Tag Archives: Juraj Herz

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.)

THE CREMATOR [SPALOVAC MRTVOL] (1969)

The Cremator has been promoted onto the List of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made; the Certified Weird entry is here.

DIRECTED  BY: Juraj Herz

FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, and Zora Bozinová

PLOT: In this mesmerizing, Gothic horror film, a funerary specialist becomes obsessed with what he believes to be the nobility of his calling, with terrifyingly tragic and bizarre results.

THE CREMATOR

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Cremator treats unusual, morbid, taboo subject matter in a visually dreamy way that is artful without being  gimmicky.

COMMENTS: In late 1930’s Prague, Kopfrking (Hrusínský) is a misguided, enigmatic crematorium operator. He is an impeccably groomed, eerie, and meticulous figure, always talking in a hypnotic, soft spoken, poetic manner.  He is overly preoccupied with mortality, morbidity, and the human soul, and deeply devoted to the funerary arts.

Kopfrking feels a physical affection for the instrumentality of his trade, lovingly caressing the equipment of the crematory process.  He speaks constantly, literally and metaphorically, of death and the liberation of the soul through the process of cremation.

As the story progresses, he becomes increasingly obsessed with his work, finding it glorifying and cathartic.  He sees visions of the ghost of his living wife in her youth, along with his future incarnation, as he begins a spiraling descent into fantasy and madness.  He is on a mission to free the souls of the deceased (and in time the not-so deceased) through the pyrolization of human flesh, be it living or dead—just as long as that flesh is consumed and vaporized by fire.

The pre-WWII German propaganda machine is enveloping Eastern Europe, polarizing aspiring Nazis and oppositionists.  Drawn toward the philosophy of the Third Reich, Kopfrking becomes morbidly obsessed with racial purity and the percentage of German blood flowing within his own veins—literally, to the point of having his vessels opened and the contents examined.  While The Cremator is not a raving anti-Nazi film, it uses the political ideology as an allegory for exploring the phenomenon of sweeping, consuming mass delusion and insanity.

The gathering of Nazi forces on the border offers Kopfrking an opportunity to realize his misguided aspirations on a grand scale, one much larger than he could have ever hoped for, one seemingly without limit.  Before applying his fervor and passion to the task, he hatches a plan to betray and destroy his own acquaintances, colleagues and family.

While there are elements of black satire in the The Cremator, the movie is so compelling as to nearly overshadow it.  The film insidiously and steadily flows to its inevitable and horrifying conclusion like a hot rivulet of liquefied fat.

The production design is crisp and symmetrical.  Stanislav Milota’s stunning black and white cinematography is haunting and beautiful.  It features successions of extreme closeups that emphasize the slightly grotesque and disturbing features of the biological condition.  Milota’s use of black and white film stock’s enhanced tonal range is artfully employed to focus attention on rich textures and multitudes of shades.  This gives The Cremator a uniquely unsettling dreamlike quality.  The musical score by Zdenek Liska is alluring, phantasmic, and aesthetically intriguing. Viewing The Cremator is akin to experiencing a nightmare that one is reluctant to wake from.

The Cremator was a Czech nominee for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this 1968 black comedy in black and white is undeniably creepy—once director Juraj Herz enters the fractured mind of his protagonist, he refuses to budge.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader