Movie Review: Tajemství hradu v Karpatech (The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians)

Movie Review: Tajemství hradu v Karpatech (The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians)

While searching (without great success) for a Czech movie that might be relevant for the Halloween season, I stumbled upon Tajemství hradu v Karpatech (The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians), a comedy with some horror/sci-fi elements from director Oldřich Lipský. A big fan of the Lipský films I’ve seen (Lemonade JoeAdéla ještě nevečeřelaAť žijí duchové!), this may not have been exactly what I was looking for, but my interest was piqued.

I’m glad it was: Tajemství hradu v Karpatech is an absolute treat, and I fell in love with it almost instantly. Based on the novel by Jules Verne (Le Château des Carpathes, or The Carpathian Castle) and co-written by Lipský and animator Jiří Brdečka (who also wrote the novel and screenplay for Lemonade Joe), the film features an eclectic cast of Czech comedy legends, including Michal Dočolomanský (Adéla), Rudolf Hrušínský (Rozmarné léto), Vlastimil Brodský, and Miloš Kopecký, among others.

Added bonus: the contribution of Jan Švankmajer, who is credited as výtvarník zvláštních rekvizit, or a special props designer. The influence of Švankmajer is clearly seen, whether in the look of some of the more outrageous props, brief stop-motion animation scenes, or a memorable Monty Python-esque paper cutout finale (a style which Švankmajer would use again in Surviving Life.)

Tajemství hradu v Karpatech begins with Count Teleke of Tölökö (Dočolomanský) and his faithful companion Komorník Hraběte Ignác (Brodský) walking through the Carpathian forest on the advice of the Count’s doctor. They stumble upon a series of sticks with hand sculptures pointed up to a castle in the mountains – but one of the sticks isn’t a sculpture.

No, it’s a dazed Vilja (Jan Hartl – who remains in a daze through much of the rest of the film), who doesn’t seem to remember anything. His memory improves upon returning to Werewolfsville, however, and he tells the Count a story of a beautiful woman with an enchanting voice kept behind the castle walls.

That’s not just any woman, Teleke realizes – it’s Salsa Verde (Evelyna Steimarová), the renowned soprano he fell in love with during his career as a opera singer. Now, apparently, she must be imprisoned by the evil Baron Gorc z Gorcu (Kopecký), who keeps an air of mystery and fear around the castle with the help of servant Tom (Augustín Kubáň), mad scientist/inventor Orfanik (Hrušínský), and Orfanik’s bizarre creations.

Tajemství hradu v Karpatech is, quite often, hilarious – I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud during numerous gags, and while the humor is often of the more obvious variety (I don’t think too much will get lost in translation here), it simply works. The cast really helps, led by the wonderfully stone-faced Dočolomanský, and Hrušínský and Kopecký, who are laying it on thick; the director and his editor have a perfect sense of comic timing, too.

It’s also haunting. While Lipský maintains a thoroughly goofy tone throughout the film, the climax, revealing the ultimate fate of Salsa Verde and the other characters, is unusually affecting. Maybe I just didn’t expect this level of sincerity by the end, but I found myself unexpectedly caring for characters who didn’t seem to be taking themselves too seriously.

Also worth mentioning: enchanting music by Luboš Fišer (also used during a number of opera parodies, color-tinged in the style of Lipský’s Lemonade Joe) and surprisingly mobile, often inventive cinematography from Viktor Růžička.

Part Young Frankenstein, part Rocky Horror Picture Show, with a dash of Monty Python Terry Gilliam and dazzling Jules Verne creations, Tajemství hradu v Karpatech is a real delight. Perfect lighter seasonal viewing, it has instantly become one of my favorite Czech films.

While quite popular within the Czech Republic (it has an 85% rating from 11,000+ reviews at csfd.cz), the film is, unfortunately, pretty much unknown internationally. That’s a real shame, because I think the humor here translates quite well, and given the eclectic mix of ingredients, a cult is out there waiting to discover The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians.

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