The Fearless Vampire Killers or, Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck (1967)

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Aka Dance of the VampiresThat night, penetrating deep into the heart of Transylvania, Professor Abronsius was unaware that he was on the point of reaching the goal of his mysterious investigations. In the mid-nineteenth century tottering bat researcher (and vampire hunter) Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his dim-witted bumbling assistant Alfred (Roman Polanski) travel to a small mountain village where they find the tell-tale traces of vampirism. Shy Alfred becomes enchanted by Sarah (Sharon Tate) the local tavern keeper Yoine Shagal’s (Alfie Bass) daughter, before she is promptly abducted. Determined to save the buxom maiden they confront the undead Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) in his castle… Takes me for a nincompoop, that necrophile. Despite its ostensible status as a parody, this is a mesmerising, beautiful concoction that might be the purest expression of writer/director Roman Polanski’s worldview:  witty, satirical, brilliantly poised between comedy and horror with hints of fairytale and deathly romance and a rather twist(ed) ending. From a story and screenplay by himself and Gérard Brach with exquisite cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, this mitteleuropäischer story was shot in the Trentino instead of Austria but it’s still in Polanski’s Alps and his love of the mountains and the juxtaposition of blood with snow is evident even in the titles sequence (the American version has a silly animation). The cast is perfection with Mayne hilarious in his Christopher Lee tribute and Iain Quarrier a hoot as his gay son;  Terry Downes is a scream as their servant; Bass has perhaps his best film part: Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!  The leads are sensational. MacGowran is lovable as the dotty expert and Polanski is positively Kafaesque as his fearful sidekick. Tate is one of the most staggeringly beautiful women ever on celluloid and the story gives her many bright moments. Last week I viewed those personal belongings of hers that are going on sale at Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles in a couple of weeks and it made me very sad, indeed I felt somewhat vampiric. She is gone almost fifty years and this year she would have turned 75 (last January 24th). Seeing her possessions behind glass – clothing, mementos, photographs – was unbelievably poignant. It is simply unfathomable that she suffered such a terrible demise. This is a delightful memorial to her and she and Polanski are terrific in the one film they made together before their marriage.  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

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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I read about this long before I saw it. Francois Truffaut’s comments in the Observer magazine one Sunday tickled my kiddish fancy but even in the 1980s Hitchcock screenings were a hard find on TV particularly of this vintage. The fact that it’s Hitchcock is rather moot (or controversial!) from an authorship perspective: it wasn’t written with him in mind at all (it was intended for Roy William Neill) and yet the tropes became part of his evolving cinematic signature. It was adapted from Ethel Lina White’s novel The Wheel Spins by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, a formidable pair who would become one of the more fascinating partnerships in British cinema. On the train trip back to England from her pre-marital ski holiday with her girl squad, socialite Iris (Margaret Lockwood) befriends an old lady governess Miss Froy (May Whitty) but when the woman disappears nobody believes her until she finds an ally in musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) whose kick-dancing kept her from going to sleep in the hotel. Every time Iris finds proof of the old lady’s existence it simply (and literally!) evaporates. Is she going mad? Everyone else seems to think so. The cast on the train are a rum sort:  Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), the cricket-obsessed Brits (who would appear in a handful more movies as these characters!); the adulterous couple the Todhunters (Cecil Parker and Linden Travers); a weird baroness (Mary Clare); a doctor (Paul Lukas); and a nun (Catherine Lacey):  all of whom seem intent on keeping Iris quiet from her apparently paranoid observations for various reasons of their own. Some turn out to be more political than others … This eve of WW2 comedy thriller persuaded David O. Selznick to invite Hitchcock to try his hand in Hollywood:  after three relative box office failures, this was a surefire hit. The effects are good (miniatures), the suspense never lets up and there is a rare menacing tension which the political subtext amplifies as quickly as the train steams ahead to the various troubled border controls. Quick-witted, smart storytelling with a winning cast:  who could wish for anything more? What did Truffaut say about this? He said he saw it once a week at a cinema in Paris and every time he tried to figure out how it worked he forgot because he got so caught up with the story. Oh yes. That’s it!

Corpse Bride (2005)

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Aka Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. With the season of spookiness upon us it’s time to look at this stop-motion animation, a reverie of marriage and death and multiple scary lairy characters. In a monochrome world shy sweet pianist Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp) is about to marry Victoria (Emily Watson) by arrangement through socially ambitious parents when a branch from a tree drags him to the land of the dead where murdered Emily (Helena Bonham Carter) wants to marry HIM. She reunites him with his dead pet dog as the newly married man (albeit to a dead woman) descends to a paradoxical world of colour which is great fun but he needs to get back to reality to ensure Victoria isn’t ensnared in a marriage to villainous Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant) who is eventually revealed to be the fiance who murdered Emily! If it’s a little incoherent on the story level it’s fun to watch, with some star talent having fun – Enn Reitel as the maggot/conscience in Emily’s brain, Christopher Lee as Pastor Galswells, Joanna Lumley as Victoria’s mother and composer Danny Elfman as a one-eyed skeleton (modelled on Sammy Davis Jr.). It’s maybe too smooth for stop-motion (using a different camera than the one on Nightmare Before Christmas) but it’s always good to watch Burton’s macabre work at Halloween. Screenplay by John August, Caroline Thompson and Pamela Pettler based on characters created by Burton and Carlos Grangel.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)

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Part of my unofficial Deborah Kerr season, this. It’s very like the 1937 version directed by John Cromwell … because it’s copied scene for scene! Wonderful cast, with Stewart Granger (who did something similar six months earlier with the great Scaramouche), Kerr (who had done King Solomon’s Mines with Granger two years earlier) and the villainous James Mason, along with Jane Greer, more familiar to us from RKO’s noirs. It’s interesting to see Mason and Granger face off – they had had remarkably similar career trajectories in Gainsborough melodramas but it would be Mason who would ultimately have the bigger career. Lovely to look at and great fun. What more could you desire?