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Friday, February 8, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Bringing up 'baby' becomes a dark, twisted affair

Seattle Times movie critic

"Little Otik"


***
With Veronika Zilkov, Jan Hartl, Jaroslava Kretschmerov, Pavel Novy. Written and directed by Jan Svankmajer. 127 minutes. Not rated; contains some violent and frightening sequences. In Czech with English subtitles. Varsity, through Thursday.
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Czech director Jan Svankmajer's dark, twisted fairy tale "Little Otik" is all the more frightening for the real-life emotions on which it is based. Mr. and Mrs. Horak, a nice Czech couple desperate to have a child, indulge in a bit of play-acting one day: He, anxious to please his increasingly sad wife, digs up a tree stump that looks vaguely like a baby and gives it to her.

She, enraptured, dresses it in lacy white baby garments, diapers it, feeds it. And, in scenes that recall the gradual, oddball dread of "Little Shop of Horrors," it grows and gets hungry. Very hungry.

Svankmajer not only pulls off the impressive feat of making a tree stump seem scary, but crafts a weird and wonderfully detailed parallel universe, in which babies are wrapped in newspaper and sold by street vendors, food devours itself and a little girl (Kristina Adamcová) sees all — including a pedophile downstairs. (This minor, stomach-churning subplot is Svankmajer's one false note; it distracts from the parable-like quality of the rest of the film.)

Is "Little Otik" a cautionary tale for would-be parents, a fable of the consequences of interfering with natural order, or an ultra-stylish horror film? It's all of the above. Mrs. Horak's veiled-Madonna pose and beatific smile, as she sits feeding the baby, is unspeakably creepy. And the ending, of which I'll reveal not a whit, is perfect — Svankmajer sends us home haunted.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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