When times are gone, they are not old, they’re dead. There aren’t any times but new times.
That line comes not from Jirí Svoboda’s gonzo gothic Czech horror The Damned House of Hajn (1989), but Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, which was in my mind nearly the entirety of the picture. What do we have in both but a crazy mother, an imprudent lover, and old aristocracy on the verge of collapse from their misplaced whims and whimsy. Ghosts reappear and madness takes their place in the recesses. The house of Hajn is truly a house of the damned, because it is a house in stasis; like the Ambersons, it is not moving with the times, but stuck in the past. They have so diluted themselves, that when the past comes up to bite them in the ass, they wonder why all the pain is behind them.
After a magnificent, scribbly and mad, title sequence (of a kind with von Trier’s Antichrist, something of a kind with this film) we are introduced to the House of Hajn through the eyes of Petr (Emil Horváth). Bathed in blue and yellow light from unknown sources, the Hajn’s can only be found behind deadbolted lock-and-key; a place beyond, and kept away. When the camera first interacts with our protagonist, he looks directly at it – and it retreats, as if in fear, or playful banter, back up in to the woods. We hear a dislocated voice: What is he looking for? Happiness! it cackles in mockery. The windows of the mansion shatter, and a dove flies forth. Which is to say, something else, besides happiness, succeeds where he will fail.
I cannot begin to describe just how exquisite – and brilliant – Emil Horváth’s cinematography is in this film. Horváth bathes the screen in primaries, then forces them into darkness, a constant violence that adds passion to the movie’s themes. In saturated reds, blues, and yellows, we clearly enter a demented world (like the similarly hued Suspiria) where reality itself must surrender to some furios logic outside our immediate perception – it can only be seen in exaggeration. Meanwhile, the filmed events are often forced against the camera in close-up and ultra wide-angle, but the canvas is larger than that, extending into the background and infinite distance. The events are directly in front of you, and then recede. Like waves crashing on a shore, one is caught in the cadence, but it has a weathering to it. After a while, it is exhausting, and the audience has to concede to what the film’s visuals have to say.