Friday 11 March 2016

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

Director: Roman Polanski
Stars: Jack MacGowran, Sharon Tate and Alfie Bass
Dance of the Vampires, the original British title of what soon became known instead in the United States as The Fearless Vampire Killers, either with or without the subtitle of Pardon Me, But Your Teeth are in My Neck, is a rather strange picture. The original title might suggest a European vampire tale in the style of Jean Rollin with abundant nudity. The new one clearly plays up the comedic angle and the subtitle hints at Carry On levels of farce. It’s most often described as a comedy horror film or a horror comedy, as if the order of those words suggests a priority, but it’s really none of the above. Yes, it’s humorous, but it’s very much in an old fashioned style of humour that isn’t going to have you laughing out loud or rolling on the floor. Yes, it’s about vampires, but there’s very little plot and what there is plays so archetypally that the easiest description is as clich√©. It stuns me that few people seem to describe the film as what it really is, a fairy tale, especially as it’s truer to that ancient form than anything Tim Burton has conjured up.

It’s especially odd to me because, to my mind, this fails as a straight comedy or a straight horror movie, but succeeds magnificently as a fairy tale. Watch it the wrong way and you’re going to think something is missing. Everything here is fairy tale in its truest sense: a story full of folklore, myth and hand-me-down knowledge, all phrased as a cautionary tale. You can see Roman Polanski, director and co-writer, start in on this immediately, with the arrival of Professor Abronsius and his assistant, Alfred, in the snowy wastes of Transylvania. It’s easy to see the Brothers Grimm in the opening shot of their sleigh beset by wild dogs, which Alfred beats away with an umbrella while his master sits motionless because, as we soon discover, he’s been frozen stiff. It’s obvious when they arrive at an inn that everyone has their own remedy for his condition, whether that be hot beer and cinnamon or just putting his feet into a hot bath. Some disagree; one wants to rub snow on his nose, while another says to leave it alone.
And, of course, it’s impossible to miss how they all clam up when Abronsius recovers and asks about the garlic hanging from the walls and the ceiling. No wonder he comes alive at this point, because it’s his life work finally showing some promise. He’s been travelling around central Europe trying to find evidence of vampires, but to no avail. This quest has already lost him a chair at the University of K√∂nigsberg and it’ll lead to him losing a lot more. Without providing spoilers, there’s a Lovecraftian message in play here, an old faithful that seeking knowledge for its own sake is an inherently dangerous act which will surely lead to bad things, usually insanity; the ending to this movie endows that message with a delicious irony. The Professor has been very much on that path for decades, though he’s taken nothing but wrong turns until now, collecting vast amounts of knowledge but no practical experience. Finally, his persistence has paid off and, as he eagerly tells Alfred, ‘We are nearing our goal.’

Before they reach it, though, there’s more ritual and folklore, always introduced lightheartedly. We watch Alfred place heated bulbs onto his master’s back in the old Chinese technique of cupping. The innkeeper, Yoine Shagall, has a daughter, who likes taking baths; her father spanks her because of it. ‘No baths!’ he repeats like a mantra and even sneaks through the bedroom of our intrepid heroes at night to board up the bathroom door with a hammer, then tiptoes right back out again. The next day, the inn’s maid hides under Alfred’s table when a hunchback with club feet and buck teeth walks in and a patron spits on the floor after he leaves. Everything has rules in a fairy tale because that’s what it’s for: follow the rules and you’ll be safe, but break the rules and outrageously awful things will happen to you. Amidst all this, it’s easy to read hidden meaning into everything. Suddenly, the snowman that Alfred builds in front of the inn seems like a guardian for Sarah Shagall, who watches him from an upstairs window.
Not that it works, of course, because people are good at breaking rules. Sarah keeps on sneaking baths and her father neglects to hang copious amounts of garlic in the bathroom, so leaving the way open for the local vampire lord to breeze in through the window in the roof. In a wonderful little touch, Sarah first notices the danger she’s in when she realises that it’s snowing inside the bathroom. This sequence is an archetypal one, over quickly but with every component needed: a naked girl and a caped vampire, neck biting action, discovery too late, voiceless terror and pursuit in vain. It’s well shot too, with a memorable shot of the Professor breaking into the bathroom to discover an empty bath with blood stained bubbles. While I’m watching for Ferdy Mayne, who plays Count von Krolock, the vampire who took Sarah and who lives in the inevitable castle on the hill, it’s worth mentioning cinematographer Douglas Slocombe here, who died last month at the ripe old age of 103.

Slocombe was a legendary British cinematographer, having shot many of the great Ealing comedies like The Man in the White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob and Kind Hearts and Coronets, the latter of which had that amazing shot which assembled eight different characters, all played by Alec Guinness. Today, he’s surely best known for shooting the Indiana Jones trilogy, the first of which landed him his third Academy Award nomination. He never won an Oscar, even though his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark could easily be regarded as a textbook on cinematography. By that point, though, he’d already won three BAFTAs out of nine nominations, his wins for films as diverse as The Servant, The Great Gatsby and Julia. The British Society of Cinematographers honoured him with five awards, the other two being for The Lion in Winter and Jesus Christ Superstar, and, in 1995, with a Lifetime Achievement Award. I’d highlight other titles of his too, such as Circus of Horrors, The Italian Job and Rollerball.
Ferdy Mayne was even more prolific, though he rarely played lead roles in his half century in film. He made over 130 pictures and appeared in innumerable television shows, but surprisingly few capitalised on his European heritage. A German Jew, his family had the foresight to send him to England in 1932 to keep him safe from the Nazis and he became an informant for MI5 during World War II. After a couple of brief early appearances, one in a sleigh shot from behind and the other while he seizes Sarah, he gets a glorious introduction inside his castle that highlights both the serious and frivolous nature of the picture. Perhaps inevitably for 1967, he plays the count like a sort of cross between Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, the two most recognisable vampires at the time. He aims more at emulating Lee, but his 6’1” frame was the same as Lugosi’s and his voice shifts during the film from the deep resonance of the former into the accented enticements of the latter.

That’s not to say that his performance is merely a combination of influences. He adds details to the role, not just the grey hair that neither Lee nor Lugosi would countenance. Most obviously, he adds a timeless patience that’s different to what either previous star brought to the role. Lugosi endowed Count Dracula with the politeness inherent in a noble upbringing, but Mayne adds ennui to that. He’s lived a lot of lives and has settled into a routine that bores him and the arrival of the Professor, whose works he’s read, is a welcome distraction from what could well be centuries of repetition. He seizes this opportunity with what Abronsius describes, in a neatly clever double conversation, as ‘the mechanical need to fight against the torpor of hibernation’. He’s talking about a bat, but his entire spiel applies to von Krolock as well. Among the Count’s more blatant lines, like ‘I’m a nightbird. I am not much good in the daytime,’ it’s easy to miss clever details like Abronsius’s monologue, but they’re still there nonetheless.
Along with Slocombe and Mayne, the other big winners at this point are Krzysztof Komeda for his choral score and the team who built a gothic castle to the specifications of convention but without skimping on scale. It’s a delight in every way, a huge stone construction packed full of vast four poster beds, drooping candles and antique furnishings, whether on the floor or the walls, and a dusting of cobwebs decorates the abundant wooden panels. The geometry is dreamlike, the combination of presumably unconnected sets and Slocombe’s floating camera raising an appropriate disconnection as we try to figure out what leads where. Abronsius and Alfred get to explore more during the day than perhaps they’d like but needs must. When Koukol, the hunchback servant, in the suitably bulky form of Terry Downes, a middleweight champion of the world, blocks the door to the crypt, our intrepid duo take to the snow-covered roofs to find a way in. The professor gets stuck in the window and Alfred goes the long way around to free him.

Again, this is the sort of thing that we read about in fairy tales. There’s so much of this, more overtly with the progression of the film, that it’s hard to read it any other way, but then perhaps some don’t have any background in that sort of literature, imbibing their fairy tales at the bar of Disney rather than the library of Anderson and Grimm. There are some glorious scenes that run on fairy tale logic towards the end. One has Alfred being chased around a colonnade by the Count’s effeminate son, Herbert, only for the vampire to stop and Alfred to run all the way round and end up right next to his pursuer. Another has the pair talk to Sarah in snippets during the grand vampire ball that provided the film’s original title, as if none of the vampires with their enhanced hearing could hear them. Best of all is their escape from the dance, with a bevy of vampires following them in procession towards a mirror, in which a mere three figures are visible: Abronsius, Alfred and Sarah, the girl they’re attempting to rescue.
I’ve seen this film before and enjoyed it, but watching late one night while I was sleepy, I missed much of the detail and found it surprisingly slow. Watching afresh in the morning, it was back to the speed that I’m used to and I caught the little details that I liked so much in previous viewings. My favourite is surely still the moment when Yoine Shagall, now a vampire, climbs into the bedroom of the serving wench he’s been sneaking around with; she holds up a crucifix and he, being Jewish, laughs at her and points out that she has the wrong cross. I love the use of colour, especially during the ball, which is full of faded vampires in faded outfits. When Sharon Tate is revealed, dressed in a bright red costume, she stands out fantastically. I’d call out Jack MacGowran as Professor Abronsius, the massively experienced Irish actor who overdoes everything gloriously, but it’s Koukol who sledges down a hill in a coffin and Alfred who’s pursued by a gay vampire. The latter is played by Polanski himself, refusing a credit until the very end.

At the end of the day though, it’s Sharon Tate who shines brightest. This wasn’t her first lead role, but I’m much more fond of her work here than anywhere else. To my mind, she was perfectly cast, even though Polanski was set on Jill St John. Tate is so desirable that it’s believable that Count von Krolock wants her and Polanski got her, the two marrying a year later. Their marriage lasted just over a year and a half until Tate, along with their baby which was almost due, was murdered by the Manson Family at their house in Los Angeles. She left behind only nine films and a few TV appearances, including a run on The Beverly Hillbillies. Sadly, she’s remembered mostly for her murder, but we can see her talent grow through three major films: Eye of the Devil, The Fearless Vampire Killers and Valley of the Dolls. Polanski would go from strength to strength, of course, and Mayne would continue to be prolific, even playing Count Dracula in a German TV show called Teta. He would have been a hundred years old today, on 11th March.

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