

(This movie was nominated for review by “hazebass7,” who said “This movie is teeming with weird imagery and a great avant-garde feel. I was greatly entertained by this collection’s weirdness and I think that it would be a great addition to the list!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

228. LEMONADE JOE (1964)

Limonádový Joe aneb Konská Opera [Lemonade Joe, or the Horse Opera]

“What was before my eyes was both familiar and eerily strange.”–Danilo H. Figueredo, in Revolvers and Pistolas, Vaqueros and Caballeros: Debunking the Old West, on the experience of seeing Lemonade Joe in Cuba

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Oldrich Lipský

FEATURING: Karel Fiala, Olga Schoberová, Rudolf Deyl, Miloš Kopecký, Kveta Fialová

PLOT: A lemonade-drinking cowboy rescues a beautiful temperance worker from rowdies in a tavern. Impressed with his heroism and trick shooting, the town opens an all-lemonade saloon, which upsets the local whiskey barons. With the help of a prostitute Joe has scorned, they scheme to kill the teetotalling hero and make Stetson City safe for intoxicating spirits once more.

Still from Lemonade Joe (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • The word “limonádový” actually translates to “soft drink,” not “lemonade,” but there can be no doubt Lemonade Joe has a better ring to it than Soft Drink Joe.
  • The Lemonade Joe character began his life in a series of stories by satirist Jiří Brdečka. The stories were then adapted into a 1946 play, a short series of animated shorts, and finally into this hit movie.
  • Co-screenwriter/director Oldrich Lipský was the artistic director of Prague’s Satirical Theater. He went on to direct several popular and critically successful films, including Happy End (a 1966 experimental film that plays backwards) and Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (1981).
  • Although the Western had been a popular genre in Czechoslovakia in the early part of the 20th Century, largely due to the writings of German pulp author Karl May, Western films had been banned through the German and Soviet occupations. They only began to be screened again (and then rarely) in the 1960s.
  • Czechoslovakia submitted Lemonade Joe to the Academy Awards, but it was not selected for the Best Foreign Language Film competition.
  • This movie was a huge hit in its home country—the biggest-drawing film of the 1960s—and remains a cult movie there to this day.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Lemonade Joe and his nemesis—who is outfitted in blackface because he has been posing as Louis Armstrong for a duet with Joe at the piano—square off in a shootout. The gunfire’s path appears onscreen as dotted lines so that we can see that the bullets are striking each other in midair, leading the duel to end in a draw.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Fiddle eating; Czech blackface; dotted bullets

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Communist propaganda, surreal Czech sensibilities, and an honest appreciation for the entertainment value of early Hollywood films collide to create a homegrown retro-Western musical spoof that could almost have come from the mind of Guy Maddin.


Clip from Lemonade Joe

COMMENTS: You hear the names Milos Forman, , Continue reading 228. LEMONADE JOE (1964)

226. CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE (1996)

Spiklenci Slasti

Conspirators is actually a film about liberation, and about gaining a freedom.”–Jan Svankmajer explaining why he considered Conspirators his most Surrealistic film up to that point

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Petr Meissel, Gabriela Wilhelmová, Barbora Hrzánová, Anna Wetlinská, Jirí Lábus, Pavel Nový

PLOT: A man enters a newsstand and furtively buys a pornographic magazine as the owner nods conspiratorially at him. At home, he leafs through the pages but is interrupted by the postwoman, who has him sign for a letter that simply reads “on Sunday.” Over the next several days the man constructs an elaborate chicken costume; meanwhile, the postwoman, his next door neighbor, the newsstand owner, and another couple are all involved in their own strange, surreptitious projects.

Still from Conspirators of Pleasure (1996)

BACKGROUND:

  • Conspirators of Pleasure began life as a screenplay for a short written in 1970 but never filmed. That short would have told the parallel stories of the “chicken man” and his neighbor across the hall. Svankmajer resumed work on the project in 1996, thought of four more characters to include, and expanded the film to feature length.
  • In 1975 Svankmajer wrote a (satirical?) essay entitled “The Future Belongs to Masturbation Machines.”
  • Originally known for his stop-motion animated shorts, Conspirators was Svankmajer’s third feature film, and it continued a trend of having less and less animation in each successive film (there are only a few accent scenes here, which amount to about one minute of animation).
  • The end credits list Sacher-Masoch, the , Freud, , and Bohuslav Brouk (a Czech psychoanalyst who wrote up a series of case studies about masturbatory practices) as having provided “professional expertise.”
  • The , animators who paid tribute to the Czech director with the 1984 film “The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer,” are listed in the credits as “musical collaborators” (although the soundtrack is prerecorded classical music).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The man in a chicken suit doing a ritualistic (and sometimes literally animated) dance in front of a doll-like effigy tied to a chair.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Stop-motion submissive; dough-snorting; carp shrimping

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: We follow six people engaged in complicated, intensely personal fetishistic rituals; adding to the odd, voyeuristic atmosphere, there is no dialogue, other than what’s overheard in the background on television. Each of the conspirators crosses the others’ paths, but continue to work on their own private obsessions, until all of them appear to receive their ultimate gratification. Then, Jan Svankmajer launches us into a new stratosphere of strangeness at the finale, when the chickens come home to roost (so to speak).


Short clip from Conspirators of Pleasure

COMMENTS: Case study: a man, Eastern European, balding but fit Continue reading 226. CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE (1996)

LIST CANDIDATE: TOYS IN THE ATTIC (2009)

Na pude; Na pude aneb Kdo má dneska narozeniny?

DIRECTED BY: Jirí Barta

FEATURING: Vivian Schilling, Douglas Urbanski, Forest Whitaker, , Joan Cusak (US dubbed version)

PLOT: When the doll Buttercup is kidnapped by a plaster head, a teddy bear, a marionette knight and a mechanical mouse must journey to the other side of the attic to save her.

Still from Toys in the Attic [Na Pude] (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Trust the Czechs to take the basic notion of Toy Story (the private lives of toys when their owners aren’t around) and turn it into a creepy stop-motion parable about totalitarianism wherein a head and his army of vermin kidnap a doll and attempt to brainwash her. Sure, it’s a bit weird, but apparently Czech children are into “weird”…

COMMENTS: It seems lazy and obvious to describe Toys in the Attic as 50% Toy Story, 50% , but that’s exactly the way it plays out. The movie, which takes dusty Communist-era toys and knick-knacks and brings them to creaky life, splits the difference between sentimentality and nightmarishness straight down the middle. The tale begins by introducing the retired playthings’ domestic life, as mother-figure Buttercup prepares breakfast for the other toys: a mechanical mouse with button ears, a battered teddy bear, a wooden Don Quixote marionette who speaks in rhyming couplets, and some sort of nutty clay homunculus with a pencil nose and a bottle cap hat. Their first act of business is to roll a die to figure out who has a birthday that day; the cake’s candle flames are simulated with a cascade of colored tinsel. The toys then each march off to their daily jobs (for the knight Sir Handsome, this involves slaying an inflatable dragon; when his pencil lance pierces its hide, a monkey nurse pops out and patches the beast up). Meanwhile, the bust of a Head spies on the happy toys via an eyeball embedded in a slithering hose, and their storybook existence is shattered when a little girl finds Buttercup and accidentally leaves her in the area of the attic controlled by the Head. The Head, whose existence in the household is never rationalized, is a magnificent creation, spookily realized by a live actor (which ironically makes him an alien creature in the artificial stop-motion world). He’s a bespectacled apparatchik with spies everywhere and a voice like Steve Martin’s “wild and crazy guy.” Besides his “snakey eye,” his minions include a house cat who goes undercover as an old man, a scorpion with eyeglasses and a  mustache, and a chorus line of rotten potatoes with Rockette gams. And there’s even more weird stuff along the journey, including a floods made up of pillowcases and garbage bags, watches that inexplicably turn into black holes, and a celebratory disco feast thrown by the Head. As in Svankamjer’s animated worlds, the animated objects here are antique and distressed: it’s a world of recycled tin cans, rusty nails, and unfinished furniture. There’s a nostalgia for the perishability and endurance of handcrafted things. Besides the Svankmajerian stop-motion, traditional animation also pops up in unexpected places throughout the film: when Buttercup opens a hand-drawn window in the attic, she sees a bird drawn in a kid’s cartoon scrawl pecking and flying about. If you’re looking for a “logical” explanation, I think that the movie could be understood as an imaginary story made up by the little girl who discovers the old toys to entertain herself on an otherwise dull afternoon at grandma’s house. The film has that loose, improvisatory, anything-can-happen quality of “make believe” stories that children tell themselves, before adults channel their narrative understanding into predictable logical corridors. (For similarly crazy, but brighter-toned animated Eurokiddie fare, check out Belgium’s A Town Called Panic). There’s a narrow window for American kids to enjoy this. With the eyeball-on-a-stalk peering into secret places, it’s too frightening for very young kids, and many older kids will be put off by its anti-Pixar sensibilities, its drab color palette and its overall foreignness. Adults, of course, can enjoy it at any age.

Jirí Barta began making animated films in the 1970s, but Na Pude was only his second feature-length effort (the first was 1986’s Krysar, AKA The Pied Piper of Hamlin, which is currently in our reader-suggested review queue). He had not made a movie for twenty years before this one. Vivian Schilling, who voiced Buttercup, also wrote the English translation, directed the American voice actors, and designed a new title sequence. Schilling was previously best known for writing and starring in the laughable 1990 Joe Estevez sci-fi snoozer Soultaker. Ms. Schilling, consider yourself redeemed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…easily earns a capital-W for weird.”–Matt Pais, Redeye (contemporaneous)

136. VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970)

Valerie a Týden Divu

“…one of those haunting, dream-like films that once seen is difficult to forget.”–Tanya Krzywinska

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jaroslava Schallerova, Petr Kopriva, Helena Anyzova, Jiri Prymek, 

PLOT: Young Valerie lives in a farmhouse on the edge of a small town with her Granny. She flirts with “Eagle,” a boy about her age who is either a neighbor or her brother, and they both fear a pale-faced bogeyman they call “the Weasel.” On the day she becomes a woman (symbolized by blood drops appearing on a daisy), Valerie’s life suddenly becomes a strange dream involving family betrayals, lusty priests, constantly shifting identities, and a vampire infestation.

Still from Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Vítězslav Nezval, which was written in 1935 but not published until 1945. Nezval was a co-founder of the Czech Surrealist group (one of the first Surrealist groups organized outside of France).
  • This is considered one of the last works in what was known as the , although that term more commonly refers to Czech movies made or released just before or during the Prague spring of 1968. In contrast to most of the New Wave canon, Valerie was released after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the installation of a hardline government who redoubled censorship efforts. Despite the fact that it’s a Surrealist work, equally offensive to the official aesthetic of Socialist Realism as a banned New Wave movie like 1967’s Daisies, Valerie appears to have evoked little objection from the censors. This may be because the film’s heavily anticlerical tone meshed with the Communist Party’s official stance on the Church.
  • A Philadelphia “freak folk” supergroup dubbed “The Valerie Project” wrote an alternate soundtrack to the film, and toured across the U.S. from 2006-2008 performing the score while the film screened as a silent movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Drops of blood on white daisy petals.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is often, and accurately, described as a Freudian version of Alice in Wonderland, with the confusion of new hormones surging through the young heroine’s body coloring her encounters with a dark and fearful tinge: Valerie faces vampires and rapist priests instead of Alice’s White Rabbits and Cheshire Cats. The plot makes no literal sense, because characters keep changing into different characters, the way they might in a dream; but overall Valerie’s welter of wonders hangs together as a mosaic of a girl’s anxieties about impending adutlhood and the enticing but scary world of sex.

Clip from Peter Hames Criterion Collection commentary Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

COMMENTS: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders opens with images of pretty young Valerie drinking from a waterspout, petting a dove, sniffing Continue reading 136. VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970)

CAPSULE: BATHORY (2008)

AKA Bathory: Countess of Blood

DIRECTED BY:  Juraj Jakubisk

FEATURING, Karel Roden, Vincent Regan, Hans Matheson, Deana Horváthová, Franco Nero

PLOT:  Fictionalized chronicle of the life, loves, and political struggles of the infamous 17th century Hungarian countess.


WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Clashing cross-genre elements and facts interposed with fiction and fantasy create an oddball portrait of an already bizarre historical figure and her horrific crimes. If not tedious, the end effect is certainly weird.

COMMENTS: Bathory is a dreamy, odd mix of historical fact, fiction, speculation, and whimsy surrounding the life of notorious sexual serial murderess, Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory de Ecsed (1560 – 1614).

At 141 minutes running time, this cut of the film is condensed from a three part TV miniseries. It’s a Slovakian film produced in the Czech Republic about Hungarian history, with British actors, and the mixed production values, uneven tone and ambiguous, confusing story make for an unusual, entertaining, but disjointed viewing experience. The sets and costumes are colorful and imaginative, yet in places smack of a television budget.

Relying heavily on speculation and fancy, Bathory‘s plot combines elements of mystery, thriller, historical drama, and Renaissance steampunk adventure. Part of the movie focuses on the Countess’s personal life, her youth, her marriage to a Hapsburg dynasty heir, and fictionalized romance with painter Merisi Caravaggio (who in real life, never traveled to Northern Hungary.) The story also surveys the politics of Bathory’s dynasty, the Hapsburg empire, their battles with the Turks, and the interplay of power posturings between Bathory and her Hapsburg in-laws. This comprehensive coverage is fine for a TV miniseries, but becomes tedious and complicated in a feature-length movie, especially given the film’s sojourn into fiction.

While some of the political and historical plot points in the film are accurate, others are not, and the remainder of the picture features a murky, often conflicted depiction of Countess Bathory which attempts alternate explanations for the gruesome legends about her. This aspect of the movie is deliberately ambiguous.

Bodies of mutilated teenage girls indeed pile up, girls are found captive in the dungeons of Csejte Castle, and Bathory is seen murdering a couple of servants. Conversely, it is indicated that conspirators drugged the Countess with hallucinogenic mushrooms, and her Gypsy mystic soothsayer, a secret Hapsburg confederate, had Elizabeth so brainwashed with suspicious medicinal potions and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that Bathory had no clear conception of reality. In other words, the filmmakers seem to be saying of her dreadful transgressions, “it wasn’t her fault.”

Bathory’s infamous bath of blood (drawn from her victims) turns out to be an innocent aquatic suspension of scarlet herbs. Or was the herb bath just a decoy to fool spies? The film hedges as if the producers are too timid to take a firm stance, yet they raise the question of whether long established historical facts are in actuality nothing more than trumped-up charges.

The Hapsburgs are depicted as doing their best to blame a string of mutilation killings on Bathory for political reasons, while fostering exaggerated Continue reading CAPSULE: BATHORY (2008)

125. LITTLE OTIK (2000)

Otesánek; AKA Greedy Guts

“I do not work with intentions… That has nothing to do with freedom of the imagination… My preference is certainly for subsequent interpretation rather than intention. In Little Otik, the child devours its ‘parents.’ Otik is the product of their desire, their rebellion against nature. This is not a child in the real sense of the world, but the materialization of desire, of a rebellion. That is the tragic dimension of the human destiny. It is impossible to live without rebelling against the human lot. That is the proper subject of freedom.”–Jan Svankamjer, 2006 interview with Peter Hames

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Kristina Adamcová, Veronika Zilková, Jan Hartl

PLOT: Karel and Bozena are an infertile couple obsessed with becoming pregnant; one day, as a joke, Karel brings his wife a tree stump that looks a little like a child, but the woman immediately begins treating it as if it were a real baby. Bozena goes so far as to fake a pregnancy, and the husband is shocked when the piece of wood actually comes to life. Parenthood proves difficult when they discover in that the wooden child needs to be fed and has an insatiable craving for red meat; meanwhile, their sexually curious ten-year old neighbor is also obsessed with little Otik and begins to suspect his secret…

Still from Little Otik (2000)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story is a modern adaptation of the Eastern European fairy tale “Otesánek,” as collected by the folklorist K.J. Erben. The original fable is recounted in a storybook-animated film-within-a-film.
  • Jan Svankmajer’s late wife, the painter Eva Švankmajerová, had illustrated “Otesánek” for a children’s book in the 1970s.
  • Per Svankmajer, in Czech the word “otesánek” (which is derived from the verb “to hew” plus a diminutive “-ánek” which denotes a child) is used for a person “who devours and digests everything (not only food).”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Crazy-eyed Bozena breastfeeding a log in maternal bliss—particularly when the camera zooms in to show a closeup of Otik hungrily suctioning milk through his stump. (As a footnote, one of Little Otik‘s iconic images isn’t actually in the movie. A bizarre still of Alzbetka licking a fried egg was featured prominently in the Otik‘s promotional material, but that precise shot does not appear in the film).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This modernized fairy-tale adaptation about an insatiable man-eating tree stump baby is actually Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer’s most conventional and accessible story (by far). Of course, in Svankmajer’s world, a conventional narrative includes scenes where street vendors fish infants out of tanks, wrap them in newspaper and sell them to passersby. There’s something seminal about this freaky film that mixes black comedy with dashes of horror and flecks of surrealism; it’s an excellent, comprehensible-yet-mysterious entry-level bizarre film for the neophyte weirdster.


American trailer for Little Otik

COMMENTS: When erotically curious youngster Alzbetka hides a textbook on sexual Continue reading 125. LITTLE OTIK (2000)

120. FANTASTIC PLANET [LA PLANETE SAUVAGE] (1973)

“Cinema is showing more and more. It’s a paranoid, dictatorial cinema. And it’s saying less and less. We need a schizophrenic cinema.”–René Laloux

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: René Laloux

FEATURING: Eric Baugin, Jennifer Drake, Jean Valmont (voices)

PLOT: On a fantastic planet full of strange creatures, a race of mystical giant blue aliens (named “Traags”) treat humans (called “Oms”) as either pets, or as pests to be exterminated. An orphan Om dubbed Ter is adopted by a young Traag, but eventually escapes captivity, taking along an encyclopedic headband that holds all the aliens’ knowledge of their world. He meets up with a band of wild Oms scratching out a living in the surreal landscape and, using the alien technology, fashions a plan for humanity to escape its captivity.

Still from Fantastic Planet (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • Fantastic Planet was a French/Czechoslovakian co-production, and is often assumed to be an allegory for the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. The similarity between the enslavement of the Czechs and the Oms is coincidental, however. Fantastic Planet was based on a science fiction novel written by Stefan Wul in 1957. Laloux only used Czech animators because there was no real animation industry in France at the time and the Czechs worked cheaply; he began production in 1968, before the Soviet invasion. The newly installed Czech puppet regime canceled the production, but eventually relented, and work resumed in 1971.
  • The Czech animation team reportedly tried to depose Laloux and install one of their own animators as director. The coup failed, and friendly relations were restored.
  • “Oms,” the term the aliens use to refer to humans, is a corruption of the French word “hommes” (“men”). The original French novel was titled Oms en série (“Oms in series”), which is also an electrical pun (“Ohms in series”).
  • Writer/painter Roland Topor was the production designer for the film and the man responsible for much of the movie’s surreal look. Topor drew up the designs and the original cutouts used in the production, but left the project before animation began. Topor was a bit of a weird movie polymath; besides working on Fantastic Planet, he wrote the novel on which  Roman Polanski‘s The Tenant (1976) was based, and appeared as Renfield in ‘s Nosferatu the Vampire (1979). Topor was also one of the three co-founders of the French theatrical “Panic movement,” together with Fernando Arrabal and Alejandro Jodorowsky.
  • Fantastic Planet won the Special Jury Prize (the second most prestigious award) at Cannes in 1973.
  • The movie was distributed in the United States by Roger Corman‘s New World Pictures, known mainly for their drive-in exploitation movies.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The twisted topography of Fantastic Planet features flying sawtooth-beaked anteaters, bat-winged flora straight out of Hieronymus Bosch’s worst nightmares, and glittering crystals which spontaneously grow and shatter with a whistle. Selecting a single souvenir snapshot from among these startling vistas would be an impossible task. Fortunately, Fantastic Planet‘s artists animate not only landscapes, but mindscapes as well, illustrating the giant blue Traag’s spiritual expeditions by showing their heads floating away in giant soap-bubbles and other trippy tropes. From among these, we’ll choose the moment when four Traags’ close their eyes and blank out while their bodies do impressions of lava lamps, morphing and flowing like heated wax, as the film’s indelible image (though we’d be unable to quarrel with anyone who chose to canonize almost any other moment of the film).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Terry Gilliam-meets-Salvador Dalí-in-space animation combined

American trailer for Fantastic Planet

with the acidic prog-rock soundtrack encourages (or even precipitates) altered states of viewing, but Fantastic Planet is more than just an astral trip. It’s a solid sci-fi parable set in a fully realized, incredibly detailed, and truly alien world that provokes more and more astonishment with each succeeding scene.

COMMENTS: Made between 1968 and 1973, at the height of the Acid Era, Fantastic Planet Continue reading 120. FANTASTIC PLANET [LA PLANETE SAUVAGE] (1973)