Enough background. It’s plot summary time:
Dr. Jindrich and Dr. Ruzenka are a pair of scientists who are not-quite-happily married. Jindrich, a timid and mildly bumbling engineer, is unable to come up with a solution for fastening heavy objects into place. His strangely idle staff use the company safe as a snack bar and tease Jindrich with a comic book serial called “Who Wants to Kill Jesse?” about a busty wonderwoman who invents antigravity gloves to do what Jindrich only dreams of.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ruzenka and her all-male staff are having much more success pioneering a machine that can visualize dreams and a serum that can exorcize them. They demonstrates its usefulness by banishing a cow’s gadfly nightmare, decreasing its stress and insomnia and presumably increases its milk yield. The onlookers in the room recognize that the scientists have thought too small; the power to manipulate dreams could have implications much wider than dairy output. Amidst the excitement of the success, only a few people notice all the flies that seem to have mysteriously materialized in the room…
That night, after toying with some calculations for real life antigravity gloves, Dr. Jindrich sinks into a fitful sleep. He finds himself joining forces with Jesse and trying to evade the gadget-grabbing villainy of a pistol-wielding cowboy and an evil version of superman. Seeing him toss and turn in his sleep, his wife makes the ill-advised decision to inject her miracle serum into Jindrich (experimental medical procedures must have been much laxer back then). The next morning Jindrich wakes up next to the world’s sexiest side-effect (Jesse, played by Olga Schoberova), much to his wife’s dismay. Worst still, the crooked gunslinger is in the bathroom and Evil Superman is tearing apart the kitchen. The cartoon exiles battle for the techno-gloves while the dueling doctors go to court, and things get rapidly out of control as this fast-paced Prague-romp steps into high gear.
There’s a surprising quantity and variety of jokes packed into the film’s 70 minute runtime. The style of humor starts with the type of understated foibles characteristic of Czech comedy and quickly grows into elaborate sight gags and cartoon violence. Broad laughs are scored by Evil Superman biting into plumbing, pulling a neighbor through the wall by the telephone cord and taking a time out from the wanton destruction to play some ominous classical music on a piano.
A clever running joke involves comic book dialogue, which is always rendered in speech balloons even after the character break into the real world. The speech bubbles can be wiped, erased or shattered and tie into several gags, as when an illiterate boy doesn’t realize the he’s just been cussed out by the villain or when a courtroom camera can’t record a comment because the 2D caption is at a 90 degree angle.
There are also plenty of political potshots, though “Jesse” is hardly as grave or vitriolic as something like “The Report on the Party and the Guests.” The very idea that the government should get involved with manipulating the populace’s dreams works as a critique of the control-mentality of the Soviet Union and its satellites and touches upon issues of censorship, propaganda and brainwashing. The invigorated ink intruders quite explicitly assert their right to life, at one point declaring the “freedom to dream,” though this hardly stops the bureaucrats, politicians and scientists from seeking to erase them.
Corruptibility also gets a gag or two, as in a prison scene where Jindrich comically bribes the guard with bills hidden all over his body. Perhaps the best example of wry political criticism occurs when Jesse is being drawn and quartered by two enormous trucks. A sympathetic onlooker asks, “Can’t she just be re-educated?”
Then, too, there is a more traditional trading on gender politics for humor. Jindrich and Ruzenka’s marriage is setup with all the familiar middle-class clichés, but manages to get a few laughs by taking it in such unusual directions. Ruzenka is more than a little jealous when she catches her husband dreaming compromising images (actually, he’s trying to untie Jesse after she was roped and whipped by Evil Superman), and she later tells him in a much-applauded court statement that, “If you’d been dreaming of your wife, you wouldn’t be here.” Of course, she’s not really any less susceptible to fantasizing, and soon develops a crush on Evil Superman.
“Who Wants to Kill Jesse?” has quite a bit of artistic merit as well, at least within the context of a low-budget B-movie. Jindrich’s dream sequence is particularly impressive, with trippy black and white set design in which brick textures and spider webs are drawn onto cardboard walls. The use of animation layered over live-action predicts similar techniques in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (even the titles sounds similar) though its more conservative here; all the characters are played by real actors but the motion lines, explosions and speech bubbles appear. Most of the effects are undeniably low-fi, but no less funny for being so.
Overall, this was exactly the type of film I stay on the lookout for: art-pop B-movie bizarreness with original ideas, solid delivery and yes, a high degree of Czechness. You can rent this through Netflix thanks to those ardent archivists and diligent distributers at Facets. I bought my own copy online the same night I saw it.
Walrus Rating: 9.0