By MICHAEL GINGOLD
A fascinating trio of fear features is coming to both big and small screens.
Author/filmmaker Kier-La Janisse (WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED) has acquired these movies, which have been given new restorations and will be released in special-edition home video releases later in 2023 by Severin Films. Before that, they’ll be screened at this year’s Salem Horror Fest, which runs April 20-April 30 in the Massachusetts city. The films are:
BAKENEKO: A VENGEFUL SPIRIT (pictured above; Yoshihiro Ishikawa, Japan, 1968): Also known as GHOST CAT OF THE CURSED POND, BAKENEKO: A VENGEFUL SPIRIT is one of the many mid-century Japanese explorations of kaibyo or “ghost cat” mythology, and one of the best. Director Yoshihiro Ishikawa was no stranger to kaibyo country, having co-written Nobuo Nakagawa’s equally chilling BLACK CAT MANSION (1958) and directed GHOST CAT OF OTAMA POND (1960). Released the same year as Kaneto Shindo’s more well-known KURONEKO, BAKENEKO: A VENGEFUL SPIRIT mines that indelible trope of the cat ghost story: a violent and greedy Lord kills a young woman when she refuses to become his concubine, only for her cat to drink her blood and become her shapeshifting avenger. “Beginning in a quietly haunting vein reminiscent of UGETSU,” wrote Spectacle Theatre in their promotional text for a 2016 screening of the film, “BAKENEKO descends into a nightmarish parade of splattered blood, decapitations and ghosts gnawing on severed limbs.” Not to be missed by anyone with a beloved feline familiar!
MORGIANA (Juraj Herz, Czechoslovakia, 1972): The best known in the West of Slovak filmmaker Juraj Herz’s enchanting genre films (1969’s THE CREMATOR, 1978’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, 1979’s THE NINTH HEART and 1982’s FERAT VAMPIR among them), MORGIANA is about two sisters–neither of whom is named Morgiana, that’s the cat, who gets her own cat-cam–who are placed in opposition when one of them inherits the majority of their father’s estate. In a brilliantly affecting dual performance by actress Iva Janžurová, the raven-haired Viktorie contrives to poison her naive fair-haired sister Klara when she is driven mad with jealousy over both their financial predicament and Klara’s abundance of attention from possible suitors. As her sister becomes weaker and more prone to kaleidoscopic hallucinations, Viktorie’s flamboyance threatens to foil her own murderous plans. MORGIANA is a dark fairy tale bursting with extravagance–baroque garden parties, dramatic eye makeup, vintage tarot cards, fish-eye lenses–absolutely breathtaking stuff and a fitting gateway to Herz’s brilliant oeuvre.
THE NINTH HEART (Juraj Herz, Czechoslovakia, 1979): Though Juraj Herz’s most critically lauded work remains his 1969 film THE CREMATOR–first released on DVD in 2006 and given the Criterion treatment in 2020–his opulent fairy tale THE NINTH HEART (featured briefly in the documentary WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED, playing elsewhere in the festival) is an uncanny trip into an underworld of automatons, stolen hearts and magic. A struggling student befriends an itinerant marionette troupe (led by iconic actor Josef Kemr, who also appeared in folk-horror favorites MARKETA LAZAROVÁ and WITCHHAMMER), and when they collectively run afoul of the local Lord, he volunteers to rescue the Lord’s daughter, who has been put under a spell by an evil alchemist. Inanimate objects spring to life as the living succumb to death in the topsy-turvy world of this dark fable.
Herz has been noted by historian Kat Ellinger as the only filmmaker in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia to openly identify as a horror director, and studied puppetry at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague alongside Jan Svankmajer, who would remain a key collaborator (Svankmajer’s wife Eva designed the poster for THE NINTH HEART and both provided visual effects and animation). It is thus in THE NINTH HEART that many of his aesthetic and thematic obsessions converge–puppetry, poverty, imprisonment and death–illuminated by a parade of golden candelabras and a playful sense of the grotesque.