Master of Puppets: Jan ҆vankmajer‚Äôs Surrealist Horrors

As a card-carrying surrealist with an introverted philosophy, Jan ҆vankmajer is one of the most influential and obscure multimedia animators of Central Europe. The Czech director‚Äôs techniques in puppetry and stop-motion animation tap into the souls of everyday objects, characterized with deadpan tones. The unforgettable absurdity of his films and spiritual references, disgust and delight fans of the avant-garde and horror alike. 

The Surreal Life

Jan ҆vankmajer was born in Prague in 1934, describing himself as an introverted child. Enthralled by traditional European puppetry, he spent most of his time creating worlds within his imagination and giving life to unconventional objects. Often recalling his love for a Punch & Judy booth he received as a Christmas gift. In the ‚Äė50s he pursued his interests in theater, studying at the School of Applied Arts in Prague and enrolling in the Academy of the Performing Arts‚Äô puppetry department. But it would be the multimedia theater, Laterna Magika, that would introduce ҆vankmajer to film. While not particularly known for creating horror, Jan ҆vankmajer‚Äôs uncomfortable aesthetic and understanding of surrealism as psychology invokes a horror from within. Utilizing diverse techniques that allow the audience a peak through the lens of grotesque divinity. His body of work favors gothic literature and Slavic mythology. Reimagining multiple works of Edgar Allen Poe in more contemporary settings, he offers a unique take on surrealist horror that will haunt his audience for years.

Fall of The House of Usher

In 1980, Jan ҆vankmajer released a short film based on Poe‚Äôs Fall of The House of Usher. Staying faithful to the original story, he replaced the characters with a system of objects in an exploration of tactile stimulus. Claiming that the sensation of touch is often utilized in Poe‚Äôs psychological studies of characters. ҆vankmajer‚Äôs result was shot in black and white without actors, focusing on longing pans across patterned surfaces and stop motion animation. With a foreboding film score that‚Äôs reminiscent of American b-films, a free roaming coffin crawls through a thorny briar and sentient furniture sinks itself in a swamp. Transforming the classic tale of grief into a very pure definition of surrealist horror.

The Pendulum, The Pit, and Hope

҆vankmajer‚Äôs 1983 surrealist horror short borrowed from Poe‚Äôs The Pit & The Pendulum and Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s story, A Torture by Hope. Filmed from a grainy monochrome POV, our protagonist is captured by unknown enemies. A hooded figure leads the audience through claustrophobic catacombs to a mechanical torture chamber. With whimsical renderings of hell painted across the scenery, it vaguely gives the impression of a carnival funhouse ride. Bags of grain act as counterweights to the swinging pendulum as our prisoner struggles against his restraints. Resisting the slow domination of machines, he dances back and forth with little sparks of freedom. Brief rays of hope taunting the audience beyond the faint shadow of exhaustion.¬†¬†

Faust

Updating Goethe‚Äôs version of the German legend of Faust, ҆vankmajer simultaneously honors Franz Kafka with 1994‚Äôs feature length film of the same name. Set in a mundane metropolis, the film deviates from the erudite title character by portraying him as a depressed drudge stuck in a looping rat race. Ignoring subtle harbingers at first, he is lured into an otherworldly puppet theater where he finds himself in the dressing room, holding a script. In a very meta scene, he defines himself as ‚ÄúFaust‚ÄĚ, by reading lines out loud. Jaques‚Äô famous line from Shakespeare‚Äôs As You Like It is made gospel with an opening cue and Faust takes the stage. Approached by life sized wooden marionettes of an angel and devil, Faust is goaded at the cross roads. Will he pursue a path of righteousness or devote himself to the dark arts? Worldly pleasure and unlimited knowledge prove too tempting to refuse, and so Faust strikes the infernal bargain. Staged in a dilapidated guignol, the jerky motions of human puppets are unsettling for anyone that grew up watching the Puppetmaster films. When the cue light blinks red to alert Faust that the Devil has come to collect his due, he finds himself just another marionette hung on the wall. Controlled by the hands of fate, the quest for power always comes with strings attached.¬†¬†

Lunacy

2005‚Äôs Lunacy is ҆vankmajer‚Äôs surrealist horror comedy, thematically focused on Edgar Allen Poe‚Äôs “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” and “The Premature Burial“. This feature length movie parallels The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as well as utilizing historical elements of the life of Marquis de Sade. Since his mother‚Äôs passing in a mental institution, Jean regularly has nightmares of being dragged off by hospital orderlies. Struggling with his loss, he encounters a strange fellow while making funeral arrangements. The man claims he is the Marquis de Sade and had also recently lost his mother. Forging an acquaintanceship, he suggests Jean voluntarily commit himself to help ease his grief and nightmares. Desperate for penance, Jean agrees and admits himself to an asylum managed by a friend of the Marquis. As a patient he is subjected to extreme methods of treatment ranging from indulging in decadent pleasures and vice to vicious corporeal punishment and acts of violence. All part of Dr. Murlloppe‚Äôs vision of freedom by balancing mind and body. There is a great deal of misdirection with the introduction of each character and blurred lines of who are the patients and who are the doctors. Some aspects of ҆vankmajer‚Äôs Lunacy feel like a melancholy drama as seen through the eyes of Clive Barker, while other scenes echo the loneliness within Jodorowsky‚Äôs Santa Sangre.

The Ossuary and Other Controversies

Jan ҆vankmajer‚Äôs films were heavily restricted for over 2 decades, as his disturbing imagery and gritty aesthetic were considered politically undesirable. Although his work was never officially banned in his country, the distribution was suppressed after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The regime installed in the fall of 1969 was infamous for its cultural repression. Filmmakers, particularly those of the “Czech New Wave,” were among the most severely persecuted. In 1970, ҆vankmajer was commissioned to document The Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora. Shot in black and white, the result was a 10-minute-long feature entitled, Kostnice (The Ossuary). Loosely described as a real-life ‚Äúhorror documentary‚ÄĚ, the Sedlec Ossuary‚Äôs creation came from a mass grave of nearly 70,000 casualties of the 14th century‚Äôs Black Plague and 15th century‚Äôs Hussite Wars. Kostnice features long textured shots of tomb stones and intricate repurposing of human remains. Overdubbed with an actual tour-guide’s exhibit monologue as she addresses a group of children with flat frankness and warped humor. Svankmajer did not shy away from themes of exploitation and tourism, which was considered an unacceptable subversion by the Czech Communist authorities. The film maker was forced to replace the soundtrack with a jazz arrangement of the poem “How to Draw the Portrait of a Bird” by Jacques Pr√©vert. A scathing critique of his short film, Leonardo‚Äôs Diary, arose in 1974 after its debut at the Cannes Film Festival. A Czech film critic negatively regarded it as ‚Äúa strange piece of fantasy without socialist content‚ÄĚ. ҆vankmajer would again receive scrutiny for a spoof documentary titled Castle of Otranto. It featured a demented archaeologist interviewed by an actual well-known newscaster. The censors did not want ҆vankmajer to mix fact and fiction for fear of distorting the public‚Äôs view of news media. He was asked to instead cast comedians to which he refused.

Children’s Horrors

Often, Jan ҆vankmajer has turned to Slavic folktales and the terrors of childhood for inspiration. Once suggesting that children stand outside of good and evil and seek the meaning of mortality within dark fantasy. His surrealist horror movies made for children, while mild to the average fan of the genre, tend to be the most disturbing in his catalog. The innocent perspective of a child breathes life into the mundane and sets the stage for the cruelest lessons in life.

҆vankmajer‚Äôs most well-known film is his reimagining of Lewis Carroll‚Äôs Alice in Wonderland. Released in 1988 and simply titled Alice, the film is a mesh of live action, stop motion, and puppetry. Actress Kristyna Kohoutova plays the title role and asks the audience to close their eyes at the beginning of the movie. Only by blinding their adult selves can the viewer really begin to truly see. Alone and bored in her bedroom, Alice witnesses a taxidermied rabbit on her shelf come to life. Breaking free from its display, the rabbit adorns itself in elegant clothes before disappearing into a desk drawer. Alice follows through a labyrinth of furniture and cupboards, filled with endless bones and bobbles. Before the notion of The Backrooms was ever acknowledged, ҆vankmajer‚Äôs Alice created a whole series of the sub-levels to out-creep any pasta. Enter the bottomless sewing bag of your great auntie! While remaining true to Carroll’s original story, the juxtaposing fears of a child are closely explored. In some undulating dream states, Alice becomes an animated porcelain doll. Helpless and ignored by the rest of the world while at other times creatures of bones and glass eyes seize her liminal form. Between doll and flesh, child and adult, Alice is lost in this menagerie all contained within a singular house. The film Alice is somewhat of a spiritual successor to ҆vankmajer‚Äôs 1971 film, Jabberwocky. Loosely based on Carroll’s poem and a children’s book by V√≠tńõzslav Nezval. While less brooding than Alice, it contains many of the same visual elements of rotting fruit, doll cannibalism, and sentient origami.

Little Otik

2001’s Little Otik (also known as Greedy Guts) is ҆vankmajer‚Äôs most purposeful surrealist horror film that drips with dark humor. Based on the Czech fairy tale Otes√°nek, it bears a resemblance to Pinocchio and Little Red Riding Hood. Containing an ambiguous moral which leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Karel and Bozena are a miserable couple, unable to conceive a child of their own. While on vacation, Karel digs up a stump from the yard that somewhat resembles a baby. Initially meant as a joke, he presents it to his wife in an attempt to cheer her up. Bozena is instantly smitten with the log and swaddles it in her arms as if it were a real infant. Upon naming it Otik, the lump of wood comes alive. Suddenly she‚Äôs devising a plan to fake her pregnancy for when they return to their apartment in the city. Karel is horrified as Otik cries out in hunger, a thrashing mass of roots and branches screaming for food under the bare cabin bulb. Begging his wife to end the madness and chop it to pieces, the couple violently wrestle with an axe as Otik shrieks for sustenance. These fevered scenes of stop motion and minimal light mirror Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. One wonders if ҆vankmajer imagined what kind of child Cheryl would have conceived after her encounter with the deadite trees. Bozena‚Äôs motherly instincts triumph and the couple take their Golem-like child home. Struggling to keep the stump fed, Otik’s maw is a ghastly knot in the center of its would-be face. A swirling death portal of teeth and tongue. Its insatiable appetite nearly scalps Bozena and soon the family cat goes missing. Growing in size with each culinary sacrifice, roots reach out for another meal. Once the mailman goes missing, Otik is locked in the basement and discovered by a suspicious little girl next door. She understands exactly what Otik is and vows to feed him.¬†

Manly Games

Walking away from the heavier tones of ҆vankmajer‚Äôs work, Manly Games is less surrealist horror as it is a violent comedy. A short film with the simple premise of a sports fan watching television. A former soccer player and devoted fanatic returns to his flat with a case of beer and snacks to watch his game. The athletic event itself is an animation style popularized by Terry Gilliam‚Äôs work on Monty Python‚Äôs Flying Circus. With upbeat elevator muzak, each athlete is brutally disfigured by everyday mundane objects like scissors, plungers, meat grinders and toy trains. Their collapsed skulls of clay are nailed shut in a coffin, only to return to the soccer field and resume the game. The crowd cheers wildly for each bloodless death. After an intermission of a basket of kittens (yes really), the game ball is kicked into the sports fan‚Äôs apartment. Manly Games is hilariously absurd, remarking on desensitization toward bloodsports in all their violent glory.

Disassociative Denouement

Jan ҆vankmajer retired in 2018 following the release of his film Insect. His unique aesthetic of cultural and spiritual allusion has influenced multiple generations of artists like Terry Gilliam, Guillermo Del Toro, and the Brothers Quay. The childlike simplicity of some of his short films feel strangely familiar, anchored in the shared subconscious language of memory. Faintly echoing Sesame Street‚Äôs psychedelic animations of the 70s and 80s. In his closeted world, ҆vankmajer almost seems to obsess over the horrors of childhood and disassociate with themes of food and death. When questioned about these fixations, Jan admitted he had not yet fully closed the door to his childhood and continues to have dialogs with that chapter of his life.

“If there were no such obsessions, that we have been dragging behind us from our childhood, then what would we create from?” 

Further Reading

svankmajerjan.com

Jan Svankmajer by Keith Leslie Johnson

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer by Gaby Hartel

Prescribed Nightmares: Healthcare in Horror Cinema

Medical quackery, mad doctors, and unorthodox lab experiments are the stuff science fiction nightmares are made of. The medical horror trope is rich with enough sub-genres to petrify patients for decades. With an endless supply of entries, this article gives a routine examination to notable healthcare horror films. Side effects may include chills, paranoia, and trouble sleeping. Currently, there is no known cure. 

Human Guinea Pigs

Healthy bodies and unhealthy bank accounts often find themselves on the doorstep of pharmacology. Fortune favors the brave when renting out physical autonomy for experimental drugs. Yet the transparency of chemical messiahs should always be considered when the hazards of medicine are in play. The Biotrial Rennes clinical of 2016 resulted in 1 death and 5 injured. The 2006 UK med trial for TGN1412 caused organ failure in 6 men. The latter incident would inspire Ian Clark’s healthcare horror film The Facility. Seven volunteers enroll in a 2-week research project at a remote medical lab. Injected with a new drug called Pro-9, some of the first side effects to manifest are disconcerting, to say the least. The tension is ratcheted up by nightfall when the facility locks down. Most of the horror happens offscreen in this claustrophobic siege as test subjects fight to survive. This film could easily register as a prequel to 28 Days Later. Released the same year with a bigger budget is the Canadian-American horror film Bloodworx. College friends decide to earn side money for a spring break trip by signing up for pharmaceutical testing. RXZ-19 is a new allergy drug with regenerative side effects that are dangerously addictive. The lead researcher quickly loses control of her subjects. Primitive instincts are reactivated and the patients turn on staff and each other. But not all human lab rats get the choice to participate. Sometimes it’s mandatory in detention centers. In Patients of a Saint, also known as Inmate Zero, St. Leonard’s Island is a repurposed prison for the world’s most violent criminals. Extreme medical trials are conducted on prisoners and the experiment quickly goes wrong. Guards and inmates must unite to survive as the infection spreads in the penitentiary. Will zombie island stay on lock down?

The Doctor is In…sane

Medical professionals have always been a goldmine for the horror genre. Bringing us the world-renowned vivisectionist, Dr. Moreau, and the kinky side of Dr. Henry Jekyll. These psycho practitioners have some of the most intimate access to us. Oblivious patients willingly put their lives in rubber gloved hands. In The Surgeon, little Julian is a witness to his younger brother’s murder at the hands of a doctor. Traumatizing him into a career of mad science, he utilizes terminal patients for experiments until he’s reported by colleagues. Returning to the hospital that condemned his work, he takes revenge by harvesting the humors of the staff. Anyone that has gone to urgent care would agree that the mean girls from high school grow up to be nurses. Yet nobody considers these career paths being revenge driven. Lisa Zane stars in The Nurse, a cold-blooded home caregiver that slithers into a paralytic patient’s family. Holding him responsible for her father’s death, she slowly destroys his world from within. With all the high contrast grime of a 90’s slasher, Larry Drake is Dr. Giggles. An escaped mental patient is about to make a house call to the town that destroyed his family practice. Fixating on a teenage girl with a heart condition, he slashes through her friends as they begin their summer vacation. A healthcare horror comedy that can be downright slapstick at times, Drake steals the show as the demented doc. Delivering Freddy Kreuger-esque one-liners with a straight face, Dr. Giggles is tragically under-rated. When the Mid-Aughts’ grindhouse revival finally got its hands on nurse pulp fiction, it had to be 3D. Nurse 3D is referred to as the film that ruined Paz De la Huerta’s career. This healthcare horror casts her as Abby, nurse by day and serial killer by night. Seducing and butchering unfaithful husbands before deciding to mentor a recent nursing school graduate. A trashy throwback to 90’s erotic thrillers but with all the sleaze and splatter of a drive-in b-film.

I’m Afraid It’s Terminal

The patient is a role of vulnerability we all step into at some point. The anxiety from exposure and dismissal is the most common form of everyday healthcare horror. Medical gaslighting can separate us from the narrative, leading to distrust of the body and doubting perceptions. The Power puts these institutional ‚Äėpecking-orders‚Äô on full display. Set during the politically complicated UK power outages of the 70s, running parallel is a young nurse working her first night at the East London Royal Infirmary. A paranormal revenge tale taking notes from The Exorcist, Nurse Valery is haunted by hospital secrets as well as her own. Particularly vexatious with themes of abusing power and voices silenced by any means necessary. In the 80s slasher, X-Ray, a divorced mother is given the run around with her new insurance. Attempting to collect physical exam results from a hospital with a bad reputation on Valentine‚Äôs weekend. Susan is led through a medical labyrinth of humiliation, bouncing from doctor to doctor. No one ever bothers to tell Susan what‚Äôs wrong with her, nor do they listen to her cries for help as she‚Äôs strapped to a gurney and prepared for emergency surgery. Little does she know her records are being tampered with by a psychopath in scrubs! The psychological thriller, Visiting Hours, focuses more on developing the dark profile of the antagonist, yet speaks volumes on inherent misogyny in medicine. Following being attacked in her apartment, an outspoken reporter finds herself in the hospital. Barely allowed any rest by detectives and well-wishers, she receives a visitor that seeks to finish what he started. Knowing she‚Äôs in danger, her pleas are regarded as symptoms of stress as nurses and patients start dropping like flies.

Secret Society Sanitariums

From the Asclepius cults of ancient Greece to the Knights Hospitallers, occult elements of healing remain integrated in modern-day hospitals. These sanctuaries for the sick and injured are the ultimate liminal space on earth. Between birth and death, hospitals become imprinted with the intensity of human emotion. It‚Äôs no wonder there seems to be an endless supply of haunted hospitals across the world. But with faith comes followers, and sometimes they‚Äôre dogmatic edge lords. Secret societies and cults hiding within the medical profession gives us some of the best healthcare horror. Larry Cohen‚Äôs The Ambulance is a comedy thriller emulating hardboiled detective film noir. An aspiring comic book artist meets the woman of his dreams in the streets of New York City, just before she collapses. Quickly whisked off by an outdated looking ambulance, the artist discovers she hasn‚Äôt been admitted to any nearby hospitals. Others have started disappearing in a similar looking ambulance and they all have diabetes. Is it a human trafficking ring or a mad science conspiracy? It‚Äôs Victor from The Young & The Restless and his laboratory hidden above a disco. Anatomie is a German horror film starring Franka Potente (of Run Lola Run fame) as a medical student. Awarded a highly coveted scholarship to the University of Heidelberg, she recognizes the cadaver in her anatomy class. Upon investigating his mysterious death, Potente uncovers an ancient secret society that performs experiments on ‚Äėundesirables‚Äô. On top of everything else, her grandfather is a highly celebrated professor. The Canadian horror film, The Void, is set in a half burned out hospital running on a skeleton crew. When a chaotic bloodbath begins, the radios go out and the hospital becomes surrounded by robed figures armed with weapons. Someone has opened a gate in the hospital‚Äôs basement that leads to another dimension. All the hidden medical experiments begin to mingle with the Lovecraftian abominations crawling out of the portal.

Alternative Medicine

Those repulsed by allopathic medical practices often explore their other options of healthcare horror. Opening themselves to esoteric healing and mysticism that was popular with the Universal Medicine cult and The Source Family. At the height of the neon fitness craze of the 80s, it‚Äôs no pain no gain at the Death Spa. Beefcake Michael owns and operates a high-tech health club with his brother-in-law. But when Michael‚Äôs new girlfriend becomes a member, his late wife rises from beyond to possess the gym equipment. About as schlocky as it gets with bumbling detectives and weight machines mangling juice heads. Featuring Ken Foree in a side part, better known to the genre from Dawn of The Dead and From Beyond. 2016‚Äôs A Cure For Wellness is based on Thomas Mann‚Äôs 1924 novel, The Magic Mountain. A financial services CEO vanishes to a Swiss ‚Äúwellness center‚ÄĚ, built upon an aquifer. Lockhart, an executive, is blackmailed by the board to retrieve him before a company merger. He discovers the eel infested institution has a dark history of incestuous bloodlines and medical experiments. Trapped among brainwashed patients, Lockhart realizes they‚Äôre all willing subjects for Dr. Volmer. Best described as a less lovable Dr. Phibes, operating from the Poolrooms. If you‚Äôve ever believed the medical industry keeps people sick to financially drain them, this film will get to you. The British healthcare horror comedy, Horror Hospital, jumps right into treatments as 2 bandaged patients running through the woods are mowed down by a bladed Rolls Royce. When a young songwriter is kicked out of the band, he decides a holiday to Brittlehurst Manor might do him good. A pseudo ‚Äúhealth farm‚ÄĚ located in a gothic castle surrounded by an acid swamp. Michael Gough plays the head of the hospital, Dr. Storm, heavily stylized after Bela Lugosi. The faucets run with blood and dinner guests are prone to screaming fits. The film was an obvious favorite for Richard O’Brien. Hippies beware! Your health retreat might end with a lobotomy!

Inconclusive Results

Over the course of the pandemic, it has become near impossible to trust the healthcare system. Devolving into a purgatory of bureaucracy and generating corporate profits, the amount of unnecessary evils makes it difficult to heal. While your chances of being a victim of mad science in this day and age are slim, they’re not exactly zero. Yet in the face of an emergency we have little options but to trust medical professionals with our lives. Stay vigilant and get well soon.

Further Reading

The Pathology of Horror (Medical Horror Films) – IMDb

‚ÄúThe Darkside of Medicine: 5 Doctors Who Became Serial Killers‚ÄĚ – MDLinx

‚ÄúMy Life As a Full-Time Human Guinea Pig‚ÄĚ – VICE