Review Date: October 9, 2010
Released by: Nu Metro Home Entertainment
Release date: 1/21/2009
MSRP: R61.95 (about $8.50)
Region 0, PAL
The British film industry gave us the movies of Hammer and Amicus. The German film industry gave us silent masterpieces like Nosferatu
and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
, and later a whole host of wild Edgar Wallace krimis
. Italy gave us the giallo
thriller, Japan gave us the kaiju eiga
genres, Spain put its own continental twist on the classic horror monsters of previous decades and Mexico pitched in by mixing the lucha libre
, or masked wrestler film, with the horror genre. The United States of course gave us the Universal monster movies, the memorable quickies of American International Pictures and a whole slew of genre greats like George Romero and Wes Craven. Each one of these countries has made its own distinctive mark, and while other nations have produced horror pictures of their own, few of those efforts have left any great impression on the genre as a whole.
Despite having one of the world’s oldest film industries, South Africa is practically always missing from any discussion world horror cinema, which at first glance is a little odd considering how many horror films have actually been shot there (one of the more prominent recent examples being the recent Last House on the Left
remake). The problem is that very few of those horror films have been actually made by South African producers, writers and directors. The majority have been foreign productions filmed there in order to save money. Thus the country is rarely shot as it truly is. It’s almost always filmed for its ability to look like someplace else. Which brings us to today’s review, which is a real rarity: a completely homegrown South African horror movie.
Meet young, handsome Jannie Pienaar (Cobus Rossouw
), a mathematics professor who has inexplicably become catatonic. He can still walk and move, but he can't talk and is barely responsive to external stimuli. With his psychiatrist unable to break through to him, and not knowing what else to do, Jannie's mother has reluctantly decided to have her son committed to an insane asylum in the countryside. The doctor in charge of the institution (Lourens Schultz
) believes that the overworked academic needs rest, but it seems that this particular asylum is not a place where he is going to find it. From the moment he first walks through the door he is exposed to the clinic's other patients, which include the crazy, middle-aged Koos (Don Leonard
), a physically deformed artist named Frans (Phillip Swanepoel
), an older woman named Magda (Hermien Domisse
) who wears a lot of creepy make-up, a beautiful girl named Linda (Katinka Heyns
), an Englishwoman named Liz (Jill Kirkland
) and an aging ex-judge (Jacques Loots
Just how crazy are these people? Well, Koos is an ex-member of the Ossewabrandwag, a militant Afrikaner organization that protested South Africa's involvement in World War II by committing acts of sabotage against the state; he had the misfortune of blowing up a train carrying his own brother. Now he has delusions of martial grandeur and is convinced he will soon be prime minister of the country. Magda lived in the asylum before it was even an asylum; her wedding was held there. Her husband converted the place into an institution after his treatment of her ended up driving her crazy. Linda has the personality of a ten year-old girl and Liz continually writes letters to her apparently dead daughter. The judge went crazy after his own daughter was murdered by a rich man, who ended up going free because he was rich; now the poor man ties miniature nooses and hangs plants in the asylum's greenhouse. Only Frans, with his unusual physical maladies - his neck is elongated, one arm is missing and the other arm is paralyzed - is sane. He was only committed to the asylum because his family was embarrassed by his deformities.
Christmas is coming, and slowly Jannie starts to come out of his catatonia and even starts to talk again. But his newly reclaimed ability to communicate allows him to get mixed up in a love triangle where he finds himself caught in a choice between Linda and Liz. When, on New Year's Eve, he ultimately chooses Linda to be the object of his affections, Liz's heart becomes so broken that she commits suicide with an overdose of medication. Her death sends shock waves through the asylum. Blaming Jannie for Liz's death, Magda, Koos and the judge convene a tribunal where they find him guilty and sentence him to the ultimate punishment - death by hanging - but with an unusual twist that has to be seen to be believed...
One rainy afternoon in early 2009 I found myself browsing through a quaint used bookstore in the South African city of Durban. There I came across a slim, dog-eared paperback volume called The Case for South Africa
. The book was a compilation of written and oral statements made before the United Nations by Eric H. Louw, foreign minister for South Africa from the mid-1950’s to the early 1960’s. The country he represented had been a founding member of the UN organization in 1945 under the leadership of an internationalist and pro-British prime minister named Jan Smuts. Three years later Smuts' government fell when his party suffered a humiliating defeat at the polls and power moved into the hands of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party, which set about changing South Africa's racial laws, already regressive to begin with, into the formal system that became known as apartheid.
World opinion in reaction to the apartheid system was extremely negative, and the new government came under immediate diplomatic assault, especially at the United Nations where the communist bloc and the newly independent states of Africa and Asia, among others, singled South Africa out for condemnation. The Case for South Africa
reproduces Eric Louw's statements before the UN during the period of 1955 to 1962, in which he spoke against the allegations and attacks that were being made against his government, and perhaps the most surprising thing for me, as a reader of the book nearly fifty years after it was first published, is that, in spite of the fact that most of the complaints made against the National Party government were because of apartheid, only a small portion of the book's one hundred and eighty-nine pages is actually spent explaining and defending the government's racial policies. Louw's first statement is devoted to persuading the general assembly of the UN that apartheid is purely an internal matter for South Africa and that the UN charter gives them no power to debate it. When that fails and the general assembly takes up debate of the issue, Louw strikes back in another speech by pointing out that many of South Africa’s detractors have miserable human rights records and they are in no position to make accusations. When that fails and the body imposes sanction on his country, Louw gives a somber speech warning that the United Nations had set a dangerous precedent that could lead to the ultimate destruction of the organization. Louw proves an eloquent defender of his government, and does a good job of pointing out the blatant hypocrisy of some of South Africa's most fervent opponents, but his arguments (at least on paper) begin to read as more and more desperate as time progresses, and his tone certainly indicates that he and the county he represented felt increasingly under siege.
As we Americans are seeing right now with the Tea Party movement, peoples that feel themselves to be under siege can produce some pretty weird pathologies, and there’s certainly evidence to suggest that South Africa’s increasing isolation had such an effect on its society. By the beginning of the 1970's the country was even more isolated internationally, and white control over the entire southern African region was becoming increasingly fragile. The Portuguese were fighting rebels in their colonies of Angola and Mozambique, the white regime in Rhodesia was fighting an insurgency that was about grow out of control, and the South African government itself was having increasing difficulty controlling its non-white population while also fighting a low-level insurgency in what is today Namibia. Another book I purchased in Durban, appropriately titled The Siege of Southern Africa
(and written in 1974) would describe the situation as “one of bombardment by falsehood, threat and menace from the body ludicrously called the ‘United Nations’ in New York; of murder, arson and rapine by hired assassins on the borders of the four countries chiefly besieged; and of incitement by words and money gifts from innumerable ‘democratic’ Governments and Communist ‘cover organizations’ all over the world.”
This was the environment that created Jannie Totsiens
- or Johnny Farewell
as its title means in English - and director Jans Rautenbach, himself a psychologist before going into the movie business, condenses the craziness of his country's situation by literally recreating white South African society inside of a mental hospital. For non-South Africans the approach is both easily accessible and yet confusing. It's easily accessible because the basic idea of summing up a society's pathologies in the form of a story set in an insane asylum is an approach that can be applied to any nation on the planet, no matter what it is. But it's still mystifying because non-South African viewers will have difficulty in picking up on a lot of the symbolism in the film. I have read extensively and become very good friends with a number of South Africans, but I'll readily admit that after seeing the movie twice I still cannot say I've understood all the social and political overtones that flow through it. This should not be taken to mean that foreign viewers cannot enjoy Jannie Totsiens
; if you have the ability to understand the dialogue (in my case I had an English translation of the movie's screenplay) it is a highly enjoyable, humorous, and often fascinating film, but some of the finer points will unavoidably be lost.
has the distinction of being both the first South African horror film and the country's first black comedy. However, I must add a caveat for horror fans who may go into it expecting something similar to the horror films being produced and distributed internationally during this same time period. The horror elements are genuine, and the film produces many moments of real unease, tension and shock, but they are decidedly low-key when compared to the American and European horrors of the day. Although it bears some aesthetic resemblance to non-Gothic chillers that Hammer started producing in the early 1970's, it lacks the explicitness that those films often indulged in. Jannie Totsiens
does not feel like a Terence Fisher or a Freddie Francis movie. But it does feel a lot like a David Lynch one.
It is not surprising then that the dramatic moments and the black comedy elements are more prominent than the horror elements. The film takes place entirely at the asylum and on the surrounding grounds, a valley surrounded by mountains on all sides. The "normal world" outside the asylum is never glimpsed. The entire world of the movie is this one place. There is a stark contrast between the exteriors - often shot in beautiful sunlight from angles that show off the natural beauty of the location (in this case, a place called Golden Gate National Park) - and the interior of the asylum, which looks like a genuine horror film location by virtue of both the set design and the lighting. Yet it's impossible to deny the humor of the situations that play out. The comedy is not slapstick, but rather a mature sort of humor that is allowed to grow out of the pathologies of the characters, whether it be in the form of Koos saluting legions of Ossewabrandwag soldiers that only he can see or the judge using small nooses to hang plants.
Perhaps the funniest – and yet in many ways the saddest - of all the characters is the never named doctor who runs the asylum, a useless administrator who would probably deserve to be a patient himself if not for the fact that he is genuinely aware of what his own problems are. In a scene laced with macabre humor, the doctor finds himself talking to the Frans character, confessing that he’s an incompetent doctor and lamenting the fact that he has to live with the fact that he knows he’s incompetent. The macabre humor comes from the fact that, at the very moment he is complaining of his own incompetence, Liz is in his office killing herself with drugs she stole from his unguarded medicine cabinet. The source of the doctor’s unhappy feelings is an incident from earlier in the film where Magda, Koos and the judge earlier tried to kill Jannie by locking him in a cellar room with two hundred of Magda’s cats. Jannie escaped after getting his face badly scratched up, but all the doctor could think to do in response to the incident was to order that all of Magda’s cats be euthanized, a situation even he recognized as missing the point.
The fact that Jannie Totsiens
is such a mix of black comedy, horror and drama, and the fact that it does include insightful, touchingly but darkly funny moments like these make it a truly unique experience. It is a challenging film for foreign audiences today, and it seems to have been an even more challenging work for South African audiences in the early 1970’s. Refusing to narrowly conform to the conventions of any one genre, it is daringly unpredictable and thus even more unsettling. It may not be a pure horror film in the way that most fans know the concept, but there is no doubt that it is a powerful, disturbing and sometimes frightening film. A camouflaged indictment of a sick society, it is a movie that will stick in your memory for long afterwards, and it is a tragedy that it has so rarely been screened outside of its home country.
Nu Metro Home Entertainment presents Jannie Totsiens
in an interlaced, full-frame 1.33:1 presentation culled from a digital master that was created from original vault elements in 1998. The transfer definitely shows the limitations of 90's telecine technology, but despite this, the film’s color palette actually doesn’t look half bad, and some shots feature bold hues that manage to jump off the screen. But the transfer is riddled with video noise, and the clarity and sharpness of the image are compromised by mediocre compression that results in many noticeable digital artifacts. Tape drop-outs also appear on a sporadic basis.
That being said, the film elements used for the transfer were actually in very good shape, and other than a few noticeable splices and scratches the image is almost wholly devoid of damage.
The movie is presented in a Dolby 2.0 Mono mix. Most of the dialogue in Jannie Totsiens
is in Afrikaans, although there is a small amount of English thrown in at varying points. Overall audio quality is acceptable but not perfect, as a thin layer of hissing and popping can be heard in quiet moments throughout the film and several audio drop-outs are noticeable.
Regrettably, no English subtitles are provided for the Afrikaans dialogue.
There are no extras on this release whatsoever.
is ripe for a rediscovery. Of the many South African films that I have seen in the past year, this is so far my favorite, and it surely will appeal to world cinema aficionados as well as to horror fans looking for something a little offbeat. Sadly, this DVD does not provide a particularly good presentation of the film, with mediocre video and sound quality, and the lack of English subtitles will keeps its audience limited to a small number of viewers outside of its home country. The film would make a perfect release for a company like Synapse or Mondo Macabro, or perhaps even from the Criterion Collection, and I certainly hope this review does it part to raise its profile.
NOTE: Despite the back cover stating that this is a Region 2 encoded release, the disc itself is Region 0
Movie – A
Image Quality – C-
Sound – C
Supplements – N/A
- Running Time – 1 hour 48 minutes
- Rated 13 (South African rating system)
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- Afrikaans/English 2.0 Mono