A forgotten oddity from the early 1970s is Jacques Demy’s English language mounting of The Pied Piper, a rather bleak but mostly unequivocal version of the famed Grimm Bros. fairy tale about a titular piper who infamously lured the children of Hamelin to their assumed deaths after being rebuffed by the townsfolk when he similarly rid the town of plague carrying rats.
Set in the 1300s of northern Germany, this UK production blends bits of Robert Browning’s famed poem of the legend into the film, but the end result is unusually straightforward and unfussy, considering Demy’s predilection for inventive, colorful musicals, such as the classic confections The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. The stunt casting of Donovan as the piper generates a certain amount of interest, although he’s whittled down to a supporting character amongst a cast of master character actors like Donald Pleasence, John Hurt, Peter Vaughan, and child star Jack Wild.
Notably, The Pied Piper is one of the few Demy films not to be built around a strong, beautiful female lead, which may also explain why there’s no center point in the film. Cathryn Harrison (daughter of Rex, who starred in Louis Malle’s Black Moon) and a gone-to-seed Diana Dors (though not featured as memorably as her swarthy turn in Skolimowski’s Deep End) are the tiny flecks of feminine representation. It was also not Demy’s first English language production, as he’d made a sequel to his New Wave entry Lola (1961) with 1969’s Los Angeles set Model Shop. So what compelled him to make this departure, which premiered in-between two of his most whimsical Catherine Deneuve titles (Donkey Skin; A Slightly Pregnant Man) is perhaps the film’s greatest mystery.
Cultural familiarity with the material tends to work against our expectations. At best, Donovan is a mere supporting accent, popping up to supply mellow, anachronistic music at odd moments before the dramatic catalyst involving his ability to conjure rats with music arrives. Prior to his demeaning, Demy’s focus is mostly on the omnipotent and aggressive power of the corrupting church (Peter Vaughan’s Bishop) and Donald Pleasence’s greedy town leader, whose son (a sniveling John Hurt) is more intent on starting wars and making counterfeit gold to pay his gullible minions than stopping the encroaching plague. Taking the brunt of their violence is the Jewish alchemist, Melius (Michael Hordern), who is wise enough to know the rats have something to do with the spread of the disease. Demy uses his tragic demise to juxtapose the piper’s designs on the children.
While Hurt and Pleasance are entertaining as a toxic father and son, Demy seems estranged from anyone resembling a protagonist. Donovan is instantly forgettable, and the H.R. Pufnstuf and Oliver! child star Jack Wild gets upstaged by a wild mop of hair and a pronounced limp (which explains why he isn’t entranced along with the other children), and the film plays as if Donovan’s role might have been edited down in post. The script was the debut of screenwriters Andrew Birkin (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, 2006) and Mark Peploe (The Passenger, 1975; The Last Emperor, 1987) who would both go on to write a number of offbeat auteur entries.
Kino Lorber releases this obscurity as part of their Studio Classics label, presented in 1.66:1. Picture and sound quality are serviceable, however, the title would have greatly benefitted from a restoration. DP Peter Suschitzky’s frames rightly capture the period, including some awesomely creepy frescoes housing Pleasence and son, but the color sometimes seems faded or stripped from some sequences. Kino doesn’t include any extra features.
More of a curio piece for fans of Demy, The Pied Piper mostly seems a missed opportunity of the creepy legend.
Film Review: ★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆