Deaf Crocodile Films: Prague Nights (1969) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Deaf Crocodile Films

It goes without saying Deaf Crocodile Films is my current favorite boutique home video film releasing label in the marketplace.  From their unveiling of two of Karen Shaknazarov’s masterworks to three of Aleksandr Ptushko’s, the LA based outfit sponsored by Vinegar Syndrome’s partner label emporium, Deaf Crocodile continues to be the leader in introducing all things Eastern European cinema related whether it be Czechoslovakian, Finnish, Polish, Romanian or Russian language.  Point being, they’re among the most dedicated curators and educators for filmgoers in desperate need of a roadmap to travelogue all through Eastern Europe’s indelible cinematic landmarks.
Among their latest special limited releases on their still evolving, ever growing roster is Prague Nights: a kind of Czechoslovakian horror anthology that switches freely between the modern and medieval, past and present, real and/or imaginary.  Split between three directors Miloš Makovec, Jiří Brdečka and Evald Schorm, the film was the baby of animator-screenwriter Brdečka and somehow or another was filmed during the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968, a detail you’d never know from watching it.  Long thought to be lost to time, the anthological horror opus now restored by the Národní filmový archív and released through Deaf Crocodile Films has a chance for rediscovery as perhaps the most visually wild, iconographic Eastern European horror film since Viy.

Opening on black-and-white photography, middle-aged businessman Fabricius (Milos Kopecký) wanders the streets of Prague looking for love and happens upon a mysterious young blonde woman named Zuzana (Milena Dvorská) dressed in white.  Walking together into an abandoned cemetery, she proceeds to tell our unassuming protagonist three tales of terror laced with black magic and sexual obsession, each one by a different director filmed in color.  

Our first one The Last Golem is perhaps the most visually striking with its staggering vista of a giant golden humanoid sculpture being constructed before finding the supernatural will to walk on its own.  The second one Bread Slippers involves an 18th century countess living in luxury flirting with sexy maids until a mysterious visitor absconds away with her to an abandoned mansion with mercurial intentions.  Finally our last segment tying the wraparound narrative Poisoned Poisoner together involves a murderess with a group of equally murderous cronies in the Middle Ages beset to a poppy 1960s selection of Czech pop songs provided by Zdenek Liska who also scored much of the film itself.
A hidden gem for fans of fantasy horror, the anthology wraparound horror film ala Creepshow, Tales from the Darkside or even as far back as Kwaidan is a delightful, visually ravishing horror odyssey through modern and medieval Prague.  Between the three directors, the shifting styles of music, sound design and eras being depicted, the multi-director package represents the unsung height of the Czechoslovak New Wave or Film Miracle which seemed to push against censorship while poking creative holes shedding light into what would otherwise be a stale offering.  

Spooky, atmospheric, ambient and bordering on occult, the film’s centerpiece is inarguably The Last Golem though it would be unfair to say the film diminishes thereafter with Bread Slippers or Poisoned Poisoner.  Like other Czech New Wave films before it including but not limited to The Cassandra Cat or Daisies, there is a kind of almost childishly playful streak running through the film from its experimentation to its whimsical love for life despite dwelling in the macabre.
Sporting three cinematographers including Jan Kalis, Rudolf Milic and Frantisek Uldrich, Prague Nights is visually stunning from top to bottom.  One of the key factors in the film’s penetrating imagery involves the use of the black-and-white wraparound narrative housing the stories before each segment dives into its own splash of color.  The result makes each story seem larger than life and harkens back to the switching of color timing used on The Wizard of Oz.  

The aforementioned composer Zdenek Liska alongside Jan Klusak offer up a score ranging from mod 60s hip jazz to medieval choral droning that feels channeled out of another dimension, keeping listeners on their toes throughout.  The ensemble cast is of course solid with many of Czechoslovakia’s most renowned performers making the setlist with the wraparound narrative housed on the shoulders of Milos Kopecký and Milena Dvorská beautifully, though the real stars of this psychedelic horror show are the film’s directors.
Again, filmed during the invasion of Prague which you’d never know without looking it up, the film was difficult to see at all outside of its country of origin.  Effectively the US blu-ray disc premiere, Deaf Crocodile’s deluxe limited-edition release of Prague Nights represents an important contemporary inclusion into the modern anthological horror sphere.  At once entrenched in the past and the present, the plausible and the inexplicable, Mod sixties contrasted with medieval catacombs, it’s a distinctly Czechoslovakian horror affair with unforgettable vistas and a unique spin on the scary anthology movie.  

A snapshot of then-60s Prague and playfully spooky scare offering, Prague Nights is a splendid horror anthology that could’ve only come from the Czech New Wave at a tumultuous period in the country’s history, available for the first time to North American consumers through arguably the best boutique releasing home video label presently in practice.

--Andrew Kotwicki