Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors (1964)

Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors (1964) movie poster

director Aleksandr Rou
viewed: 12/05/2016

I only learned about Russian Fantastika films a couple years back from stumbling on Scumbalina’s Atomic Caravan.  So far all of the Fantastika movies I’ve seen have been by Aleksandr Rou, so I don’t know that I have a full perspective yet.  But what I do have is a fantastic love for the stuff.

Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors and The Golden Horns (1972) were my holy grails, probably because they’re the films that Scumbalina discussed in her blog.  So when seeing it available on Amazon Prime along with a handful of others, I was totally thrilled.  I was also jazzed to see that since I last wrote about Aleksandr Rou, someone has added movie posters for his films to Wikipedia.

The information on the Soviet director is pretty sparse, and even on the specific subgenre is also hard to find (at least in English).  I crave to know more.  Overall, though, these are fairy tale films, peppered with ideology I suppose, but really not that different from American or other European fantasy films.  It’s the aesthetics that are quite sublime.  I’m a pushover for matte paintings and some of these are amazing.

As many have noted, stepping through the mirror, little Olya is not unlike a little Soviet era Alice.  Only she’s in the Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors which distort everything.  She finds her mirror double in Aylo (real life sisters Olga and Tatyana Yukina) and they encounter a strange world of backwards names and animal people, and a boy named Dneirf who is whipped and imprisoned for not cooperating with the manufacture of more crooked mirrors.

For my money, I enjoyed it.  I actually liked the nasty attitude of little Olya before she learned her lesson.  There was an interesting point at the opening when she and a lot of other little kids were peeking in on a movie (a drive-in?), the most modern thing I’ve seen in any of Rou’s films.  But also for my money, my favorite film so far was Vasilisa the Beautiful (1939), one of his much earlier films, the only one I’ve seen in black-and-white.

Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair (1969)

Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair (1969) movie poster

director Aleksandr Rou
viewed: 06/18/2015

I’m still new to the Russian Fantastika film and the work of Aleksandr Rou, but I’m a readily growing fan of the form and the director.  I’ve seen two other films of his, Vasilissa the Beautiful (1939) and Maria the Wonderful Weaver (1959), but this was the first time I’d ventured a go with one of my kids, even though these are essentially children’s films.  The films are subtitled which could daunt some kids, but Clara took to the film pretty readily herself.

I don’t know if it’s just the random smattering of Rou’s films that I’ve seen or just the consistency of folkloric narratives but the stories all kind of run together in my brain, even after just watching this one it echoes of the others.

In this case, there is a tsar who gets his beard grabbed by a magical being while drinking from a well.  The being, Chudo-Yudo (pictured above) tells the tsar that he must give him anything in his kingdom of which he is unaware (the tsar has spent the beginning of the picture numerating everything in his realm and marking it down).  The tsar agrees only to find out that he didn’t know that he had a brand new baby son.  Conspiring with one of his advisers, the tsar trades out his baby for the baby of a local fisherman (although this goes awry when a soft-hearted conspirator can’t go through with it), so that if Chudo-Yudo comes for the kid, he’ll get the wrong one.

However, it’s years before Chudo-Yudo acts, looking to find a groom for his daughter, Barbara the Fair, who has magical abilities and a poor list of goofy suitors.  To boil down a rather convoluted plot, the strapping young fisherman’s son (the fisherman’s real son as opposed to the tsar’s spoilt heir) eventually saves the day and gets to marry the beauty.

There are lurid colors and wonderful set designs, some impressive make-up and some interesting buildings…and even acting bears (does every one of these films have acting bears?)  This film is made 30 years Vasilissa and 10 years after Maria yet the feeling and sensibilities seem to have changed little if at all.  I consider this in contrast to American fantasy films of the time (I noted a comparison to some of Ray Harryhausen’s films before), but I don’t know what else to say.  I would love to know more about the genre and the films.

Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair is as good as the others, perhaps better than Maria but I think Vasilissa is still my current favorite.  I still want to tip my hat to Scumbalina, who has posted a nice list of films of the genre that I will consider now a list of films to see.

Maria the Wonderful Weaver (1959)

Maria the Wonderful Weaver (1959) still

director Aleksandr Rou
viewed: 06/23/2014

It was actually Aleksandr Rou that turned my tipping point to getting a Roku box and joining the streaming movie universe.  Netflix DVD service had one Aleksandr Rou film available, the quite amazing Vasilissa the Beautiful (1939).  Hulu Plus offered three later Rou films and I keenly queued them up.

I am still learning about Rou, the Russian fantasy filmmaker.  I learned of some of his films from Scumbalina’s Atomic Caravan, but haven’t had the chance to see the two that she wrote about, 1964’s Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors or 1973’s The Golden Horns.  And really I haven’t much context for the director, the genre, its history, contemporaries, or perception.  It’s all new to me.

Of course, fantasy films are fantasy films.  These are Russian fairy tales, featuring evil kings, kidnapped women, transformed frogs.  Whether you know the stories or not, you recognize the scenarios.

In this one, a happy-go-lucky soldier is returning home when he encounters first two baby bears crying for their grandfather to be released from a trap (Vasilissa the Beautiful also featured some pretty remarkable trained bear acting).  The soldier then stumbles upon a young boy whose mother has been kidnapped by king from under the sea and goes on a venture to save his mother, the “wonderful weaver” of the title.

The effects in this film weren’t nearly as dramatic but the art design was pretty amazing and cool.  The colors of the film may have been more vivid at one time, and some of them are very effective.  There are brief musical interludes and a goodly amount of comic play.  My favorite was Prime Minister Croak, the frog man, coated with a very thick green paint until he falls into the boiling water and remains red for the rest of the film.

The film reminded me vaguely of things like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) and other American fantasy films from the 1960’s to 1970’s, aimed at an audience of children and fully indulging the beauty of the form, wheeling out a good yarn, with gentle humor, adventure, and strange fantastic beings.

I will venture further into the work of Aleksandr Rou and Russian fantasy films.

Vasilissa the Beautiful (1939)

Vassilisa the Beautiful (1939) still

director Aleksandr Rou
viewed: 04/04/2014

For some time, I’ve been wanting to watch an Aleksandr Rou film.  Following the writings of Scumbalina on her sadly not so frequently updated blog Atomic Caravan, I read about two Rou films that I have not been able to get a chance to see, Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors (1964) and The Golden Horns (1973).  The only Rou film available from Netflix was a much earlier fantasy film, Vasiissa the Beautiful.

I know very little about Aleksandr Rou and little about Russian folklore and fairy tales, though that seems to be where he spent most of his career in cinema.  I don’t know where Vasilissa stands in his oeuvre, I also don’t know how long I will have to wait to see the films that Scumbalina wrote about.

But I can say this: Vasilissa the Beautiful is a gorgeous, wonderfully shot fairy tale film, featuring some marvelous effects, make-up, costumes and set design.  To be fair, some of it is less wondrous than others, but the images that Rou evokes that are his richest are brilliant and beautiful.

Apparently, from what I’ve read, the film is actually based on a different Russian fairy tale than that of Vasilissa the Beautiful.  I don’t know.  But the story is about a Russian peasant lad who, following his brothers’ lead,  shoots an arrow into the air randomly to find a wife.  While his brothers snag two rather unworthy lasses, his arrow lands near a frog in a pond, who he brings home just the same.  It turns out that this frog is Vasilissa, a beautiful woman, entrapped in frog form by an evil dragon.  When the dragon finds that she’s escaped, he sends back for her to become his wife.  The lad must go out on a quest to rescue Vasilissa and make everything happy for ever after.

I usually try to find an original movie poster to illustrate my blog posts, but for Vasilissa I settled for a screen still, which is actually quite nice.  It’s a matte painting of a forest and I think a very good example of the beauty of Rou’s sets and designs.  They are luxurious and massively evocative.  It’s not just the sets but the costuming and effects as well.

One of the film’s most impressive effects seems relatively simple in a way.  When the lad gains the sword he needs to fight the dragon, he slices the darkness and it shatters.  I could guess how this was accomplished, but the effect is so striking (see below).

Vasilissa the Beautiful (1939) shatter effect

Not all of the effects live up to this.  The big finale with the three-headed dragon is sort of disappointing by comparison.  It’s nicely designed but its heads flop about as clearly the puppet that it is, lacking the vigor or magic that it really needs.  It does look nice.

I was duly impressed by Aleksandr Rou’s Vasilissa the Beautiful and I eagerly await a chance to see more of his films.