Halloween Movie Review: THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS

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Three years ago around Halloween, I published a list of five psychological horror films that I considered some of the best in the genre (Do NOT Watch Alone…). These are films about the mind that will keep you awake at night.

The film I’m reviewing this time isn’t disturbing like the others. But it has wonderful atmosphere, and I can’t think of another film like it. Critic Leonard Maltin calls it a “near-brilliant mixture of humor and horror.” It is Roman Polanski’s 1967 satire The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (known as Dance of the Vampires in Europe). *

No matter what you think of Roman Polanski’s sexual imbroglios, as with the great Woody Allen, it’s beyond dispute he’s one of cinema’s most talented writers-producers-directors. His 1965 British movie Repulsion is a tour-de-force of psychological horror (and made my aforesaid list). Two years after Repulsion, he made this more lighthearted film.

Since Tod Browning’s classic 1931 film Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, vampire films had become progressively stale. The bottom came with the asinine Billy the Kid Versus Dracula in 1966. (Don’t watch this unless you have a large supply of alcohol on hand…enough to drink yourself into stupefaction.) So it was about time someone knocked the stuffing out of the vampire genre.

(Has anyone yet knocked the stuffing out of ubiquitous vampire books??)

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The movie plot is simple: in the mid-19th century, a scatterbrained German researcher named Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his bewildered assistant Alfred (Polanski) travel through the snowy Transylvanian mountains to a small village in search of a vampire who supposedly lives nearby. While Abronsius is obsessed with tracking down and killing the bloodsucker, Alfred is more dazzled by the lasses in the local inn, including the lovely redheaded Sarah (Polanski’s future wife, Sharon Tate), whom he encounters while she’s soaping herself in a bubble bath.

The vampire, Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne), disrupts Alfred’s attempt at courtship when he kidnaps Sarah one night. Abronsius and Alfred then track him through the snow to his castle perched on the mountaintop. Bag of vampire-slaying tricks in hand, Abronsius is determined to destroy von Krolock, and Alfred is equally determined to rescue his damsel before she turns into a hollow-eyed blood bank. Without giving anything away, Abronsius and Alfred undergo various nail-biting (and neck-biting) escapades at the castle.

Expressive Irish actor MacGowran is perfect as Abronsius, with his faux pedagogy reminiscent of the standup comic “Professor” Irwin Corey (the “World’s Foremost Authority”). Instead of scientific jargon and Pyrex tubes, though, Abronsius speaks vampire clichés and wields garlic (“GAR-leek”), a wooden stake and mallet, and various crucifixes. Polanski makes a good shell-shocked stumblebum assistant. Tate, one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood at the time, doesn’t act much, or well, but she’s a visual delight. (Her horrific fate only two years later lends this film a tragic edge).

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Bathtub scene with Tate and Polanski (photo Turner Classic Movies)

In addition, Ferdy Mayne as Count von Krolock gives veteran vampire actor Christopher Lee a run for his money, with his murky, imposing stature and ominous, throaty voice.

But the minor characters provide most of the funny moments. There’s the hunchback who serves as von Krolock’s personal “Igor,” with his gargantuan buck teeth and Beatle hairstyle. In an inspired move, Polanski gives von Krolock ’s creepy son Herbert (Iain Quarrier) a homosexual spin; Herbert is as sexually attracted to Alfred as he is thirsty for his blood. Best of all is actor Alfie Bass, who is Sarah’s father, and the innkeeper.  After turning vampire, he struggles to locate a comfortable place in the castle in which to situate his coffin. His exaggerated Yiddishness is hilarious.

The movie is filled with many moments of visual humor. The moonlit snowy landscape, courtesy of the Italian Alps, is another attractive feature. As is the shimmering music, particularly the psychedelic-Gothic score that accompanies the opening credits, created by the same person, European jazz musician Christopher Komeda, who later composed the score for Polanski’s universally acclaimed Rosemary’s Baby.

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If you’re like me, you’ll get an adrenaline rush every time the doorbell rings on Halloween night. And if you’re really like me, after the doorbell stops ringing, you’ll plop yourself in your armchair and get a rush from a good horror flick. My suggestion this year is Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers.

And if you one day find yourself in Transylvania… beware of isolated mountain villages that have inns with “gar-leek” hanging over the front door!

(* Originally released in the U.K., The Fearless Vampire Killers was butchered by MGM when released in the U.S. Twelve minutes of the film were deleted, a cartoonish opening sequence was added, and MacGowran’s voice was given a deliberately comical and ill-suited dubbing. Polanski was understandably outraged, and campaigned to have the original version restored, which didn’t happen until the early 1980s.)

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Do NOT Watch Alone! Five Great Chiller Movies for Halloween

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In my last blog piece I wrote about my hike on the Appalachian Trail. I talked about people’s fears of being in the woods at night, and I name-dropped a few scary movies with outdoor “creatures.” One movie I omitted was George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, about a bunch of zombies who terrorize a young couple. I also forgot to mention an eye-catching t-shirt I saw on my hike. It was worn by a bored-looking teenage girl who was hiking with her family. It said: “I Can’t Wait for the Zombie Apocalypse.”

Zombies are trendy these days for some inexplicable reason. By “Zombies,” I don’t mean the British rock band from the ‘60s. I’m talking about people who walk around in a daze, moaning, with their arms held straight out (kind of like Cleveland sports fans). I’m not sure why zombies are so popular. But I do know that scary movies never seem to go out of style.

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Janet Leigh in the now-classic shower scene of “Psycho”

The ball got rolling in the 1920s with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, starring Lon Chaney. In the 1930s came Tod Browning’s DRACULA and FREAKS, and James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN. Monster movies became increasingly prevalent (and low-budget), hitting rock-bottom in the ‘50s with the movies of “The Worst Director of All Time,” Edward D. Wood, Jr. But Alfred Hitchcock, “The Master,” soon rescued fright flicks with psychological thrillers like PSYCHO and THE BIRDS. Most horror flicks today, unfortunately, spring from the Wes Craven and John Carpenter school of fright. They’re loaded with shocks and violent bloodletting, but have little Gothic or psychological horror.

Hitchcock and the 1960s were possibly a high-point for horror flicks. For this article, I’ve chosen five movies from the ‘60s that I consider some of the best horror flicks of all time, but which don’t get viewed much anymore. They’re very psychological. They start slowly and build in suspense, methodically drawing the viewer into the maelstrom. By the end of the movie, one feels drained. Some of them, like THE HAUNTING and REPULSION, can worm their way into your dreams.  Or nightmares..

So here they are, listed in order of their release. If you haven’t seen these movies and enjoy the stuff of nightmares, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Make sure you watch these at night. But a word to the wise: DO NOT WATCH THESE ALONE!

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VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960, starring George Sanders): Residents of a rural English village one day fall asleep at the same moment. When they awake, things are different. Women become pregnant at the same time. The children born to them all have blond hair, hypnotic eyes, and are emotionally frigid. As they grow, they begin to huddle together privately, away from the other children. But this is only the beginning of the horror.damned

The movie is adapted from a novel called “The Midwich Cuckoos.” I saw it as a kid and had to sleep with my parents for several nights (the kids in this movie were far scarier than the bully down the street). Most children are innocent and playful. But these “creatures” are just the opposite: they’re abnormally intuitive, and they never smile. Whoever said “blondes have more fun” didn’t see this movie.

NOTE: John Carpenter remade this movie in 1995, and there’s a sequel to the original called CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1964). But the original’s the one to watch.

THE INNOCENTS (1961, starring Deborah Kerr and Michael Redgrave): All the right ingredients for a ghost story are here: a dark Victorian mansion, a neurotic English governess, rumors, mysterious deaths, plus the same disturbing child actor who led the homicidal brats in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. The story is adapted from Henry James’s classic novella “The Turn of the Screw,” written when Sigmund Freud was postulating his revolutionary theories of sexuality, dreams, and the unconscious (James’s brother, William James, is considered the “Father of American Psychology”). innocents2The casting of talented Deborah Kerr, as the governess “Miss Giddens,” is spot-on. Her saucer eyes and halting voice perfectly convey the paralyzing fear of a woman on the verge of a breakdown.

NOTE: Truman Capote co-wrote the script for this movie between publication of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood.” Capote was originally from Alabama, and he added a Southern Gothic aura to the film.

THE HAUNTING (1963, starring Julie Harris, directed by Robert Wise): The classic New England haunted house movie, adapted from a novel by Shirley Jackson entitled “The Haunting of Hill House.” I saw it with my daughter when she was about 13, and she says it’s one of the scariest movies she’s ever seen. hauntingNow, that’s a plug! (She normally hates black-and-white movies). But THE HAUNTING is a movie that could only have been filmed in B&W. The gray, shadowy cinematography gives the film depth and atmosphere, and accentuates the oppressiveness of mounting fear. Like Deborah Kerr in THE INNOCENTS, Julie Harris gives a standout performance as a young woman veering toward insanity. Is it the spooky house, or has she always been unstable, or is it both? You have to watch this movie to find out… but DON’T WATCH IT ALONE!

NOTE: this film has hints of Lesbianism between the characters played by Harris and Claire Bloom.

NOTE 2: the movie was remade in 1999. I haven’t seen it, but it supposedly stinks.

SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (1964, starring Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough): A domineering wife and her caspar milquetoast husband devise a plot. They will kidnap a young girl and hold her for ransom so the woman can get publicity for her psychic abilities. In the beginning, they have no intention of harming the girl. But the woman, haunted by the early death of her son Arthur, slowly begins to crumble mentally, and contemplates murder. Her meek husband is the only thing standing in her way.seance

SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON is a tour-de-force of acting, direction, and atmosphere. This was only Stanley’s second movie, and she didn’t make many afterwards. She was most known for theater work and for doing the narration in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But hers is a powerful performance that earned an Oscar nomination. Richard Attenborough is also great as the submissive husband. The subject matter is sensitive, but it’s handled with care. And the movie title, well… let’s just say they don’t write ‘em like this anymore.

NOTE: the part that Kim Stanley eventually got was turned down by both Deborah Kerr and Simone Signoret (famous for her role in DIABOLIQUE, a sort of French take on Alfred Hitchcock)

REPULSION (1965, starring Catherine Deneuve, directed by Roman Polanski): A definite pattern has developed in this list. Why stop now? Catherine Deneuve’s character in REPULSION makes the mental instability of Kerr, Harris, and Stanley seem like a walk in the sanitarium garden. I saw this movie for the first time two years ago. All I can say is “Wow.” And not just for the shimmering beauty of Deneuve. RepulsionDirector Polanski crafted a movie about a sexually repressed young woman whose older sister leaves her alone in their apartment for a week. At first, the woman’s behavior is just a little odd. But over time, we realize she’s slipping dangerously downstream. When she finally cracks, it’s a shocker. Watch this movie through the last camera shot, which is a close-up of a photograph of the woman as a young girl. Very unsettling.

NOTE: REPULSION was Roman Polanski’s first English-language film. It’s ranked #14 on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of best-rated films.

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After making this list, I noticed four out of five of the movies have a woman in the central role. Even PSYCHO and THE BIRDS feature a beautiful woman at the center of the plot. It was purely accidental on my part. But I’m glad I could strike a blow for women’s rights, even if all of these femmes are a little “off.” Maybe because women’s psyches are more vulnerable? Or have more complexity?

Whatever the answer, I hope that, if you do watch these movies, you’ll agree that one doesn’t need a lot of violence and blood to convey horror. On the contrary, psychological horror is far more riveting than monsters, aliens, or comic-book figures like Freddy Krueger. The greatest horrors are intangible: they lurk inside the human mind.

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