Saturday, November 09, 2013

Rat Race


My friend, Renee, is absolutely mad for obscure horror movies. Every Halloween, she dredges up oddities from around the world to show at her big movie party with the aim of showing things none of the attendees has ever seen before. Given that she's friends with some hard core horror fans, this is no small task. She's been trying to stump me for years, sometimes successfully, but I don't have the same kind of monomania she has. The upside of this is that I get to walk behind her as she blazes a trail through the undergrowth. This year's mathom is Izbavitelj (1976, directed by Krsto Papic) from Yugoslavia. It's one of those strange cometary remnants of the Prague Spring, rippling half a decade later as the Croatian Spring, when Eastern European cinema had joined the raging New Waves of the 1960s and began criticizing the old order of things.

Izbavitelj follows the fortunes of Ivan, a struggling writer whose economic situation is becoming dire. At the beginning of the film, he's ejected from his room because his rent is in arrears, then proceeds to an open air market where he lives the advice of Erasmus, who said "When I have a little money, I buy books; if I have any left over I buy food and clothes." Because of their mutual love of books, Ivan hits it off with Sonja, whose father is a reclusive scientist. Later that night, he squats in an abandoned hotel where he stumbles on a huge party, of which no trace is left come the day. Pursuing Sonja, Ivan falls in with Professor Boskovic, who tells Ivan that what he witnessed was a race of rat people who are murdering people and replacing them. They're waiting for their savior to lead them to domination of the town and then the country. Fortunately, the professor has researched the enemy and has developed a means of killing them. The only drawback is determining who is and isn't a rat...

Izbavitelj is a variant of the "aliens among us" trope, which should be obvious enough from the synopsis, but given where and when it was made, it turns into a more specific allegory of creeping totalitarianism. The constitution of Yugoslavia had only lately been amended to loosen the controls on what could and could not be depicted in films. Still, I imagine that couching this as a horror movie allegory was a canny move on the part of the filmmakers. One can never tread too lightly around even "benign" dictatorships. The filmmakers waffle even more by casting its rat people as decadents, intent on staging opulent parties on the the backs of the workers in a nod to proper socialist disdain for the bourgeoisie, but make no mistake, the central horror of this film's body snatchers is collectivism. In this regard the film is forward-looking, representing an early crack in the Eastern Bloc that would all come tumbling down fifteen years later. It's difficult to look at this film without looking at the politic of the late Cold War and the long history of the Balkans.

As a horror movie? Well, this is obviously a resource-poor film, though like many old world productions, it benefits greatly from being filmed in photogenic locations. The beats of the horror film are muted here, and the whole thing has a kind of oneiric quality to it. The nightly balls of the rat people might be excursions into Faerie in another folkloric tradition, while the accidental poisoning of Sonja is of a piece with some of the darker European folktales. The rat people when depicted in their native forms are a little disappointing in our post-special effects world, but they aren't any worse than some of the make-up jobs in, say, any given Paul Naschy film, and they're better than some. Still, this is more of an oddity than a lost masterpiece of Eastern European fantasy filmmaking. It's more memorable for its politics than for its filmmaking, which doesn't diminish it, really, but it does make me want for a film that's manages to integrate them both.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 29

First Time Viewings: 23

Note: It's taking me longer to churn through the final challenge posts than I expected. I beg your indulgence in this.

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