This latest collection of dark fairytales from Czech animatation guru Jan Svankmajer collects nine short films from throughout his career, starting with his earliest film and cherry picking selections from the seventies through the late eighties. It's a very eclectic mix of dark visuals, odd humor, and memorable imagery sometimes spun with a truly surrealist slant. While contemporaries have gone on to greater success than he, Svankmajer's influence on the likes of modern moviemakers like Tim Burton is undeniable and a quick trip through the selections contained on this single DVD show very accurately just why his work has had such an impact on modern animators. Truly a pioneer, his movies tend to be rather macabre and often very unusual but there's always a sense of artistry to them in that as repulsive as his movies can be, they're never disgusting or in bad taste – they're just really strange.
The nine short films compiled for this release include the following films in the following order:
The Last Trick (1964): Svankmajer's twelve-minute debut is a strange tale about two magicians, Mr.Schwarzwald and Mr.Edgar (basically hand puppets), who are constantly competing with one another. As their competition gets more intense, the each try to up the ante on the other until things go to far and it all implodes on them.
Don Juan (1970): This is, at its core, a retelling of the legend of Don Juan told in half an hour with strange looking puppets and some unusually creepy narration.
The Garden (1968): This seventeen-minute short follows a man named Frank who travels to visit his childhood friend, Joseph. When he arrives, Joseph introduces him to his wife and shows off his rabbits and it's then that Frank notices something strange about their home – the fence that surrounds their garden isn't made of pickets or wood but of people linked hand in hand.
Historia Naturae (1967): This is a nine-minute short made up of eight separate parts, each one a picture in puppet form (along with some stills and some actual skeletons) of a different species of living creature each set to a different piece of music.
Johann Sebastian Bach – Fantasia G-Moll (1965): This fantastic ten-minute short follows a man who sits down at his organ to play the piece of music that the film is named after. As he begins to play we see the images move to the sounds and almost dance along the walls of the building which itself begins to crack and take on a new life.
The Ossuary (1970): Another short clocking in at ten-minutes, this titular piece which doesn't really have much context or narrative at all. Instead, this is a simply a look at the Sedlec Ossuary which is an eerie building made up of the bones of thousands of people who died during the Black Plague. It is simultaneously horrifying, mesmerizing and beautiful and the visuals that Svankmajer captures here will haunt you for some time to come.
The Otrants Castle (1973-1979): A fifteen-minute short mockumentary that pretends to tell the story of a caste that may or may not actually exist by way of some fake interviews and some of Svankmajer's unusual animations.
Darkness Light Darkness (1989): At six-minutes this is one of the shortest films in this collection but also one of the more memorable. It shows a group of body parts all presumably belonging to the same man enter a room. After a while and a few different attempts, they manage to reconstruct themselves into a whole human body once again.
Manly Games (1988): This is an eighteen-minute story about a man who sits down in front of his television to have a few beers and watch a soccer match. As the match intensifies the players start killing each other off, their methods becoming increasingly savage as the game plays out. Soon enough, they tire of mutilating each other and so they make their way into the viewer's home to take him on.
A nice mix of material from throughout Jan Svankmajer's career, The Ossuary And Other Tales is a great compilation of truly odd little films. Sometimes the images are awe inspiring, sometimes they're pretty, other times they're flat out creepy and completely repulsive. This mix results in a collection of movies that continue to surprise you time and time again.
Most of the material on this disc is fullframe though occasionally things are shown slightly matted at roughly 1.66.1 non-anamorphic widescreen and everything looks fine in terms of framing indicating that this is how these shorts were intended to be shown. Color reproduction isn't bad but there is some fading and you'll definitely notice some print damage throughout though thankfully it's almost always pretty minor. The older the material, the more defects that you are going to notice but even the shorts that are in rougher shape are still definitely watchable.
The Dolby Digital Mono audio track is primarily made up of sound effects and music though occasionally there is some dialogue and when there is it is presented in its original Czech language. Optional subtitles are provided in English only. In terms of quality, this material isn't going to be something you pop in to show off your home theater system as there is mild hiss present throughout many of the shorts and you'll pick up on the odd pop here and there. As with the video, it varies from film to film, and thankfully everything is easy enough to follow here but don't expect perfection.
Kino has provided a text biography of Jan Svankmajer entitled A Biographical Sketch and a filmography. Aside from that, the disc is barebones though there is a chapter selection option available and a menu screen.
Obviously not for all tastes, fans of Svankmajer will no doubt want to snap up this excellent collection of some of his harder to find short films as soon as possible. For the uninitiated, the variety of material represented here makes a good starting point and The Ossuary And Other Tales comes recommended despite some inconsistencies in the presentation.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.