Tag Archives: Czech

CAPSULE: PRAGUE NIGHTS (1969)

Pražské noci

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DIRECTED BY: Miloš Makovec, ,

FEATURING:, Milena Dvorská, , Lucie Novotná, Teresa Tuszyńska, Josef Somr

PLOT: An executive in Prague on business goes trolling for female companionship, which he finds in a mysterious woman who regales him with three macabre tales through the night, and who seems to desperately want something from him before sunrise…

Sill from Prague Nights (1969)

COMMENTS: The anthology or portmanteau film has been a staple of both foreign and domestic horror filmmaking.  Kwaidan and Spirits of the Dead come readily to mind, but there are more examples than you’d think, especially in the 1960s. Prague Nights did not do well when released in Czechoslovakia, and didn’t get much exposure internationally, so it’s not well known; a bit surprising, considering the pedigree of those involved: Jiří Brdečka (acclaimed director of animation and co-writer of Invention for Destruction, Baron Prásil, The Cassandra Cat,  Lemonade Joe, and The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians), Evald Schorm (known more at the time as a documentarian), and Miloš Makovec. Brdečka originated the project, although he only directed one segment, “The Last Golem”; Schorm handled “Bread Slippers,” and Makovec helmed the last story, “The Poisoned Poisoner,” as well as the framing episode “Fabricus and Zuzana.” Shot during the Prague Spring of 1968, the film has barely a whiff of the sort of political commentary/allegory that one might expect. This is light entertainment, and perhaps not as horrific as one might expect from the material—there aren’t any big scares here, although you might get some minor frissons during “Golem” and “Slippers.” If there’s any examination of politics, it’s sexual politics.

“The Last Golem” takes the legend of The Golem of Prague as its basis, featuring  Rabbi Loew as a main character. The Emperor and Rabbi Loew bash heads; the Emperor wants Loew to resurrect the Golem, and Loew refuses. Seeing an opportunity, Rabbi Naftali Ben Chaim (Jan Klusák, the actor and composer who provides the music for “Bread Slippers,” but who may be best known as a questionable clergyman in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders) will do the Emperor’s bidding, creating another Golem despite being distracted by a mute servant girl (Lucie Novotná) who arouses his lust.

“Bread Slippers” is a variation on The Red Shoes merged with “Faust.” A Countess (Teresa Tuszyńska) is self-centered, manipulative and very cozy with her maid. She’s stringing along her latest suitor, and makes a plan to attend a costume ball in slippers made from bread (after learning that amongst the poor, bread is worth its weight in gold). She arrives at the function, but unexpected guests also show up…

“The Poisoned Poisoner” is the shortest of the tales, with no spoken dialogue. It’s accompanied by songs that narrate the action. In a medieval setting, an innkeeping couple help make ends meet by poisoning wealthy suitors and looting their corpses, until the proprietress falls for a resourceful suitor—much to the chagrin of her partner.

The perfidy of woman is a running theme, set up in the framing “Fabricus and Zuzana.” Zuzana consistently warns Fabricus with lines such as, “Every beautiful woman is dangerous—but me even more than most.” “Be careful or you’ll regret it. What did he regret? He trusted a woman.” Notably, this “perfidy” always centers around true love, as the main characters in all the segments meet their fates as a result of romance revealing itself to be false. That, however, might just be a surface reading. As with most anthologies of this type, they’re essentially morality tales, and the downfall of the characters originates in betrayal, leading to a trip to Hell… literally, in this case.

Prague Nights ends up as a stylish, literate, and lighter version of the horror anthologies that studios like Amicus would begin to churn out in the near future.

HOME VIDEO INFO: In 2023 Deaf Crocodile released a Region A Blu-ray of a restoration of Prague Nights for its first U.S. release. Included is an audio commentary with Czech film expert/critic Irena Kovarova and critic/screenwriter Tereza Brdečková, the daughter of Jiří Brdečka. Brdečková also contributes an essay on the making of the film in the booklet and an interview on her father’s career. The set includes two of Brdečka’s animated shorts, “Pomsta” (“Revenge”) (1968, 14 min.), and “Jsouc na řece mlynář jeden” (“There Was A Miller On A River”) (1971, 11 min.).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s enough sinister material here for this to squeak by into the horror genre, though dark magical realism is probably a better way to approach the project as it also has a dreamy, whimsical attitude capped off by a wild flourish at the end.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)

(This movie was nominated for review by MST68, who described it as having a “wonderfully creepy atmosphere.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE CASSANDRA CAT (1963)

Az prijde kocour, AKA When the Cat Comes

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Vojtech Jasný

FEATURING: Jan Werich, Emília Vásáryová, Vlastimil Brodský

PLOT: A magical cat reveals people’s true natures leading to whimsy and chaos.

Still from The Cassandra Cat (1963)

COMMENTS: On the surface, the movies of the (1963-1968) seem vastly different from typical cinema, but they aren’t. Not really. See, starting in 1945, when the film industry in Czechoslovakia was nationalized, the country’s cinema became stultified. Even small children could predict the outcome of every story. But in the early sixties there was a de-Stalinization within the Czech Artistic Council, and that led to an explosion of creativity: the Czech New Wave.

Films as strikingly different from one another as Daisies (1966) and A Report on the Party and Guests (1966) share not only this sociopolitical background but also a similar sense of absurdity and surrealism.

Why this Film Studies 101 intro? Because The Cassandra Cat (1963) (aka When the Cat ComesThe Cat Who Wore Sunglasses, One Day a Cat, and That Cat) makes a lot more sense in context.

A magician and his troupe come to a small town. They bring with them a cat wearing sunglasses. During the magic show, we learn the direct and rather impassive glare of the cat reveals a person’s true colors: literally. People turn entirely yellow if they are guilty of infidelity, purple if they are “social climbers” (we might say “brown nosers”), gray if thieves, and of course red if when they’re in love. Much chaos and hilarity ensues.

The Cassandra Cat is witty and whimsical, never passing up an opportunity to take a jab at authority, which is shown as anti-art and, through hunting and taxidermy, as anti-life itself. Our hero, a third grade teacher, is pro-art, anti-death, and all red when the cat looks at him, as he is smitten with the magician’s assistant.

The cat gets lost and falls into the wrong hands. The children protest by going into hiding. The parents lose their cool each in their own way, and in one delightful scene stand on tree stumps in the forest calling out their children’s names under the direction of a conductor. In the end the teacher does not get to keep true love (which thwarts the predictable Artistic Council code), but he does get a class of happy and creative students.

The Cassandra Cat uses experimental special effects throughout. Some of these, such as the process used to color those who have been seen by the cat, made restoration of the film quite tricky.

The Cassandra Cat‘s story is thin. Many scenes seem to have no purpose except to have fun, which in itself could have been rebellion against previous (and future) restrictions. The Czech New Wave essentially ended when Soviet tanks rolled in and crushed the Prague Spring in 1968.

See, doesn’t a cat wearing sunglasses lest he expose people’s true natures make more sense when you have that Cold War background?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Part family fable and part surreal acid trip… Usually surreal, hallucinogenic films are also dark and moody, but Cat is unusual in this regard. It is a bittersweet film that never loses its sense of innocence, despite the wild scenes from the town square.”–Joe Bendel, J.B. Spins

10*: THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962)

Baron Prásil

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Jana Brejchová, Rudolf Jelínek

PLOT: An astronaut, Tonik, discovers that he is not the first man on the Moon, having been beaten there by literary figures Cyrano de Bergerac, Jules Verne’s protagonists of “From the Earth to the Moon,” and Baron Munchausen. Mistaking the astronaut as a native moonman, Munchausen volunteers to take him back to Earth to show him the ways of earthlings. The pair there rescue a princess from a sultan and are swallowed by a fish, among other fantastic adventures.

BACKGROUND:

  • The character of Baron Munchausen comes from  Rudolf Erich Raspe’s 1785 novel “Baron Munchausen’s narrative of his marvellous travels and campaigns in Russia.” Raspe based Muchausen on a real-life German officer who was notorious for embellishing tales of his own military exploits. Czechs traditionally called the same character “Baron Prásil.”
  • Munchausen’s stories have been adapted to film many times, beginning with a short in 1911.
  • Karel Zeman’s previous film, the black and white Invention for Destruction [Vynález zkázy], won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival at Expo 58, and was considered the most successful Czech film of all time. Baron Prásil was even more ambitious, adding a luscious color palette and expanding on the techniques Zeman had pioneered in his previous work.
  • Home Cinema Choice named The Fabulous Baron Munchausen‘s 2017 remaster the best restoration of the year.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Red smoke billowing in a yellow sky as the Baron and companions escape on horseback.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Cyrano and pals on the Moon; Pegasus-drawn spaceship

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Baron Prasil is a stunning visual feast combining live-action and animation, the effect far surpassing the modest means (by then-current standards) with which it was made.


Trailer for the restored version of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen

COMMENTS: “If he’s endowed with such imagination, let’s see some Continue reading 10*: THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962)