Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Discussing Roman Polanski's Tess, his version of Thomas Hardy's Tess Of The
D'Urbervilles, two friends of mine, one a photographer and the other an architect,
pointed out how you could tell it was filmed in France and not in England where it is
set. My friend the photographer cited 'the light', while the architect opted for the
vernacular architecture on display in the rural scenes. There is of course a simpler
indicator, and that is the fact that France will not extradite its citizens to stand
trial in a foreign country.
In Charade, James Coburn says of George Kennedy's character, "Oh, poor old Herman. It seems like him and good luck always was strangers," and so it seems with Polanski, although his 'bad luck' could be of the most dreadful kind imaginable. Polanski's parents suffered in the Krakow Ghetto during the war, and his mother perished in Auschwitz, Polanski himself was sheltered and survived. Polanski was in London in the summer of 1969 when his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and others were murdered by members of the Manson 'family' in LA, seemingly in a case of mistaken identity as Manson intended to target a record producer who had slighted him.
In 1977, at the home of friend Jack Nicholson, Polanski was alleged to have used a cocktail of drink and drugs to facilitate the rape of a 13-year-old girl. Having plea-bargained the rape charge down to unlawful sex with a minor, Polanski skipped bail, after a tip-off that the rape charge would stand and carry a 50-year jail term. Polanski's misadventures, his narrow avoidance of the nemesis that has struck at those around him, his curious appearance (Pinocchio as a real boy), the impossibility of gauging what affect tragedy has had upon him, and the disturbing tendencies of some of his films, make him a hard person to empathise with. He is responsible for a film, Chinatown, that regularly ranks highly in lists of the best ever made, and yet his exile has forced him to work far from the focus of Hollywood where he has nevertheless achieved critical acclaim with films like The Pianist.
After his short films at film school in Poland brought him early acclaim, Polanski made three films in England, the paranoid and hallucinatory Repulsion (1965), the Beckett-like black comedy Cul-de-Sac (1966) and this lighter horror-comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers, in which he appeared himself, alongside his future wife. Polanski cast Jack MacGowran as the vampire expert Professor Abronsius, following his role as wounded gangster Albie in Cul-de-Sac. MacGowran had a deal of success on the stage in Beckett's Waiting For Godot and Endgame, but here displays a marvellous talent for broad dotty physical comedy.
Abronsius, with his young and na�ve assistant Alfred (Polanski), travels to the outlands of Eastern Europe on the trail of evidence of the vampire affliction. Staying at an inn, the two are witness to an attack on the innkeeper's daughter Sarah (Sharon Tate) by Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne), who takes the girl back with him to his castle to provide a feast for his decrepit undead relatives. Abronsius and Alfred, who has fallen for the delightful Sarah, take off in pursuit, attempting to destroy the vampires and rescue the maiden.
The film makes use of the stock settings and characters associated with Hammer horror, an isolated inn, fearful villagers, bosomy serving girls, deformed henchmen and unfeasible amounts of snow. Some of the comedy is rather slapstick but there is one good joke, Magda the serving-girl attempts to ward off the newly vampirised innkeeper Shagal (Alfie Bass) with a crucifix, "Oy vey," he says, "have you got the wrong vampire," and further amusement is provided by Krolock's effeminate son Herbert (Iain Quarrier) who hits on Alfred. The sense of threat is well communicated despite the comedy and there is a ballroom mirror sequence that has been referenced in both Van Helsing and to hilarious effect in Gene Wilder's underrated The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother. This DVD package includes a vintage making-of feature.