Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The delightful, gentle Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is a 1966 Czech fantasy that captures a wonderful spirit of comic-book innocence. It has been making the rounds of the repertory theaters in recent years after a long life as an obscure title in science fiction reference books. Director Václav Vorlícek finds just the right note of droll foolishness to develop a one-joke idea into a satisfying screwball comedy. Peeking through the constant visual gags are some worthwhile ideas about the relationship of fantasy to human ingenuity. As its key invention is a device that can display a person's dreams on a television screen, Who Wants to Kill Jessie? predates the computerized mind-tap concept of Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World.
Prague. Industrial designer Henry (Jindrich, played by Jirí Sovák) needs a way to lift heavy objects and is inspired by a pair of anti-gravity gloves he sees in a superhero cartoon called "Who Wants to Kill Jessie?" His demanding scientist wife Rose (Ruzenka, played by Dana Medrická) demonstrates a drug that eliminates bad dreams, which she can view on a special television set. Discovering that Henry is dreaming about the sexy adventuress Jessie, the jealous Rose gives Henry the drug. Unfortunately, when Rose 'gets rid' of a dream it materializes in the real world, and Jessie (Olga Schoberová) and her two enemies, a Cowboy (Karel Effa) and a caped Superman (Juraj Visny) appear in the apartment, demolish the furniture and start spreading havoc all over the city!
Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is not easy to describe. It starts with an absent-minded husband and a jealous wife. Her brilliant work has a disastrous side effect, while his intellectual daydreaming leads to the discovery of a marvelous new invention. The unflappable Czech characters react to crazy new situations and ridiculous fantasy as if they are all an inconvenience best ignored. For her first experiment Rose chooses a cow, which lies on an operating table like a fugitive from a surrealist Buñuel movie. Sexy young research assistants surround Henry and can't understand why he ignores them. But he falls immediately for the provocatively dressed Jessie, a cartoon character somewhere between Barbarella and Daisy Mae Scragg of the Li'l Abner strip.
The clever plot consists almost entirely of unexpected twists and surprises. Chase scenes crisscross the city. Acrobats must play Jessie's American-themed Cowboy and Superman enemies because they constantly climb tall structures, blast through brick walls and swing into rooms on ropes. They retain their two-dimensional comic strip motivation: Kill Jessie and steal her secret for the anti-gravity gloves. The adorable and innocent Jessie loves Henry (she's his literal dream girl, after all) and rushes to his side wherever he goes. All three of the 'dream creations' speak by means of word balloons that materialize over their heads. Henry talks to Jessie but must read her responses -- which are of course in the Czech language.
As in a classic screwball comedy everyone ends up before a confused judge. The court reporter asks that Jessie's response balloon be turned in his direction so he can record her testimony. The judge decides that the 'dream creatures' are not human, giving Rose legal permission to destroy them in an incinerator. But dreams are not that easily suppressed, and Rose eventually forms a powerful crush on the Superman character. Who Wants to Kill Jessie? has four or five comic moments that prompt instant laughter.
Hidden amid the fun is an undercurrent of social criticism. Czech civil servants are characterized as passive and unimaginative. A policeman instructed to watch a sewer opening used by Jessie and Co., stares at it for hours waiting for someone to tell him to stop. A friendly prison guard takes bribes. Rose's research institute is run by martinets, one of whom instantly seizes upon the idea of using her invention to intrude on the privacy of the human mind. That identical threat is at the core of the 1991 Until the End of the World, in which the government seeks Max Von Sydow's brain-visualization machine as an interrogation/torture device. The whimsical Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is also a brilliant Science Fiction film.
Director Václav Vorlícek made several reportedly hilarious 60s and 70s comedies with odd titles like You Are a Widow, Sir! and A Nice Plate of Spinach. Star Olga Schoberová appeared on the cover of Playboy magazine and became the star of Hammer's The Vengeance of She under the name Olinka Berova. If crazy associations count for anything, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale's Who Killed Roger Rabbit? is an odd parallel film to this Czech fantasy. Both movies are about cartoon characters living in the "real" world. The sexy leading lady in each is named Jessie (well, Jessica). The villain of each show wants to obliterate the offending 'toon' characters. Who Wants to Kill Jessie? does have a rabbit in it, an ordinary bunny. The original Czech title reads as Kdo chce zabít Jessii?, which in English resembles "Rabbit Jessie."
Facets Video's DVD of Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is a pleasing enhanced transfer of this widescreen (2.35:1) thriller that reproduces its gray-on-gray European look. The solitary extra is an insert booklet with an essay by film historian Susan Doll.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Who Wants to Kill Jessie? rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Insert Booklet
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 12, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson