Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: because we were apparently all very bad, Disney has seen fit to punish us with Alice Through the Looking Glass, the latest cinematic incarnation of Lewis Carroll's Alice books. This is among the most frequently-adapted literary properties in all of movie history, so I had plenty to work with; but of course I had to pick my very favorite Alice film of all.

If you don't know the work of Jan Švankmajer, then you are in for a treat. By which I mean, you are in for a body horror nightmare of organisms and machinery colliding in a frenzy of rotting, fleshy perversity. But funny. He's one of the few film artists for whom I'd casually throw out the word "visionary", and would have earned a place for himself in the holiest books of world animation if he'd never made anything but the great 1982 short Dimensions of Dialogue, but of course we're all lucky enough to live in a world where he made many other things, including the film I've gathered you all here to celebrate right now.

That being the director's first feature, 1988's Alice ("Something from Alice" in the original Czech), a free-handed adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. There have been many more faithful filmed versions of the books, not always to their credit; these are not, by their nature, the kind of books which do well by literalism, whether in reading or in translating the prose to life. What Švankmajer's Alice does better than any other version of the book I can name is to capture the sensibility of Carroll. Simply put, this is the only filmed version of the material that I've seen (and there are so many films based on the book that neither I nor probably anybody else has seen every last one of them) that persuasively places us right in the middle of a child's nightmare. And that setting is, after all, the one concrete thing we can say about the books.

Presenting itself right off the bat as "a film made for children. Perhaps", Alice covers most of the most beloved events of the books, in pretty close to the same order that they show up in Disney's animated Alice in Wonderland from 1951, which I think we can all agree is the closest to a "standard" movie version of the material (Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and the Cheshire Cat are the most conspicuous absences). Pinafore-wearing schoolgirl Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová, unpleasantly overdubbed in the English-language version that I'd urge you to avoid if you can possibly help it) is bored with her lessons, and when she has a chance to escape, she does, chasing a White Rabbit incongruously dressed in a Victorian waistcoat and obsessively double-checking a stopwatch down a hole. There she encounters a room with a tiny locked door and a key on a table, as well as edibles that cause her to shrink and grow; further misadventures include getting stuck in the White Rabbit's house as a giant, learning about the properties of magic mushrooms from a talking Caterpillar, and encountering the illogical tea party of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare.

Familiar ingredients, but Švankmajer's presentation does more than any other filmed Alice I have encountered to rip all the familiarity away from the material. I'd say that's true at the point that we first see this film's repulsive White Rabbit, literally an animated corpse - a taxidermied animal with enormously over-sized glass eyes, communicating almost solely through the click-click of its giant buck teeth snapping together,and prone to storing its watch within its hollowed-out chest cavity - but that's not giving the film near enough credit. It's clear that this Alice is up to some kind of mischief from the moment Alice escapes her sister to enter the house where the whole plot takes place, as Švankmajer and cinematographer Svatopluk Malý's camera stares without editorial intent at a room full of decaying, forgotten bric-à-brac: skulls, effaced paintings, discarded household objects, jars full of wet things. There are sound effects produced by an unseen source, as the camera sucks in an impression not of objects but of an accumulation of the old, the corroded, and the deadly, collecting rust and dust. A pair of dolls representing Alice and her sister sit motionless, repeating the boring lesson, while Alice throws stones into a cup of tea.

Then, and only then, do we start to see Švankmajer's Wonderland, and it is not pleasant. Many of the animation puppets have the distinct appearance of being preserved animal pieces - the White Rabbit, a collection of half-skeleton figures including Bill the Lizard - and even those things which aren't actually embodiments of death and rot often evoke those things. It is a nasty, grotesque world the film presents, in which a rat pounds sticks into Alice's head, while she looks up with annoyance; in which the Red Queen's demands "off with his head!" result in a pile of defaced playing cards that still twitch and move, zombie-like, and in which a sock and dentures can transform into a perverse Caterpillar, unexceptional household objects turned into a Frankensteinian phallus.

The difficulty now facing the critic is to explain why this is brilliant, captivating, utterly rewarding cinema, and not the kind of monstrosity better set on fire than watched. Reader, I concede: this is not to all tastes. If you felt a visceral, deep-down revulsion to the idea of a preserved rabbit hide repurposed into the White Rabbit, I assure you, the film itself is not going to change your mind. The best defense I can offer is that revulsion isn't contrary to the point.

The thing about Alice, being so much longer than anything else Švankmajer had turned his Eastern European morbidity to, is that after a while it "normalises" itself. You really do start to lose the feeling of disgust after a while, after which what remains is the awareness that what you're looking at is, in some sense, off-putting and wrong, without the visceral objection to it. Perhaps I am looking for the word "clinical". What emerges, anyway, is a great detachment, one in which the material is heavily mediated from us, not least because of the film's unflagging insistence on its alienating framing effect: every single line of dialogue is narrated by Alice herself, and when she identifies the speaker ("...demanded the Red Queen"), the image cuts to a close-up of her mouth. That alone is enough to give away most of the game: Alice is presented, explicitly, as the recollection of a child taking place in the plot. Telling us a bedtime story, maybe, or recounting a florid dream.

A dream, of course, is what this is all revealed to be - it's Alice in Wonderland, duh - and what I love best about this Alice among all Alices is the gravity with which it treats that truth. The arm's-length remove between the viewer and the content invites us to ponder it with a chilly objectivity, and I think what we come away with is a mixture of two registers. This film is a combination of the associative logic of childhood fantasy and psychoanalytical symbolism - not, I think, necessarily Freudian symbolism, though the Caterpillar as a toothy, flaccid penis is uniquely hard to look past. Frankly, I'm not sure what most of the symbolism in Alice is meant to symbolise, though I happily concede that I've never sunk too much time into thinking about it. The raw effectiveness of the material is too powerful to sit and try to pick it apart.

But regardless, symbols there are a-plenty, or maybe they're just the point at which the illogical rhythm of things is at its most suggestive. Wonderland itself is nothing but the inside of an apparently abandoned house, with things left lying around given life by some animating spirit of the place that does not let it die, turning banal domestic objects into mysterious landscapes. When Alice sucks ink off her fingers and shrinks, she turns into the doll of herself from the first "dream" scene, animated in the same jerky, but eerily thoughtful style as the other puppets in the film. The Mad Hatter and March Hare aimlessly repeat a small collection of actions and stock phrases, fully betraying their mechanical nature. These representations feel obvious, somehow, but also impossible to appropriately describe in words without popping the bubble of how delicate they feel in watching.

More than anything, they feel appropriately dreamy - the real kind of dream where you're standing in a supermarket with your college roommate and then you walk into the produce department, which is in the basket of a hot air balloon, except now your roommate has turned into Cher, because of course your roommate was always Cher, you'd just temporarily forgotten that. There are other films that capture this, but they are few, and I can't name any feature-length film that so successfully captures the weird way in which dreams are full of things that are, in principle, terrifying and foul, but they seem matter-of-fact in the dreamspace that it's only upon waking that you start to think of it as a nightmare. That is the childish POV that Alice excels at presenting, and no film captures the "this and then this and then this" rationale of childhood narratology in quite this way, with quite this bloody-minded commitment.