Tajemství hradu v Karpatech

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“This story is not fantastic ; it is merely romantic. Are we to conclude that it is not true, its unreality being granted ? That would be a mistake. We live in times when everything can happen — we might almost say everything has happened. If our story does not seem to be true to-day, it may seem so to-morrow, thanks to the resources of science, which are the wealth of the future.”–Jules Verne, “The Castle of the Carpathians”



FEATURING: Michal Docolomanský, , , , Evelyna Steimarová

PLOT: Despondent after a failed love affair, Count Teleke explores the Carpathians with his manservant in hopes of forgetting his misfortune. The pair discover a mysterious castle on a mountainside and a man half buried in the road, and make their way to the village of “West Werewolfston,” where they learn more legends about the stronghold. Accompanied by the buried man, a civil servant who’s also obsessed with the castle, Teleke decides to investigate the mysterious edifice, where an evil Baron and a mad scientist are developing a powerful weapon.

Still from The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (1981)


INDELIBLE IMAGE: For all the incredible gadgetry that appears in The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians, the most unforgettable one may be the tiny pistol, no larger than a thumb, that the count pulls out to protect himself at the first sign of danger. (The bullets would have to be about the size of water drops, and locating the tiny trigger would be a chore).

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Eyes and ears on a staff; desiccated diva

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians is the steampunk, slapstick Czech parody of Gothic literature you never knew you needed—until you heard it described in just those words.

Restoration trailer for Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians

COMMENTS: The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians is the last entry in a loose Czech trilogy parodying genres popular in the West: Lemonade Joe (1964, Westerns), Dinner for Adele (1977, “Nick Carter” detective films), and this one, a Jules Verne adaption that satirizes Gothic fiction. All three are characterized by lush, experimental visuals and absurdist humor; this one adds bizarrely conceived steampunk gadgetry to the mix. And all three are slyly subversive by the standards of Communist films, gleefully abandoning Soviet realism in favor of delirious imagination and insouciant comedy.

Mysterious Castle‘s sense of humor is of the angular variety. One of the film’s first gags the absurdly tiny pea-shooter Count Teleke pulls out of his pocket, a purely visual gag with no commentary necessary. Later, however, we learn that he has a much more powerful weapon in his arsenal: the nobleman, who is also an accomplished opera singer, has a voice that can shatter glass—or porcelain, as he proves by breaking a (thankfully empty) chamber pot that inspires an aria. In a particularly esque gag, an old man snoozing in the corner of a barroom, buried under ridiculous layers of fleece, is awakened by the scent of vodka so he can provide necessary exposition—but keeps dozing off mid-sentence. The villagers of “West Werewolfston” speak in an invented rustic patois that certainly allowed for much wordplay that doesn’t come across in the English translation. And the final battle is a melee of slapstick buffoonery that distinguishes itself from the conventional by being shockingly bloody: the mad doctor is stabbed by one of his own inventions, a man is impaled by the endpin of a double bass.

One of the film’s greatest assets is its vast array of whimsical gadgets, many designed by Jan Svankmajer. These range from the merely anachronistic, like the closed-circuit television the Baron uses to spy on everyone and neon signage, to the traditional, like the trick elevator room that traps interlopers in a dungeon. Most are unique to the Carpathians‘ mad sensibility. There’s the covert audiovisual surveillance equipment craftily disguised as an eyeball and ears. A foldable steam-powered bicycle. A swan opera helmet, complete with flapping wings. Rockets launch in the background, unnoticed by the principal characters. The mad doctor has invented a device to levitate an apple, and a low-tech version of quadraphonic sound composed of four phonographs playing simultaneously. A dimwitted henchman’s improbable neckbeard is an invention all its own. The professor’s golden mechanical arm can spout a hammer, bell, paintbrush, or knife, among other instruments, a process conveyed briefly through stop-motion animation.

With its castle locations, Victorian sets and attire, and tinted opera recreations, The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians was a big-budget spectacle by Czech standards. Still, when you consider that it was made in the same year as Raiders of the Lost Ark and only a year after The Empire Strikes Back, the effects seem quaint and old-fashioned, like something that Americans would have made decades earlier. (Hollywood went through its Jules Verne phase in the 1950s, with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, and Journey to the Center of the Earth.) But there is something special about Eastern Block science fiction films, even the populist ones. They always come across as more literate and subversive than their Western counterparts. Knowing that these fantastic visions were somehow created under regimes which advocated for strict realism and a belief that art and entertainment must serve the purposes of State ideology changes the context in which we experience them. In countries where travel beyond the Iron Curtain was tightly restricted, films like Carpathians allowed audiences see new sights and experience different cultures from the safety of the cinema. Appearing as light comedies, Lipsky’s comic fantasies escaped the censor’s scissors on the pretext of being parodies of the pulpy entertainments of degenerate capitalist societies. But they also served to remind the viewer that richer, more magical worlds were possible—if they could only find the courage to imagine them.


“…almost indescribable… director Oldřich Lipský’s wonderfully bonkers delight has elements of THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, Terry Gilliam, Mel Brooks, and ‘The Benny Hill Show.'”–Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver (Blu-ray)

“Part Young Frankenstein, part Rocky Horror Picture Show, with a dash of Monty Python Terry Gilliam and dazzling Jules Verne creations, Tajemství hradu v Karpatech is a real delight.”–Jason Pirodsky, Prague Reporter

IMDB LINK: The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (1981)


The Projection Booth Podcast: Episode 647: The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (1981) – The famous podcast devotes an episode to Mysterious Castle; Blu-ray commentary track participants Tereza Brdečková and Irena Kovarova join as guests

HOME VIDEO INFO: Pysical media specialist Deaf Crocodile continues uncovering the coolest Communist Block releases with this Blu-ray only release of Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (buy). The film was restored specifically for this release and looks great; not pristine, perhaps, but it has a rough-hewn grain that fits the time period. The film had previously only been available on rare DVD imports.

The extras included make it abundantly clear that the daughter of Mysterious Castle‘s screenwriter Jirí Brdecka, film critic Tereza Brdečková, was instrumental in the release. All of the release’s extra features center around Brdecka; director Oldrich Lipský is hardly mentioned, which is somewhat shocking. Brdečková and Czech film expert Irena Kovarova handle the commentary. Two of Brdecka’s short animated films, the romantic comedy “Love and a Zeppelin” and the fairy-tale “Prince Coppersmith” highlight the special features (as cartoons, they seem the tiniest bit out of place, but are nevertheless welcome additions to the package). Finally, the documentary Universum Brdecka (again, written by and featuring the screenwriter’s daughter) tells you everything you could possibly want to know about Jirí Brdecka’s biography (including his childhood crush), but contains little specific to Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians. The extra features’ focus on Brdecka to the exclusion of everyone else involved in the production makes them perhaps a bit underwhelming, but the feature is strong, the animated pieces are fun, and this is overall an essential release for fans of Eastern European fantstique films.

(This movie was nominated for review by Nuncio Casanova. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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