Czech cinema that which isn't closely connected to the New Wave often seems to inhabit a hermetically sealed bubble adrift from real-world concerns, devoted to stylistic excess for its own sake, pleasing to the eye and ear but starving the mind: a result, no doubt, of stringent state censorship. Many filmmakers chose to escape the problem of having every promising subject matter or approach barred to them by fleeing into the past, and into fantasy, with the result that the Czech's, following the example of former animator Karel Zeman, led the world in adaptations of Jules Verne novels nobody else could be bothered filming.
So to Oldrich Lipský's The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (1981), a handsomely-mounted, occasionally amusing, visually inventive and completely pointless film, which at least partially overcomes its state-enforced toothlessness by sheer invention.
An opera singer (Michal Docolomanský), recovering from the death of his betrothed, seeks a rest cure in the fresh air of Transylvania's mountains, but finds a village living in terror of the nearby haunted castle, and his investigations unveil the villainous Baron Gorcu (an excellent ham named Milos Kopecký, who played another Baron, Munchausen, for Zeman) and his mad scientist pal Orfanek (Rudolf Hrusínský, got up like a Victorian Rotwang), who seem to have restored his late fiancee to life, or its simulacrum...
Odd how so many films from this time and place look to Hollywood for inspiration. Well, not so odd, since Hollywood's dreams have colonized the world's skulls. Maybe it's just odd that the censors allowed such gentle, affectionate parody of American cinema. Lemonade Joe (1964) is an exhaustingly jolly deconstruction of the western, for instance. Here, Universal horror films are clearly part of the stylistic palette, as Docolomanský and his manservant attempt to glean the truth from a crowd of rhubarbing locals. Jules Verne wasn't thinking of Bram Stoker's Dracula when he wrote his book: it hadn't been written yet. But Lipský knows it'll be on our minds, given the location, and drops in numerous references to the cliches and tropes of the vampire genre.
Here we have a problem afflicting both Lipský's film and Polanski's fun, flawed The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967): both seem to take their structure from the first section of Stoker's book, so we get the hero adrift in an eerie foreign land, and then encountering the sinister personage in the towering castle. Which leaves us with a rather static storyline, never leaving the isolated and distant alien world, where it's a little hard for us to care what happens. Stoker chose to set up his tale with a British traveler in the wilds, encouraging us to identify with him and see the misty landscape through his eyes, then introduced the Count, who seems quite plausible in such a setting. Then, his masterstroke: he has the Count, firmly established as a credible personality, come to England, bringing the terror home to his audience. A Dracula that remains stranded in his castle is a very limited threat.
So Oldrich Lipský is limited to a lot of running around within imaginative sets and beautiful locations, without any real forward movement to enliven the adventure. Fortunately, his cast and his gags and most of all his design are equal to the task of diverting our attention from the becalmed plot. A henchman, thumping the top of his head, causes his beard to part like a curtain, revealing a miniature gun emplacement sprouting from his chest. The loony scientist's ornate brass artificial hand sprouts gadgets from flick-knife to toothbrush. A listening device takes the form of a tiny golden ear attached to a tube.
An obscure credit for "artistic collaboration" goes to Jan Svankmajer, the Alchemist of Prague, whose unique collection of Bohemian flea-market bric-a-brac seems to have furnished, or infected, much of the movie. This lovely stuff is augmented by the steampunk creations adorning the castle, from the ornate brass television, which doubles as a coffee-maker, to the elaborate listening and watching devices hung or worn everywhere...
This leads up to the film's final revelation, which requires a Spoiler Alert in mighty stone lettering, for the cleverest touch of all, and one which alone makes this obscure Verne melodrama worth filming, is the use of cinema itself as a plot point. For the hero's lost love, the great prima donna Salsa Verde (Evelyna Steimarová), who appears to have returned from the grave, is revealed to be (1) an embalmed corpse operated by hydraulics like the Disneyland animatronic Lincoln, kept in an airtight glass room which could stand as a symbol of 80s pre-Glasnost Czechoslovakia, or this film itself, both being sealed in a stifling transparent cocoon, and (2) a cinema projection, complete with color and synch sound, responsible, in a plot twist worthy of Scooby Doo, for the castle's reputation as haunted.
Cinema itself as the final plot twist, in a book written in 1893, when the Lumière brothers were still pottering about in their shed, dreaming of the invention which would conquer the dreams of the world.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.