Who Says Vampires Are no Laughing Matter?
Okay folks! First point to make clear is how do we broach the delicate, often personal and controversial subject matter of one, Rajmund Roman Liebling the man better known in the world of cinema as Roman Polanski. Despite his personal life and historical reproach, we unfortunately have to cautiously take on board the often weighty and controversial side of Polanski that has undoubtedly followed him in tow of his life long work in film, in his capacity as an actor but more importantly in recognition of he being an outstanding director of cinema. He has always courted personal collateral damage at one time or another. We must add here, that any single criminal incident laid at his door over the years must be condemned in the strongest of terms. There can be no atonement for such outrageous behaviour, (fact). Sadly the private side of this man has often detracted (and rightly so…) from his cinematic gifts. There is also no doubting that despite his extreme behaviour, strangely he is still able to attain and cast A-List film stars in all his work over many decades, on numerous projects. Despite this ability to acquire the worlds finest actors, surely there has been a pretty heavy cost to be had for what has been a career longevity that has stood both test, time and great personal controversy, a controversy which one day may see Polanski face the full weight of justice for his crime as is befitting.
If we concentrate specifically on his work only – then we must note that he has undoubtedly done his multitasking of jobs tremendously. As a director in particular, it is clear his achievements are both high and indeed mighty. When we note his earlier work and efforts, his time spent within the horror genre and clearly highlighted with this particular review, we see great visionary creativity and an astonishing directors eye for noting the frailties of human nature in all its unravelling nuances and traits. Polanski is often able to offer his audience a pulsating and stimulating wealth of often, thought-provoking, main character developments with great attention to detailed individualism. He is always uncompromising in the subsequent transfer onto the screen of such characters, he able to impeccably unravel many strands of full-on cinematic study. Polanski is often at pains to invest and highlight his characters with often very eccentric demeanour, perhaps even extroverted, often broken, unpleasant main characterisation. This includes his wider film making demographic which is spread across many decades of cinema. There are genuinely not many who have performed more consistent nor better; in this particular case within the (horror) movie arena, nor have many directors been able to flourish in the many other varied and different aspects of cinematic topics outside of his horror genre work. Not only does Roman Polanski stand tall as an undoubted horror Auteur, especially in his range of genre material, which could never be more different in comparison to the mainstream, especially when considering his several works of note which he has provided within the genre. The reason for choosing ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’ for the sake of review is quite simple, for me the spectacle and the extravagant sets-pieces and the stunningly detailed gothic backdrop, mixed seamlessly with the glorious comedy timing, pour from almost every scene of this vast production and should be set aside from the more claustrophobic restraint of Polanski’s incredible and disturbing, Repulsion (1965), or the spellbinding, conspiring forces contained within his seminal, Rosemary’s Baby (1968). We must also note his often overlooked creepy little gem, The Tenant (1976). And let us not forget his return to unusual form with the dark worldly conspiracy backdrop to his horror inspired melodrama, The Ninth Gate (1999). All these films are true classics in their own right and must be noted for their importance to the diverse horror genre for many differing and unusual, though very appealing reasons.
Unlike the aforementioned titles above and finally getting on to point number two? Comedy/Horror combinations often do work. Not only when allied can they be a refreshing place to take the genre, but is it not true that most of horror is indeed deeply founded on the very principle of the wicked humour of those who dare venture into the genre – writers, film-makers, producers, Etc. Do these artistic collaborators not temper even deliberately go in search of such warped humour with devilish sensibility, ferreting away in some corner of their/our imagination? The careful dissecting of what can be harrowing, violent events, supernatural or otherwise, has often been the backbone, even the cause to much horror literature, stage plays, movies, even our own personal world view at times? These two combined bedfellows easily able to live hand in hand of one another. For a case in point and released the year previous to Polanski’s effort – we need not look further than Gerald Thomas’s outstanding comedy masterpiece, Carry On Screaming! (1966).
Okay it’s undoubtedly typical ‘Carry On’ repartee and farce, but this movie also spectacularly indulges in its horror undertow and sensibility with massive wholehearted spirit and effort. For me it is still my favourite of all the Carry On movies by quite a distance and does not hesitate in dealing with its horror movie ethics, head-on. It is a truly amazing effort in its own right. ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’ on the other hand can be more recognised as both darker and creepier in its outright horror output, with the added ingredient of comic satire smouldering close-by. Polanski’s effort is a touch more refined and observational in its comedy output but again as a movie event and like Thomas’s effort also – is of the highest genre quality. I must add here that Polanski’s movie also captures in breathtaking detail and style, a dark gothic pulse that again moves ‘seamlessly’ between plot investigation and the discovery of the vampires of the piece and their revealed existence. The interplay (again!) I have to say is simply stunningly interspersed into the very colourful palate described in this vibrant – visual splendour. The gothic nature of ‘Fearless’ even enhances the comedy exchanges, making it a more fantastic accomplishment, especially when the actors could easily be swallowed up by the vast and extraordinary layered and detailed backdrop provided in this pictures many event filled escapades. We must also note both Thomas with, Carry On Screaming! and Polanski with The Fearless Vampire Killers, did set a massive high standard for such full scale horror/comedy productions. Here we can also ceremoniously and without question add Mel Brooks and his direct gothic parody masterpiece, ‘Young Frankenstein’ (1974).
Brooks’s work lies safely in-between Thomas’s ‘Carry On Screaming!’ Double- entendre investment and Polanski’s more risqué adult themed explorations. Mel Brooks’s later attempt at historical gothic parody is his (1995) ‘Dracula: Dead and loving it’, though amusing in part, becomes more tedious and sparse of any original and adventurous thought, unlike his, masterful Young Frankenstein, which clearly defines Brooks’s writing and directing prowess and his pursuit of parodying sacred and classic gothic literature. His ’95 effort starring the brilliant comedy talents of Leslie Nielsen mostly fails in its attempts to recapture and maintain the essence of his ’74 classic by a considerable margin. I also much prefer Brooks’s, ‘High Anxiety’, (1977). Though this is a complete homage to Alfred Hitchcock, the very dark edged inspiration of suspense and horror acknowledgement in this effort, strongly reminds me of the humour that places it amongst this structured category.
I would also like to give a passing nod and offer my appreciation (because others often don’t) to the often overlooked and less mentioned homage to the Dracula premise, ‘Love at First Bite’, (1979). Directed by Stan Dragoti and starring the suave George Hamilton. After that the Horror/Comedy tag congregates largely in cinematic terms around horror movie anthology work. Dare we mention the ‘Scary Movie’ franchise.
Roman Polanski’s, The Fearless Vampire Killers, (1967), Co written by the legendary French born writer Gérard Brach, (they worked regularly with each other across many decades and up until 1992?) This is not just gothic grandiose on a truly massive scale, but under any other artistic banner, it must be considered a true horror masterpiece of great note. More importantly ‘Fearless’ is a movie that is stacked full of genuine genius moments in all their original creativity and outlet. It is undoubtedly a movie effort that came along in a period of cinema not yet entirely prepared or even remotely ready for Polanski’s more vivid horror/comedy stylings, which in hindsight must therefore make this movie a production created way before its time perhaps! Again an achievement that must not be underestimated. The movie splendidly utilises the amalgamation of wonderful dark humourous comedy ‘sitcom’ – ‘cartoon’ timing which is delightfully placed into the sheer elegance and exquisite beauty of the period settings and their true horror founding. This was Roman Polanski’s first full colour feature. If you are also anally retentive about such things! We will make brief mention of the following. We have not forgotten, but will get to the fascinating, ‘Vampires 101’ featurette at the end of this review. This unusual advertising campaign for this movie features Max Wall as Professor Cecil Havelock-Montague. The movie also contains an original, often overlooked animated title sequence, (Omitted from my Dvd copy sadly!) In conjunction with MGM’s usual opening roaring lion. Soon after our famous feline unceremoniously turns into a green headed vampire ghoul with fangs dripping with blood, (on my copy?) This dripping blood constantly seeps down into the opening credits and also signals the introduction of the movies glorious film score by Krzysztof Komeda. It is an amazing and haunting soundtrack, which oozes in a delightful, vibrant tease and mischief that is very loyal, in-keeping to the movies horror machinations, script and design. Ultimately these achievements become the movies unique building block feature. Krzysztof Komeda – Christopher Komeda went on to also create the music score for Polanski’s, fabulous, Rosemary’s Baby, (1968). His ’68 film score went on to be nominated for a Golden Globe.
With the standard set with Komeda’s anthemic and operatic theme tune hauntingly reverbing in the ears, the opening sequence is very shortly matched by the acting ensemble, which under Polanski’s direction is again near perfection. The performances of all cast members are masterfully maintained throughout proceedings, including Polanski himself. Jack MacGowran, who had previously worked with Polanski in his (1966) classic Cul-de-sac, here in ‘Fearless’ shines brightly as Professor Abronsius. It would be safe for me to state on a personal note that I would in no way be exaggerating in suggesting MacGowran’s extraordinary performance is genuinely spectacular. Indeed it is a show-stealer, (Seriously!) What must also be noted in this classic cinematic feast is the strong screen presence of the effervescent Sharon Tate.
The stunning Sharon Tate
(Please note: I will not dwell upon the saddening real life demise of the actress. Shortly after the shooting of this movie, Sharon Tate married Co-star and director Roman Polanski. Sadly in 1969, Sharon Tate passed away with their as yet unborn son. The actress was over 8 months pregnant and only 26 years old).
Sharon Tate is definitely the catalyst to the tales major events and a positive plus throughout proceedings. She easily holds her own in what is an amazing cast all-in, this coming despite she on occasion being given an obvious and restrictive role in proceedings. She easily matches the high standards set by those around her. We must also note her undoubted, stunning beauty, (obvious really!) and with it we come to note the glamorous Hollywood tag she garnished and was clearly the case in point with her all to brief movie career. Indeed in a movie that is fruitful in massive character presentation and physical representation, typecast or otherwise, (in an almost Sergio Leone like caricature event?) Tate does indeed stand-out with even greater panache as a result of her obvious alluring on-screen presence.
Alfred and Abronsius
The moment the movies stunning visual execution is brought to life, we immediately note the vibrancy of the Inn’s welcoming and warm tavern atmosphere and setting. It is a welcome change that one would rightly imagine from that of the freezing journeys end, especially for the vampire hunting duo – come their debarkation from the sleigh and horse ride that has brought them to the very heartland of Transylvania. Contained within the boarders of this land is the usual mythology based upon Vampire folklore, gossip and tradition, something that fascinates one Professor Abronsius. Is this the reason that he has come to this place? With this pretext in mind we are also quickly made aware of the wolf/wild dog infested region and its surrounding snow frozen climes. Unfortunately these wild beasts are noted by ‘Alfred’ who is initially plagued by an aggressive pack of dogs while on their journey into the village. Later on in the movie, a disturbing but tantalising showdown between the wolves and ‘Koukol – the Count’s servant’ – Terry Downes, is very dramatically introduced and highlighted, when the mute, hunchback, club-footed servant goes in pursuit of a group of wild dogs blocking his path back to an as yet none specified location. Very creepy indeed! Polanski with the invention of this character Koukol also lovingly rewards the horror hordes with his homage to Dr Frankenstein’s, Igor or Count Dracula’s, Renfield. Koukol is often spectacularly noted and not easily forgotten. He does stand tall in his traditional horror aspirations of uncompromising loyal servitude and certainly has a right to be mentioned in the same vein as the more famous servants of evil.
Koukol, servant of The Von Krolocks
We soon note the cautious but comfortable customer base in the active tavern. This is the heart and soul of the ‘Shagal’s Inn’ and immediately noted as the two frozen travellers attempt to de-frost and settle in after their long journey, (more so Abronsius). The pleasant atmosphere and local camaraderie is maintained until both Polanski in his acting capacity as (the often clumsy) ‘Alfred the Apprentice’ and the outstanding MacGowran as the no-nonsense ‘Professor Abronsius’ begin to immediately take note of lots of hanging garlic cloves. When Abronsius broaches the subject regarding the obvious ‘Elephant in the room’, he openly and abruptly attempts to bait those gathered in the tavern by revealing his immediate spiralling (busman holiday) notions. He is quick to create discomfort by his audible announcement. He mischievously suggesting, that in all probability there may be a castle located close by perhaps? The Innkeeper, ‘Yoyneh Shagal’ is played with wonderful comedy effect, amazing slapstick timing and gusto by Alfie Bass. The Innkeeper is quick to dismiss this very suggestion as are all but one stuttering local – Ronald Lacey, whom is quickly silenced by the obvious ceremony of the others gathered. They en-massé are in some sort of fearful collusion with the Innkeeper. It seems all the townsfolk, (again!) in time honoured horror tradition are reluctant to divulge valid information, choosing instead to cautiously hide a secret that outsiders should not know of, nor enquire about?
In the Shagal Inn
Polanski uses the settling-in period of his two disorganised adventurers in order to create an extraordinary cohabitational build, with its captivating close quarter multifaceted, almost claustrophobic interaction, not just of the movies focal, often bundling, inefficient vampire hunters but also that of the array of characters that share time at the ‘Inn. Soon after the directors restriction within the Inn’s confines will expand to the wider, wintry climate beyond the false safety of the Inn and its focal activity. The director and his high concentrated organic understanding of social and climate interaction is detailed in a definition and cosiness of close quarter confinement that is supremely detailed. From the regular customer satisfaction to the process’s of the staff and their work duties, we soon begin to discover the secretive unravelling and shenanigans of guest, staff and owner(s) alike, (in particular the extra-material excursions to ‘Magda the maid’ – Fiona Lewis’s quarters by the Innkeeper Yoyneh Shagal).
Yoyneh with Magda the maid
In this physical process of character development, we are offered a superb commitment toward quality comedic observational satire that is impeccably mastered and sustained on behalf of the actors in performance, Polanski allowing his cast to flourish in their succinct enactments. Polanski with his usual pinpoint precision in return highlights seemingly innocuous incidences that suddenly seem to spiral and quickly become bigger in event and active curiosity, more than one would rightly imagine. Such inventiveness of comic scenarios offer a varied collection of incidents and actions of slapstick nourishment that simply overflow, something Polanski the director is superb at providing his audience – like no other. There are certainly not many other directors both past or present who can provide a lifetime of work that contain such outstanding personalities and detailed curio’s, characters who make his movies so beautifully designed for the job of intrinsic storytelling. Many of these larger than life creations often invigorate and give you a sense of full bloom and scale, we immediately begin to thoroughly enjoy these particular characters and the unfurling of their probable genius, stupidity, lustfulness and obvious foolhardiness. The foibles of mankind are put on full display, warts and all. ‘Fearless’ does this so magnificently and is no exception to the vast Polanski rule of observational skill and brilliance. It makes the whole process of watching ‘Fearless’ with its larger than life characters and their obvious caricaturing, an in-depth quality enthralment and investment. Audience participation benefits greatly and gains an active attraction toward his cast and their plot-line activity. Other notable directors noted for this facility are very few but as I have just made such a sweeping, possibly brash statement, the few that do spring to mind and I personally would like to salute would be as follows: Sergio Leone, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Quentin Tarantino, Terrence Malick and more recently noted by this reviewer, the fabulous Wes Anderson. All extraordinary in their own unique way but all having that massive ability to extend the quality of their work. They capable of adding to their fantastic character propelled innovations and impressive cinematic layers.
The Fearless Vampire Killers is not only a clear indicator of this unique attribute, but for a genre orientated work it surpasses many preconceptions people unfamiliar with this movie – have either missed in the mass procession of ‘Vampire flicks’, or those uninitiated with this work in particular and especially those who have merely allowed this movie to pass-by because again, the stylising of the genre subject matter in context of its submergence into comedy based endeavour, may indeed not suit everyone’s vampiric mindset. If we look at TCMR’s previous reviews based around the wonderful world of vampire – ‘fiends and foes?’ What becomes blatantly obvious with our taste in this area of horror movie elegance is very clear and distinct really. We enjoy this sub-genre like no other of horror’s diverse monster universe’s, in-particular the massively inventive and extended vampire realm. Those who may be alarmed at comedy being immersed in their vampire world need not fear this mixture however – because in Polanski’s safe hands he is able to accurately divide time and effort between the two positions, making this production work perfectly for both comedy and horror orientation alike. The mixture of comedy never overpowers the gothic horror tale and visa-versa. What Polanski creates is a unique hybrid movie that though enthused with layers of blatant slapstick and extremely polished humour in much of its deployment can be equally measured in its traditional horror movie grandiose design and the directors obvious care, attention and detail – just in the fundamental of honouring the core horror fans value – with its sense of supernatural adventure and looming monsters, particularly for those who may crave the more traditional vampire fable, which undoubtedly this is. This movie does indeed offer its great share of tension, uneasy scares and an engrained creepiness through-out and provides a visual barrage of all you need to please even the hardened horror fans of this particular – traditional – horror sub-genre. If you want spooky, then this films often haunting, melancholic castle scenes should not be overlooked because the simple truth is Polanski knows exactly how to produce these two strands of syncopated difference and does so in breathtaking abundance. Never is this particular mix better enthused and highlighted than in the moment of the movie in which Tate’s character – Sarah Shagal is menacingly attacked and then kidnapped by Count Von Krolock.
The kidnapping of Sarah Shagal
The aforementioned Count is again perfect casting and features journeyman actor Ferdy Mayne, who is splendid as the Count in question. He takes both camp and fear to new heights and does it with great ease and considered measure. With his wonderful cut-glass voice, diction and narration, he quickly offers up, at times an uncomfortable tone. His portrayal of a wise, suave and sophisticated character, is almost, ‘James Bond, villain like?’ Ferdy Mayne would also go on to work with Polanski again in his fantastic, ‘Pirates’, (1986). Starring the late and great Walter Matthau whose Portrayal of ‘Captain Thomas Bartholomew Red’ must rightfully be considered one of Matthau’s finest screen performances. (Also note Polanski’s ‘Pirates’ was made decades before Gore Verbinski’s, often overrated, Pirates of The Caribbean franchise).
Alfred’s peeping-Tom curiosity soon gets the better of him as temptation overpowers and he finally succumbs to his base instinct and decides to take a peek through the bathroom keyhole in his obvious lust, followed in quick succession by his guilt? He watches Sarah bathing. This encounter also raises the movies vampiric presence. The build-up of conspiring individual forces of voyeuristic intent of both Alfred and more menacingly, the sudden encroachment of a pale-faced malevolent outsider who will soon interlope from a snow covered roof-top window. This scene amalgamates in a quick-fire comedy reflex with a sudden notable horror infiltration which comes at a pace and without any warning. This moment immediately creates high tension for those genre fans acquiring a traditional caped figure in proud vampire regalia and their penchant for mesmeric attack mode. Horror traditionalist are ably and sweetly rewarded with the vampires bite and the trail of the victims blood left behind after her noted abduction. The hapless actions of the terrified Alfred who has just intermittently witnessed unfolding events, begins to fumble and recoil before he eventually awakens the professor. Briefly struck dumb by events, Alfred quickly turns to a confused game of charades in order to reveal his worst fears. The assault scene raises not only the professor, but Yoyneh Shagal is also quick upon the scene. Shagal is left pleading to the known kidnapper for the return of his daughter, this also confirming his obvious and original deceitfulness toward his visitors investigations. What is also evident is that his protection of his daughter has failed. This moment of hard edged culpability also denotes the exposing to Professor Abronsius – the townsfolk have indeed colluded and protected a hidden secret, that of a localised vampire reign, which until this point the locals had seen fit to suppress, due to their own obvious fears and mindful intimidation. The taking of Sarah Shagal reveals all. The Innkeeper and his wife now fear the worst. Their sadness at their daughters abduction also creates feelings of emotional guilt. Yoyneh as a result of this act can only see one solution. He must now manfully attempt to make amends. Reluctantly he will begin what in all probability will be a fruitless journey – in bringing back his daughter. Will his pleading work? The abduction of Sarah Shagal transforms the early events of the movies fabulous satirical close quarter slow build momentum. Both Alfred and Abronsius become witness to the total core collapse of the Inn’s social stability and interaction, when events suddenly take a turn for the worse.
Yoyneh’s return to the widow Rebecca Shagal
Some townsfolk find and return the frozen solid body of Yoyneh Shagal to his wife Rebecca – Jessie Robins. Again an incredibly funny scene of the highest slapstick order. On initial inspection it seems the freezing environment has cost the Innkeeper his life. Abronsius’s observational skill and his subsequent close inspection of the frozen slab that is the late Yoyneh Shagal suggest foul play and furthermore his discovery of a number of deliberately positioned, puncture wounds – fang bites rather than savagely placed bite trauma confirms his worst suspicions and his standing apotheosis that vampires are indeed at play here. The townsfolk are again quick to dismiss the bite marks as anything other than that of the actions of the localised wolves. After furiously condemning the continued apathy and metaphorical blindness toward localised issues, Abronsius prepares for battle on the notion and probability that the recently departed Yoyneh Shagal will indeed rise once again. With this threat in mind, Abronsius first tries to convince Rebecca Shagal that if she wishes to give her dead husband an eternal rest she must place a wooden stake through the heart of the deceased so he may not rise-up as a member of the undead. With the inevitable rebuke by the widow Shagal – she being furiously opposed to such suggestions, she quickly confirms her emotions in her physical threats, aimed toward the professor, therefore leaving it up to the two vampire hunters to do what must be rightly done. As in the early exchanges of those who live, work and are guest of the Inn, Polanski ups the comedy melodrama with some exquisitely staged farce. Amongst this hilarious comedy mischief, we see Yoyneh Shagal rise from his undead status. Not content with causing maximum chaos, the rise of Yoyneh Shagal from his wake also signals some wonderful sitcom observational set pieces that highlight the brilliant set-ups that define the movies continued cat and mouse horror/comedy genius. Not only does it spectacularly indulge in beautifully time spirited slapstick incompetence at its revealing best, but in one glorious scene it also superbly highlights Yoyneh Shagal’s religious leanings in a hilarious contradiction, that when faced by the vampire hunters, Yoyneh the ‘vampire’ quickly dismisses the threat of the raising of the crucifix – for he is clearly Jewish. The brilliance of this moment also immediately makes a considered mockery of the concept that those individual victims who become bitten by a vampire, may indeed have a different philosophical slant or religious belief other than that of the Christian faith. The representation of the crucifix therefore will not repel, merely create an embarrassing comedy retort. This encounter also allows the Innkeepers extra-material exchanges with Magda the maid to reach its climax. She becoming the victim of her employer? The giggling victim scene, is again a delightful change from the standard expectations of what a vampires often cruel incursion may normally imply. Here there is only more comedy gold to be found. Perhaps you will just have to trust in my word here, when I state that this wonderful observational strand is so fast and fleeting, it comes at its audience like machine gun fire and is clearly on-show like an unravelling festival of comedy lampooning. Polanski’s great talent to produce this at such an incredible consistent pace – is pretty amazing and again I must suggest that he is undoubtedly one of the great directors at highlighting such quality understanding of deep routed observational brilliance. Never since the observational skills of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy has anyone been able to duplicate this amazing talent for the purpose of its audience. The Fearless Vampire Killers may indeed be one of the last movies to truly produce such comedy inventiveness on this scale. The climax of this particular skillfully developed showdown ends when on the advise of Abronsius in the conceivable acknowledgement that Yoyneh the vampire has escaped his pursuers, both he and his bumbling sidekick must make haste and try to follow the fleeing Yoyneh. This hilarious onslaught at the Inn finally concludes only when Abronsius and Alfred are preparing to ski after their confirmed vampiric victim. While dealing with their equipment, Yoyneh Shagal falls from Magda’s bedroom window and unceremoniously lands in between the two vampire hunters. It is clear that the vampire has finished his devouring of his extra-material lover. Still stunned by their obvious misguided belief that Yoyneh had slipped away, when in actual fact he had hidden in the Inn, (Magda’s room!) Yoyneh in a cartoon like dishevelment is allowed once again to scurry away from his pursuers. They left looking somewhat bemused and slightly flabbergasted at their latest failure to subdue the vampire amongst. The extremely funny double-take of incompetence is genuinely accepted and almost cartoon like – Scooby-do! even?
The next several moments of this adventure take place in the snow filled landscape that surrounds them. The cinematography stunningly reveals the vast winter vistas of the on-location settings. Shagal’s on-foot imprint leaves a clear trail in the snow and makes it easy for the two hunters to track down and follow the fleeing vampire Innkeeper. After highlighting Polanski (the actor) and his ability to ski, (a personal past time he is known to have excelled at), the opposite is noted of the character Abronsius who struggles but perseveres. The conclusion to this crazy pursuit will confirm Professor Abronsius’s theory that there would be a castle nearby. It also confirms that Yoyneh would most certainly want to seek sanctuary at the place safest for his new vampiric temperament. The ultimate question that more selfishly concerns Alfred in particular, is that of the well-being of Sarah Shagal. After more comedy mishap and tomfoolery the two vampire hunters finally gain access into the fortification of the castle and signal the commencement of the second act of this enthralling movie. It will also add an investment of some new and fascinating characters and will finally answer the out standing reveal of Koukol the vampire servant – amongst other matters.
Castle Krolock (Click to enlarge)
The two vampire hunters enter the castle grounds and are immediately met by the Krolock families ancestral internal graveyard. On finally gaining entrance into the building itself they end up in the living and workshop quarters of the infamous Koukol. After he temporarily locks them in the room, the two men attempt to find another way out. Their discovery of a trapdoor comes at the same time as Koukol’s return. The servant with physical indicators only, summons the two men to follow him and they cautiously do so. Koukol becomes their escort on what we can only suggest is at the behest of their as yet unidentified host. The servant guides the uninvited guests and also affords them a brief candelabra tour around certain castle corridors. During the climb up the stairs to the main hall we are offered what can only be an aristocratic, historical and hereditary portrait collection or – rogues gallery if you will! of what theoretically will be a chronological provenance of the Krolock ancestral family tree. They are led around a cobwebbed and gothic constructed structure by there freakish guide. They finally reach journeys end and are then invited to enter into the fire-lit dinning hall. From the position of the vast dining table head seat, facing away from the two men, the arm of their host waves and summons them over. At this point they are met by their host, who initially offers a brief deportment in his introduction as Count Von Krolock. After the professor immediately offers his business card in response to he (Abronsius) quickly noting the Counts irritable indictment of the two uninvited guests; the tact of the angered Count suddenly alters drastically when he is made aware of the presence of one of his guests. The Count immediately becomes more cordial though still cautious in his welcome of the men, in particular that of Professor Abronsius from the University of Königsberg.
Count Von Krolock
The fact that the Count is aware of Professor Abronsius work in literative terms soon leads to the exchange of again, cautious but hospitable pleasantries. The Counts acknowledgement of having read the professors work and though not to hand, states that he actually owns a copy somewhere in his library. With civility, the Count hopes the professor will at some point inscribe his edition of Abronsius’s book, “The Bat, Its Mysteries!” The Count though honoured by the presence of the professor is still nonetheless curious has to why the two gentlemen have ended up at the castle. As both Abronsius and his apprentice Alfred are put on the spot by their host, they initially attempt to concoct an excuse for their presence? They inept and unprepared as ever continue the bat theme. The professor quickly suggesting that they followed – a bat? The species Pteropus? After the wise Count points out the probable inconsistency of this information, (having read Abronsius’s book, in his words and conclusions!) The professor in deception, wit and risk maintains the thinly veiled charade and continues his attempt in convincing his host that he is currently in the process of updating his study with an alleged second volume to his work. Though the Count seems fascinated at the elaborate length, even amusing demonstration in which the professor hides deceit, he is soon reminded of his own personal status? The early dawn chorus and crowing of the cockerel suddenly makes the Count aware of both time and the unforeseen necessity to honour his hospitality to his guest. This information raises the Count, more in a question of maintaining a considered semblance of calmness in approach and tact, rather than rushing matters. He is quick to continue his assessment of the professors findings. The matter of bat activity and its connection to the premise of a form of active sleepwalking or (“to fly in ones sleep?”) is made comparable by the Count in a conversational back and forth between the two men as he escorts his guest more in benefiting the professors presence. They take the small trip across the hallway and head to the next room. Count Von Krolock allows access to his vast and extensive library and immediately puts it at the professors disposal. Accepting or not of the invitation, the two travellers are soon unquestionably given no option other than accept their hosts invitation. Still in the Counts company, Koukol nervously makes sure in his duty – he urges his master to not be obtained by his guest any further than necessary, reluctantly or otherwise the two men are sharply guided to their guest bedrooms. Well still in a deep conversational flux the group led by the deformed servant climb another set of stairs then toward a corridor that leads to the sleeping quarters. Their journey is momentarily held-up when a pale-faced gentlemen suddenly appears from one of the many rooms adjacent to the corridor. This gentleman is Herbert Von Krolock, son of the Count.
The introduction of Herbert Von Krolock
The scene that follows the courteous introductions is beautifully dealt with. Just watch the eye contact, uncomfortable glances and the obvious delight in the way Alfred becomes the immediate target for Herbert and his subtle yet obvious lustfulness toward the apprentice. Also watch The Counts reaction toward his sons sudden ignition. It is priceless and again goes beyond normal character cinematic detail. This scenes majesty also confirms the presence of a notable homosexual vampire. This position of open sexuality and preference is neither uncommon nor unusual for the vampire sub-genre but again, Polanski with his earlier noting of religious recoil, or lack of in the case of Yoyneh Shagal the Innkeeper, and again here in this revelation suggests that vampirism is indeed open to one and all and closed to none. This statement is made loud and clear. Though the noted glance back settles the matter regarding Alfred’s sexual preference and again clearly noted in his own earlier initial lustful and obnoxious behaviour toward Magda the maid and shortly afterwards the Innkeepers daughter, this moment creates that perceived dividing line. Was Polanski here genuinely being clever and placing his Alfred character on the receiving end of some of his own behaviour. Or was he outright, signposting and typecasting of a gay character for the benefit of mockery. I would like to think that despite the campiness surrounding much of the movies ‘other’ character base and not just highlighting Herbert, I would like to think it is more pantomime in nature rather than being outright offensive? In context of the movies output I think the comedy aspect proves nothing other than enjoyment of the piece and at no point suggests making any homophobic statement. Surely even for a movie of the so called progressive late sixties, it was not merely motioning toward an act of tokenism, or was neither being overzealous? I think not. What “Fearless” does, is allow the comedy to nicely feed character description in a way both conducive and constructive to the movies beating heart. It is a matter of “come one, come all!” It will make victims, perpetrators and those dropped into this situational comedy equal on all counts. So if you are intelligent then that is what is highlighted. If your characters are foolish or plain stupid then the design of this movie will rather note that. The personality behind their intuitive nature is what you get and it makes no judgement thereafter. The lampooning of all is equally distributed and never searches for scape-goating, unless you are a vampire, or incompetent vampire killers of course? It is all quite reverential throughout I think.
Soon after being shown to their adjoining bedrooms, Abronsius and the increasingly tense and fearful Alfred exchange banter. The professor seems excited and not the least bit overwrought by his surroundings, while Alfred expecting to share the same room is soon dismissed to his own quarters. The professor makes a concession and allows the adjoining door to be left open, in order to keep close contact with one another should events warrant it. With Abronsius wanting sleep, Alfred reluctantly goes to his room but is irritated and clearly unable to settle. As he sits on the mattress of his four-poster bed and playfully handles a large garlic bulb before putting it in his top left jacket pocket, the silence of his room is suddenly broken. He begins to hear a voice humming some kind of tune. His curiosity soon raises him and he walks to the bedroom door that leads into the vast corridor that brought them to their rooms. He opens the door and peeks into the corridor. The voice is louder now and echoes around the building. Just when you think Alfred is overcoming his own fears, he suddenly panics at the vocals eerie range and quickly looses what little bravado got him to look beyond his bedroom, however brief. With his emotions it seems stretched to the limit he is quick to retreat back into his room, with the actions of a tortoise withdrawing into its shell. We also hear Alfred scuttling about as he presses some movable furnishing against his door? He hoping that will secure him further and in the strange belief that no one may enter his room.
With the cockerels second warning being noted while the Count had been showing his guest to their quarters. Like Abronsius but for entirely different reasons Koukol escorts his master to the castles crypt. Herbert is already present when the servant and Von Krolock arrive, Herbert is seen gazing outward, taking one last look at the snowy landscape and the full moon now orbiting in an increasingly blue dawning sky. This is quite a poignant moment in the movie as we note a kind of ceremonial sadness that despite the obvious powers of the Von Krolock’s passed down vampiric status and their social ability to offer unknown fear to its townsfolk but more importantly offer the bloodline a continued and supreme state of eternal immortality and control, you cannot help but feel the almost desperate surge as attempts to reassure in one of those father and son exchanges means more than words. The Count pats his sons shoulder in an almost apologetic necessity. “If only things could be different and we could be normal?” It really is quite sombre and rather than wanting to hate these undead anathemas, what you get here as the faithful Koukol places them into their coffins is a sense of probable vampire despair, in particular when noting Herbert’s clear demeanour. Despite his hold and power the Count and his son are really victims of their own nature and this sensitive moment offers more in revealing a melancholic state of affairs rather than a beneficial alignment. This laying to rest of the Von Krolock’s also shows Koukol’s unquestionable loyalty as he makes sure the vampires bed down safe and sound during the coming daylight hours. As the servant places the coffin lid down upon his master we note in the doorway a recognisable oaf, his name is Yoyneh Shagal. Under the assumption he can rest in the security and protection of the Counts sacred crypt. He brings with him his cheaply constructed wooden coffin with the intention of resting also! However “Mr Koukol” as the protesting Shagal now calls him is quickly dragged away still upright in his coffin and is then quickly dumped down the stairs that lead to the courtyard stable, horse and all. The angered Koukol leaves Shagal still in a self conversational protestation as dawn begins to rise.
Daybreak reveals frost encrusted windows as once more the cockerel announces his continued presence. From beneath his thick downy bed cover Alfred pops his head out. We note he is still fully clothed as the clattering of a tray indicates he is not alone in his abode. Taken aback by Koukol’s presence, he having entered Alfred’s room it seems via Professor Abronsius’s room, our terrified apprentice again shows a heightened fear as he quickly recoils from the shock of seeing the servant by his bedside. As Koukol places the tray by the bedside, he too is either clearly offended by the reaction of the young man or is simply stunned by this man’s perceived cowardice. Koukol walks into the set of drawers the fearful Alfred placed against the door as a barricade. The servant brushes aside the furnishing and slams the door behind him as he goes. Alfred now on hearing activity in the adjoining room picks up his tray and walks into Abronsius’s bedroom. He it seems has already eaten breakfast and is currently reading from a book. After a brief summation of the previous evenings events and Abronsius re-analysing Von Krolock’s actual statements, what he quickly concludes is that there is no doubting that the Count must be a vampire. Furthermore the professor also indicates that if all his research and study, he is indeed correct about much of his opinions, it is also conceivable that somewhere in the castle grounds there will be a crypt and as it is daytime the Count must surely be resting and concealed from daylight. Invigorated by his sleep the professor now wants to prepare for the days events. Well his apprentice dresses him, Alfred informs the professor of the singing he had heard during the night. Alfred convinced that it may be Sarah Shagal’s dulcet tones? Again the exchanges between the two men are brilliantly elaborated upon and in the professors logical itinerary and order of task and despite Alfred’s continued preference at finding Sarah Shagal before other matters, Abronsius is steadfast in the importance of sticking to the plan. “The crypt comes first” Abronsius announces. “We mustn’t put the cart before the horse”, is his final decree.
The top hatted Professor Abronsius and the reluctant Alfred the Apprentice begin the task of finding the crypt that holds the secure internment of the Von Krolock’s during daylight hours. Now is the time to strike if fortune and luck favours their assignment. They enter a courtyard. In the distance the sound of work taking place keeps the two vampire hunters on their toes.
Their reconnaissance and attempts to establish the location of the crypt takes them toward what on actual inspection is the carpentry workplace of Koukol the servant. He is currently building another coffin? The two men are attempting to use stealth but again even this task is made complicated by Alfred’s sudden fear has to why Koukol is working on a new coffin. The professor and Alfred’s exchanges become both confused and idiocratic. With the professors undaunted temperament foremost and Alfred’s neurosis increasing by the second, their interchangeable indifference and lost in translation verbal transactions send both men spiralling into confused and overlapping conversations. Where as Alfred now becomes worried on a numerous number of matters, including the demise or otherwise of Sarah Shagal, he too fears his own impending doom. The Professor on the other hand becomes more excited at the prospect of dangerous adventure and though putting Alfred’s mind at rest on the subject of Sarah. He is brutally blunt on the possibility that the coffin builder is preparing encasements for them perhaps? Whatever the questions being asked the Professor becomes even more animated when he notices footsteps in the snow, which are leading across a second courtyard. They stop at the furthest end of this square and he hopes this clue confirms Abronsius’s belief that the footprints are indeed leading directly to the crypt he has come in search of. As the two men begin to cross the courtyard, above them Koukol from his workshop vantage point, one storey above the square begins to furiously tap upon the window and begins to aggressively indicate that they must turn back. Abronsius in response suggests to his apprentice not be panicked by Koukol’s protestations, “Behave naturally… Recite for me the twelve signs of the zodiac”. They slowly continue onward, though now cautiously. Before they get even remotely close to the crypt. Koukol has now appeared at the opposite end of the courtyard, intimidatingly holding an axe in hands, he immediately blocks the entrance into the sealed crypt.
Koukol guarding the crypt
Abronsius and Alfred halt and begin to offer the impression that they are merely looking around and observing the architecture perhaps? Abronsius and Alfred slowly begin to turn away as they continue the pretence of being nothing other than sight-seekers. The Professor whispers to Alfred that they must consider another strategy. As the two reach the stairs in order to exit the bailey, Abronsius takes one last look at the formidable looking guard and then both leave the square immediately.
The two men have now re-entered the building and from their vantage point they now look outward onto the courtyard and opposite Koukol’s workshop. They watch on as Koukol eventually takes leave of his post. Acknowledging the probable and dangerous futility of attempting that ploy once again. Both Abronsius and Alfred pass through the dinning hall and climb almost to the top of the building. Seeing a clearer view of the castle grounds and its vast outlay from a higher but potentially more dangerous vantage point, the two men climb through a window and begin to cross over a maze of snow covered ledges, rooftops with their towering turrets and buttresses which they now perilously contend with.
The precarious life of vampire hunters
This potentially life threatening travelogue and its perilously dangerous heights are visually highlighted in a moment when the professor almost looses his balance and his now famous top hat falls to the ground far below. It is Alfred that on this occasion grabs and saves Abronsius from falling to his death. The visual scale displayed in these few incident filled moments are fabulous edge of the seat, nail-biting realism and again show Polanski as both actor/director performing on a large scale and backdrop that quite literally sprinkles the snow filled adventure with a tension more recognisable of a modern risk filled adventure movie rather than having any resemblance to the average or standard horror odyssey. The constant thought that one slip and it is all over for our foolhardy duo increases their investment and despite the threatening elements they stubbornly continue onward in their quest. This part of the movie – as in all the on location outdoor shoots are actually filmed in anamorphic form. The incredible inlay between studio shot footage and actual real time outdoor footage and their convergence is breathtakingly seamless. Don’t forget this was many decades before the introduction of CGI, which even today and given its continued progression, on numerable occasions still looks unrealistic to the eye – quite often. The footage for “Fearless’ is genuinely exquisite and the cinematography by Douglas Slocombe is sublime. Listen folks if you are not aware of the importance of Douglas Slocombe in cinemas history? Then maybe you should check out his massive contribution to the medium. His nominated work is incredible. Strangely he never won an Academy Award (why?) and won one Bafta which again is quite extraordinary when considering his huge output. What is even more extraordinary is in the fact that his work on this production was overlooked – surely a travesty in itself!
Back of the crypt
Having finally located the back end of the crypt via their dangerous climb, they are offered access into the Von Krolock’s resting place through an open window (loophole?) Alfred climbs through the opening closely followed by the professors case of vampiric tools of dispatch: Hammer and stakes, crucifixes, garlic, holy bible, Etc! Unfortunately Abronsius becomes wedged and stuck in the small window. The next several moments of madcap chaos result in the professor trying to instruct and convince Alfred into dispatching the vampire foes. We also note in this extremely bizarre incident that Shagal the Innkeeper has found shelter in Herbert Von Krolock’s coffin. He lies foetus like at the feet of the vampire. The ineptitude shown by Alfred in being unable to dispatch the vampires leaves Abronsius red-faced and angry as he derides his apprentices constant incompetence. With the professor stuck firmly in the window and Alfred unable to complete the task through cowardice, the professor instructs his useless apprentice that he must again take the journey across the bailey without alerting Koukol and then retrace the journey back to where the professor is currently trapped in order to free him.
Cowardice? I just can’t do it
Cautiously Alfred leaves the crypt and takes the same path has previous, avoiding Koukol along the way. When he reaches the window that leads back onto the rooftops, he is quickly halted in his tracks by the sound of a musing female intone. This vocal chant is identical to the one he heard the night previous. Momentarily forgetting the task in hand, he almost hypnotic like, goes in search of this sound? What he soon discovers is a bathroom, bathing there – the captured Sarah Shagal. As before Alfred finds Sarah in a bathtub.
Alfred finds Sarah again
Delighted that she is alive and well it seems. Obviously enamoured by her presence, he then attempts to convince Sarah that she is in grave danger and must escape with him. For reasons not yet noted, our fair-maiden seems reluctant and strangely distant. She also informs Alfred of a ball that is due to take place that very evening? Despite Alfred’s lovestruck conversational insistence that she would be safer with him? On this suggestion Sarah then asks Alfred to turn around while she steps out of the bathtub. Alfred obeys and turns his back, he then moves to the ice covered bathroom window. During this time Alfred begins to draw a heart shape into the ice upon the window pane with his finger. As he rubs out the centre of his heart shape he suddenly realises that the window looks opposite to the castles crypt tower. He notes the professors legs still dangling outward. His lapse in rescuing Abronsius is immediately reignited and as he turns to inform Sarah of his forgotten errand, he is quickly surprised to note that Sarah has mysteriously disappeared from the room, even her bed chamber lies empty. Though slightly puzzled at this abandonment, Alfred quickly grabs the case once more and goes back to aiding the professor. After freeing the trapped Abronsius from the crypt window, he finds a frozen professor, who at this stage looks worse for wear? During his recovery of freeing his frozen master, who by this time has temporarily lost all use of his limbs and between making sure that both he and the professors safety is paramount Alfred takes precaution so they do not accidentally slide from the rooftop, unfortunately the case is sent sliding down the roof and like Abronsius’s top hat before it, it too now takes the plunge off the castle rooftop and falls into the snow laid valley below. Piggybacking the frozen and disorientated professor, Alfred precariously attempts to take Abronsius back to the safety of the castles interior. Not before Abronsius takes personal issue with his own age and more importantly whether he is in-fact getting to old to continue this kind of activity. He also notes the setting of the sun. We also hear a distant wolf howl as Abronsius announces that soon, “They are going to rise?”
With a thawed professor now back to full health. We find our duo in the library. Here we see Alfred perusing a ‘Pocket Edition’ of “A HUNDRED GOODLIE WAYS OF AVOWING ONE’S SWEET LOVE TO A COMLIE DAMOZEL” Presse di Fratelli Seguin 1732. This book also contains illustrations, which along with the title, clearly denote to its reader – “How to chat-up a (woman) Damsel?” Basically it’s a self help guide for men. Yes even little moments like the reading of a book smacks of comedic superlatives. On closing a large dust filled volume, the professor quickly turns and acknowledges the spiral staircase which he subsequently begins to climb. Alfred follows on, not before pocketing the little red book that has taken his fancy! The staircase leads up to a mezzanine and further up the stairs they find a trapdoor. In this cobwebbed room they discover many globes, charts, maps and other astrological material. Abronsius becomes enthralled by a beautiful and expensive telescope. This place is an observatory to the stars. On looking through the telescope the professor notes ‘the belt of Orion’ and then begins to study the rings of Saturn. Abronsius in his undoubted enthusiasm asks Alfred to take a look. Alfred quickly becomes distracted as once again he begins to hear the distant theme of Sarah Shagal? Alfred steps away from the telescope, nudging it as he moves. The professor once more begins to make use of the telescope which has now focused in on the village below, in particular The Shagal’s Inn. The reveal is quite literally an eye-opener. Abronsius begins to watch on as Yoyneh Shagal – The Innkeeper, as returned to the Inn. He has not returned for his rotund wife Rebecca but the Inn’s maid – Magda. “Shiver my timbers” the professor is heard saying at this latest incident. As he turns to notify Alfred, he soon realises that his Apprentice has once more abandoned his post, leaving his master behind.
Again the mesmerism of the tune takes Alfred on the path he took earlier. He reaches the room where he had found Sarah earlier in the day. The door to the room is open and Alfred cautiously walks in. On the bed he notices clothing laid out. He finally reaches the bathroom doorway. Instead of expecting to find Sarah as supposed, this clearly becomes not the case when he looks in. Pumping water into the bathtub is Herbert Von Krolock wearing just a lengthy shirt. Both frightened and a little intimidated by Herbert’s sudden interest, Alfred attempts to keep calm well Herbert sits beside him on the bedside. During this exchange Alfred lets slip his knowledge of the forthcoming ball. The curious Herbert becomes quite puzzled has to how Alfred knows of this event? In an attempt to cover up his ‘faux pas’ Alfred again tries to stay calm but he then notices the mirror that sits across from where the two men are seated, he sees only his reflection and not that of Herbert. Fearful and even more uncomfortable at the increasing unsubtly of Herbert with his increasingly close quarter proximity and vocal advances, Herbert spots the book Alfred has taken from the library. In the way of a little seductive teasing Herbert begins to use the book as an opportunity to make a physical advance. This is not just a normal sexual advancement but Herbert who now seems very stimulated begins to snarl and then reveals his fangs, just before he then attempts to bite the very nervous Alfred.
Herbert fancies a bite
Herbert goes to bite Alfred – as he does so – Alfred is quick to counter this attack and quickly pushes the little red book into Herbert’s gaping mouth as he bites down, hoping for flesh rather than the binding of the books cover and its page contents. With his fangs penetrating and skewering the book Herbert now pulls at the book in order to dislodge it from his mouth. Alfred takes this chaotic moment to make haste and is quickly running back down the corridor. Herbert is soon in pursuit of Alfred. With the vampire closing in on Alfred, we see the fleeing man make a swift left turn just as the vampire makes a final grab for his victim to be. The priceless piece of wonderful slapstick that follows is so gloriously staged that you quickly forget the drama of the chase momentarily. This beautifully staged act of escape so splendidly encapsulates everything fabulous about this movie and quickly the dread of chase becomes a moment of perfectly timed incompetence, of which you just have to laugh at the joy of it. Below we have the square inner ward of a castle hall. Above the chest-board hall, we have a set square gallery above. This is currently where Alfred now flees for his life. From his now stationery vantage point and were Herbert the vampire tried to grab Alfred, he suddenly halts. He then watches Alfred as he unknowingly begins a circuit of the ward gallery and soon returns to where he indeed started. Thinking at this point he has evaded capture by his pursuer. Alfred, from looking back upon the course travelled then turns, after a incredibly convincing and hilarious double-take, we see Alfred calmly stare at the lustfulness in Herbert’s eyes just as he pounces and drags the lacklustre Alfred to the ground. Not just content with providing a continueation of comedy energy. What Polanski as both director, storyteller and as Alfred offers up is an unexpected scenario, that in clear mimicry then pokes fun at the vampire – victim dynamic. Herbert with his strength bearing down upon the now captured Alfred, whom now seems defeated. The vampire now has his victim pinned beneath him. The vampire now moves in for a second bite at Alfred’s neck. Second time lucky for the vampire surely? – Wrong again? Instead of the vampire biting his victim as is insurmountably always the case in point, Polanski immediately goes, let’s be ironic and just keep this comedy fire burning a bit brighter and longer. Alfred is surely doomed – except he returns favour and rather than being the bitten one, he instead becomes the biter and quickly goes to work on the vampires left earlobe. (Superb stuff!) The vampire releases hold of his would-be victim and for a second time Alfred has again escaped the jaws of vampiric retribution. With his pace and momentum Alfred again runs for his life. Uncoordinated and caring only in his continued attempts to escape his vampire stalker, Alfred reaches the bottom of a staircase. When he reaches the bottom he quickly turns and begins to run down the available corridor to his right. As he does so both his speed and his sudden unstable momentum send him falling to the floor, leaving him speedily sliding across it. The door before him opens. Alfred still sliding along the ground comes to rest in the room beyond the recently opened door. Here he is met by the professor. Abronsius looking somewhat confused is then told by his apprentice to shut the door quickly. Not understanding the current situation and with Alfred again hastening the professor to shut the door. Another mystifying double-take by the professor on this particular occasion suddenly notes another person heading toward the room at full speed. Upright, but he too now slides uncontrollably into the room. Herbert the vampire passes both men and stops only when he finally falls into the four-poster bed; that then collapses on top of our vampire fiend. Both Alfred and Abronsius take no-time in fleeing like scared rats. After being pursued down several zig-zag flights of stairs, the professor notes a small door to the left and quickly grabs Alfred and pulls him into the room beyond, shutting the door behind them. With heads bowed to the door, they quickly listen intently and note the naked footsteps of Herbert pass by.
After catching their breath, both Abronsius and Alfred exchange words about how and why Herbert in the professors words, “he went berserk… Did you provoke him or what?” Alfred still flustered and now chewing down on his pocketed garlic bulb replies, “no… He got excited all on his own?” A burning lamp hangs on the wall. The professor takes the lamp and both men start to climb the twisting staircase of what is obviously a castle turret. On the way up to the top, Alfred informs Abronsius of his findings regarding – “Elibori’s theory? – is correct?” Alfred announces, “Which one?” the professor enquires. “The one to do with the reflections – In the mirror” the excitable Alfred confirms! The observational back and forth, mistimed commentary and conversational musing – its physical commitment and unravelling in the simplest of exchanges and excitable revelations is so obvious. MacGowran’s facial output simply stunning. On reaching the zenith of the turret, they are met by a line of inanimate knight armoured statues that guard the corridor leading to the outer turret vantage point like sentinels. From this high point the two men can see the whole of the castles massive visual outlay. The two men on observational clarity can see the castles cemetery below. The disturbing vision that is quickly noted is the visual barrage of the undead suddenly rising from their graves. As the professor notes ‘impressive!’ The two men well observing this phenomena are soon visited in the tower by Count Von Krolock.
Confession of Count Von Krolock
The final reveal of this encounter confirms and reaches a point in which the two men are given a full and comprehensive confessional by the Count. This amazing (Bond style?) confirmation also denotes an almost intimidating, sarcastic mocking tinted panegyric. The Count reveals his true nature when informing his rooftop captures of his plans and their impending doom. Again this social and verbal interplay takes earlier exchanges between all and quickly laments the perceived nature of both the captives and ultimately the Count’s glee in his victorious coming-together of all the developing unfolding of events, which have conspired to this point and neatly ties together all the loose ends and the elaboration of what will be a noted evening of vampire ceremony. We also note: Shagal’s return from the village with his new vampire bride Magda, (or is she?) With the Count’s future envisioned and his captives in no doubt that his plans will mean an eternal damnation of vampiric proportions for the two men, we are left in no doubt that the Count with fangs glimpsed – in a devoted joy – can finally savour his imagined end game. The sealing of the turrets thick metal door by the loyal Koukol and the containment of the vampire hunters complete – the outlook seems dire. What Von Krolock fails to grasp is the professors ability to not be intimidated by circumstance and despite making the mistakes of earlier by the two perceived bundler’s – such falsehood hide deceit? Unlike his apprentice, Professor Abronsius is both wily and adaptive to problems – however calamitous the situation appears. Alfred begins to smash at the door with a sword borrowed from one of the knights grasp. After a little while he ceases his pointless endeavour and returns to the turret roof. The professor is deep in thought and castigation of their host. Alfred now leans on a frozen cannon and begins to recite a prayer. The professor in his ‘toing and froing’ is quickly halted. The sound of a harpsichord playing in the great-hall below momentarily suspends all his thinking. For the next several moments the professor and his mindful ingenuity will concoct a plan of action, using the obvious tools and items at their disposal. We witness a pre – ‘The A-Team’ like inventiveness that may allow the two men to escape from their perilous rooftop prison? “Takes me for a nincompoop – that necrophile?” the defiant Abronsius announces heartily to the snow covered world and his enemy alike! The two men must now patiently wait and hope their developing plan of escape finally frees them.
ACT IV (The Final Act)
Below the two trapped vampire hunters – the great-hall is full of the gathering undead. Some special event seems to being prepared by the Count. This year the annual ‘Danse Macabre’ has greater importance it seems? The Count – ‘pastor?’ announces to his onlooking parishioners of his hopes and aspirations for the coming years festivities, which will include induction and sacrifice? The final act of the host in his expressive joy is the pulling back of the stage curtain – revealing the ball-gowned delights of (guest of honour!) Sarah Shagal. This exquisite and extravagant set-piece has now become stunning costume drama, Sharon Tate the highlight of this rapturous rendition. Not only is the ‘Danse Macabre’ event sublimely choreographed by Tutte Lemkow – Fiddler on the Roof, (1971). This event is visually revealed to its full extent but in the closing stages of the movies epilogue its noted intermittent presence becomes a continual feast for the eyes.
Let the Danse Macabre commence
The explosive escape of the two vampire hunters begins to highlight the movies dark side and though still laden with much comedy, this movie suddenly becomes an adventure movie of both actions and revelations. The seed is quickly planted when our two escaping men cross rooftops in order to get to the heart of events. The two men stumble upon a sinister conversation, between Yoyneh Shagal and Magda. A conversation that is overheard as it echoes through the rooftop ventilation system. It seems Shagal must give up his prize and prepare her for the sake of what is the climatic ceremonial festivities of the ‘Danse Macabre’, Magda, a gift if you like? As the two men listen on – in hope that the conversation that seems to be tantalisingly endemic of the professor’s obvious mistrust of Shagal’s noted shenanigans – he the professor begins a verbal dialogue toward Shagal. Using the ventilation system to echo a ‘ghostly hands off the girl?’ ultimatum in a fake, spooked, omnipresent warning representation of the consequences of harming Magda. Despite the warning Shagal’s attempt at withdrawn diplomacy will eventually fail and he will return to his lecherous ways and instead of doing as asked he will instead choose to ignore the brief of both his excellency The Count and the fake spirit warning provided by the professor. Eventually an incident in Magda’s bed chambers will lead to dire consequences for Magda because of Yoyneh’s misplaced behaviour. “OY!”
Watching from the periphery of events the two vampire hunters have reached the ballroom and are now witness to ‘The Danse Macabre’. After the professor and Alfred obtain suitable attire care of two of the seated elder vampire guest in an ingenious way? After changing into their new disguises they are disturbed by someone close by. Well they hide behind a curtained doorway, Yoyneh Shagal now passes by with the late and definitely deceased Magda, hoping to sneak her away from what will doubtless be the wrath of the Count should he gain knowledge of Shagal’s latest indiscretion. The professor derides the Innkeeper and is angered that no-one had listened to him when he had arrived, socially condemning all, on witnessing Magda being carried away! With this in mind and with little time left the two men must now infiltrate the great ball and attempt to rescue Sarah Shagal from her fate.
After locating Sarah the two men then verbally and sporadically exchange details and plans for her (transfusion), recovery and escape by the professor and Alfred’s intermittent promise of a future living together in Venice during the troupe dance parade exchanges. On the orders of the professor they take advantage of the dances congress and begin to head toward an exit, for escape. They take front and centre of the dance line and as they draw closer to the door a large hall mirror reveals to those present three people whose reflection is full. This fabulous faux par not only reveals the mortality of the professor, Alfred and Sarah but again re-confirms the ‘Elibori theory?’ With no reflection from those present – situated behind the three earthly mortals this creepy and eerie moment highlights the glorious revealing in all its fantastical splendour. Again the hanging in the air double-take is beautifully realised and darkly chills. In Abronsius’s imitable way he immediately makes mock of the situation and begins to hop and dance momentarily.
Elibori theory revealing the mortals
Baying for the blood of mortals
As the vampires begin to slowly bay toward the three mortals, (almost zombie; Romero like?) the Count summons those present to seize their captives he leading the way. Also see: Roy Ward Baker‘s delightful directed anthology, The Vault of Horror (1971), tale one – ‘Midnight Mess’ featuring the Massey’s Daniel and Anna. Or May I suggest in a similar vein (pun intended this time?) Peter Duffell’s, The House That Dripped Blood (1971) tale four – ‘The Cloak’ featuring the then time lord – Jon Pertwee.
The vampire incursion is temporarily halted when both the professor and Alfred take two swords from two knights amour stands and form the sign of the cross – crucifix in order to repel their pursuers. After escaping the ballroom the three being chased now go in search of freeing themselves from the castle. Their journey takes them toward the lower depth of the castles reach. Despite being pursued the professor and the others come across a cave structure attachment to the castle. Passing through this cave Abronsius is temporarily stopped in his tracks when above he notices large bats hibernating.
“I’ve never come across such remarkable specimens”.
Fascinated and despite Alfred’s protestations the professor confirms the find.
“Here and now I can assert we are dealing with Pteropus Poliocephalus!” Alfred tugs his master away from his find, “we haven’t got time”.
After further discovery the pursued find a stairway and climb it. Above them is a trap door which they open and then exit. They find themselves in Koukol’s workshop – he present and looking on in dismay and a growing confusion. We note he has completed construction of a further four coffins in total. Not withstanding the unusual coming-together the three do not wait for Koukol to think has to why these people are in his workshop. Again the professor unflinching – shoos away Alfred and Sarah. The three escapees reach the bailey, the curious servant in tow. From distance but drawing closer the horde of baying vampires can be heard close by. The three take a door close by and seal it as the vampires finally arrive, Koukol; now realising his missed opportunity. The three escapees reach the stable. Well the professor collects the horse and sleigh Alfred opens the gate to the main castle entrance. In the distance the vampires are heard yelling and drawing closer. By the time the professor as drawn up to the gates and collected both Alfred and Sarah the pursuers are too late, the professor, Alfred and Sarah are across the drawbridge and away.
Escape from the castle Von Krolock
We note the reluctance of the vampires to leave the castle, which indicates that possible pursuit of the escapees may jeopardise their lives? Is it to dangerous of the hour to take such a risk? The hesitation of both the Count and Herbert Von Krolock confirm this notion. It is with great anger and vitriol that the Count tells Koukol that he must fetch the professor and Co back.
“Go! Go, Koukol, go. Give them a little hell, fire and blood! – Go! – Catch them!”
Koukol in improvisation grabs one of the open coffins and in an ingenious way uses it as a makeshift toboggan. With the professor as coachman and Alfred and Sarah as passengers, they are unaware that that Koukol is now in makeshift pursuit. The climax of this chase is both hilarious and not without a double-edged irony. In the case of Koukol, let’s just say nearly but not quite. The crashing through the trees and the distant howl and ferocious sound of hounds attacking something? leave us to surmise the servants outcome. (Revenge?) The final irony is revealed in two parts. Firstly we finally note Two puncture wounds on the neck of the rescued Sarah Shagal. With the professor concentrating on escape, he is oblivious of the attack upon his apprentice Alfred. This is followed by the final pronouncement by a added Narrator: “That night – fleeing from Transylvania, Professor Abronsius never guessed he was carrying away with him the very evil he had wished to destroy. Thanks to him, this evil would at last be able to spread across the world”.
Despite the movies bleak but amusing end prediction, it is the highlighting of the vampire hunter’s incompetence and the humourous conclusion that makes Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers such a splendid act in extreme irony. I cannot praise the madcap spirit and inventiveness of this movie highly enough, other than review it and delight in its presence in my movie viewing life. It also, categorically proves that Roman Polanski’s quality to get the right people involved and create the perfect foil for his character creations is second-to-none. For me Polanski the actor – let us just say in this production excels as Alfred the incompetent apprentice. Polanski as a writer and with Co writer of this production Gérard Brach’s we must add his massive writing vision on this and his life long contribution and association to other notable Polanski output: Repulsion (1965). Cul-de-sac (1966). Tess (1979). Pirates (1986). Frantic (1988). And finally my favourite Polanski movie of all – Bitter Moon (1992). I also think this ’92 effort was the last time the two men collaborated? Roman Polanski the director – well as I said at the offset of this review and putting aside ‘alleged’ transgressions, (for we must?) For me personally, he is truly one of the greatest ever! The other thing I should make special and particular mention of is Jack MacGowran.
He is truly fantastic and just highlights his acting prowess. It is one of the best comic performances of all time. His character Professor Abronsius is one of the finest horror/comedy creations ever to fill the screen. His eccentricity and glaring opposition to adversity is just beautifully described. It is a performance that oozes of cinematic showmanship of the highest calibre and sadly lacking in modern cinema, in large part. Such performances like this are very rare, so making the most of them when they do turn up, is a bonus of greater pleasure. As you can gather I love this movie to bits and make no apology in doing so, more to the point… “why should I!” E.D. Leach.