BeautyAndTheBeastThis Czech take on Beauty and the Beast really brings forth the gloom and darkness of the original fairy tale. With impressive visual design and a powerfully stark atmosphere, the film is undeniably impressive, even if there’s little in the way of narrative or character development.

This 1978 production, also known as PANNA A NETVOR, or THE VIRGIN AND THE MONSTER, is perhaps the darkest-ever cinematic interpretation of the Beauty and the Beast tale. It was one of several fantasy/horror films directed by Juraj Herz, a key figure in the Czech cinematic New Wave of the late 1960s. Other Herz-directed excursions into the fantastic and horrific include THE CREMATOR (1969), MORGIANA (1972), THE VAMPIRE OF FERAT (1981) and THE FROG PRINCE (1991), another inverted fairy tale.

The beautiful Julie is the daughter of a bankrupt merchant, who believes he’s been sentenced to death for plucking a rose in the “Haunted Woods.” In an effort to save her father’s life Julie travels to the Haunted Woods and the gloomy castle situated therein. There resides a hideously deformed birdman, the Beast, who shuns the human world but has eyes for Julie. He sets her up as the mistress of his mansion but refuses to let her see his face. She finds the Beast’s voice quite attractive and can’t understand why he won’t show himself.

The Beast uses magic to keep Julie in his employ. Among other marvels, his tables set themselves and apparitions of Julie’s father and sisters appear before her. The Beast meanwhile finds himself becoming increasingly human due to his love for Julie, with his hands transforming from talons to human appendages. But then Julie inadvertently spots his visage in a mirror and freaks out.

Julie heads back to her home, where her father and greedy sisters await. The Beast, however has cast a spell over Julie, and psychically beckons to her. Unable to resist, Julie heads back to the castle for a final, fateful meeting.

Juraj Herz follows the perimeters of the original fairy tale reasonably closely, but what makes this BEAUTY AND THE BEAST distinctive is its incredibly vivid atmosphere of grit and despair. An early scene of slaughtered animals being prepared for consumption gives fair warning that this is no Disney production. Other un-family friendly elements include the Beast’s demonic servant who speaks to his master in malevolent whispers and the appearance of the Beast himself, who looks like one of the monster villains of THE DARK CRYSTAL (1982).

Technically the film is a veritable gothic wet dream, from the dark-hued photography to the haunting organ score to the artfully decayed, cobwebby production design. With all the darkness and chill (it takes place in winter), it’s no surprise that the romance angle that’s so integral to the tale barely registers, and the happy ending falls woefully flat. Nor, for that matter, is there much of a narrative of any sort, as Herz is concerned primarily with atmosphere and visual splendor—and in those areas, at least, he’s definitely succeeded.

Vital Statistics

Filmove Studio Barrandov

Director: Juraj Herz
Screenplay: Juraj Herz, Ota Hofman, Frantisek Hrubin
Cinematography: Jiri Machane
Editing: Jaromir Janacek
Cast: Zdena Studenkova, Vlastimil Harapes, Vaclav Voska, Jana Brejchova, Zuzana Kocurikova, Josef Laufer, Milan Hein, Jan Augusta, Josef Langmiler