One of my favourite folk tales from back home is the Wild Man of Orford, a small coastal village not far from where I grew up. In the 12th Century, a group of local fishermen hauled their nets to discover they’d caught a strange naked man covered in greenish hair. He was taken to the nearby castle for interrogation, but after six months his torturers realised he wasn’t able to speak.
After that they let him exercise in the sea, stringing nets across the harbour so he couldn’t escape. The Wild Man easily swam under them, but each time he returned willingly to the castle. Eventually, he tired of life on the land, slipped under the nets one last time and vanished out to sea.
A similar water-dwelling character from the landlocked Czech Republic is the vodník, or hastrman, a water goblin popular in fairytales and made famous by folklorist Karel Jaromir Erben in his collection of ballads, Kytice. The creature lives in bodies of water and is capable of drowning the unwary if he’s in a bad mood, or providing bumper catches of fish for the locals if kept happy with sacrifices and offerings…
A modern spin on this tale is Ondřej Havelka’s Hastrman, based on Miloš Urban’s novel of the same name. The story opens with a mysterious nobleman, the Baron Johann Salmon de Caus (Karel Dobrý) returning from abroad to his sprawling ancestral estate where he plans to oversee the upkeep of eight large ponds.
The Baron quickly becomes popular among the locals working on his land, not least the unruly local beauty Katynka Kolářová (Simona Zmrzlá). He also forms a wary friendship with the local priest, Father Fidelius (Jan Kolařík), who has a similar interest in censored literature and a strange secret of his own.
While he seems very upstanding and respectable, the Baron engages in some very peculiar behaviour in private, like diving into the freezing lakes fully clothed to hang out with his carp, and urgently patting water from a flask onto his head at odd moments. He also keeps small pots containing a brightly glowing matter hidden away in the cellar of his castle.
After the unfortunate drowning of a local lad during a pagan ceremony, the Baron finds himself increasingly drawn to Katynka. He clearly desires her, and she seems to return his affections in no uncertain terms. However, there is something about his nature that causes him to hold back, leading to a violent and tragic conclusion…
Hastrman is a spirited yet wildly uneven adaptation. I haven’t read the novel but there are times when the film is bursting at the seams trying to pack in all its story and themes into a relatively short running time. There are some interesting ideas at play here, such as the relationship of the people with the land and the pagan rituals that connect them, much to the disapproval of the priest, whose influence over the countryfolk seems limited. The Baron falls between the two sides – he’s educated and well-read like the priest, but as a magical being, he indulges the local’s old pre-Christian beliefs.
The rushed nature of the film also reveals itself in some clumsy editing that undermines its otherwise visual splendour, and Havelka struggles to find a coherent tone. It is listed as a romantic thriller but could be just as easily categorised as a comedy horror.
Despite its faults, there’s still plenty to enjoy – Diviš Marek’s evocative camerawork creates an earthy, wintry atmosphere and the film benefits from two charismatic performances from Dobrý and Zmrzlá. Dobrý enjoys the overlaps between his character’s sinister and humorous elements. The Baron is outwardly formal and chivalrous but given to strange outbursts of behaviour as his animal instincts take over, especially as his feelings for Katynka grow.
Unlike some of the blander fairytale heroines, like the pretty vacant Julie in Juraj Herz’s Beauty and the Beast, Katynka is a potent match for her goblin would-be suitor. She’s the dominant force in her community of bumpkins thanks to her vivacity and intelligence, and the strength of Zmrzlá in the role makes their age difference less of an issue than it might have been if she was a weaker woman. There are times when Katynka is clearly in the driving seat, as we see in an attempted seduction scene that gives a heavy nod to The Wicker Man, emphasizing the film’s folk horror elements.
Indeed, folk horror may be the best place for Hastrman given its ghoulish moments, preoccupation with pagan rites and folk song, and a strong sense of place. It’s an odd film, and folk horror fans are the most likely to forgive its faults and revel in its peculiarities.
Hastrman is showing on Czech Netflix at the time of writing. This review was originally published by the Prague Daily Monitor.