Color, 1959, 90 mins. 16 secs.
Directed by Aleksandr Ptushko
Starring Urho Somersalmi, Anna Orochko, Ivan Voronov, Andris Ošiņš, Ada Voytsik
Deaf Crocodile (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Ruscico (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
It's safe to say that no Soviet-era filmmaker swung for the fences in the fantasy genre quite like Aleksandr Ptushko, who spent years mounting his projects and delivered three masterpieces in the 1950s: Sadko, Ilya Muromets, and the Soviet-Finnish co-production, Sampo. Derived from a Finnish folktale, this epic was outfitted with both four-channel surround sound and gorgeous Dyaliscope lensing that made it a feast for the eyes -- at least if you didn't catch the butchered American version, The Day the Earth Froze, which continued the trend of dumping down his films for matinee crowds in the States.
In the village of Kalevala, many wish they could find true prosperity through the Sampo, a supernatural mill capable of producing endless resources like gold and grain. Unfortunately the person most determined to get one is Louhi (Orochko), a powerful witch in a neighboring kingdom, who realizes that the only way to get one is through Ilmarinen (Voronov), impending uncle by recent marriage of Lemminkäinen (Ošiņš). Soon the witch is hurling every obstacle in her path to obtain the Sampo and prevent Lemminkäinen from stopping her, which includes supernatural tasks and ultimately hiding the sun to plunge the village into perpetual winter.
A wildly inventive fantasy, Sampo is a far cry from the Disney fairy tales being seen by mass audiences at the time with a string of hallucinatory visuals and vibrant colors (including a show-stopping flaming red horse). Spoken in poetic verse, the film was somewhat controversial at the time in Finland due to the idea of Russians making a film out of one of their most beloved tales; however, the result is truly epic and eye-filling with that magical tone that Ptushko and company could generate time and time again. Unfortunately their efforts were almost entirely sabotaged by that mutilated U.S. version, which was later turned into a familiar episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 where the quips ended up sending the film's reputation plummeting even further.
Fortunately the original Finnish scope version was given an impressive 4K restoration that serves as the centerpiece of the 2022 Blu-ray from Deaf Crocodile, also retaining the multi-channel mix here as a spacious Finnish DTS-HD MA 5.1 track with optional English subtitles. (The film was shot in both Finnish and Russian versions, the latter tangled up for decades for some reason without a disc release anywhere, as well as alternate flat versions for theaters unable to project anamorphically.) The quality here is excellent and comparable to the label's earlier Ilya Muromets release, so try to see it on the biggest screen you can. Legendary artist Steve Bissette returns for another essential audio commentary covering the visual artistry of the film, Ptushko's cinematic techniques, the legacy of Russian fantasy cinema, the U.S. release, and the director's impact on his own work. Also included is a lively 71m39s Zoom chat with MST3000's Mike Nelson and Deaf Crocodile's Dennis Bartok and Bob Fingerman talking about his discovery of the U.S. version (which has been out on DVD from Shout! Factory and Retromedia), the intention of the show, the differences compared to the original version, Nelson's own take on the show's film choices, the program's legacy, and more. The package also comes with an insert featuring the late Alan Upchurch's watershed "Russian Fantastika Part Two" appraisal of Ptushko's work originally published in Video Watchdog.
Reviewed on September 4, 2022