Here's an odd one... The Cremator follows a high society type named Karl Kopfrkingl (played by Sam Raimi lookalike Rudolf Hrusinsky) who operates are a very posh crematorium in the middle of Prague. When Karl isn't at work ensuring that his employees respect him and do as they're told, he's discussing the Nazi occupation and singing the praises of their politics. He spends much of his time at his place of work, however, talking down to his employees and putting a fair bit of effort towards putting himself on a bit of a pedestal.
Karl's also rather off center. He only sleeps with his wife, but has a constant and nagging fear of sexually transmitted diseases. He's also unflinchingly pro-cremation, going so far as to proclaim it a solution for many of the social problems that plague his country, if not the entire world. When Karl is embraced by the Nazi party, who intend to use his crematorium for their own devices, he soon finds himself hanging out with blonde Aryan prostitutes and scheming to build even more crematoriums where he'll be able to purify the world, ridding the planet of those who the Nazis deem unfit, including his wife who is part Jewish.
Hrusinsky took home the 'Best Actor' award from the Sitges Film Festival in 1972 and for a good reason - his increasingly manic performance is one for the books, as we witness his quirky Kopfrkingl transform from an eccentric right winger into a full on fascist under the frightening guise of doing what he seems to sincerely believes to be the right and proper thing to do. The film's editing pulls us into Kopfrkingl's unsettling world through all manner of strange visual collages of naked people cut up and some odd rapid fire editing that wouldn't feel out of place in an eighties era Peter Gabriel video if it were in color. The black and white cinematography definitely works in the film's favor, however, giving it a nice period feel and look that director Juraj Herz effectively builds off of.
A fairly obvious and heavy handed allegory for the dangers of fanaticism and for fascist politics, The Cremator is never the less a fairly thrilling horror film in its own right, even if it is surround by arthouse quirk and pretentious meanderings. There's an enjoyably sick sense of dark comedy to the film that keeps you wondering where it's all going to end up and as such the film has a fairly thick tension to it that makes it much more interesting to watch than you might expect it to be. In particular, the scenes where Karl fantasizes with a nearly sexual fervor about getting rid of those who he deems in need of cremation, wherein he imagines them falling into a black abyss that seemingly represents Hell, are more than just a little bit disturbing, made all the more unsettling by Kopfrkingl's 'too sincere for comfort' Cheshire Cat smile.
While this isn't a film that will ever settle into comfort with mass appeal, it's in many ways a wonderfully made picture with an important, if far less than subtle, message that rings true today as it would have during the Second World War. It's remarkable on a visual level in that it really stands out as a unique piece of work but on top of that its very well acted and benefits from a clever and unsettling script. Food for the eyes and for the brain, it's a rather unappreciated and psychologically disturbed piece of work that will appeal to fans of artsy foreign cinema and horror movie aficionados alike.
Dark Sky's 1.66.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of The Cremator is quite impressive considering the film's age and obscurity. The black and white image is strong and stable showing no signs of mpeg compression or edge enhancement. Some grain is noticeable throughout and there is some minor print damage here and there but contrast is nice and consistent and black levels stay strong throughout. Detail levels are surprisingly good and really, there's not much to complain about here - the picture quality is surprisingly good.
The Czech language Dolby Digital Mono track comes with optional English subtitles that are yellow, making them easy to read against the black and white image. This track is about what you'd expect from an older low budget film. The range is obviously quite limited but there aren't any problems with hiss or distortion and the levels are properly balanced. A few scenes sound a little shrill but they're the exception and not the rule.
Unfortunately, this disc is completely barebones save for a static menu and chapter selection sub-menu.
A truly odd film by any standard, The Cremator will appeal more to fans of experimental and surrealist film than to your average horror hound, but the potential for crossover appeal is certainly there. The film is a fascinating and often times darkly humorous one that avoids subtlety in favor of a fairly scathing critique of governmental abuse of power and fascist political leanings and it's definitely worth seeing even if this nice looking disc is barebones. Recommended.
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.