Color, 1970, 77m.
Directed by Jaromil Jires
Starring Jaroslava Schallerová, Helena Anýzová, Petr Kopriva, Jirí Prýmek, Jan Klusák
Criterion (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Second Run, Redemption (UK R0 PAL), Facets (US R1 NTSC), Bildstörung (Germany R2 PAL), CCV (Czech Republic R0 PAL), Trash Mountain (Japan R2 NTSC)
In a small Czech village, frequently napping orphan Valerie (Schallerová) lives with her puritanical grandmother (Anýzová) and tends to the family's farm animals, which tend to get attacked by a marauding weasel. Her transition to adolescence is triggered by a sudden string of events including her growing fondness for a handsome but persecuted local youth named Eagle (Kopriva) and the frightening appearance of a bald, grinning vampire (Prýmek). Her grandmother mysteriously disappears, apparently after being seduced and spirited away by the vampire, followed by the arrival of Valerie's beautiful cousin who looks an awful lot like a younger version of granny -- and who apparently wants to drink Valerie's blood. The local priest (Klusák) has different predatory designs on Valerie as well, and when she brushes off his advances, he joins the undead throng who draw the girl through an increasingly surreal, dreamlike succession of adventures.
One of the major Czech New Wave films to achieve a significant worldwide release, the deliriously beautiful Valerie and Her Week of Wonders took up to four years after its release to hit many theaters including its American release courtesy of Janus Films. One of the definitive examples of a perfect fusion between art and horror film, it also set the template for dark cinematic fairy tales about young girls coming of age in a world of masculine monsters (see also: Lemora, The Company of Wolves, etc.). The fragmented, heavily symbolic story hews very closely to the source novel by Vítezslav Nezval (also known to moviegoers for penning Jirí Trnka's The Emperor's Nightingale in 1949), but on film it's an incredibly abstract, disorienting experience that flows more in a subconscious, intuitive fashion than your average horrific fantasy. The vampiric elements are also handled much more giddily than people like Hammer were accustomed to at the time, while sparing but effective doses of minor eroticism (including some startling implied incest) are treated so casually no one ever considered giving the film any censorship problems. This also happens to be one of the most beautifully filmed fantasies of all time, with each scene delivering multiple indelible images.
Though it stayed out of the home video market for many years after its original run, Valerie continues to experience surges of interest with each successive movie generation. Stunning new theatrical prints began making the rounds beginning around 2001 (presented at a 1.33:1 aspect ratio as it was originally shot), and hopes were high when the first DVD release was announced in America from Facets in 2004. Unfortunately the disc turned out to be a complete disaster, with terrible compression doing its worst on a very dated, faded master with burned-in subtitles. Later that year, Redemption issued a somewhat improved version (albeit with significant print damage) in the UK, also with burned-in subs. Other versions without English options appeared in Japan and the Czech Republic as well soon after. However, salvation arrived via Second Run's UK reissue in 2008, which features a dramatically improved, remastered transfer that finally resembles the excellent prints seen on theater screens. Color and detail are all markedly better, and it's also the cleanest, most intact film element used to that point. The English subs are optional as well and much better than any predecessors. Extras include a newly created trailer, a new video interview with Schallerová, an intro by film writer Michael Brooke, and a booklet containing appreciative essays by Peter Hames and Joseph A. Gervasi.
One year before the Second Run release, the film received another artistic boost when a Philadelphia-based band called The Valerie Project began touring internationally with their own astonishing psychedelic folk/rock accompaniment to the film. Comprised of members of bands from Espers and Fern Knight (among others), the group performed in a wide number of venues including New York's Museum of Modern Art. The full music is available on CD, and while the Valerie Project accompaniment isn't on the UK disc, fans could first experience it with the film at home on the 2010 German DVD from Bildstörung, which would be a perfect release except it only has German subtitles. Still, it has both soundtrack options, a separate soundtrack CD of the original score (also available separately from the UK's Finders Keepers), and a host of exclusive extras, many in English. Hames and Daniel Bird provide an audio commentary track, and you also get the 20-minute "Waking Valerie" featurette (with Schallerová and Klusák), a "Valerieholics" fan interview collection including Gervasi, Finders Keepers' Andy Votel, Valerie Project member Gregory Weeks, and Trish Keenan from the band Broadcast, whose tribute song "Valerie" is also represented with a music video. The hefty 64-page booklet is in Germany only.
Five years later in 2015, the film finally got its due in the United States from Criterion courtesy of separate Blu-ray and DVD releases. The major news here is that it's the first time English-speaking viewers could watch it with the Valerie Project score, with both the film and music at correct film speed for the first time as well. The DTS-HD MA mono audio for the original soundtrack sounds excellent, the fullest and cleanest it's ever been to date, while the Valerie Project score is presented in standard two-channel Dolby Digital. (A pity it's not lossless as well, but it still sounds very good.) The new HD transfer looks much more detailed and textured than any of its predecessors, with the outdoor scenes in particular offering a wealth of fine layers of shading and depth. More controversially, the color timing is dramatically different than theatrical prints and past video transfers with a strong shift to the cooler side including a teal cast for much of the running time. It's nowhere near as drastic as, say, Thief or the catastrophic The King and I, but it's very obvious if you're familiar with how the film has looked in the past. Again it looks very solid in motion and makes for a pleasing way to experience the film, but the blue shift does pop out significantly at times.
The Criterion bonus features mostly diverge from past editions as well, starting off with a trio of early Jires short films: "Uncle" (1959), "Footprints" (1960), and the alternately disturbing and whimsical "The Hall of Lost Footsteps" (1960), all of them lovely little miniatures with a strong visual style and a recurring theme of childlike innocence in the face of a threatening world. In the new HD featurette "Resurrecting the Avant-Garde," film writer Peter Hames offers a 16-minute breakdown of this film's unusual genre classifications and its role in the experimental narratives of the period alongside other challenging fare from other European countries. The earlier Schallerova and Klusak interviews from the older featurette are presented here separately (with English subtitles), with the latter getting in some great moments about his role as the "perverted friar." In "More than a Soundtrack," Valerie Project cofounders Gervasi and Greg Weeks offer a fascinating 15-minute exploration of how the live performance and composition came about starting with discussions at Exhumed Films events as other potential titles like Possession were considered along the way. The rehearsal process and elaborate instrumentations are explained in depth as well, all of which should enhance your enjoyment of the end result. The packaging also includes liner notes by Jana Prikryl, who puts the film in context with the social and political shifts in the Czech Republic at the time as many filmmakers were being censored by the government.