Upsetting Day: Jan ┼ávankmajer’s Alice ­čîş

Well met, my precious hotdog flavored readers! Call me a chocolate starfish, because I’m about to make your biscuit limp.

“I’m late! I’m late! For a very important AAAAAAAAAAAH!” Yes, in a radical and unforeseen pivot, I’ve Swaimaranged you yet again by promising to discuss nothing but sex and then slapping you with prescription-strength boner-killer mid-thrust! Damn-that’s-a-lotta-hyphens! Sorry for the jerkaround, but the only thing that overpowers my horniness is my urge to be a certified Bad Boy. What am I rebelling against? Whatcha got? But also mostly this:

That’s a still from a 1988 film that reimagines Alice in Wonderland, the classic tale of a child’s imagination and also whatever the fuck that thing I just showed you was. It was set like a pack of hyenas upon our misbegotten world by the unholy hands of a dark wizard known only as Jan ┼ávankmajer.

┼ávankmajer is a Czech stop-motion animator, filmmaker, theatre director, all-around weirdo, and man whose last name wears a little hat. With this banger, originally titled “Something from Alice,” he perfected an art form so cool and accessible that no one’s ever replicated it before or since except right after having sex with a corpse they tortured. I’m talking about STOP-MOTION TAXIDERMY BABY, and as perhaps its greatest only practitioner, Jan has much to teach us. Primarily what going mad must feel like.

As will become a recurring theme in this column, I was exposed to Jan ┼ávankmajer’s work by my dad, because my childhood was a very specific kind of dojo preparing me for this job and this job only. At the tender age of four, FUCKING FOUR, I was cordially invited into the sitting area for tobacco pipes and gin. Once we had supped and discussed the news of the day, dear old Dad put on a laserdisc of what he called “an Alice in Wonderland movie.” What then transpired has shaped me from that day forth, or at least the part of me that likes to find small animals in the woods and make them wear human teeth. It is an “Alice in Wonderland movie” only in the sense that the My Lai Massacre was “a game of hide and seek.”

Let’s pause here to note that as a stop-motion movie, the creation of this piece of singular art required touching and wiggling all of the taxidermied animals’ little parts around thousands of times an hour. Like, this guy has quite possibly handled more dead animals than anyone in human history outside of Bob Barker (spaying and neutering just wasn’t enough for you, was it Bob?! I hope they nail your ass someday). My four-year-old self also enjoyed imagining Jan laboriously wedging glass eyes into each and every one of their heads, because he didn’t like to sleep very much.

Now that I’m an adult and know a bit about how filmmaking works, I’m honestly even more fascinorrified. For each of these monstrosities, I know there’s a pile of discarded animal parts and stitched-together homunculi that didn’t make the final version. This is the only movie in existence whose cutting-room floor was a bunch of loosely intermingled bits of what were once living things, and also scraps of film. Jan doesn’t make deleted scenes, he makes missing pets. “Sorry Timmy, Scout isn’t going to be around anymore. He went to a big farm upstate to be dismantled for a children’s horror movie.”

This movie isn’t even nightmare fuel, because once you’ve seen it you don’t sleep, you merely close your eyes and relive Jan ┼ávankmajer’s Alice each night in a mindless fugue-state. What made Jan do these awful, awful things? My theory, without looking into it even a little bit, is that he was shunned growing up because his name is only two letters away from “Spankmajor.” Only the animals of the woods would play with little Jan, and when they passed away he missed them, so he decided they would be thrice immortalized: once as a stuffed animal, once on film, and then again at the one-man after party in a cave near the freeway where you know he had sex with that rabbit.

But please don’t think of my dad as the villain in this tale, even though I previously admitted to him owning an imported laserdisc, which most these days consider a beating offense. The true miscreant is whoever let their human daughter stumble through what could only have been a baffling ordeal. The movie’s only actor, she is also shot in stop-motion, which means making this, for her, was a process of being meticulously posed by a strange man with his dead animal collection more times than Milhouse had to shoot his scene in the Radioactive Man movie.

See, Dad?! We could have been watching The Simpsons and shit! But no, you had to ruin me, just like Alice’s parents ruined her by giving her over to the machinations of one who has seen beyond the veil and returned to tell us there is nothing after death but diamond dust and the screams of those still dissolving. Here’s Alice crawling across a cracked wasteland so she can painfully cram herself into a tiny drawer:

Here she is being turned into a doll…

… and if this doesn’t replace that meme of the monkey puppet looking to the right I don’t know what possibly can:

Later she becomes not-a-doll again by ripping out of herself chest-burster style and it’s somehow much much worse:

Here is a jar with some bread with some nails in it:

Alice actually finds a lot of jars with a mix of food and metal shavings in them, because ┼ávankmajer didn’t think the people who put fentanyl-dipped razorblades in candy on Halloween were going hard enough.

The funny thing is, those people don’t actually exist, but Jan does. He’s out there somewhere, wiggling stuff around and taking pictures of it, flensing squirrel skulls and buying glass eyes by the sack. What was crafty on the set of this movie, herringbones and sawdust? Jellied aspic? Hotdog flavored water? All good guesses, but it was actually big bowls of scabs. Got that off of IMDB* trivia.

Here is a flat of eggs, each of which hatches a little (real) rat skull that then slithers away on a trail of its own fetid yolk:

One soon gets the impression that the filmmaker didn’t read Alice in Wonderland so much as beat himself in the groin so hard with a hardbound copy that he hallucinated and dictated everything he saw to an assistant who wrote it down and then hanged themselves in a fit of insanity. Here is Alice being screamed at by the corpse of a frog lacquered and dressed up like Beethoven. FYI, the scream is the recorded sound of a baby crying.

I think that scene is actually supposed to mirror the Mad Hatter tea party sequence, but it’s a little hard to tell because the action is a frog slapping its hideous tongue around and busting up all the china like some kind of reverse Qin Shi Huang (fuck you, look it up, thatÔÇÖs how jokes work).

They do later have some tea, and by “they” I mean the velveteen rabbit that didnÔÇÖt find a happy home plus a wooden man with three clocks nailed to his chest who refuses to let you see his eyes.

Not to say that the entire movie is just a random cavalcade of off-topic horrors. Švankmajer presents his own versions of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the Queen of Hearts as a literal playing card, and the caterpillar, who is played by two glass eyes and dentures inside a sock that was definitely cummed in and looks like a prototype mockup for the baby from Eraserhead.

And of course, no retelling of Alice in Wonderland would be complete without everyone’s favorite scene, when the white rabbit joins forces with three bone-creatures including a dead pregnant fish:

My point is (and kudos to the stalwart few of you who masturbated to this column anyway), I wasn’t the only casualty of this movie, although I was the most important and internet-famous one. Alice herself is left profoundly twisted by her experience, as showcased in the final line of the film.

Is that…is that how Alice in Wonderland ends? Does she decapitate the rabbit? I always thought they ate crumpets and learned to fear the Christian God.

None of this shit would be nearly as scary if ┼ávankmajer weren’t actually talented, which he definitely is. His shot selection and attention to detail is awesome, it’s just pretty weird that he’s chosen to do this with it. It’s like a world-renowned theoretical physicist designing a perpetual motion machine that only slathers mannequin parts in mayonnaise.

In other words, I love it, and you should go watch it right now for free on Youtube. Considering the original Alice in Wonderland was written because Lewis Carroll thought British children needed a dose of pure imagination, I think he’d like Jan’s take, especially the shot where Alice looks like the girl from The Ring.

Anyway, you now have seven days to live. IÔÇÖll see your tortured corpse in two weeks for my next column, on the topic of The Muppet Babies performed by cadaver marionettes!

* Insane Madness Death Batshit

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6 replies on “Upsetting Day: Jan ┼ávankmajer’s Alice ­čîş”

I also watched this as a kid! I was a bit older than four, maybe ten or eleven? HavenÔÇÖt thought about it in a while, but I remember genuinely loving it.

I love Michael Swaim, but I hate everything that isnÔÇÖt his words in this. This is visceral madness.
I should not have been eating while I read it.

I saw another one of his movies, Little Otik, at noon on one Halloween some years ago. Its still my obscure horror suggestion.
…At the start of this article I found a copy of this movie on the Internet Archive, and then read some more and closed it.

I loved Little Otik! Like Swaim, my dad used to import a lot of strange/inappropriate movies and wasn’t at all careful about how old we were when we saw them. I haven’t met anyone else who’s ever seen it.

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