By Ryan Keating-Lambert
Despite not having a wide range of generic horror movies, and not being a country that traditionally celebrates Halloween, the Czechs are still known for their wholly original and all-round quirky approach to the conventional horror film. From the influential and undeniably creepy animations of Karel Zeman and Jan Švankmajer to the visceral and truly bizarre works of the Czechoslovak New Wave era, these titles will well and truly get you in the mood this Halloween.
1. Alice (1998)
Alice (Něco z Alenky) was the first feature film by national treasure and stop-motion extraordinaire Jan Švankmajer. This loose adaptation of the already dark and hallucinogenic ‘Alice in Wonderland’ plays out as more of a fever dream than the child-friendly Disney version that most of us grew up with. The blending of stop-motion animation with live action sequences and chilling production design make this an unusual, but faithful adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s source material. A digitally restored version of the award-winning film is now available in both Czech and English.
2. The Cremator (1969)
The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol) is a horror drama set in World War II that tells the tale of a disturbed cremator who believes he’s ‘liberating’ the souls of the dead rather than putting them to rest. The film is an iconic title in the Czechoslavak New Wave era and was actually banned upon release. It wasn’t until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 that the film, directed by Juraj Herz, finally resurfaced. It is now said to be one of the best movies ever made in Czechoslovakia.
3. Wolf’s Hole (1987)
Directed by the late avant-garde filmmaker Věra Chytilová, one of the great pioneers of Czech cinema, Wolf’s Hole (Vlčí bouda) is a science fiction horror that sees a group of teenagers invited to a mysterious ski workshop in the mountains. Upon arrival, the group learns that there is an intruder among them. Wolf’s Hole is a boiling pot of claustrophobia and a remarkable allegory of the country’s process of ‘normalisation’ during its period of communism.
4. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1978)
Village boy ‘Krabat’ becomes a slave for an evil sorcerer and is forced to compete in a magical duel with his master if he ever wants to gain freedom. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Čarodějův učeň) thrives off superb cut-out animation, and gives the classic folk tale a twisted kind of beauty that only animator and director Karel Zeman could capture. The artist is one of the founding fathers of Czech animation and a great inspiration for stop-motion animator Jan Švankmajer, not to mention Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam.
5. Wild Flowers (2000)
Based on the collection of traditional Czech folk tales by poet and writer Karel Jaromír Erben, Wild Flowers (Kytice) is a controversial adaptation that pays homage to Erben’s poetry through its epic visuals and use of colour. The film also boasts an all-star Czech cast including Anna Geislerová and Karel Roden. The seven tales cover a plethora of different characters and their supernatural encounters with famous Czech figures like the Noon-day Witch, and the Waterman. Directed by F.A. Brabec, Wild Flowers is essential viewing (and reading) in the Czech Republic – a country that still prides itself on its traditional fairy tales.
6. Greedy Guts (2000)
The second film Jan Švankmajer on this list and probably one of the weirdest. Greedy Guts (Otesánek), also based on a story by Karel Erben, sees a couple looking after a carved wooden baby to cope with their inability to have children. However, the baby eventually comes to life and wreaks havoc upon the sanity of the couple with its ravenous appetite. In the spirit of David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, this film takes on the darker sides of parenthood.
7. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
Based on the 1935 novel by Vítězslav Nezval and directed by Jaromil Jireš, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů) is a surreal tale of love, sex, and religion inspired by traditional fairy tales like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Considered to be an important part of the Czechoslovak New Wave era, the film has its fair share of dark moments.
8. Beauty and the Beast (1978)
Another ‘not quite Disney’ adaptation of a well known fairy tale, and the second film on this list directed by Juraj Herz. Beauty and the Beast (Panna a netvor) puts a darker and gloomier spin on the original tale, and prides itself on its innovative choice to make the beast a terrifying bird-like creature. It’s a favourite among Czechs and an absolute must this Halloween.
9. The Cybernetic Grandma (1962)
The Cybernetic Grandma (Kybernetická babička) is a science fiction horror by stop-motion puppet master Jiří Trnka, also dubbed ‘the Walt Disney of Eastern Europe’. This short animation sees a young boy delve into an underground dystopia teeming with machines and robots of such intricate craft. With a run time of only 29 minutes, you can easily fit this one in.
10. The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (1981)
Although this Czechoslovak comedy is more of a parody than an adaptation of Jules Verne’s fantasy novel. The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (Tajemný hrad v Karpatech) still stands strong as one of the country’s best comedies. Directed by Oldřich Lipský in collaboration with satirical comedy writer Jiří Brdečka, the film also boasts some prop work by Jan Švankmajer and is regularly shown on Czech television, especially in the holiday season.
Feature photo: Pinterest