French director Jacques Demy’s THE PIED PIPER is an early 1970s adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale, filmed in Germany with a mostly British cast. A dark yet sometimes droll and allegoric mix of fantasy, horror, religion and politics set during the dark ages, the film has been largely unseen since it aired on the USA Network (that’s right, they used to show stuff like this back in the day) in the 1980s. In early 2007, limited theatrical showings earned the film some attention, but this DVD is the first time it’s been available on home video in the U.S., as Paramount has thankfully licensed it to Legend Films.
In Germany during the summer of 1349, the plague (aka “Black Death”) is sweeping the countryside and claiming many victims as a disease spread by rats. A young gypsy (Keith Buckley, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN) is traveling by wagon to the town of Hamelin with his family of actors. Along the way, they run into a friendly Pied Piper (Donovan) who joins ttheir group, and ultimately earns them entrance into the town when he sooths the ill Burgomaster’s daughter Lisa (Cathryn Harrison) with his music. Lisa (who is 11 years old) is about to marry power-hungry Franz (John Hurt), whose father, the Baron (Donald Pleasence), is mainly concerned with financing the building of a cathedral. While the wedding is being prepared, black rats carrying the plague have invaded Hamelin, and even though wise old Alchemist Melius (Michael Hordern) is trying to use a scientific approach to the problem, he is thrown into a dungeon cell. Is the mystical Pied Piper the only soul capable of freeing the town of its rat infestation?
When Paramount first released THE PIED PIPER in 1972, its theatrical run was very limited and its remained fairly obscure to this day, even to those who follow director Demy’s career. While it’s certainly not a perfect film, it’s very good one at the least, retelling the Grimm Brothers’ tale fairly faithfully with cinematic style and a satirical distaste for religious and political hypocrisy. Although the film got away with a “G” rating in the U.S., the opening minutes show a couple of skeletal corpses being ravished by rats (apparently they were trained, and none are shown being abused or actually attacking anyone), and forcing and adolescent girl to be married, as well as a climatic burning at the stake of one of the main characters, don’t exactly fit the mold of a children’s film. It’s all done rather tastefully though, and this could be deemed a fairytale for adults and children alike.
Though some of the interiors were shot in England, the location shooting in Germany, especially the outdoor scenes, resemble some of the Hammer horror films of the time (especially TWINS OF EVIL, COUNTESS DRACULA and VAMPIRE CIRCUS). You would swear that the forest scenes were shot in Black Park, the Buckinghamshire, England location which often doubled for Transylvania. Speaking of which, fans and scholars of British horror films (especially those made in the 1970s) will want to take note of THE PIED PIPER, and it has the excellent cast, scenery, costumes, as well as the rats to back it up. Director Demy’s approach here may be atypical (the film is mostly set up as a series of medium and long shots, with close-ups being a rarity), he certainly knows how to tell a story, with the use of some startling imagery to keep the audience captivated. A good example of this is when the rats eat their way out from the inside of an enormous wedding cake (constructed in the form of a chapel), which becomes a gawking spectacle for the repulsed and screaming banquet-goers.
As the Pied Piper, 1960s folk rock icon Donovan is well cast, and he even gets to sing and strum some pleasant tunes on his guitar. He seems a little distant (I guess that’s the point, as he's an ambiguous stranger in town) and plays it low key, but always gives the impression that the character is enlightened and has the upper hand over a mostly doomed community. The late Jack Wild (best known as the Artful Dodger in OLIVER (1968), as well as the Saturday morning fave "H.R. Pufnstuf"), plays the lame boy Gavin, though he was pushing 20 at the time. Michael Hordern is great as the Jewish alchemist disparaged by the church despite his sensible ways. Most of the other characters are of a grotesque nature, including Roy Kinnear (as the rotund Burgermeister), Diana Dors (as his wife) and Peter Vaughan (as the bishop). John Hurt (still years before he found worldwide accolades from ALIEN and THE ELEPHANT MAN) stands out as the nasty Franz, and as his father, Donald Pleasence’s character is underdeveloped but he’s still great to watch.
As mentioned before, THE PIED PIPER has never been released on home video in the U.S. until now, and although it is a barebones affair, this DVD is still cause for celebration. The film has been presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, and framing looks good throughout. Aside from some minor speckling here and there, the print source is very clean and detail is crisp. Although the film was shot with a primarily drab look, the colors shine here, especially the red robes of the Bishop and his cohorts, and all in all, this is an excellent transfer. The mono English audio is also well rendered, and although there are no subtitle options, the disc is close captioned. (George R. Reis)
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