Made in 1972, while most of his fellow Czech New Wave film directors were subject to strict censorship and working under budget restrictions, Juraj Herz managed to come up with the lavishly produced gothic horror, Morgiana. With extravagant costumes, outrageous wigs and make-up and filmed in sumptuous locations, Morgiana has the look and feel of a wonderful fairy tale, but there are darker elements hinting at mental illness, schizophrenia and unwholesome subjects that meant it wasn't entirely immune to cuts by the authorities.
The film starts off on an appropriately gloomy note, with two sisters heading up a funeral cortege. The sister are Viki and Klára attending the funeral of their father, and at a subsequent reading of his will, it appears that they have been left an equal share of his estate. The worldly, dark-haired Viki however is jealous of her delicate red-headed sister's innocence and charm, characteristics that seem to effortlessly attract the attentions of a number of handsome suitors, while her efforts are rejected. Visiting the country estate bequeathed to Klára, Viki, who has a creepy cat familiar called Morgiana, wickedly plans to poison her sister.
Anyone familiar with Juraz Herz's The Cremator (also out on DVD from Second Run) will recognise the director's style and subject matter, the dark stories of madness given a delirious hallucinogenic twist through dramatic wide-angle cinematography, but in Morgiana, the effects are enhanced by the eye-popping colour photography. The comparisons on the DVD cover to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane crossed with Edgar Allen Poe are entirely accurate then, but the film also has a strong spiritual connection with Fellini's Juliet Of The Spirits and it looks just as sumptuous.
Finding any political commentary in the film would be stretching things (in an interview on the DVD, the director denies any such intent), but Morgiana nevertheless undoubtedly reflects something of the mindset of the times in Soviet occupied Czechoslovakia to some degree. Even just taken on face value, it's a wonderfully entertaining and colourful gothic horror that will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed such dazzlingly surreal Czech films as Daisies or Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.
Another great Czech New Wave entry on Second Run. Weird, fish-eyed camera angles add to the mounting fear as an evil sister sets out to poison her much nicer sibling. Didn't realise until I watched the extras that it's the same actress in both parts!
I had very high hopes for Morgiana (1972) after watching The Cremator (1969) by the same Czech director, Juraj Herz. Trouble is The Cremator is outstanding - technically, thematically, in terms of the acting, and by comparison Morgiana is forgettable fluff. Some OTT costumes, wobbly camerawork and camp sets don't make this arthouse, and I'm surprised to see it released on the usually excellent European arthouse label Second Run. The creaky Gothic plot is wafer thin and so predictable, the 'scary music' so heavy-handed as to be ridiculous, and with a running time of 97 minutes the film pretty soon becomes tedious to watch. It's certainly not scary (a horror film?) and not even unintentionally funny. Director Juraj Herz did not take this film seriously and dismissed it as nothing more than a filmic exercise to keep him busy in lean times. No, that's not false modesty, just an honest appraisal of the film's obvious shortcomings. I wish I could describe Morgiana as an underground camp classic, worthy of four or five stars, but it's simply not good enough to be that. Skip this one and check out The Cremator.
Well, on the face of it, 'Morgiana' has got a lot going for it. The director of 'The Cremator' at the helm, music by Lubos Fiser, composer of the luscious 'Valerie, and her week of wonders' score, and experimental cinematography by Jaroslav Kucera, who shot Vera Chytilova's 'Daisies' all contribute to this phantasmagorical offering. There's also a slightly underwhelming part for the actor Petr Cepek recently seen to powerful affect in the excellent 'Adelheid' and 'Valley of the Bees'.
The film is a gothic confection, elegantly staged, visually rich and often bathed in a golden hue that reminded me of 'Valerie, and her week of wonders', perhaps nudged by the presence of the Fiser score. It also sports some of the most appalling wigs in film history. I also found myself reminded of some of the more surreal and kinky colour episodes of 'The Avengers' with Mrs Peel.
Some of the night-time and interior scenes don't fair too well in this transfer, at least on my set-up, appearing rather grey and lacking in detail. There are some loud clicks on the sound track, too. I've become very interested in the re-recording of dialogue in the recent collection of Czech films released by the excellent Second Run. They seem to employ some strange techniques in the sound department, particularly the use of reverb or echo on the voices where it doesn't have any right to be.
I noticed in this film the almost complete lack of foley sound, that is the ambient sounds of the activities we can see in the shot, such as the sound of a cup put down on a table or the door opening or any other atmospheric noise. The lack of such sounds gives this film a strange disembodied quality and coupled with the use of a wide angle lens in almost every shot, which distorts perspective and form, results in a delirious and hallucinogenic experience. There are some wonderfully sumptuous sequences and experimental flourishes by Kucera.
Interestingly, the director himself sums up my feelings about the film on the accompanying interview. In it he explains how, under the soviet system, a director had to accept that their work by necessity, was going to be compromised and that in this case, although he was originally interested by the elements of personality disorder in the narrative, in the end it was an opportunity to work, but the film he didn't take too seriously.