The Pied Piper is a 1972 British feature film directed by Jacques Demy and starring Jack Wild, Donald Pleasence (Death Line; The Mutations; Halloween) and John Hurt and featuring Donovan and Diana Dors (Nothing But the Night; Craze; Theatre of Blood). It is loosely based on the legend of the Pied Piper. Rather than behaving as you might expect a film aimed at children to, it feasts upon the darker elements of an already concerning fairytale.
A quick reminder of the fairytale: In the Middle Ages, the German village of Hamelin is beset by the plague-carrying rats which are taking over Europe. A famed piper is employed to lead the rats to a watery grave – rats being fond of a good tune. Alas, the local authorities are somewhat forgetful in their commitment to paying the tunesmith and he duly lures the hamlet’s children to the local lake and drowned them. Very few people lived happily ever after.
The 1972 film takes many elements of the original tale but generally speaking manages to reign itself in before causing too much national panic. In 1349, The Black Death is sweeping Germany, courtesy of millions of infected-flea carrying rats. We are introduced to a caravan of travellers, the gypsy Mattio (Keith Buckley, Doctor Phibes Rises Again), his wife Helga (Patsy Puttnam, wife of the now Lord David, who produced the film), along with their children and assorted stragglers. Along their route to Hamelin they meet the cheery Pied Piper (singing wonder elf, Donovan) who they are happy to take on-board. Upon arrival at their destination, he manages to gain entry to the village, along with the other travellers, who are understandably reticent to allow potential disease-carriers into their community, by using his musical talents to sooth the fevered-brow of a young girl Lisa (Cathryn Harrison, Black Moon), the daughter of village Burgermeister (named Poppendick, of course played by Roy Kinnear – his wife, Frau Poppendick, is none other than Diana Dors).
In a head-spinning turn of events, the 11 year-old is betrothed to the power-crazed son (John Hurt) of the local baron (played with typical exuberance by Donald Pleasence) and is only pretending to be ill to get herself out of the dreadful situation. Also mixing things up are a troupe of red-robed religious fiends who have even greater control than the baron or Burgermeister, Lisa’s actual love-interest, Gavin (Jack Wild) and his master, Melius (the always magnificent Michael Hordern, also in Whistle and I’ll Come To You) who is rather more suspicious of events than most others in Hamelin. It is he who warns of the imminent arrival of rats in the village, though his words are initially ignored but then cause rather more upset, landing him in prison for his crazy scientific views, whilst the rest of the populace look to religious antidotes to their fears and fevers. Aside from this, there is rather more emphasis being placed on the financing of a cathedral, in which the happy marriage can take place. However, when the rats eventually arrive in their droves, has The Pied Piper had enough of the religious and under-age outrages to help rid them of their disease-filled rodents?
If your children aren’t either terrified or completely disturbed after that then congratulations. In truth, there isn’t too much in the way of graphic violence, though not all the rats look entirely happy when they’re on-screen. The rank, highly evocative gloominess of the film is largely thanks to the cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky (The Empire Strikes Back and many of David Cronenberg’s films) and the sets and art production by George Djurkovic and Assheton Gorton (Legend, Shadow of the Vampire) and it is this, along with a parade of almost exclusively British acting talent which gives the film its highly unusual tone.
The Pied Piper was directed by Jacques Demy, best remembered for the still popular The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. For a supposedly jolly kids’ film, there’s a massive, barely concealed commentary on the role of religion in society, from the Church versus science dilemma to the treatment of Jews (Hordern’s character) to in-fighting within the local priests themselves. The cast is superb, even Donovan, perhaps mercifully brief in his musical turns as they are featured in the film as necessary interludes rather than slapped onto the soundtrack. It was shot in location in Bavaria, Germany and the dislocation of the British cast again lends an air of unease.
Though The Pied Piper did receive a US release on DVD via the Legend label, it has yet to receive an official release in the UK, as the grimness and downbeat take on a well-loved fairytale are seemingly just still that little bit too strong for British stomachs.
Daz Lawrence, moviesandmania