... aka: Die Jungfrau und das Ungeheuer (The Virgin and the Beast)
... aka: Piekna i potwór (Beauty and the Monster)
... aka: Virgin and the Monster, The
Published in 1756, French author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's "La Belle et la Bête" ("The Beauty and the Beast"), a rewritten, shortened version of a previous 100+ page book by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, would go on to become one of the most beloved fairy tales of all time. The story of a working class beauty named Belle, the kindest and most pure of heart of all her siblings, and how her growing appreciation and love for an ugly beast of a man (or is that a beastly man?) eventually changes him into a handsome prince, would see its earliest adaptations for the stage; both as an opera and later as a play. The film versions stretch all the way back to 1899, with a now-lost French version produced by Pathé Frères. Numerous other silent shorts followed, including the first American version in 1903, the first British version in 1905, a second French version (running 11 minutes) in 1908 and a second American version (the longest yet at 40 minutes) in 1913. Of all those, only the 1908 version is still known to exist. Many other movies would follow, most notably Jean Cocteau's beautifully-made, wonderfully atmospheric version in 1946 and the Disney animated musical take in 1991, which became the first animated film to ever received a Best Picture Academy Award nomination. In addition to the movies, there were additional books, TV shows, toys, video games, board games and much more, plus more operas, plays and musicals. And these are only the credited adaptations.
"But hey, Beauty and the Beast isn't a horror film!," you say. And I respond, "Well, you must have not seen this version yet, have you?" The story already lends itself well to a horror adaptation, especially considering the mysterious castle setting and the fact one of the main characters is, you know, a monster. Cocteau's version has a definite eerie, Gothic horror feel to it and a 1962 version from director Edward L. Cahn had the Beast as a cursed prince who was normal during the day but transformed into a werewolf at night. Herz's film opens on a similar note where you can tell this isn't going to be a children's movie. We see creepy old artwork accompanied by droning organ music over the opening credits, follow a caravan hauling goods through the foggy forest before everyone is slaughtered by a figure on horseback worthy of screaming your head off over and are treated to the sight of a village slaughtering chickens, goats, pigs and other animals in preparation for an upcoming double wedding.
While her bitchy, vain, cruel, gold-digging older stepsisters Gábinka (Jana Brejchová) and Málinka (Zuzana Kocúriková) have already been betrothed to well-off merchants in the area, the lovely and kind Julie (Zdena Studenková) is reluctant to fall in love and leave because she doesn't want their widowed father (Václav Voska) to be left all alone. The father is having major financial problems after investing unwisely and must start begging for money and selling all of the furniture in their home. He eventually becomes so desperate he's forced to try to sell a painting of his late wife in a gold frame, which requires a trip through the Black Woods; an area rumored by his village to be evil and cursed. As he makes his way through the forest, his horse mysteriously dies and he's forced to walk on foot. He finds the corpse of a murdered woman, ventures on and finally runs across a gated, crumbling mansion. Inside, a man who keeps hidden in the shadows offers the weary traveler wine, roast pig and a place to rest.
The next morning, the mysterious man has left behind gold and jewels for the father to take with him, but the father makes the mistake of cutting one of the man's prized roses for his youngest daughter. The man, who reveals himself to be the Beast (Vlastimil Harapes), then tells the father that he'll only spare his life if he'll allow one of his daughter's to come there and stay with him. On the promise that he'll return, the Beast allows him to leave so that he can make sure his daughters will be provided for. Upon hearing the story and learning about the bargain when her father's return, Julie saddles up a horse and decides to sacrifice herself to ensure his safety. She enters the mansion, drinks some drugged wine and has a soft focus dream about being swept off her feet by a handsome Prince Charming in an all-white ballroom. When she awakens, she's in another situation entirely.
The Beast is not a big woolly teddy bear as seen in most other versions, but instead a hideous creature with a hairy body, sharp claws, a bird-like head and a thirst for fresh warm blood. He shares his home with a variety of other strange creature servants that mostly lurk in the shadows and barely make their presence even known. Where he's been forced to live a life of solitude and loneliness for so long, The Beast has also picked up some schizophrenic traits along the way. A whispering, nagging, persistent voice in his head - that he holds conversations with because he's never had anyone else to talk to - constantly tries to tempt him back to his more animalistic ways. The voice tells him he's better off alone and should kill Julie and drink her blood because that's what he really wants to do. The Beast refuses to let Julie see him, even when he finally makes his presence known to her, and she's asked to have her back turned at all times and never look his way. The two then get to know each other through voice alone during his nightly visits but, of course, things can't always stay that way...
Many viewers may takes issue with the unusual Beast design, which does take some getting used to, as do such odd sights as what is essentially a giant bird galloping around on a horse. Thankfully, that ends up hardly even mattering in the long run. The film is so beautifully-crafted, visually arresting and richly atmospheric the Beast could have been wearing a paper bag over his head and I still would have bought it. The sets / art direction, costume design, photography, visuals and shooting locations are all superb and the organ-heavy score is also very effective in enhancing the film's dark, heavy mood. Perhaps most impressively at all, even with the newly-added horror elements pushed to the forefront, this remains completely respectful to the core message of original story and delivers it as powerfully as any of the other versions I've seen. That is; "Every woman has the power to make beautiful the man she loves."
As a warning, those who have an issue with animal cruelty may want to give this a pass. You see various animals being killed and butchered right at the beginning and, later on, see the Beast use his horse to trample over a poor, scared deer fawn trying to pass through a lake. Though thematically the deer scene has relevance to the story, that doesn't mean it absolutely had to be filmed. In fact, it shouldn't have been filmed as they could have easily gotten the same point across in another way that didn't harm or kill an actual animal.
Sadly, Czech director Herz has pretty much been ignored by horror fans over the years (including yours truly) despite the fact he includes strong horror elements in much of his often hard-to-classify work. Because he typically refuses to be a slave to genre conventions / cliches, I'm sure many distributors probably figured there wouldn't be a huge market out there for what he does and didn't even bother distributing most of his films internationally. Very few of Herz's films have been released here in the U.S., though Panna a netvor was one of the few that actually was; receiving a very limited theatrical run in 1983 through International Film Exchange (IFEX). There's been no video or DVD release to follow, however. I guess it's no coincidence Herz's most acclaimed work; the disturbing and blackly comic The Cremator (1969), also happens to be his easiest to find film. Some of his other horror films include Morgiana (1972), Deváté srdce ("The Ninth Heart," 1979), Ferat Vampire (1982) and Darkness (2009).