Forget shaky cam with these three films from Czech director Juraj Herz. Each features a type of shot, perspective, or camera that adds a specific element of horror to the movie in the way shaky cam used to.
Often associated with the Czech New Wave, Herz’s skill in film was self-taught and he was actually excluded by the core group of directors we name in this movement. While his original works like The Night Overtakes Me are stunning, he is a master of adaptation of others’ stories, reinterpreting them into twists on horror themes.
The Cremator (1969)
So many movies are focused on the overarching narrative, at the detriment of details that make a world feel real. The world of The Cremator does not feel real. It’s a place where a somewhat absent father has a doting wife, adoring children, and everything a man could want. Realistically, he still wishes for more, and the details are part of what damns him.
The film has gained a cult following over the years and comes from a novel by Ladislav Fuks. This is as much in relation to the gruesomely implied horror as it is to the fantastically portrayed longing for anything more. Rudolf Hrušínský creates an intense man whose obsessive explorations are aided by film techniques.
The Cremator benefits from a fisheye lens Herz borrowed for the film. When someone is in the protagonist’s focused gaze, they become warped by the lens. These camera shifts represent a transition in the main character-narrator’s mind as he slips between modes: ambitious family man, horny male, aspiring spiritualist, and beyond.
Based on a story by Russian author Alexander Grin, the film takes its name from the cat belonging to two sisters at odds with each other. It is a tale of good versus evil, and beauty versus perceived ugliness. The black and white morality of the sisters’ insidious relationship does not detract from the sumptuous luxury they live in, nor the carefully plotted interiors that foreshadow everything about this murderous tale.
The camera perspective in this film partially comes from its titular cat, whose presence in specific scenes is the only reason we are able to view them. The cat itself is a portent of a dire end, but not before it is incredibly cute in the midst of this creepily luscious film.
This film is a shift for Herz from sad and horrifying tales firmly set in the real world toward something more fantastic. The narrative itself is predictable, but the feline perspective paired with the imagined houses of two fabulously rich women in an unknown land makes it a unique entry at the time in his oeuvre. Tonally this one is better matched to the twisted fairy tales of his later career.
Beauty and the Beast (1978)
This one is cheating, because the point of view is done in what we now call shaky cam. The technique is meant to express the feel of a handheld camera and enhance our emotional reactions to what is happening on screen. Somewhat lost when the trend hit its height of popularity is how a point of view shot by a participant is affected by what they are doing.
In Herz’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, the film is partially shot from the point of view of our eponymous Beast. He slinks through the background of scenes, often they open with the camera placed from his vantage point. When he pursues someone, the camera shakes and veers more. He peers down at someone, the distance is shot at a stagnant rate, rather than telescoping to ensure his focus is clear.
It’s a different way to build growing interest in a protagonist. Rather than setting up still scenes that a character can move through, or opting for the camera to strictly follow them, cinematographer Jiří Macháně combines these approaches.
This film also borrows an element from the stunning 1946 Jean Cocteau movie, where architectural elements and furniture are portrayed by actors. This adds even more movement to some scenes, and a sense of foreboding as you wait for something else in the shot to move, though it often leaves you sharing an unfulfilled dread with our abandoned heroine.
Herz’s stage background shines in this piece and it is clear that each set was designed with a single vantage point in mind. We are not limited, however, and instead through our beast are able to explore all of the bloody and bejeweled angles of the crafted costume and prop design.