Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Fearless Vampire Killers – review


Director: Roman Polanski

Release Date: 1967

Contains spoilers

The Fearless Vampire Killers, or to give it it’s full title “The Fearless Vampire Killer or: Pardon Me, but your Teeth are in my Neck” was Roman Polanski’s vampire comedy that gently satirised, in a loving way, the vampire films from Hammer Studios. It was whilst shooting this film that he met and fell in love with Sharon Tate, who tragically was murdered two years later by Charles Manson’s cult.

Abronsius and AlfredThe film concerns Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) an absent minded professor type and his assistant Alfred (Roman Polanski). Abronsius is searching out the evil of vampirism in order that he might destroy it – a crusade that has cost him his credibility amongst his peers. Unfortunately both the Professor and Alfred are somewhat inept and it is implied that the Professor’s knowledge is, at best, theoretical.

Their travels take them to Transylvania. They reach the inn run by Shagal (Alfie Bass) and, on noticing the garlic festooned in the inn, Abronsius realises they may be nearing their goal. He does ask Shagal if there is a castle nearby, which the innkeeper denies, though it is quite obvious by the reaction of one of the tavern patrons that he is lying.

Sharon Tate as SarahShagal keeps his daughter, Sarah (Sharon Tate), hidden from the world and a virtual prisoner, he is even opposed to her taking baths. Keeping her locked away is meant to keep her safe from the local Count, Von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne), and one presumes the attempt to stop her bathing is to make her less appealing.

Unfortunately when the Count’s hunchbacked servant, Koukol (Terry Downes) comes to the inn, he spots Sarah in an upper window. Abronsius has a feeling about the hunchback and does send Alfred to follow him, though all he discovers is that wolves are not safe when the hunchback is around.

Ferdy Mayne as Count Von KrolockThat evening, as Sarah persuades the love-struck Alfred to let her take a bath, the Count visits the inn. Breaking through the skylight of the bathroom he bites Sarah and abducts her. The scene opens with snow falling on Sarah in her bath, from the skylight, and this looks wonderfully surreal. The sight of blood on the bath bubbles, once they discover that Sarah is missing, is vividly disturbing. Discovering that his daughter has gone, the distraught Shagal eats some garlic and chases after the Count. The next day his frozen body is returned to the inn.

staking practiceThe villagers blame wolves but Abronsius finds fang marks on his wrists, ankles and abdomen. He tries to persuade Shagal’s wife, Rebecca (Jessie Robbins), to let him stake the corpse but she will have none of it. Once the occupants of the inn have gone to bed, and after Abronsius and Alfred have practiced their staking technique on a pillow (fabulously shot in shadows), they go to stake the corpse but Shagal has already risen. This leads to a comic chase around the inn and the staking of a barrel of wine.

Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampireShagal eventually gets into the bedroom of the maid, Magda (Fiona Lewis), a young lady whose bed he was also trying to get into whilst still alive. She wards him off with a crucifix to his amused response of “Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire.” This is much aped in other vampire spoofs but it was Polanski who did it first and, I believe, this was the first cinematic appearance of a Jewish vampire. The joke continues as Abronsius finds the girl, post biting, and orders that the room be equipped with garlic and crucifixes – to which the almost comatose girl giggles.

Iain Quarrier as HerbertShagal runs off into the night, chased by Alfred and Abronsius, who track him to the Count’s castle. Once inside they are discovered by Koukol and find themselves the “guests” of the Count and his ‘sensitive’ son Herbert (Iain Quarrier). The next night will see a midnight ball and the two fearless vampire killers must find a way out and, if possible, rescue Sarah.

The vampires in the movie cast no reflection (Abronsius suggests this as a theory and it is Alfred who discovers it to be true, when he informs the Professor of this the learned man remarks that he wishes he could have seen that, Alfred, not surprisingly, replies that you can’t actually see anything) and most fear the cross. They sleep in coffins during the day and can be killed by a stake through the heart. It is unclear if garlic, though widely seen through the film, has any effect on these creatures – certainly eating it was of no help to Shagal. Abronsius also suggests that a victim of a vampire bite can recover if they are given a transfusion and get some rest – a theory which we never discover the validity of as a transfusion is never performed.

The castle sequence has many great comedy moments.

d'ohUnable to get into the crypt through the front entrance, due to the watchful eyes of Koukol, the two hunters take a rooftop journey to find their quarry. Alfred climbs through the window but Abronsius gets wedged in the small window, thus the slayage is down to Alfred. This of course becomes a farce as Alfred doesn’t have the courage to do the deed, at one point holding a stake above the Count, whilst looking away, not realising that it is upside down.

Another great moment is when Herbert tries to seduce Alfred and then attempts to bite him. Alfred has been reading a pillow book and the vampire finds that between his teeth rather than the neck he expected. There then follows a comedic chase around the castle.

an impressive makeshift crossThe coup de grâce is the midnight ball attended by a whole host of vampires. This is infiltrated by Alfred and Abronsius (in disguise) so that they might save Sarah. The long set up leads to the three humans dancing before a mirror and being recognised as they are the only ones who cast a reflection. This has been aped, in a comedy sense, by such films as Dracula Dead and Loving it and in more serious ways by films such as Van Helsing. The genius of this original version is only topped by the remarkable way in which it was shot. Polanski had a replica room built behind a false mirror and the ‘reflections’ of the humans are actually doubles.

The acting is very solid but the stand out performance was that of Alfie Bass as the comic Shagal character, little asides such as when he drags his coffin into the Count’s crypt for the day only to be evicted by Koukol really add a lot to the film. As the film progresses you really begin to feel for the two hunters and their ineptitude is endearing. The character of Abronsius is well crafted and he has one piece of dialogue, when he tries to explain to the Count why they are trespassing in his castle by concocting a story about sleep-flying bats, has to be one of the best excuses for being in a place that has been committed to celluloid. If there is a weak link in the acting it is within the female cast, however that is not so much that their performances are poor but because they were not given much to do – the focus of the film is definitely the two hunters.

The film looks marvellous and the setting sumptuous. The inn is perhaps a little squalid and yet homely, the castle a maze of corridors and cobweb festooned rooms, indeed when Abronsius goes to bed in the castle he actually pulls some cobwebs over himself like a sheet. If the film has a fault it is that it can be slow in places, though this is largely off-set by the fact that it always looks beautiful. However we should recognise that the occasional slow parts puts some viewers off the film.

The film is utterly none gratuitous. We see very little blood, there is no nudity and just a couple of purposeful cleavage shots. This just goes to show that you do not have to rely on gratuitous sex and violence to make a well put together vampire movie.

Let’s face it, as far as I know, this is the only film you will ever watch that has a hunchback using a coffin as a toboggan – and that has to be worth the entry fee alone.

8.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


The T said...

Brillaint movie, though at times I feel is a little bit too long. Amazingly, for a comedy, it has atmosphere, and the locations are some of the best in vampire filmdom!

The music is another good point...

Taliesin_ttlg said...

cheers for the comment The T