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The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians

by Glenn Erickson Feb 10, 2024

What’s the Czech word for eccentric?  Oldrich Lipský’s comic fantasy ribs 1890s thriller conventions in a story that combines gothic romance, sci-fi marvels and serial thrills. Welcome to the weird world of Czech filmmakers, and their affection for silly characters, low comedy and operatic delirium. We aren’t surprised that it was never imported . . . descriptions don’t suffice. Fans of Czech cinema magic will be hooked at the mention of the film’s special designer: Jan Svankmajer.


The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians
Blu-ray
Deaf Crocodile
1981 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 97 min. / Tajemství hradu v Karpatech / Street Date January 30, 2024 / Available from Deaf Crocodile / 39.98
Starring: Michal Docolomanský, Evelyna Steimarová, Vlastimil Brodský, Milos Kopecký, Rudolf Hrusínský, Augustín Kubán, Jan Hartl, Jaroslava Kretschmerová.
Cinematography: Victor Ruzicka
Production Designers: Rudolf Stahl, Jan Zazvorka
Costume Design: Irena Greifova
Film Editor: Miroslav Hajek
Original Music: Lubos Fiser
Special Props DesignerL Jan Svankmajer
Screenplay by Oldrich Lipský, Jiří Brdečka from a novel by Jules Verne
Produced by Filmové studio Barrandov
Directed by
Oldrich Lipský

Viewers may need a few minutes to adjust themselves to the comedic world of The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians. If you’ve liked anything by Karel Zeman or other Czech fantasy filmmakers, this will be a worthwhile show to seek out.

Some strata of Eastern Europe comedy would appear to be an acquired taste . . . not everybody conects with the odd ironies and muted absurdity in some Czech fantasies. A noted exception was Lemonade Joe, a broad parody of the conventions of American westerns.

It’s been theorized that one way  Eastern Bloc filmmakers avoided political suspicion was to stick to apolitical fantasy subjects. Almost anything contemporary could be accused of a misstep. Karel Zeman’s Vynález zkázy reaches back to a ‘quaint’ Jules Verne sci-fi tale. Mysterious Castle is from another Jules Verne book, written in 1892. As adapted by Oldrich Lipský and Jiří Brdečka, there’s little here on which a party official can hang a complaint.

 

Oldrich Lipský’s farce plays with several genres. At first we think we’re watching Dracula reinvented as an operetta. Count Felix Teleke (Michal Docolomanský) is a vain opera Tenor whose strong notes can shatter glass, and defoliate trees. His stage name is ‘Il Contecanto’ (the Singing Count). Felix is touring the hinterlands with his dutiful servant Ignac (Vlastimil Brodský). He’s trying forget his beloved ‘Salsa Verde’ (Evelyna Steimarová), a stellar soprano who died on stage before they could be married. The small village of Werewolfston is inhabited by what Felix calls charming highlanders — read ‘hick nobodies.’ Its local peace officer Vilja (Jan Hartl) came under a strange spell after venturing too close to the forbidding ‘Devil’s Castle.’ Vilja says he heard operatic singing coming from the castle, which gives Felix the irrational notion that Salsa Verde is still alive. The trio is soon hiking toward a rendezvous with destiny.

 

The castle is a place of absurdities suitable for a Tex Avery cartoon, starting with the elaborate neon sign greeting Felix as he enters. Inside dwell three eccentric madmen. The aristocrat Baron Rudolf Gorc (Milos Kokpecký) is also an obsessed opera fan. He stalked and hounded Salsa Verde with marriage proposals until she died of a heart attack. Felix and Vilja are convinced that she is alive in the castle, and make it their mission to rescue her. Rudolf is aided by the fiendish henchman Zutro (Augustin Kubán), whose beard hides multiple pistols, and, when needed, a French postcard photo.

But the main attraction in the Mysterious Castle are the inventions of the mad scientist Orfanik (Rudolf Hrusinský). The steampunk devices use clever clockwork and other ancient tech gear. We first see a strange listening device in the form of a metal ear, and a spy TV camera is a decorative orb atop a walking stick. Rudolf uses these and other hidden cameras to monitor and control the villagers, like a Victorian Dr. Mabuse.    Orfanik has also invented a sensational Quadrophonic stereo that plays Salsa Verde’s recordings; four horn speakers are wired to an array of four Edison audio cylinders.

 

Orfanik launches a guided missile from inside the castle, as might Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Like gags in TV’s The Wild, Wild West, the anachronistic gadgets are funny in themselves. Their credited designer is filmmaker Jan Svankmajer. We see a clever motor scooter, lots of video surveillance equipment, weapons, etc., all tricked out with vintage woodwork and brass. Orfanik has an artificial arm to which he affixes various tools and implements, from a knife to a toothbrush. Orfanik lost his hand (and an eye) to his work with explosives, which has led to his perfection of a Krakatit– like high explosive. It is tested under bunker conditions suitable for an atom bomb.

The playful attitude extends to Mysterious Castle’s broad character types. Baron Rudolf’s mania for Opera and Salsa Verde makes him a deranged super-fan; he serves his guests from bottles bearing the label ‘Dracula.’ Felix’s own aristocratic attitude is leavened with a desire to be fair to ‘nice fellows’ like Vilja. The local guide has his own plump fianceé waiting for him back in town, but is easily distracted by Zutro’s photo of a woman’s naked derrière.

 

We’re surprised by the Opera scenes, which are actually quite good. Some of the flashback performances are beautifully designed. Felix has perfect pitch, but his talents are afforded only a limited dignity. One of his stage characters wears an entire swan for a hat.    At one point the dummy swan flaps its wings. It’s a reminder of writer Brdečka’s roots in comic animation.

We note that Baron Rudolf’s mad obsession with Salsa Verde is pretty much identical to that of Peter Lorre in the gothic classic Mad Love, pursuing Grand Guignol star Frances Drake. At first we think a couple of sets use a phony painted substitute for brick walls, but the joke’s on us. The imprisoned Salsa Verde sings for us on what is really a television stage. The fake brick walls in Felix and Vilja’s room are part of an elaborate gimmick straight from the old Universal shocker The Raven: the entire room is an elevator that descends into a dungeon.

 

Typical of the play between reality and fantasy is the moment in which Felix and Vilja encounter an automatic sliding door, a staple of sci-fi film interior design. They react like little boys, testing it again and again, laughing. Viewers ‘of a certain age’ will find meaning in this . . . I don’t think I encountered an automatic door until I was eight. It was serious business — our new supermarket pointed to a science fiction future.

Most of the cast is unfamiliar, but two actors stand out. Twenty years before, Milos Kopecký played Baron Munchausen in the well-known Karel Zeman fantasy. And Rudolf Hrusínský played the lead in Juraz Herz’s creepy political horror film The Cremator.

Mysterious Castle has some cute characters, but not the kind with which one can form a sentimental bond. The relaxed pace may make some viewers impatient. But Oldrich Lipský’s show invites us into an odd fantasy situation created under different cultural circumstances. The comic opera has an upbeat conclusion, even if the frivolity is undercut by a grim discovery in the Baron’s castle. It’s an odd lesson. Romantic dreams can be cruel illusions.

 


 

Deaf Crocodile’s Blu-ray of The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians is a terrific remastering from original 35mm film elements, by a Czech archive and DC’s Craig Rogers. The soft colors are quite attractive and the audio very strong. The bits of opera we witness maintain a good lip-synch. We’re surprised by the excellent sound mix — Orfanik’s crazy inventions don’t use ‘goofy’ sound effects. When the captives’ room starts to descend, it looks and sounds as if it’s been converted into a freight elevator.

We’re told that the locals speak in a made-up funny dialect, which the subtitles try to hint at by scrambling the spellings of some words. We’ll assume that the ‘goofy’ dialogue was funny in itself.

Once again Deaf Crocodile covers all bases with its extras. Two Jiří Brdečka animated shorts are included. Each is also a period piece, and each is eerily beautiful, as described by DC’s copy. The first is a charming trifle about an inventor who rescues the love of his life from a grotesque bully in a military uniform. The second is a weird parable about a marriage between a delicate vegetarian and a duplicitous, meat-eating glutton. With no obvious moral, it’s borderline disturbing. Does it carry some political meaning?

 

Jiří Brdečka’s daughter Tereza Brdečková appears three times in the extras. She delivers a commentary, helping critic Irena Koverova go through the entire feature. She’s also the subject of a one-on-one Zoom interview with Deaf Crocodile chief Dennis Bartok. And she figures in a very good 2017 feature documentary on Jiří Brdečka, which covers the filmmaker’s entire career.

Jonathan Owen’s insert text essay gives us a basic understanding of Mysterious Castle’s place in Czech pop cinema. For us in the U.S. most Czech films are unknown quantities, never made available here in any significant way. Owen doesn’t think that, by the time of this feature, Czech filmmakers had to be as wary of political censure as was the case back in the 1950s. And it’s obvious that the makers of this film wanted to make a fantastic comedy.

Apologies to Jonathan Gluckman, who tried to get me to see this one years ago.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
1948 animated short subject Love and the Zeppelin (Vzducholod a láska)
1980 animated short subject Prince Měděnec’s Thirteenth Chamber (Třináctá komnata prince Měěnce)
Video interview with Tereza Brdečková by Dennis Bartok
Audio commentary with Brdečková and Irena Kovarova
Feature documentary Universum Brdečka (2017) by Miroslav Janek
18-page insert pamphlet with an essay by Jonathan Owen.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
February 6, 2024
(7072carp)
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Text © Copyright 2024 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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