Tag Archives: Fairy Tale

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE PIED PIPER (1986)

Krysař [AKA Ratcatcher]

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Oldřich Kaiser, , Michal Pavlíček, Vilém Čok

PLOT: A retelling of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’: a town is overrun by rats, a piper is hired to get rid of them, and when the town leaders renege on their agreement… it’s not good.

Still from The Pied Piper (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA : It’s a visually striking adaptation, and the uncompromising mood and tone is equally striking. It’s not your average children’s Christmas special—and it still remains a relevant and timely tale.

COMMENTS: Genuine folktales are not known for being warm, snuggly, and uplifting; ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ is definitely not so. It’s centered on rat genocide, with financial deal-breaking and child kidnapping as mere side dishes. Adapting it to family-friendly entertainment programming can be an especially tricky business, ending up soft-pedalling some elements of the tale, usually by adding songs and turning it into a musical.1

Intended as a children’s Christmas special for Czech television, Barta’s adaptation could have gone that route. Two previous directors had been fired for not taking a light enough approach to the material. But Barta, going back to source (mainly a 1915 novella by Viktor Dyk, as well as the original tale) instead leaned even further into the dark elements. In this iteration, the term “rat” doesn’t just apply to the usual rodents. In mammals, there’s little difference between rats and men; well, maybe the 4-legged kind aren’t as overtly cruel as the 2-legged.

The film opens on morning in Hamelin. The grinding of gears in the town clock chime to start the day as the townspeople scurry to do business: toiling laborers and craftsmen, coin minters, haggling merchants and customers, and merchants cheating customers. There are also cruelties: a rat killed for stealing pastry, the jeweler who barbs a necklace to cut the skin of the woman who will try it on, and the gluttony of the leaders of Hamelin as they indulge their appetites to obscene excess.

Business continues; people scurry to and fro, trying to get whatever coin they can, which goes into hidden stashes, while the rats grab whatever leftovers they can… behavior blackly reinforced in the overnight actions of the subterranean rat community.

The town is wealthy, corrupt, and debased—overrun by rats. And in this iteration, it gets what it deserves: the Exterminator. (It’s worth noting that the translation of the original title is “The Ratcatcher,” which is much more fitting to the mood and tone.)

Not your average children’s television special, certainly. But it was successful, both in Czechoslovakia and worldwide. Much of that success is rooted in the onscreen artistry: the design of the production is incredible, intricately textured with puppets carved from walnut and characters rendered in Cubist style—the angularity emphasizing their grotesque natures. The Piper himself resembles a gaunt specter of Death.

No one is innocent in this take, aside from a fisherman, an infant, and a female who comes to an unfortunate end. The Piper has come to cleanse the town of all of its rats. A glimmer of hope and happiness comes to fruition at the end—but only after the cleansing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Barta doesn’t radically divert from the legend, but there are surreal touches to ‘The Pied Piper’ to keep it interesting and dark, examining the brutality of rats and men, with the helmer going expressionistic and pitiless as he mounts his take on the central betrayal.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

HOME VIDEO INFO: In 2023, Deaf Crocodile issued a Region A Blu-ray featuring a new restoration of the film with a commentary by Czech film expert Irena Kovarova and film historian Peter Hames. Also included is a restored Barta short, “The Vanished World of Gloves”; “Chronicle of the Pied Piper”, a behind-the-scenes featurette on the production; a new interview with Barta; and a booklet essay by Kovarova.

  1. The exception to this may be the 1972 musical adaptation directed by Jacques Demy, featuring Donovan, Donald Pleasance, and John Hurt, with music by Donovan. This writer has not seen it but from the description, it seems to be a fitting candidate for us to feature in the future. ↩︎

CAPSULE: RIDDLE OF FIRE (2023)

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Riddle of Fire is currently available for VOD rental or purchase. Blu-ray release coming later this year.

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DIRECTED BY: Weston Razooli

FEATURING: Phoebe Ferro, Charlie Stover, Skyler Peters, Charles Halford, Lio Tipton, Lorelei Olivia Mote

PLOT: Three miscreant kids search for a speckled egg they need to get the password to the TV, encountering a real-life witch on their quest.

Still from RIDDLE OF FIRE (2023)

COMMENTS: Riddle of Fire plays out like one of those kid-centered live-action Disney movies of the 70s, if the tykes were foul-mouthed (but still endearing) thieves, and the director was a drugged-out hippie. Tomboy Alice, chaste love-interest Hazel, and young Jodie (whose incongruously adult one-liners are all duplicated in subtitles in case you have trouble understanding his adoewabul accent) have no idea how good they have it on summer vacation, riding around big sky country on dirtbikes with paintball guns and no responsibilities. Preferring air-conditioned adventures, they hatch an elaborate plan to steal a next-generation video game console, but find their summer ruined when they discover mom has password-protected the smart TV. Suffering from a cold that will soon send her into a NyQuil coma, mom agrees to allow them to play for two hours if they bring her a blueberry pie. This sets the trio off on a quest which proves increasingly complicated, as they cannot obtain the pastry without first completing a series of mini-quests, culminating in the search for the film’s big MacGuffin, a lucky speckled egg. Unfortunately, the last carton of such eggs falls into the hands of a gruff “huntsman,” who also serves as hired muscle for a cult of taxidermist witches (who have a whole Mandy-for-kids vibe going on).

Shot on 16mm film (a choice that reinforces the antique feel) in summer-green mountain forests, this “neo-fairy tale” is an American folktale for the Playstation age. The landscape is speckled with red amanita toadstools, suggesting the permeating prevalence of witchcraft, while also nodding to the drug culture. The three (later four) moppets are all likable, despite being pint-sized hoodlums; their “us against the adult world” solidarity makes them easy to root for, and their loyalty to their sick mom softens their brattiness. The script, which incorporates video game tropes as naturally as fairy tale ones, is tightly constructed, leaving little to chance in its intricate web.

Although it mostly plays as a kiddie adventure flick of the type common in the 70s and into the 80s, Riddle of Fire puts oddball spins on the material whenever it can. Even taking the magical realist element of “The Enchanted Blade Gang” out of the picture, the tale has the feeling of a childhood memory: half-experienced, half-imagined, with off-key notes fluttering about. When the children steal their console, they celebrate by dancing around the prize singing a song that’s half old English nursery rhyme, half magical ritual. They sometimes slip words like “yon” or phrases like “that rather ghastly, chilling doll” into their casual conversations. Things really get strange in their 4 A.M. trip to “The Hall of Fortunes,” a mixture between a roadhouse bar and post-apocalyptic trading post where all the adults drink 40 ounces, and the only other kid in sight is painted blue and holding a trident. Since they’re unfamiliar with the adult world, the kids don’t have a sense of how terribly wrong this entire setup is; it’s a hallucination based on a hazy understanding of what grown-ups do when they’re not around.

The irony of these children undergoing the magical adventure of a lifetime in a quest to play in a much less imaginative digitized world is delicious. Somehow, we actually celebrate with the little reprobates when they achieve their goal of sitting on their butts and clicking buttons all day, which is a testament to how much we buy in to the crazy premise debuting director Razooli conjures here. Riddle of Fire is full of stylistic and cultural references, but somehow still feels largely sui generis; it will be fascinating to see where the newly minted auteur goes from here.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… both grounded and fantastical, sweet and sad, a beautiful snapshot of childhood where kids are allowed to be weird little gremlins with opulent tastes and bad attitudes.”–Mary Beth McAndrews, Dread Central (contemporaneous)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: HANSEL AND GRETEL (1983)

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DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: Michael Yama, Alison Hong, Andy Lee, Jim Ishida

PLOT: A young brother and sister lost in the woods find sanctuary in a candy-covered house deep in the forest, but the witchy proprietor proves equally dangerous.

Still from Hansel and Gretel (1983)

COMMENTS: Several years ago, the 366 Weird Movies staff joined forces to debate the relative weirdness of the oeuvre of one Timothy Walter Burton. If one of his kooky gothic fairy tales might be inducted into the canon that had thus far eluded him, then perhaps one of us could make a compelling case for the film most worthy of the honor. (It should come as no surprise: Alfred Eaker’s pick won the day.) But in all that talk, not one of us even mentioned the very first live-action film ever crafted under Burton’s watchful eye. This turns out to be a significant oversight, because this small-scale retelling of a classic fairy tale is a true oddball by just about any yardstick. 

One reason “Hansel and Gretel” escaped our critical eye is because the film hardly had any eyes on it at all. It debuted on Halloween night in 1983, airing in the 10:30 p.m. slot on the Disney Channel as part of a special double feature hosted by Vincent Price, paired with Burton’s short animation “Vincent.” After being hidden in this near-invisible time slot, it was then buried even deeper, consigned to the Disney vault to never be seen again, eventually becoming the subject of rumors and doubt as to whether it was even real. Only when it resurfaced as part of a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2009 were true believers rewarded with proof of its strange existence.

So now we have it—and while the story itself is pretty faithful to the version of the tale made famous by the Brothers Grimm (it’s number 327A on the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index of folklore), a handful of adjustments and adornments make Burton’s retelling unusual. For one thing, the director hired an all-Asian cast, an affectation which is progressive from a cultural-diversity standpoint but suggests a greater purpose that isn’t really explicated in the text. There’s also a stark emptiness to the set, with minimal decor and a hollow sound that suggests a vast soundstage mic’d up with a single boom. Where there is decor, however, it’s very Burton-esque, with toys that appear to have escaped from his animations and curlicue mountains straight out of The Nightmare Before Christmas. The confectionary house of the witch is especially bizarre, with walls and chairs that spurt colorful liquids when touched, and beds with cream-filled comforters that sprout hideous hands in the middle of the night.

Two performances are so eccentric that they make the case for weirdness all by themselves. Michael Yama’s dual-drag turn as both the wicked stepmother and the wicked witch leaves nothing on the table. (Any suggestion that they are one and the same character will only be met with vehement agreement.) Seriously, it’s the kind of performance that might make the contestants on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” tell him to take it down a notch. His stepmother is strictly bitchy, complaining about everything in an angry-Paul-Lynde cadence, greedily devouring hideous-looking food, and punishing the children just because she can. But it’s as the witch that he can really let his freak flag fly, with a candy-cane nose, an arsenal of sweet weapons, and a devilish affect that recalls Looney Tunes’ Witch Hazel. The other notably strange performance is Bam Bam, a misshapen, toothy gingerbread creature (puppeteered by future Pixar scribe Joe Ranft) who sings a parody of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” in an effort to persuade Hansel to eat him.

Hansel and Gretel suffers from a split tonal personality: the hideousness of the villains and Burton’s fondness for grotesque stylings, countered by good-natured innocence in the form of the blandly decent children and especially by Johnny Costa’s score, which feels exactly like his most famous work, the soothing tinkly piano stylings that underscored nearly three decades of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” As a fairy tale adaptation, it’s just okay. It works far better as a historical curiosity, a piece of juvenilia that Burton had to get past in order to realize his vision on a bigger scale. But it’s instructive to see his technique before the edges started to get sanded away, when skill and budget were the only things limiting his creativity. 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I understand why Disney canned this thing after one airing. It’s not even so much that it’s too scary, but it’s just weird. Everything after Hansel and Gretel enter the witch’s house is just one strange creative decision after another… I have no clue if Burton wasn’t given enough money to work with, or was under the influence of some very strong hallucinogens, but this is truly bizarre and unprofessional. It’s easily the weirdest thing I’ve seen yet.”–Collin, Movie Match-Up

(This movie was nominated for review by Ari Srabstein, who dubbed it “a very strange and fascinating film in my opinion and truly unique.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: MOMO (1986)

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DIRECTED BY: Johannes Schaaf

FEATURING: Radost Bokel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Leopoldo Trieste, Mario Adorf, Bruno Stori, John Huston

PLOT: The residents of a small town adopt Momo, a young girl found living in a cave, embracing her unusual ability to focus their minds; when the Grey Gentlemen arrive to steal the community’s time and put it on a course to unfettered production, Momo must work with the Master of Time to defeat them.

Still from Momo (1986)

COMMENTS: The lovable moppet is a hallmark of storytelling. From Little Orphan Annie to Pippi Longstocking, we’ve got a thing for a girl with wild hair, wide-eyed optimism, and a knack for outwitting stuffy authorities. Based on those criteria, Momo is a worthy addition to their ranks. Radost Bokel looks perfect in the role, with her beaming eyes and radiant smile. It’s not hard to see why the townspeople are immediately drawn to her.

On the other hand, maybe she’s no great shakes, because these residents seem to be a pretty malleable lot. When the first of the Grey Gentlemen shows up at the barber shop to explain at length how time enjoyed is time wasted, the barber’s immediate buy-in suggests they’ve lucked into a particularly uncritical subject. But before long, everyone else has fallen under their sway, with a quick end to leisurely lunches at the local cafe, impromptu concerts by the neighborhood busker, and kids role-playing epic sea battles. It seems that only Momo could possibly turn things around.

This turns out to be true, but it’s not an especially dramatic standoff. Momo frustrates expectations by delivering so much of its conflict as exposition, rather than showing the tension at play. When one of the Gentlemen tries to buy Momo off with an increasing number of dolls, there’s never a moment’s hesitation as to whether she will be seduced by the crass commercial product; she just doesn’t like the dolls. We never see troubadour Gigi fall prey to the lure of fame; he just ends up there, and there’s not much to suggest he sees his own fate as tied up with that of the girl he lamely tries to save. And so it goes. The film has some extraordinary sets and settings, but so many of the critical twists and turns in the plot happen somewhere that we’re not looking.

The reason seems to lie at the feet of Michael Ende, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel. (He also cameos in the movie’s opening minutes as the train passenger who “has plenty of time.”) Ende’s hands-on participation was due in no small part to his experience with The Neverending Story, a previous adaptation where he had little say and despised the end product. If Ende was happier with Momo, it’s probably because it has a very literary feel, dispensing with gaudy special effects and unfolding in scenes that feel like chapters. There is magic at play here, but no glitter and spark. Ende asks viewers to trust that there’s something special about Momo without the need to manufacture wonder. And that’s very mature and respectful, but the result is a movie that feels very much like… a book.

The most magical thing in the film turns out to be John Huston. In his last big screen appearance, the legendary actor/director turns on all the charm, going for maximum twinkle-in-the-eye warmth as he guides Momo through his realm. Even as he’s called upon to provide much of the explanation for what’s going on – he also serves as narrator – he carries an elegaic air that lends enormous power to the film. If Ende’s pages depict a tired but sage overseer of time, Huston is unquestionably what he had in mind. Appropriate that the only person able to slip free of Momo’s limitations is a great filmmaker himself.

Momo is a serviceable fable, with a valuable message about the corrupting influences of ambition, capitalism, and adulthood. But it’s dry and lacking in color, skeptical of the trappings of a fairy tale even as it relies upon them. The film ends with Momo and the townspeople in a raucous celebration, and it’s the most anyone has committed to anything in the film. Better to stick with John Huston and his precocious turtle. They really believe in something.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…visually one sometimes believes one has been transported to a German silent film… it sometimes comes across as too episodic.”– Evil Ed (translated from German)

(This movie was nominated for review by Morgan, who used reverse psychology by suggesting ” don’t even think about adding Momo [1986] onto that list.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ALICE OR THE LAST ESCAPADE (1977)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Claude Chabrol

FEATURING: Sylvia Kristel, Charles Vanel, Fernand Ledoux

PLOT: After leaving her husband, Alice Caroll’s travels leave her stranded during a storm; she ends up at a mysterious mansion populated by odd characters, discovering that she can’t leave.

Still from Alice or the Last Escapade (1977)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Your present author stumbled upon Alice or the Last Escapade on Tubi, and I could not shake the feeling that “366 Weird Movies should have this one already.” That’s because Alice or the Last Escapade brings to mind several movies already in our canon. First, the sparse “” elements give the story a thin fairy tale flavor. French director Chabrol (himself often described as “the French ”) dedicates the film to the memory of Fritz Lang. We have a classic ontological mystery in which a character is trapped by strange forces without explanation. A few reviews of this movie even compare it to ‘s The Exterminating Angel. I can see that, but more importantly, there is one specific movie on The List, a seminal cult classic, which I dare not mention lest I spoil the movie, because Alice or the Last Escapade has the exact same plot and ending.

COMMENTS: If you ask me, the best comparison for Alice is an hour-and-a-half long “Twilight Zone” episode. Alice Caroll (Sylvia Kristel) leaves her annoying bore of a husband to set out on the road. Driving at night, she finds herself in the classic Euro-Gothic plot: stranded at night with car trouble during a storm, forced to seek refuge at a strange mansion. The inhabitants of said mansion welcome Alice and insist she stay overnight, even offering to fix her car for free. But in the morning, Alice tries to leave, only to be confronted by reality-warping events that prevent her departure. There’s a “broken” clock which starts up at odd hours and seems to control other events in the house. The same view is visible out the front door and the back. She tries to trace her way around the property wall only to discover that the gate has vanished. When she does drive around, all roads lead back to the mansion. Meanwhile the mansion is populated by oddball characters who speak in riddles and have odd rules about conversation, such as not responding to any direct question.

The “Alice in Wonderland” elements are kept to a minimum. We have the protagonist’s name, of course; the checkered floor tiles in some rooms suggest a chessboard; a gentleman dressed all in white confronts Alice in the surrounding woods. Alice’s meals and tea are left prepared for her by an unseen entity, but aren’t specifically labeled “eat me” and “drink me.” The wake/dance party she encounters stands in for a “mad tea party.” Among elements definitely not drawn from Lewis Carroll, we get a single nude scene, when Alice gets lectured by a ghostly voice in the bath. (This blink-and-you-miss-it scene is there just to remind people that Sylvia Kristel used to play Emmanuelle.) Otherwise, there are no hints of sexuality to the proceedings; this movie seems designed as a vehicle for Kristel to demonstrate her advanced acting chops—which aren’t much to write home about, truth be told. But at least her character is no pushover. Alice quickly learns the arbitrary rules of her captivity, and even turns the mansion inhabitant’s own conversational rules back at them, as she schemes to figure out the situation and find loopholes.

Alice or the Last Escapade did not fare well at the box office, and is seen today as a one-off venture for director Chabrol, who had an extensive and otherwise successful career. Actress Kristel stated in interviews that she thought the movie would have fared better with more nudity. I disagree; the movie would have fared better if it took more chances and pulled out the weird stops. For being made in 1977, it feels like a much later movie made from parts of other popular weird cinema. As it stands, this is more of a slow-burn “comfort weird” movie, to be enjoyed in the good faith that it treads ground already familiar to those who have extensively explored our canon.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “In the incredibly varied oeuvre of director Claude Chabrol there are few films as bizarre as Alice ou la dernière fugue, a dark, hallucinatory fairy tale in which fantasy and reality become intertwined to chilling effect… a haunting excursion into an Escher-like dreamscape from which there is no possibility of escape.”–James Travers, FrenchFilms.org