Saturday, June 18, 2022

Lokis. Rekopis profesora Wittembacha (1970)

... aka: Локис
... aka: A medveember (The Bearman)
... aka: Bear, The
... aka: Lokis
... aka: Lokis: A Manuscript of Professor Wittembach

Directed by:
Janusz Majewski

Devout German pastor, ethnology professor, world traveler and Königsberg Biblical Society representative K.M. Wittembach (Edmund Fetting) is on his way to the Samogitian region of Lithuania to do some research when he's asked to join three women - elderly duchess Catherine (Irena Horecka), her beautiful niece Julia Dowgiello (Malgorzata Braunek) and Julia's dim young British governess, Pamela Leemon (Hanna Stankówna), for tea in their train compartment. The ladies, who don't live far from where the Professor will be staying, invite him to visit them whenever he wishes. Wittembach then catches a buggy ride with a superstitious driver, who fills his head with all kinds of dreary, scary stories about the region he's visiting. After passing by a swamp, the two lose a wheel during a rainstorm, which forces the driver to take his horse into town to find a blacksmith. The professor ducks into an old cemetery crypt filled with Satanic paintings on the wall and a skeleton in a glass coffin. An old drunk wandering through takes one look at him and, with a terrified facial expression, proclaims him to be "evil" before running off.

His journey not quite off to a great start, Wittembach finally makes it to his destination; the palace of young, wealthy Count Michał Szemiot (Józef Duriasz, who has a great scowl) and his mother (Zofia Mrozowska). Strangely, both of them are too ill to see to him right away. The Count claims to be suffering from a migraine while the Countess has been afflicted with a much more debilitating condition that she's been suffering from for thirty long years. Dr. Froeber (Gustaw Lutkiewicz), who's probably best described as jovially nihilistic, is also staying at the palace looking for a way to cure the Countess. Froeber explains that years earlier she was out hunting with the men and had an incident with a bear. It tore her clothes, scratched her up and she's been crazy ever since. Not only that, but she gave birth not long after the attack, freaked out, labeled the newborn Michał a "beast" and unsuccessfully tried to kill him.

Local gossip has it that Count Szemiot is the bi-product of the attack; the bear somehow managing to rape and impregnate the Countess, but that's only a silly rumor. Well, maybe. What we can definitely surmise is that the Count is rather peculiar. The Professor catches him in a tree outside his bedroom window late at night peeping in on him before they even have a chance to formally meet and his subsequent behavior is every bit as bizarre. He stakes a chicken in the yard so he can capture a hawk (with his bare hands!) to add to his "curio collection;" a special room filled with animals he's killed and stuffed as part of his taxidermy hobby. Other animals are captured, locked in cages and kept as his "prisoners." The Count, who's rather glum most of the time, occasionally perks up, like whenever the Professor tells a story about getting lost in Uruguay and having to survive on horse's blood.

Even the staff at the palace is strange. The Count's main servant, Lvan (Pawel Unrug), refuses to acknowledge there may be anything amiss with his master, and the rest of the servants seem to basically be operating on auto-pilot even when assisting in some rather questionable activities. Also thrown into the mix, for some reason that escapes me, is a toothless, swamp-dwelling backwoods witch (played by [male] actor Stanislaw Milski) who usually hangs out around an old tree rumored to have been the site of human sacrifices. She begs for liquor, charms snakes, is able to walk on pond scum and may or may not have placed a curse on the palace.

The unhinged Countess is mostly kept locked in a tower, is sometimes tied down to her bed, is subjected to abusive, primitive "treatments" like being put in a cage and repeatedly submerged in the lake and keeps going on and on (and on and on) about how "the beast" must be killed. Despite having her as a potential mother-in-law, and having to acclimate herself to the Count's odd ways, Julia is finally won over and agrees to marry him. Admittedly, he does have some things going in his favor, including wealth, fair-haired good looks and an appealing air of brooding mystery about him, but this spends no time establishing the relationship between he and Julia. We never really learn what exactly draws her to him in particular, especially seeing how every young guy in the area seems interested in courting her.

Lokis is extremely slow-moving, filled with implication and pseudo-philosophical dialogue and the horror elements, while present, are so subdued you feel like you're watching a costume drama most of the time. While there's just enough plot intrigue to keep you going and I didn't mind the more ambiguous aspects of the story, I also didn't always find the characters nor their conversations terribly interesting. That said, this is a generally well-performed, handsomely-made film so it at least nails the visuals and atmosphere. The 19th Century setting is very efficiently brought to life through the sumptuous art direction and costumes, while the director and DOP Stefan Matyjaszkiewicz make excellent use of various lovely outdoor locations.

Based on the Prosper Mérimée story of the same name, which was first published in the Revue des deux Mondes in September 1869. The same story was also the basis for the early Russian silent horror film Medvezhya svadba / "The Marriage of the Bear" (1925), as well as Walerian Borowczyk's controversial bestiality fairy tale The Beast (1975). Mérimée is best known for the novella Carmen, which has been adapted numerous times over the years and became the basis for the famous Georges Bizet opera.

The director, who won a Best Director award at the Sitges - Catalonian International Film Festival in 1971 for this film, also made quite a few short subjects that should be of interest to genre fans. For a nice run down of these titles, let me redirect you to an article at The Bedlam Files RIGHT HERE. Three of these ended up being English dubbed and were released as part of the TV anthology series Theatre Macabre hosted by Christopher Lee, though I'm not sure whether or not these were made specifically for that program or just released to an international audience through this series (my best guess is that it's the latter).

This appears to have bypassed the entire VHS era but started cropping up on DVD eventually. Here in the U.S., a subtitled, widescreen print was first distributed by Sinister Cinema. It was also available on DVD from Film Polski, which came with optional English subtitles. And, in 2021, it was included in Severin's 20 film Blu-ray box set All The Haunts Be Ours: A Compendium Of Folk Horror, which also includes the Polish WILCZYCA (1983).

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