Two years ago today (April 8), Czech filmmaker Juraj Herz passed away. Yet as the major retrospectives held after his death in both New York and Washington DC —at the Metrograph and the AFI Silver, respectively — attest, the rediscovery of his films has come at an opportune time, just as what constitutes “horror” cinema is being challenged from many directions. Born just four years before the Nazi annexation of Czecheslovakia, Herz came to understand horror well before he started making films. He was forced into (and survived) the Ravensbruck concentration camp as a child, an experience which instilled themes of political gaslighting, claustrophobia, and surreal mind-torture into his unique brand of cinema. As an influential figure of the Czech New Wave, Herz’s films were effective in the movement’s goals of retaliating, artistically, against oppressive powers. On the anniversary of his passing, Herz’s films remain the gold standard of what horror cinema can achieve.
Early films like The Cremator (1964) and Sign of Cancer (1966) brush the elements of horror onto social and political narratives. The Cremator displays Herz’s most consciously stylistic editing, whereby cuts are cleverly used to form the illusion of traveling between time and space. Phenomenally crafted, the film creates a disorienting impression of its central character Karel Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrušínský) slowly but surely becoming radicalized by his German friend Walter Reinke, towards ethno-nationalism. The Cremator’s discomfiting humor — think the Cheshire Cat, mixed with elements of Peter Lorre’s performance in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) — turns a satirical eye to the absurdity of nationalist rhetoric.
Morgiana (1972), arguably Herz’s most famous film, along with Beauty and the Beast (1978) and Ferat Vampire (1982), comes closest to the Hollywood definition of “horror.” Morgiana remains an influential pillar of gothic cinema, with its haunted houses with mirrors and cobwebs, its portraits of dead aristocrats, and strangely colored liquids in elaborate glassware — all now familiar tropes and perfect settings for death. Beauty and the Beast, a horror-fantasy re-telling of the classic French story, also draws on familiar symbols that we’ve since become accustomed to associating with fear, like foggy woods, an old painting, or a strange door. The film’s brilliant use of light brings its central characters in and out of the shadows like two ghosts wandering an abandoned castle.
Meanwhile, Ferat Vampire steers closer to pulp and is the closest Czech parallel to the cinema of American horror icons Wes Craven and John Carpenter. Released only a year before Carpenter’s influential Christine (1983), the movie centers on the manufacture of a car that runs on human blood. The pulpy and darkly comedic nature of the film evokes later Carpenter films like They Live (1988) and It Follows (2014), which splice their terror with socio-political messaging and pop-culture reverie.
Yet, the definitive film of Juraj Herz’s life and career and his ultimate masterpiece, is The Night Overtake Me (Zastihla Me Noc, 1986). A film filtered through Herz’s own harrowing experience as the son of Slovakian Jews who spent part of his youth at a concentration camp, the movie reconciles the director’s own style with the lived experiences that informed his fascination with horror and tragedy.
A historical and surrealist portrait of Holocaust survivor and Czech communist journalist Jožka Jabůrková, The Night Overtake Me utilizes a flashback structure that juxtaposes Jaburkova’s experiences in a concentration-camp with her rise as a communist organizer and activist, incorporating clear elements of Herz’s brand of horror. The film pierces Jabůrková’s psyche with surreal sequences of her haunted by characters from her past. Tracking shots, much like in The Cremator, turn routine checks by SS officers into nerve-wracking sequences of terror. The film cuts back and forth between Nazi officers prowling through corridors like the raptors in Jurassic Park (1993) and close-ups of prisoners’ eyes following them and then quickly looking away in fear. While not considered a traditional horror film, The Night Overtake Me is undeniably composed of the genre’s elements.
For some, Herz’s oeuvre may beg the question of whether horror needs to be bloody and carnal to be faithful to the genre. Yet it also proves that the genre’s basic elements can both disrupt and corrupt our comforts, and that horror films need not be “scary” in the traditional sense as long as they’re never prosaic. Juraj Herz’s diverse repertoire is evidence that great horror cinema has endless experimental routes at its behest.