A thief (Ivan Vojtek) scales an iron fence, picks a lock and breaks into a large, seemingly empty country mansion. To his delight, the place is filled with all kinds of beautiful and expensive antiques. He starts stuffing his bag with coins, a golden clock, goblets, jewelry, pearls and whatever else strikes his fancy... but then things take a very strange turn. Sitting silently just feet from where he's snatching things is an entire family. There's an elderly woman (Frantisek Husák), an elderly man (Zdeněk Martínek), a young adult woman (Soňa Sladká), a young adult man (Martin Šafr) and a little girl (Nika Frouzová). They don't appear to be paying too much attention to him or what he's doing but the matriarch of the clan eventually invites him to join them at the table. Not sure what to make of these folks at first, he takes an apprehensive seat and then starts playing some kind of dice game that's sort of like Yahtzee but with a gambling element. And he keeps rolling high numbers over and over again, keeps winning over and over again and they keep handing over their cash. What luck! Eventually there's a mountain of money and jewelry in front of him. In fact, as the candles burn down, he soon realizes he's won all of their valuables. Perfect time for a celebratory drink, right?
The thief is poured a glass of wine. And then another. And then another. And then he's given a cigar. He's led away to the bathroom, where he's pampered and treated like a king. He's bathed and shaved and combed and gets a manicure. Fitted in a golden robe, he's led to his bedroom and fed grapes. But it all proves to be just a seductive ruse when the family reveal their true colors... and their intentions.
In a perfect world, horror anthologies would be filled with tales containing this high level of creativity and visual imagination instead of the derivative, flatly-presented and half-baked shorts that usually populate those films. I mean, when you're working in a limited time frame, why in the world would you even try to cram 90 minutes worth of narrative material into 20 or 30 minutes while completely ignoring the visual components? What Barta does here is take a rather simple premise (though it may be more along the lines of a deceptively simple allegory) and lets his creativity run wild when it comes to the aesthetics and atmosphere, resulting in a superlative, eerie Gothic mood piece packed with so much visual detail it's impossible to soak it all in in one viewing. In fact, after I viewed this, I immediately went back and watched it all over again.
One of the most striking things here is the unique and spellbinding use of color. Many shots are black-and-white or monochrome (shades of blue and green predominant), but then others are hand-colored like those creepy old faded / artificial-looking "enhanced" photos that were popular in the turn of the century. Certain single shots also start out colorless and then become colored to match what is occurring on screen.
It's no coincidence the color scheme is so varied as nearly everything about this film is calculated to feel just a little bit off. Superimposition and surrealistic elements are frequently employed, frame rates are playfully tinkered with, slowed down or sped up (which makes this live-action tale fit right in with the director's usual stop-motion work) and the editing is slowed down at times but frenzied at other moments. You can get a good idea just how intricate and carefully-crafted this is by pausing your way through the flash-edited gambling sequence, which reveals a great amount of detail in each individual shot.
Barta is best known for Krysař / The Pied Piper (1986), which tells its story using Expressionistic designs, creepy-looking wood-carved figures and stop motion animation and is now considered a masterpiece of Czech cinema. It, as well as this one and most of Barta's early other shorts are included on the box set Jirí Barta: Labyrinth of Darkness from The Kimstim Collection.