Svankmajer’s Alice (Neco z Alenky) is a grotesque adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s tale Alice in Wonderland , replacing the colourful, fairytale visuals of the Disney film with eerie live action and stop motion animation.
In arguably the most ambitious interpretation yet, surrealist master Svankmajer bravely strips away the Victorian veneer of the time to reveal a perverse world devoid of morals or fairy dust.
As an end result, his wonderland is every child’s nightmare: a place where stuffed animals and puppets come to life, floorboards creak and every day objects hide dark forms. Here, space and size clash to form confined rooms and barren fields which collapse inwards and expand without notice. Playing Alice is Kristýna Kohoutova, as self conscious narrator and the only real life character in the film. Unlike the Alice we’re used to, Svankmajer’s is eerily quiet and ghost-like in appearance. To accompany her are the stock characters of White Rabbit, March Hare, Mad Hatter, Caterpillar and Lizard, only this time in much more sinister form.
The once goofy Rabbit is now wild eyed and reckless with razor sharp teeth an appetite for destruction. The Mad Hatter and March Hare meanwhile take the form of antique marionette and wind up toy, offering wine in place of tea and showing little of the hospitality that we’re used to. The beatnik pipe smoking Caterpillar is instead woven from fabric, bearing human teeth and glass eyes, while the Lizard is a creepy sawdust filled crocodile.
Missing are the Dodo, Cheshire Cat and Mock Turtle that we all know and love, but in place of them are creatures of infinitely darker conjuring. These include Fish and Frogs in period dress and wigs, a disfigured skull headed Bird with two small hands and a broken spine, a Rat in sailors outfit who uses Alice’s head as stove for cooking on, and talking socks which burrow into floorboards. Together they combine to form a dystopian world where anarchy prevails and Alice becomes the object of revolt. Her ousting ranges scissor prodding and burning, to being buried alive and having crockery thrown at her.
At the times the film looks distinctly like a momento mori painting: an egg turns into a skull, an empty tin contains stag beetles and slithering steaks crawl about blindly. The effect created is a feeling of impending doom, a sense that danger may lie at the every corner. This is further exaggerated by a mixture of eerie sound effects and beguiling illusions, which include a perpetual clock ticking and the sound of a crying baby, to desk drawers becoming passageways to new worlds and dimensions.
Alice is noted for being Svankmajer’s first feature length film. Disappointed with previous fairy-tale versions of the original story, he decided to embark of something totally new and mind boggling. His intention was to run the film as an amoral tale, in the belief that it would better capture the books dream-like feel. Premiering in United States in 1988, it went on to win best feature film at the 1989 Annecy International Animated Film Festival . Today it holds a flawless 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a sizeable 7.5 on IMDB.
Personally, I hold this among one of the most haunting films i’ve ever seen. Few other flicks have better captured those primordial fears of large looming objects, monsters, darkness and strangers which make childhood such a frightening time for any kid with an overactive imagination. Alice is a must-see for horror lovers of all shapes and sizes, least of all those who thought a fairy tale couldn’t be terrifying.