Jan Švankmajer’s 1988 film Alice, one of many adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s well-known work, mixes stop-motion and live action footage to depict an unsettling, dream-like Alice in Wonderland. Jan’s Wonderland is an old house. Both timeless and inconstant, it’s a place where cracked walls repair themselves and threadbare creatures sew holes back up. Each shot is cramped and detailed. Jan focuses on objects and poses rather than vistas or facial expressions. The Wonderland house resembles a twisted I Spy book with its piles of wooden toys, bones, tattered cloth, sawdust, and leaves.
Unlike many dream-inspired films, the sensations in Alice are rooted and immediate. There are no psychedelic washes of color or vague mists here: it’s a world of sharp sounds and sharp corners. Jan achieves strangeness not through otherworldly imagery but by placing and attaching familiar things in unfamiliar ways. This collage-like method reflects the laziness of our subconscious. Rarely are dreams original creations of our minds; instead, they steal ideas and images from our waking lives and put them together in often nonsensical ways.
Jan is eerily in tune with the tones of our childhood dreams, and he’s not afraid to present an honest portrait of them. There’s no shortage of nightmare in the film. The sounds, which, of course, can’t be traditionally produced due to the stop animation, always feel a little louder and more staccato than they need to be. Even in the cases where a normal recording of the sounds of the scene could have been used, Jan often uses a similar sound from a completely different origin, as when Alice claps her hands and produces a noise much harsher and shriller than a normal clap. This sharp soundtrack heightens the unease of creepy moments, but the unfamiliarity also makes the watcher listen more consciously to sounds which might otherwise have gone unnoticed. There’s no score outside of the title credits, but sometimes these noises approach musique concrète in their rhythmic insistency.
While there are no jump scares or gore, the film does not have a dearth of visual creepiness, either. Death, decay, and violence reoccur as motifs. Skulls hatch from chicken eggs and scuttle into the shadows, skeletal chimeras march along dirty floors, and a flank of steak flops to a new hiding spot when disturbed. The “Drink Me” bottle not only makes Alice small, it also turns her into an uncanny doll. In one scene, the minified Alice is forced by dead animals to walk the plank into a pot of milk, which turns out to be another transformative liquid with an unsettling effect: Alice grows again, but instead of a girl or a doll she becomes a girl entombed alive in a doll-shaped sarcophagus.
Taste, or more accurately hunger, is also a consistent theme both in Jan’s adaptation and in the original book. In Alice, the white rabbit is introduced as a taxidermied specimen in Alice’s room. It creaks itself free of the supports and chatters incessantly through big yellow teeth. It greedily licks sawdust from the timepiece it keeps lodged inside its own body cavity. Once in Wonderland, Alice tries to eat anything that looks edible, but jelly jars are filled with tacks and nails sprout from loaves of bread, and most of the things she does manage to consume coincide with the size-changing substances from the book. Her narration is frequently paired with extreme close-up shots of her mouth pronouncing the words. Hunger is an astute choice from Lewis Carroll, as young children think about it quite often, both inside and outside of sleep. Jan Švankmajer makes sure to point out that they also think of death and violence more than most adults would like to admit.
Alice manages to marry creepiness with wonder in its surrealist exploration. As with most of Jan’s work, the film carries with it a dose of absurdist humor. He breaks the fourth wall early in the film with an odd bit of narration from Alice’s lips: “Now you will see a film… made for children. Perhaps.” A film for brave children, perhaps, or a film for adults to think and dream and have nightmares as kids for an hour.