Anachronistic horror tale loots the corpses of two legends
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Jan Svankmajer
Cast: Pavel Liska, Jan Triska, Anna Geislerová
At the beginning of Lunacy, Jan Svankmajer shows up to assure audiences that his latest effort is a horror film and “not a work of art.” Art, he informs us, is all but dead, anyway. The film at hand is nothing more than an “infantile tribute” to the works of Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade. Of course, I don’t buy it any more than Svankmajer does, but it’s an interesting way to get things started.
Make no mistake: The Czech filmmaker has created a horror film, pure in its intentions and effects and quite a bit more creative than the “torture chic” films sweeping Hollywood. But to say that the mad animator who gave us such gruesome fairy tales as Little Otik, Faust and Alice aspires to no art whatsoever is a bit of a lie--and not the last one you’ll be told in this film.
The film steals scraps here and there from both Poe and de Sade, but is really its own cracked take on the thematic legacy left behind by those infamous writers. Our story begins by introducing its hero, a troubled young man by the name of Jean Berlot (Pavel Liska). Since his mother’s incarceration (and eventual death) in an asylum for the insane, Berlot has been plagued by vivid nightmares of being hauled off in a straitjacket by grinning warders. One night, while staying at a roadside inn, his somnambulant tantrum catches the eye of a well-dressed Marquis (longtime Czech actor Jan Triska).
The next morning, the Marquis offers to give Berlot a ride to his mother’s funeral. The duo arrive, however, at an out-of-the-way castle, where Berlot witnesses several blasphemous rites presided over by the openly venal Marquis. (We’re assuming, at this point, that the unspoken name de Sade comes attached to his title.) Horrified, but egged on by some sort of righteous curiosity, Berlot engages in a heated theological debate with the Marquis. Whether the Marquis is intrigued by this troubled but righteous man or is merely toying with him is left purposely vague.
After a grisly and allegedly liberating episode involving a premature burial (that bit’s pure Poe), the Marquis suggests that Berlot confront his fears head-on. Since he’s friends with the man who runs the asylum where Berlot’s mother was locked up, the Marquis proposes setting Berlot up in the very same madhouse--on a purely voluntary basis, of course.
At the chaotic and totally creepy asylum, Berlot meets the oddly permissive Dr. Murllope (Jaroslav Dusek), who allows his inmates to run rampant. Here begins the tricky old game of “have the lunatics taken over the asylum?” After all, who’s crazy and who’s insane, and how can you tell the difference? (Here, Svankmajer borrows another page from Poe, this time “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.”) Naturally, Berlot is the pawn caught in the middle, trying to figure out if an innocent-looking nurse (Anna Geislerová) is telling the truth or if the unorthodox methods of the Marquis and Murllope are actually sound. Loyalties flip constantly, outrageous lies are mixed amid absolute truths, and audiences are left more paranoid than the main characters by story’s end.
The film, ostensibly set in the 18th century, freely mixes in anachronistic elements (a horse-drawn carriage, for example, ambles down a crowded modern freeway). This makes it easier to absorb the film’s more metaphorical elements. The allegedly artless script is more or less a fictionalized argument between the forces of total freedom and absolute control. It would be easy to apply this argument to today’s post-9/11 world, and it’s worth noting that neither side comes out particularly admirable in the debate.
Unlike Svankmajer’s previous films, stop-motion animation is rarely used to interact with the real actors. Mixed amid the live-action scenes are brief interstitial segments in which animated meat (tongues, brains, slabs of rotting beef) dance, cavort and otherwise move around the environment. There seems to be some commentary attached to these sequences, but it’s not exactly pointed. It is gross, however. Though they are short and rarely intrude on the story at hand, the animated bits do lend a rather stomach-churning element to the already unsettling proceedings.
But even amid the nihilistic tone and nasty imagery, Svankmajer maintains an almost playful sense of dread. This is, after all, a horror film whose primary image is one of dancing meat. Icky animation and ideological aspirations aside, Lunacy isn’t all that far removed from the campy Poe films Roger Corman was shooting back in the ’60s. Like the Marquis himself, Svankmajer is just toying with his captive audience--pushing our buttons, grossing us out and scaring us silly in hopes of triggering some small spark of enlightenment.
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