Little Otik (2000)

Laurel Harris

Jan Svankmajer taps into the appeal of the maternal horror story.

Little Otik (otesánek)

Director: Jan Svankmajer
Cast: Kristina Adamcova, Jan Hartl, Jaroslava Kretschmerova, Pavel Novy, Veronika Zilkova
MPAA rating: unrated
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
First date: 2000
US Release Date: 2001-12-19

Maternal horror stories form a psychoanalytically rich genre. Exemplified by tales such as Rosemary's Baby (Ira Levin's novel and Roman Polanski's movie), David Lynch's Eraserhead, and Doris Lessing's novel The Fifth Child, they most often examine the middle-class family as it's torn apart by monstrosity made even more monstrous by shared DNA. Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer's fourth feature film, Little Otik, involves multiple monstrosities -- the animation of inert matter, as well as biological filiation and parental obligation.

Based on the Czech fairy tale, Otesánek, Little Otik follows a childless couple's quest to have a baby. The Horaks are stereotypically would-be doting parents with nothing to dote on save their cat. Melancholy Bozena Horakova (Veronika Zilkova) has a single-minded drive to start a family. Her husband, Karel Horak (Jan Hartl) is haunted by images of babies. Their desire, made visible in the montage of screaming babies in the opening credits, is almost grotesque.

They begin to realize this desire when, at their weekend cottage, Karel digs up a stump and carves it into a rough humanoid shape to play a joke on his wife. Bozena surprises him with her delight, quickly powdering and swaddling the hunk of wood. Karel tries to convince her that the child is, in fact, only a stump and, when his protests fail, insists that she can't bring the child back to their apartment, as it would appear that they'd stolen it. Bozena understands this logic, and proceeds to fake a pregnancy. After eight months, Karel finds Bozena in a kitschy Virgin Mary pose, covered with a veil, and suckling the now-animated stump. While she loves the creature, who gurgles and kicks like an ordinary baby, Karel turns away with muted disgust and a promise to varnish the child over the weekend.

Here Svankmajer literally animates the inanimate with stop-motion animation. Previously, he combined stop-motion animation with puppetry and life-action in his first three feature films, Alice (Neco z Alenky (1988), Faust (Lekce Faust 1994), and Conspirators of Pleasure (Spiklenci slasti 1996), creating hybrid worlds of human and puppet, in which characters changed from human actors to animated dummies and back again. Long aligned with Czech surrealism, Svankmajer uses this fluidity of form to examine the human body. In Little Otik, the baby Otik is the only animated character (save for several animated visual puns): he is an anthropomorphism, an object imitating a human being.

One of the early signs of this imitation is Otik's insatiable appetite. First the cat, and then the postman, and a social worker disappear into the room where Otik spends his days, ostensibly sleeping, but also growing astronomically. Scattered amongst his toys, the bones and viscera on his floor multiply. Otik is only an appetite, with no notion of good and bad, right and wrong. Bozena's devotion to her son never falters. And even Karel admits that he is "their responsibility." Yet they also realize there is something amiss: the Horaks keep their secret behind two closed, heavily locked doors.

The Stadlers, the family living across the hall from the Horaks, provide an apt foil for their deepening dysfunction. A banal vision of domesticity with little to hide, this family's concerns are immediate and unimaginative. Mr. Stadler (Pavel Novy) spends his time drinking and watching television; in a scene which could have come straight out of Svankmajer's previous film, Conspirators of Pleasure (about fetishes and erotic alienation), the cream filling of a chocolate dangles from Mr. Stadler's mouth as he gazes at a pair of lips in a television commercial for the same chocolate. And Mrs. Stadler (Jaroslava Kretschmerova) spends her time in the kitchen, preparing the gluey soup that the family gathers around the table to eat everyday.

Their daughter, Alzbetka (Kristina Adamcova), becomes in the neighbors, watching the Horaks from behind half-open doors and bushes. She becomes the film's explicit narrator when she finds the story Otesánek, a story-within-a-story depicted in animation as she reads it. Fully aware of what's happening in the building, Alzbetka startles her baffled parents with her prescience and perceptiveness. (With her back turned while spying on the Horaks, she knows that the building's octogenarian pedophile, whom everyone else sees as a harmless old man, is creeping up behind her. She warns him to stop before he has a heart attack.)

Alzbetka is the only character in the film who attends to her surroundings. The adults in her building, with the exception of the suspicious caretaker (Dagmar Stribrna), appear fundamentally clueless. Their dismissal of her as a child enables her spying activities and eventually, her alliance with Otik. She saves him from starving in the basement, where his parents have hidden him away. Their relationship resembles a "fairy tale," in that it becomes a kind of insular utopia. But the film shows the dangers of fairy tales. Though Alzbetka's father approves of her book of fairy tales over the sexually-oriented biology texts she frequently reads at the dinner table, the tale Otesánek is disturbingly violent. Her books -- the biology text and the fairy tales -- seem to have melded into Otik's story, and her desire brings him back to life.

The parental anxieties expressed in Little Otik recall those felt by Dr. Frankenstein, the struggle for power over an intractable child. When the child is horrific and apparently inhuman -- like Otik and Frankenstein's Monster -- these anxieties become all the more poignant, as the parent must negotiate his or her feelings for a completely foreign body. If the viewer can identify with Bozena's and Alzbetka's affections, it is because their allegiance to the idea of a family is so stubborn that it paradoxically becomes subversive. Svankmajer taps into the appeal of the maternal horror story. Nurtured by Bozena's maternal dedication, Otik's monstrosity ultimately turns the notion of family inside out.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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