From clashes of titans to all manner of conquests, crystals, labyrinths, and princesses who were also brides, the fantasy film was alive and well in the 1980s, arguably its golden age. The overarching genre – a broad roll-up of everything from animated swords-and-sorcery to effects-laden outer-space adventures – seamlessly cross-pollinated with pop-cultural artifacts of the day, like action figures, role-playing games, progressive-rock and heavy metal music, comic books, and video games, to elevate and edify its profile within the popular youth consciousness. The popularity and proliferation of fantasy film was far from a Western phenomenon, however. Film industries abroad, both large and small, sampled from both Hollywood imports and their own regional folklore to create unique and compelling works of fantasy cinema.
Among the many countries that produced fantasy films during the period was Poland, a nation with a rich and long-standing film tradition that can be traced all the way back to the 19th century and the early days of motion pictures. During the 1980s, like other European nations in the Soviet-influenced Eastern Bloc, Poland’s media was subject to state control. Whether that particular fact also mandated that film run-times routinely exceeded 160 minutes is unknown, but the 1987 Polish film, FRIEND OF THE JOLLY DEVIL (PRZYJACIEL WESOLEGO DIABLA in Polish), directed by Jerzy Lukaszewicz, is an exception to the trend that clocks in at just under 90 minutes.
The story begins the way many epic adventures do: an old vagrant named Witalis (Franciszek Pieczka) is walking through the woods and finds a newborn baby in the husk of a tree recently struck by lightning. Finders, keepers! He feeds the infant a steady diet of bread and water for years until the baby grows into a boy named Janek (Waldemar Kalisz) who emulates his father and adopts his mannerisms and behaviors, like pissing brazenly in the country air. After a bout of nasty weather disappears their adored horse, Hurricane, during the night, the old man teaches his son about the ongoing battle between Light and Dark and shows him a prized crystal that can light the way in times of need.
Like any kid who just lost his beloved horse and gets frustrated by an adult’s inadequate explanation and reliance on pseudoscience, Janek angrily tells the old man that he’s not even his real dad and runs away to sleep in the ferns. When he returns the next day, his father has lost his eyesight. Janek blames himself for the misfortune, but Witalis assures him they’ll be fine (assuming that a single onion and a loaf of bread between two people constitutes one’s idea of “fine.”)
The blind man gifts his son the crystal and tells him it “gives you power to fight the darkness,” and that “the true power of it is the power of your spirit.” You can’t eat crystals though, so Janek follows a strange light into a cave where a booming voice tells him he must travel alone to the land of the Spirit of Darkness. If he can defeat the wicked Spirit he meets at the end of the journey, his father’s vision will be restored.
The boy leaves home and the wilds of the outside world descend upon him almost immediately in the form of a runaway boulder (a la RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) and a sinister tangle of roots (the rotoscoped animation of which is a nice touch). After a narrow escape, he finds himself in a dark marsh where he leans up against a mossy rock that turns out to be a furry creature named Piszczalka (“Pipe” in English). The two become an odd couple on a joint journey that takes them from the marsh to the woods and onward to the Land of Eternal Oblivion. Throughout the voyage, they quarrel, they fight others, they feast and forage, they get captured, and they escape. Will Janek complete the original purpose of his mission or get distracted by the prevailing sense of wonder and adventure?
As the first feature-length film from Polish animation studio, Se-ma-for – known for their animated shorts and some short-form live-action television programming – FRIEND OF THE JOLLY DEVIL was a film adaptation of a Polish children’s book, loosely translated as MERRY DEVIL’S FRIEND, published more than five decades earlier by author, Kornel Makuszynski. There are few English-language sources to verify whether the film was successful either critically or financially upon release, but it spawned a sequel just two years later with Lukaszewicz returning to the director’s chair.
It’s not nearly as visually impressive as its bigger-budgeted peers from the ’80s fantasy film field, but …JOLLY DEVIL makes decent use of what was available. Lukaszewicz, also serving as the film’s cinematographer, puts the natural landscapes and outdoor settings to good use, framing his characters against vast skies, imposing forest canopy, or pleasant sunsets. There’s an atmospheric electronic score to set the mood along with a jaunty title track to put the all-ages audience at ease. The film gets strange in just a few places – there’s a laser-shooting cave spider and at one point, Pipe and Janek are held captive by an underground community of little people who scream a lot and bang on an antique toy piano – but most of the film is structured as a conventional coming-of-age adventure movie, suitable for a general audience.
To the filmmakers’ credit, the featured creature of Pipe (Piszczalka) combines the rustic, furry presentation of an Ewok (STAR WARS) with the lounge-act charm of ALF, the unconventional speech patterns of Yoda (“consuming we will be” and “it’s dangering there,”) and the insatiable appetite for objectively disgusting things of Gollum (LORD OF THE RINGS). He sneezes smoke through his ears, wields a giant magical fork, throws fiery sparks, and shoots blinding dust from his armpits when threatened. If Pipe had been featured in an American film with Hollywood’s requisite marketing machine at the right time, present-day viewers might be knee-deep in half-hearted Jolly Devil remakes and pondering the next installment of the Pipe Universe. The film’s costume designers – Grazyna Psciuk and Malgorzata Braszka, respectively – had collaborated once previously for the 1984 futuristic science-fiction comedy, SEXMISSION, and given the mish-mash of stylistic influences on display in this film – e.g., masked leather daddies who raided the closet of Lord Humungus (of 1981’s THE ROAD WARRIOR) and Jawa-like cave-dwellers straight off the STAR WARS set – one can only wonder what strange visual riffs might be present in their other collaborations.
You don’t need to be a time-traveling Polish kid from the 1980s to enjoy this film today (but it wouldn’t hurt). The creature designs range from campy to creepy to creative, the story is simple, and there’s a decent level of craft to the film. Your overall enjoyment may vary depending on your age, familiarity with (or openness to) other Eastern European fantasy films, and level of sobriety.