In 1975, cult horror icon Karen Black played two sisters, Millicent and Therese, in a chapter of Dan Curtis’s horror film anthology, Trilogy of Terror. Dark-haired, suspicious Millicent is as repressed as showy blonde Therese is sexually assertive, leaving the former so convinced of her sister’s evil that she plots to kill her. When Therese is indeed found dead, the family doctor reveals that Millicent and Therese were in fact a single woman whose personality was split by the traumas of incest, suicide, and murder.

Just a few years earlier, Czech New Wave director Juraj Herz had similar thematic plans for his gothic horror, Morgiana (1972), as per the novel it was based on, Jessie and Morgiana (Aleksandr Grin, 1929). However, he was forbidden to portray schizophrenia by the Czech administration, who deemed it sadomasochistic.1 Herz compromised with a single actor (Iva Janzurova) playing sisters Klára and Viktorie Trangan. This results in an arguably less satisfying ending than might have come with a revelation of a single sister, but there is still much to admire in the film. Morgiana is as much The Brothers Grimm’s Snow White (1812) as Grin’s novel, a delirious and atmospheric fairy tale of jealousy and greed, poison and mirrors, good and evil. Punctuated with vivid colour saturation and symbolism, the film’s namesake is Viktorie’s beloved Siamese cat, from whose low angle several scenes are shot, and whose electric blue eyes bear witness to her master’s crimes.

When the Trangan father dies, Glenar (Petr Čepek) the lawyer reads the will: elder sister Viktorie is left a rent for life, a country estate, the Green Flute hunting lodge, with grounds, furnishings, and all jewels and valuables kept therein. This pales in comparison to Klára’s share of their father’s property: building lots, shares, bank accounts, the villa, and gardens. Viktorie is aggrieved by the unfair distribution of wealth, and her sister’s unintentional influence on Glenar, the object of her affections. She is inspired by a fortune teller’s reading of her future in which wealth and suitors abound if she, the “black queen”, can eliminate the “queen of hearts.” Viktorie plots to kill Klára via a slow-acting poison. So slow is the poison to demonstrate any major effect on Klára that Viktorie begins to doubt its effectiveness, trialling it again in a dish of water left on the floor to be sampled by a dog, but potentially also a child or Morgiana. Klára at last exhibits illness in the form of hallucinations and an unquenchable thirst, and when word travels, the poison purveyor attempts to blackmail Viktorie. Klára’s hallucinations grow stronger, and she begins to flash back to the moment Viktorie dropped the poison in her water.

The casting of Iva Janzurova as both sisters is a masterstroke of makeup artistry as much as acting and editing. Under a large black Gibson Girl wig, Viktorie wears thin, pencilled eyebrows, frosted silver eyeshadow paired with eyeliner and painted lashes, and lips coloured dark blood and lined to points. Klára, the effervescent Snow White to Viktorie’s dark and jealous wicked queen, is the natural beauty, with dark lined eyes but minimal other makeup, and her red hair curled and piled loosely on her head. In the opening scene, where Glenar reads from the will, both sisters wear heavy black veils attached to wide hats. When Klára turns towards Viktorie, her pale skin and sad features peak through from under the veil; Viktorie, however, remains entirely hidden in darkness. Fairy tale “good vs evil” tropes are reflected in costuming throughout the film (Klára wears white, Viktorie wears black), and locations – the Green Flute bequeathed to Viktorie is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a ballerina and her jealous lover, whereas Klára’s rose-adorned villa is inhabited by white swans. Viktorie’s pairing with Morgiana is no coincidence either, given the traditional association of “suspect” women and felines.

Both sisters are preoccupied with their reflections, and the Snow White-style “magic mirror” comes to reveal to Klára both an imaginary twin and the identity of her killer. In the moment Viktorie slips the poison into Klára’s tea, she is dressed in a scarlet slip. Her grinning reflection is caught by Klára in the winged mirror just as she drops the vial and returns to her seat. Klára notes that her drink, previously sparkling, has become, “dead water,” which she muses, “sounds like a fairy tale.” Though she initially suspects nothing, her first hallucination is stirred when a servant brings her a bowl of oranges which blur in her vision the same shade as Viktorie’s dress. She soon comes to imagine a red-haired doppelganger dressed in scarlet, at first in her mirror and later outside, where the rose garden seems to vibrate with red-orange roses. Viktorie too comes to associate that vivid scarlet with her crime: watching a red cordial dissipate like blood in her tea, she later insists that she will drink her tea in a cup and not a clear glass.

While Herz claimed to not have been a fan of his film, considering it merely an “exercise,”2 English director Peter Strickland credited Morgiana as a direct influence on his film, The Duke of Burgundy (2015).3 Hints can also be seen in Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010),4 and, of course, Trilogy of Terror. While perhaps lesser known in Herz’s oeuvre than Spalovač Mrtvol (The Cremator, 1968) or Petrolejové Lampy (Oil Lamps, 1971), his fairy tale of two sisters, seen through cats eyes and mirrors, serves as a haunting bookend to the Czech New Wave which began a decade prior.

 

Morgiana (1972 Czechoslovakia 100 mins)

Prod Co: Filmové Studio Barrandov Prod: Ladislav Hanus Dir: Juraj Herz Scr: Juraj Herz, Vladimir Bor, based on the novel by Aleksandr Grin Phot: Jaroslav Kucera Ed: Jaromír Janácek Art Dir: Zbynek Hloch Mus: Lubos Fiser

Cast: Iva Janzurova, Josef Abrham, Nina Diviskova, Petr Cepek, Karel Augusta

 

Endnotes

  1. Ivana Košuličová, “Drowning the bad times: Juraj Herz interviewed,” Kinoeye Vol 2 Issue 1 (7 January 2002), http://www.kinoeye.org/02/01/kosulicova01.php
  2. Ivana Košuličová, “Drowning the bad times: Juraj Herz interviewed,” Kinoeye Vol 2 Issue 1 (7 January 2002), http://www.kinoeye.org/02/01/kosulicova01.php
  3. Peter Strickland, “Peter Strickland: six films that fed into The Duke of Burgundy,” BFI (7 May 2015), http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/peter-strickland-six-films-fed-duke-burgundy
  4. For a greater examination of Morgiana’s influence on Black Swan, see Cerise Howard’s blog, “Gleaning the Cube: Picasso and Braque Went to the Movies,” A Little Lie Down (31 January 2011), http://alittleliedown.blogspot.com.au/2011/01/gleaning-cube-picasso-and-braque-went.html