I love old dark house movies, to the point where whenever a discussion comes up with family or friends about the prospect of building a house, I can’t help railroading the conversation into talk of secret passages, secret doors (bookcase or fireplace, I’m not picky), and of course large paintings where I can remove the portrait’s eyes and peek into the room below.
Due to this, Oldřich Lipský’s silly-funny, endlessly inventive spoof Tajemství hradu v Karpatech was a source of absolute delight for me. It’s basically like a Czech version of Murder by Death, a star-studded mystery set in – yes, an old dark house – peppered with jokes so hoary and dumb that they go all the way around the dial to becoming hilarious again. What The Mysterious Castle has over Neil Simon’s groaner-fest and other pastiches of the genre is some genuinely inspired proto-steampunk design work by legendary surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, and a visual style all of its own…
Michal Dočolomanský stars as Count Teleke of Tölökö, a pampered but heroically undaunted opera singer rehabilitating in the Carpathians with his stoic manservant Ignac (Vlastimil Brodský). The Count is an indefatigable sort, prone to bursting into song at the slightest provocation, his voice posing a threat to any crockery or glassware in the vicinity. The loyal Ignac thinks nothing of hiking up a mountain with a comfy chair and a full banquet for his master.
During their travels the pair come upon the Devil’s Castle, looming over the nearby village of Werewolfsville (remember those dumb jokes I mentioned earlier?). The Count is enchanted by the lofty old ruin, but the local bumpkins are stricken with fear and superstition about the place.
Soon, thanks to the testimony of local mountain-man Vilja Dézi (Jan Hartl), the Count comes to think his long-lost love, the famous diva Salsa Verde (Evelyna Steimarová) might be held captive by the Castle’s mysterious owner.
This all provides the foundation for much silliness. The Count and Dézi embark on a rescue mission, dispatching Ignac back to civilization to fetch reinforcements from the local police force. The intrepid duo encounter the inhabitants of the castle – opera lover Baron Gorc z Gorcu (Milos Kopecký), his dim but very strong henchman Tomá (Augustín Kubán), and the demented but ingenious mad scientist Orfanik (Rudolf Hrusínský, munching scenery). Could the beautiful Salsa Verde, believed dead, still be alive within the castle’s walls?
It’s a fun jaunt, struck through by touches of the macabre, and also the occasional tinge of genuine melancholy. Otherwise it’s just entertaining connecting the dots between the film’s copious points of reference, from the Fogg-Passepartout dynamic between the Count and Ignac (see also: Holmes and Watson, Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie, etc.) to the retro-futuristic contraptions designed by Švankmajer, which are deliberate anachronisms (the film is set in the late 1800s, but the Baron has CCTV and rockets). Terry Gilliam was inspired by Karel Zeman to make his version of Baron Munchaussen; seeing the level of invention on display in Mysterious Castle, it’s tempting to wonder if he also took inspiration here for his production design on Brazil a few years later?
Aside from Švankmajer’s contribution, the entire production design is a triumph, especially the costumes and set design. While many of the verbal jokes go missing in subtitles, enough of the visual gags land to make The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians a genuinely funny movie. Highly recommended for anyone who likes their laughs accompanied by some wacky, inventive visuals.