Rick Sloane, after seeing the popularity of pint-sized creature features like Gremlins (1984), Ghoulies (1984), and Critters (1986), decided to capitalize on the trend by creating 1988’s Hobgoblins. The film gained its certified awfulness after being relentlessly riffed upon on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and show writer Paul Chaplin later reflected,
“Oh, man. You have no idea the torture it was to watch this movie several times in the space of a week. It shoots right to the top of the list of the worst movies we’ve ever done. Speaking personally, the only one I hated as much was probably Overdrawn At The Memory Bank, and even that experience bred a less intense sort of hate, leaving an aftertaste not quite so malignant and foul. On the bright side, there’s potential for a real peace in Northern Ireland for the first time in living memory. At least this movie did nothing to prevent that.”
Hobgoblins attempts, and fails, to be a sex-comedy horror film. There isn’t a funny joke to be found, and it’s the only sex-comedy I’ve come across that makes intercourse look unappealing. The acting is awful, but even if it were good one is unlikely to want to see any of these characters live more than a few seconds after they’re introduced. One dumbfounding scene involves a rake fight in which two guys endlessly strike the handles together. Perhaps even more unnecessary is the musical live performance we get at Club Scum, where the movie stops so we can see an entire song being played.
Most hilarious of all, however, are the creatures themselves. Sloane has stated that he didn’t see the hobgoblins until just before scheduling was set to begin, and they’re a far cry from the world of Jim Henson. What we get are hand-puppets and plush toys that barely move – if they move at all – and watching the actors fight with them, rolling around on the ground, is a sight to behold. Honestly, it’s the only genuine laugh you’re likely to get out of the film. It’s not high entertainment, but it is a tasteless form of one.
“I haven’t held one of these in twenty years,” says Gunnar Hansen, the original Leatherface, playing the role of Earl as he picks up a chainsaw. “Feels good.” It’s just one of many nods to remind you of all the better horror movies that you could be watching instead of 1995’s Mosquito, directed by Gary Jones.
The story, which involves mosquitoes mutating to the size of large dogs after feeding upon the alien carcasses from a crashed spaceship, has enough camp to get connoisseurs of such poorly made films through the run time. It’s the kind of film best viewed with some good-humored friends and drinks. The film has some passable effects and even a few decent moments of horror. Also, we get a shot of a proboscis in an ass cheek. In addition to Hansen’s cutting tool nostalgia the movie has some other callbacks, such as the aliens looking like those from War of the Worlds (1953), or when Parks (Steve Dixon) and Hendricks (Ron Asheton) trade stories about Vietnam while Ray (Tim Lovelace) talks about boy scouts before the mosquitoes attack, which appears intentionally reminiscent of the famous scene in Jaws (1975) between Quint and Hooper and Brody where they trade scar stories.
Unfortunately, the bad acting can’t salvage the poorly written dialogue. While it’s fun to see Hansen, who made some great performance choices in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973), he’s not much of an actor, and it’s absurd that though he manages to get his hands on a chainsaw it takes several minutes of wielding it to kill just a single mosquito. In the end, his mullet steals the show. However, no actor infuriated more than Ron Asheton, whose performance is incapable of delivering a line naturally. He plays Ranger Hendricks, which I assume is a nod to Jimi Hendrix given his previous career. Asheton, an incredibly influential guitarist, had formed The Stooges along with Iggy Pop and his brother, drummer Scott Asheton, and bassist Dave Alexander. When his musical career stalled he turned to acting, though he had far less natural talent for it. Sadly, Asheton was found dead in his bed at his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan on January 6, 2009, apparently having died of a heart attack a couple of days earlier. Sonic Youth’s album The Eternal is dedicated to him.
Despite it being a film I cannot recommend, I would honestly love to see a docudrama about the making of this film because of the bizarre episodes that occurred during its production, such as the original special effects artist saying “I’ll be right back, I’m going to get a pack of smokes,” and never coming back, or actress Margaret Gomoll having a camera accidentally dropped on her head while she filmed her nude scene in the tent, or when actor Mike Hard developed a concussion from mosquito puppets repeatedly hitting him in the head. That’s the movie I’d like to see.
Movie Review – The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
The Lodger: A Story of London Fog (1927) is not Alfred Hitchcock’s first film, though it is arguably the first film that could properly be called “Hitchcockian.” Here begins many of the themes that would come to be closely associated with the brilliant director for the rest of his career, particularly the connection between sex and death, lust and homicidal intent, while allowing his penitent for German-style filmmaking to truly shine. It also marks his first film cameo appearance, though his back is turned to the camera, as a newspaper editor talking on the phone (the actor had not shown up that day and Hitchcock improvised).
The story is an amalgam of two sources: a 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes based upon the Jack the Ripper serial killings, and a comical stage adaptation of the same novel called “Who Is He?” It tells of a killer known as The Avenger who targets blonde women each Tuesday night. A lovable older couple, the Buntings, with a fair-haired daughter named Daisy, played by June Tripp, takes in a new lodger (Ivor Novello), a young man who they gradually suspect may be the killer and who is growing ever closer to Daisy.
Hitchcock allows the actors, who are all terrific, and the editing, which is also wonderful, do most of the storytelling, leaving little reliance on intertitles. He presents information in interesting ways, such as a news ticker or a telegraph machine. He allows ambiguity to build tension, making even the simplest of the lodger’s actions seem potentially sinister.
Influence from the German Expressionists is evident in the odd angles, lighting, and shadows. Novello even evokes Count Orlock at times, with his slow movements and long, slender fingers. Novello was a huge star at the time, renowned for his beauty. His immense popularity even necessitated a script change – the original script had the character’s guilt left ambiguous, however, according to Hitchcock, “They wouldn’t let Novello even be considered as a villain.” Indeed, Hitchcock even goes so far as to evoke Christ imagery around Novello during the film’s climax. The actor was also openly and flamboyantly gay, even counting the talented World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon as among his lovers, and a few lines of dialogue in the film suggest that the other characters suspect the same of his. Whether this was accidental or not is difficult to guess, but I am apt to believe that it was Hitchcock’s cinematic equivalent of a wink and a nod.
Hitchcock makes London come alive with point-of-view shots in speeding cars, people walking outside windows in backgrounds, and car headlights sliding across the walls through closed curtains. It all feels lived in and one forgets that the action is taking place on sets. He uses, too, other innovative techniques, such as a transparent ceiling in order to see the lodger pacing in the room above. When he completed the film, the studio was unhappy with the product and hired a young Ivor Montagu to make some changes, which included little more than reducing the number of title cards, adding symbolic triangles to them, and a few minor reshoots. Hitchcock was furious at first but Montagu’s intrusion was slight and Hitchcock ultimately approved of the changes, and what remains is unquestionably Hitchcock’s work.
The Lodger helped to create the modern thriller and is, in Steve Haberman’s assessment, “the only British horror film of note” (96). The September 16, 1926 issue of the trade journal Bioscope went further, declaring that “it is possible that this film is the finest British production ever made.” Of course, Hitchcock, known as the “Master of Suspense,” would time and again set the standards for filmmaking in the coming decades, most notably in the horror genre with 1960’s masterpiece Psycho and 1963’s The Birds. Born in 1899, Hitchcock struggled his whole life with obesity, yet his signature silhouette, coupled with his gallows humor, made him perhaps one of the most recognizable filmmakers in history.
Haberman, Steve. Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Film. Midnight Marquee Press, 2003.
The following was written for episode 26 of The HorrorCast Podcast, where Marknado, Walshy, and I delved into Universal’s first three Dracula films, 1931’s Dracula, 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, and 1943’s Son of Dracula. The full episode can be listened to through iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud through the Phantom Podcast Network.
Legends of vampires and their countless variations can be found worldwide and they essentially share the same basic formula: a corpse rises from the grave to drain the blood of the living. Certain beliefs surrounding the vampire are likely the result of a misunderstanding of the decaying process: blood trickling from mouths of a corpse is actually decaying fluid leaving the orifices, drawn back lips emphasize the canines, gases can create a hazy, ghostly-looking fog over recently buried graves. If someone had a dream that the recently deceased returned, should they open the grave they would find ample evidence that the dearly departed has been up to some iron-infused shenanigans. The remedy was generally to stake the body – not to kill it but to nail it to the coffin, and to cut off the head and place it by the feet so the reanimated corpse couldn’t sit up to retrieve it. Sometimes the ribs would be broken to fetch the heart to burn it or a brick was placed in the mouth to keep it from feeding. In movies, and in particular Dracula films, these practices are seen as long forgotten and archaic remnants found only in the remotest reaches of Eastern Europe. However, few realize that these practices happened in America too, including in my own home state of Connecticut (in Griswold and Jewett City) where many bodies have been excavated and found to have been desecrated in a manner consistent with vampire killing. These bodies date from the 1830s and 1850s – hardly ancient history.
And of course, blood has always been seen as life-giving, from the Aztecs painting their temples with it to appease the Sun-god so as to make him rise to the Countess Elizabeth Bathory bathing in young women’s blood to attain everlasting youth.
The vampire was conceived in literary form on the same stormy night as Frankenstein’s abomination. While Mary Shelley planted seeds of her masterwork her host Lord Byron conjured up a vampiric tale. His doctor, John Polidori, took the reins and published The Vampyre in 1819. The vampire seemed modeled on the libertine Byron himself and no doubt influenced Stoker in his creation of the Transylvanian aristocrat. Female sexuality of a particularly lesbian variety entered vampire literature in J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla, published in 1872.
Stoker took inspiration from these earlier works and created one of the single most iconic characters in all of fiction. No other novel has been adapted for the screen than Dracula, published in 1897, on the cusp of the 20th Century, and only Sherlock Holmes has appeared as a character more often. Rather than a backward looking work of fiction, as many adaptations have seemed to characterize it, Dracula was actually a novel that dealt very much with new technology entering contemporary life. Victorians were obsessed with the idea of progress and civilization in opposition to our base humanity and our beastial desires. Robert Louis Stevenson tapped into this in his 1886 The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Instead of one man’s struggle, Stoker pits modern civilization and its gadgets against an ancient evil, bred from the shadows of superstition, which has come to prey upon and corrupt good, sensible Englishmen and, of course, English women and their delicate, chaste sensibilities. Unfortunately too few films depict the best parts of Stoker’s novel, such as Lucy Westenra’s transformation into the “Bloofer Lady”, preying upon children.
Dracula, at least in name, first appeared on film in the now lost 1921 Death of Dracula, a Hungarian film which bore little to no resemblance to Stoker’s tale. The first true adaptation was F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic, Nosferatu, with Max Schreck playing the iconic, rat-like Count Orlok. Murnau keeps the basic structure and makes Dracula even more animal-like than he is in the novel. Unfortunately for the brilliant filmmaker, the adaptation was unauthorized and he lost a legal battle with Stoker’s widow, and all copies were ordered destroyed. Of course, not all copies were and we can still enjoy this haunting masterpiece today.
In the 1920s Stoker’s novel was adapted for the stage and became a smash hit. Carl Laemmle Jr., who had recently been given control over productions at Universal, had a love for horror that his father didn’t share. Jr.’s first big project was to put Dracula on the big screen, and soon investors were excited when director Tod Browning and the celebrated Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney, both signed on. Unfortunately, Chaney died of a throat hemorrhage before filming could begin, and the studio settled for the very cheap Bela Lugosi to play the Count, a role which he had played to great acclaim on the stage. The film would take its cues from the Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston stage version, stripping the story down to its barest elements. Though certainly not the strongest of Universal’s horror films of the era, 1931’s Dracula is the first talky horror film and gave us so many of the Gothic tropes we’ve come to associate with the genre – elements like spooky castles, cobwebs, and bats which would have been familiar to 19th Century Gothic literature but had yet to make their proper debut in American film. It also marks the first American horror film which plays the supernatural straight – Dracula is not an imposter, and this is not a dream. American films had had a habit of explaining away the supernatural through worldly means, unlike their European counterparts.
Dracula was an enormous financial success and Bela Lugosi became the defining image – in looks, sound, and manner – of the Count, despite being more suave and debonaire than the literary version. The theme of an aristocrat exploiting and preying upon working class victims struck Depression era audiences, however subliminally. Lugosi’s vampire was a mix of Stoker’s creation and the sexual connotations that the word “vampire” had in film up until that point. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s “vamps” were predatory, seductive women – Lugosi created the predatory, seductive man. It appeared to work, as women fawned over Lugosi, and even the actress Clara Bow initiated a sexual affair with him.
The film would spawn multiple sequels: Dracula’s Daughter (1936), starring Gloria Holden; Son of Dracula (1943), with Lon Chaney, Jr.; House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), both with John Carradine; Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), with Lugosi once again donning the iconic cape.
For a decade after, the character Dracula lay mostly dormant before being resurrected in vivid colors by Hammer films, this time being depicted by Christopher Lee. Adding more blood, fangs, and, thank the dark lords, cleavage, increased the coupling of sexuality and violence – is there really any wonder as to why Dracula has remained so popular?
The Hammer cycle would last nearly two decades before Universal again returned to the Count for 1979’s Dracula, starring Frank Langella in the Count’s most romantic, reputably sexiest outing – and the farthest cry yet from Stoker’s ugly, almost beastial creation. The same year saw Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu. In between, Dracula would battle everyone from Billy the Kid to Batman, and even receive a blacksploitation counterpart in the form of William Marshall as Blacula (1972). Dracula or his likeness (or at least Bela Lugosi’s likeness) have appeared in every other form of media, from television to comic books. In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola produced and directed Bram Stoker’s Dracula starring Gary Oldman, with stunning visuals and an operatic sensibility, it remains one of my personal favorites.
Dracula is a character that is redefined for every generation – sometimes he’s sympathetic, even attractive, and sometimes he’s a repulsive monster. Vampires reflect different fears at different times, from Victorian fears of damnation through the sinful temptations of the flesh to more modern fears of sexually transmitted diseases or commentaries on class conflict, where a parasitic oligarchy drains the life and resources of the lower classes.
In the 1920s Sigmund Freud introduced two opposing concepts that would come to be called Eros and Thanatos, Eros being the drive for survival, sex, and other creative pursuits and Thanatos being the death drive, which goes against our instinct of self-preservation and leads us to acts that would bring about our demise. Like many of Freud’s ideas, controversy surrounds this concept today, but it nevertheless has a poetic element which at least in part seems to ring true, and perhaps no monster offers a corporeal form to these contrary but nevertheless powerful drives more than the damned, cold-wrapped corpse of the vampire.
Vampires can both repel and attract us. Despite knowing it’s wrong, that hurting people just to perpetuate our own existence or to satisfy our urges is morally reprehensible, there’s that part of us that considers giving into the curiosity, even at the peril of our life, soul, should it exist, or ethical self-worth. Perhaps an undeath outside of God’s salvation is worth the promise of immortality, power, and profound appetites with the abundant resources to satiate them. Light, after all, can be oppressive, exposing, judgmental, whereas the dark can offer freedom, obscurity, and solace. If Milton can make a hero of Satan in Paradise Lost, can we not make a hero of the vampire? What other monster do we regard with as much fear as we do jealousy? Who better embodies these contradictions more than the Count himself, Dracula?
Billy Wilder was a much loved American filmmaker, writing and directing numerous classics, including Sunset Blvd. (1950), Some Like It Hot (1959), and one of my personal favorites of the romance genre, The Apartment (1960). His brother, W. Lee Wilder… not so much. Which brings us to 1954’s Killers from Space, produced by Lee Wilder’s independent film company, Planet Filmplays, for distribution by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring Peter “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” Graves, Killers from Space is a sci-fi/horror most memorable for its goofy looking aliens, whose sole make-up effect consisted of buggy eyes which looked to be made from Ping-Pong balls. In many ways this is a prototypical 1950s drive-in film replete with atomic fears, giant insects and reptiles, naïve scientific notions, and obvious miniature models. Unfortunately, no doubt due to its minuscule budget, the aliens have a penchant for talking… and talking… and talking some more to fill up the run time. Still, it’s got a decent ending.
Killers from Space is a bad movie that’s still a good time if you’re in the right mood and of the right persuasion. Had it been better produced, I suspect it would have gone down on those essential lists of indispensable 1950s sci-fi classics.
Horror’s “Worst” Films – Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
Poor Stirling Silliphant, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter. We thought we had left him behind after his vicarious relationship to 1964’s The Creeping Terror, but the trickster Deities of Terrible Movies were not done with him. While in a Texas coffee shop he happened to bump into local fertilizer salesman and amateur thespian Harold P. Warren, with whom he was friendly. Warren declared to Silliphant that anyone could make a horror movie and went so far as to bet him that in fact he could do so, and he immediately began sketching his ideas on the coffee shop’s napkins. His story, taking some obvious cues from Dracula, involves a family who becomes lost while on vacation and end up at a remote home which houses a nefarious cult. The film was tentatively titled The Lodge of Sins, however, during post-production Warren changed it. The first clue for viewers that what they are about to see is incompetent is the movie’s final title, Manos: The Hands of Fate, which translates with ludicrous redundancy to Hands: The Hands of Fate.
Warren set about gathering his cast from the local theater, including John Reynolds as Torgo and Tom Neyman as The Master, and young women from a local modeling agency to play The Master’s wives. Also prominent is the beautiful Diane Mahree as Margaret. Warren, not surprisingly, cast himself as the film’s hero, Hal. Not having enough money to pay his cast, he instead promised them a share in the profits. Warren’s hand-wound camera could only record 32 seconds at a time and sounds were added, incompetently, during post-production, by only a very few people.
The resulting film is one of the most tedious cinematic experiences of my life. Never have 70 minutes felt so long. Manos abounds with slothful driving sequences (which Warren had intended to use for credits, but never did), frustratingly poor editing (with the clapper visible at one point), and the camera lingering uncomfortably long on actors, who sometimes appear just as frustrated. The plot is largely incoherent, especially as Hal bullies his way into a clearly dangerous situation, and as I write this shortly after seeing the film I’ve already forgotten most of it. The pacing is dull and the experience soporific. I felt that had I been dying while watching it the result would be similar to the effect which mesmerism had on the title character of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), with me also in a permanent hypnotic state upon the edge of oblivion, unable to leave consciousness, but instead of talking with surrounding physicians I would be forever watching Torgo’s maddeningly twitching face.
I’d take the fate of the Lament Configuration over this any day. The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) was a disjointed snooze, but at least it was brightly lit enough to see what was (or wasn’t) happening. Add to this a superfluous scene of two teens making out (one of the models broke her leg so Warren reused her here) and being hassled by the cops, and other shots that are confounding in their unnecessity, and the experience becomes ever more trying. At the least the mind-boggling cat fight between the wives is sort of entertaining.
However, I’ve yet to fully explain the worst aspect of Manos. John Reynolds’s Torgo is one of the most infuriating performances I have ever watched, with his erratic mannerisms and his awkward waddling with cartoonish swollen thighs (he’s supposed to be a satyr, but that never comes across in the film). Reynolds is like a man on drugs – in fact, he is a man on drugs. He was high on LSD while filming, and it shows. The aggravating, stuttering voice-over work doesn’t help matters. As I watched Torgo I couldn’t help but be reminded of a porn VHS tape from the early 80s I somehow once got a hold of when I was young. There was a scene in which the performers were clearly out of their minds with drugs, saying their lines over each other with no rhyme or reason. One of the women forgot all about the set up dialogue and began immediately fellating the delivery guy while he was still trying to remember and deliver his lines in pathetically slurred speech, swaying drunkenly in the doorway. It took him five minutes to realize the sex had already begun. At that pubescent age my libido was on a hair trigger, but even then I could only look on uncomfortably until I finally shook myself from my stupor and hit the fast-forward button. Watching Reynolds struggle through his lines produced a very similar effect.
Reynolds was ultimately a tragic figure who didn’t live to see the film’s premiere. As Bob Guidry, the Director of Cinematography, once explained: “He killed himself about six months after the movie was finished. John was a troubled kid; he didn’t really get along with his dad, who was an Air Force colonel, and he got into experimenting with LSD. It’s a shame, because he was really a talented young actor.”
Because at rare moments the universe is a just place, the local premiere of Manos: The Hands of Fate was not met with glowing reviews and the film fell largely into obscurity until Mystery Science Theater 3000 resurrected it for their show in 1993. If one is as morbidly curious as I was to see this film, I strongly suggest you do so with the help of the MST3K team, because even if with their remarks this film is still an absolute endurance test.
As I watched 2013’s Cheap Thrills, from E. L. Katz in his directorial debut, I kept hearing the voice of Walter Sobchak: “You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me. There are ways, Dude. You don’t wanna know about it, believe me… Hell, I can get you a toe by 3 o’clock this afternoon… with nail polish.” Both The Big Lebowski (1998) and Katz’s film can lead one to ask the same question: How much is a toe worth? Or, for that matter, any appendage? Or one’s health, self-respect, and reputation? What’s the price tag on your body and dignity?
Cheap Thrills tells the story of two financially strapped old friends who meet a wealthy couple ready to dole out cash to whoever is willing to subject themselves to increasingly dangerous, morally questionable behavior. I was skeptical at first as to how well Katz would be able to keep the premise/gimmick going, but he succeeds in creating a darkly humorous, tension-filled experience based on a smart script by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo. The cast, which includes Pat Healy, Sara Paxton, Ethan Embry, and David Koechner, are all superb in their roles, embodying well-rounded characters who act as realistic as can be expected throughout the film, as greed for money or power pushes their ethical limits to their frontiers.
Each dare grows organically and each monetary amount, while not paltry, is hardly enough to solve the men’s financial problems, at least in the long term. The rich couple is bored – their wealth has given them all their desires, and now they’re desensitized. Their enjoyment comes from exploiting the underclass and turning it against itself. Certainly, a metaphor could be read into this regarding American capitalism and the insurmountable chasm that exists between the haves and have-nots, and the way the former side manipulates and misuses the latter. The blue-collar men compete to demean themselves, and they find victory in their meager spoils. The question becomes, ultimately, can one be said to have truly succeeded when one’s integrity and moral character has been compromised?
In the end, Cheap Thrills is oddly poignant. That every character acts of their own volition makes the proceedings more striking and, sadly, somehow more believable.
1926’s Midnight Faces is another entry into the “old dark house” subgenre, and is heavily influenced by The Bat, which had a tremendously successful run on Broadway beginning in 1920 and a film version which came out also in 1926. By comparison, Midnight Faces is a rather cheap imitation. Though the film is classified as a horror-thriller, comedy could easily be added to its descriptors.
The plot involves a young man, played by Francis X. Bushman, Jr., who inherits a mansion from his uncle which is nestled in a dismal Florida swamp. Though the house is supposed to be empty we see an intruder enter, and soon after the servants arrive it becomes apparent that threats are hiding within the dark recesses and behind secret passageways.
The movie has not aged well. The writing is rudimentary and mostly implausible nonsense and is overly reliant on stereotypes and genre tropes. As comic relief the film provides the character of Trohelius Snapp, played by Martin Turner, the loyal manservant to the protagonist. Turner was a talented physical comic who is nonetheless trapped in the racist stereotype of the black buffoon, spooked by every creak and bump and unable to exert self-control over his fear. He is not alone in the paper-thin tropes, as we have a Fu Manchu-looking Asian and a black cape-wearing prowler to add to the warmed-over stew. The director, Bennett Cohen, borrows heavily if not entirely successfully from Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu with its use of disembodied shadows grasping and reaching along walls and fixtures.
In the end, Midnight Faces is sometimes fun, most times flawed, and ultimately forgettable.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) has long been touted as the ideal children’s tale, but even as a kid I felt that there was something sinister about it. Perhaps Wonderland seemed like a fun and magical place to visit to other kids, but the maliciously grinning Cheshire Cat, oyster gobbling Walrus, decapitating queen, and rules which seemed to change at a whim were the brick and mortar of nightmare worlds to me. When I read the book as an adult, I still couldn’t see the story as anything but maddeningly nefarious.
In 1988 the surrealist Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer made his own interpretation of the tale, and the macabre puppets and disturbing imagery are for my money, despite its relative obscurity, the closest adaptation in spirit of Carroll’s whimsical story. It begins with the lines, in Alice’s voiceover, “Alice thought to herself… Alice thought to herself, ‘Now you will see a film… made for children… perhaps…’ But, I nearly forgot… you must… close your eyes… otherwise… you won’t see anything.”
In a 2011 interview with Electric Sheep Magazine, Švankmajer said of his adaptation of Carroll’s book, which he called “one of the most important and amazing books produced by this civilization,” that
“So far all adaptations of Alice (including the latest by Tim Burton) present it as a fairy tale, but Carroll wrote it as a dream. And between a dream and a fairy tale there is a fundamental difference. While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted forefinger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realisation of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure. My Alice is a realised dream.”
As I began watching the film with my wife, I commented aloud that this was supposedly considered somewhat of a horror film. My wife looked with wide eyes and nodded, telling me – her desensitized husband – that yes, this movie was absolutely horrifying. Švankmajer’s Wonderland is populated with animated skeletal and taxidermic animals. The White Rabbit frees himself from a display case by removing the nails from his paws and feeds on sawdust to keep his stuffed carcass inflated. The stop-motion animation which brings these creatures to life is some of the finest I’ve seen.
Alice’s (Kristýna Kohoutová) world is almost entirely indoors, surrounded by an impressive array of antiques. We see only two outdoor scenes, one of which is a fantasy and the other of which is barren of vegetation, and Wonderland is arranged with the understanding and interpretation of a young girl who lives her life almost completely within a single home, and a single room without windows at that. The animals we see are essentially dead, and we can presume that Alice has had very little experience with live ones. Except for the skeletons, everything in Wonderland is artificial. Of his approach to these aspects of the film, Švankmajer says,
“Animation is, so far, the only way of breathing life into inanimate things. Children’s games work with the same magic. This kind of magic is the point where childhood and animation intersect with each other… I like things that have passed through human hands. Things that have been touched. Such things are charged with emotions that are capable of revealing themselves under certain, extremely sensitive circumstances. I collect such objects, surround myself with them and in the end I cast such ‘fetishes’ in my films. That’s also the reason why I don’t like computer animation. Virtual reality doesn’t have a tactile dimension. Objects and figures created on a computer have no past.”
Švankmajer also gives Alice an appropriate mean streak, dispelling notions of sweet, innocent little girls. There can also be read in this a slight political metaphor, especially in the trial scene. The director had, of course, recollections of the Slánský trial from 1952, which was an orchestrated show-trial designed to quell a discordant faction of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Taking cues from and buckling to pressure from the Soviet Union, Rudolf Slánský, the party’s General Secretary, was put on trial with others who were chosen to serve as warnings to their respective groups of what might happen for their potential disobedience. This political farce is reflected, albeit only slightly, in Alice’s trial before the king and queen. Of this, Švankmajer says,
“An absurd court hearing with Alice (‘off with her head,’ shouted the Queen) obviously recalls the political trials of the 50s. Of course Alice, compared with the accused from that time, doesn’t respect the official script. It was just a minor analogy, I didn’t shoot the film because of that. But each imaginative work has got within itself, from its very essence, a subversive charge, because it knocks down the notion of lived-through reality as the only one possible.”
Alice is an entirely unique film which has the capacity to awe and unnerve. It’s certainly not designed or recommended for mainstream audiences, but for those looking for a macabre interpretation on a beloved children’s classic that can surprise and unsettle a viewer, if not exactly frighten them, Alice is most highly recommended. Children’s viewing, this is not.