The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Devils on Horseback Appetizer Recipe

Year Released: 2009
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Tom Waits, Andrew Garfield, Lily Cole
(PG-13, 122 min.)

"There is only one success – to spend your life in your own way." Christopher Morley

Is it an artistic triumph, an opium dream, or simply a “beautiful mess”? Or perhaps this film is like a poem that comes out of nowhere and carries us away with it – on one mad ride through modern London, ancient monasteries, and the dreamscape of the human mind.

The plot is a pastiche of the medieval minstrel show, a Grimm’s fairy tale, Ray Bradbury, and the Book of Job all captured on a Savador Dali canvas. Here it is: Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) has been gambling with the devil (Tom Waits) since his youthful days at an ancient monastery, carelessly running up a tab of souls like so many black and red poker chips. One soul at risk, however, is not so casual. It is that of Parnassus’s daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), due to Mr. Nick, as our devil calls himself, on her sixteenth birthday.

Of course, Valentina knows nothing of her father’s debt, filling her days performing from the back of the traveling caravan, flirting with fellow troupe member Anton (Andrew Garfield), newcomer Tony (Heath Ledger), and longing for the good life, the picture perfect one captured in the glossy magazines she looks through every night.

The caravan itself, an exquisite anachronism in London’s back streets, is narrow and tall, and like the film itself, at the point of pitching over on itself in an exotic overreach. Pulled by massive black steeds driven by the very capable dwarf, Percy (Verne Troyer), the caravan is both splendid and slap dash -- painted to resemble illuminated woodwork, but housing its boozing master in makeshift squalor. No wonder Valentina dreams over those magazines.

But Dr. Parnassus’s caravan is nevertheless quite extraordinary. As he sits onstage in a meditative trance – not so very different from his drunken excesses after hours – his players hawk the urban London youth who totter out of the pub where they are encamped. The inebriated yobs and their female equivalents are detached enough from their own realities that the appearance of a medieval traveling minstral show parked pubside seems right at home. Just a few staggering steps through the shiny paper mirror and they enter a new reality, the landscape of the doctor’s mind, where he presents them with a mixture of their own secret desires and a gambler’s choice, a throw of the dice for their very souls. Will they choose his philosophic staircase to the heavens – large, steep, and mysterious -- or the sleazy neon honky tonk that invites them at ground level?

Mr. Nick, its proprietor, as you might expect, gets his fair share of customers, but he is not ruthlessly malevolent, more like the genial trickster of old than the satanic demons who have frightened us out of our wits ever since The Exorcist. In fact, Mr. Nick seems more an avenger, with a touch of the Greek goddess Nemesis, harvesting those overripe lost souls slowing rotting on the damp ground beneath the tree from which they have fallen.

The film also plays with the idea of the artist as outsider. Parnassus and his cohorts always camp in the seedy side of town, along the derelict shore scarred by a landscape of trash. Their wagon is even equipped with a sort of canon on its stern side, a medieval version of one of Bond’s getaway cars, for when the British Bobbies pursue.

Tony, the mysterious stranger who joins the troupe after a botched hanging, is the final performance for Heath Ledger, who died during the middle of filming. With at least as much creativity and legerdemain as the film’s title character, director Terry Gilliam enlists three very talented actors (Depp. Law, and Farrell) to play different aspects of Tony’s character on his various visits through the looking glass. Since characters see themselves as they wish, rather than as they are on other side of the mirror-portal, these changes not only fail to jar, they almost seem to make sense, perhaps in the way one person changes into another in our own dreamscapes.

If you expect a conventional plot or realistic storyline, you will be disappointed, but if you are ready to take an uncharted ride through one man’s version of the unconscious, step right up. Step right up and buy your ticket.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

In keeping with the domain of Mr. Nick, the devil addicted to wagering on human souls, we have chosen an appropriately diabolical dish called Devils on Horseback.

Certainly, Mr. Nick himself does not ride the black steeds that pull Doctor Parnassus’s caravan, but he is closely associated with them, since the good doctor is as addicted to gambling as he is.

These tasty appetizers are deceptively simple and quite tasty in the bargain, almost as tempting as making a deal with the devil.


Devils on Horseback Appetizers


Makes 24

  • 24 large dates, pitted
  • 12 slices bacon, halved crosswise
  • 1/3 cup crumbled Stilton cheese


Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place 24 toothpicks in a small bowl filled with water; let soak 15 minutes. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and fit with a wire rack; set aside.
Halve dates lengthwise being careful not to cut all the way through. Place a small amount of cheese in the center of each date. Wrap a piece of bacon around each date. Secure bacon with a toothpick.
Place dates on prepared baking sheet. Bake until bacon is cooked through, 20 to 25 minutes.

Recipe Source: Martha