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

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Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

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Schreck? That’s a German word isn’t it? Means fear or horror. On board a train, fortune teller Dr Schreck (Peter Cushing) uses a set of tarot cards to reveal to his fellow passengers (Christopher Lee, Donald Sutherland, Roy Castle, Neil McCallum, Alan Freeman) what destiny awaits each of them … This town isn’t big enough for two doctors… or two vampires.  The first Amicus anthology film and influenced by the great Dead of Night, combining five stories comprising a vampire, a severed hand, a man-eating plant, a voodoo curse and a werewolf – that’s what you get for talking to the Grim Reaper on the way to work. It’s one of my favourite childhood Saturday night horrors with some nice effects and not a little black humour. Written by producer Milton Subotsky and directed by Freddie Francis. Plant like that… could take over the world!

Blood of the Vampire (1958)

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Three quarters of what you hear here are the ravings of imbeciles. Anaemic Dr Callistratus (Donald Wolfit) is bringing criminally insane prisoners at his remote castle asylum into the lab to take their blood because mistaken villagers put him to death after mistaking him for a vampire.  Resuscitated through a heart transplant, he needs a regular supply of blood.  Poor Dr John Pierre (Vincent Ball) fetches up there instead of a penal colony for medical malpractice following a blood transfusion that goes wrong . We are in deepest Transylvania in the 1870s and when John’s fiancee Madeleine (Barbara Shelley) follows her beloved you can imagine the consequences … You might find it hard to stifle a giggle when you see Victor Maddern turn up as Carl the one-eyed hunch-backed enforcer in the imaginatively named village of Carlstadt but otherwise this takes itself very seriously indeed, which is how it should be.  The topic of medical experiments made a lot of people squirm in the wake of finding out what the Nazis had been up to in WW2 so this had a weird kind of topicality in genre form:  exchanging one person’s entire bloodstream for another’s? Why not? Theatrical actor-manager legend Wolfit eats up the screen as the baddie and Ball and Shelley are a very attractive couple battling the madmen and the dogs. Woof! Written by Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster who had just written that studio’s first two big hits (also in colour) and directed by Henry Cass.

Paris When It Sizzles (1964)

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Every day when I get up and I see there’s a whole new other day I go absolutely ape! Richard Benson (William Holden) is holed up in a swish Paris apartment with a great view and he has two days left of his 20-week contract to fulfill a screenwriting assignment commissioned on the basis of the title by a monied producer.  He’s spent all that time travelling around Europe, having an affair with a Greek actress and drinking. Now he’s hired a typist called Gabrielle Simpson (Audrey Hepburn) who’s really a wannabe writer who spent the first six months of her two-year stint in the city living a very louche life. He dictates various opening scenes of The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower and eventually constructs a version which takes off with Gabrielle standing in for the lead actress in a story which mutates into a spy thriller. Her actor boyfriend in the story (Tony Curtis) dumps her (in reality she has a date to keep in two days – Bastille Day) and she gets embroiled with Benson himself as the presumed villain. When Gabrielle takes over the storytelling she turns him into a vampire because of a childhood obsession with Dracula. He rewrites it like the hack he really is and gives it a Hollywood ending – straight out of Casablanca. Real life meshes with reel life and Noel Coward – playing his producer Alexander Myerheim – materialises at a party in the film within a film. Marlene Dietrich has a cameo and Curtis has great fun in his supporting role as a narcissistic Method actor. This postmodern remake of the French film Holiday for Henrietta by Julien Duvivier and Henri Jeanson got a rewrite by George Axelrod and it’s brimming with Hollywood references and a surplus of nods to the films of both stars:  talk about meta! It was put into production by Paramount who exercised their contractual rights over Holden and Hepburn, reunited after Sabrina a decade earlier. They had had a much-fabled affair then and Hepburn allegedly turned down Holden’s offer of marriage due to his vasectomy as she was obsessed with having a child. She was by now married to actor and director Mel Ferrer and Holden turned up to the set in a very bad way, still not over her. His drinking was out of control and he had numerous accidents befall him which ended up scuppering the final scene. It was directed by Richard Quine, who had previously made The World of Suzie Wong with him and that gets a shout out too. Hepburn’s husband Ferrer has a cameo here as a partygoer and Sinatra does some singing duties when Benson announces the titles of the film within a film. There are far more laughs here than the contemporary reviews would give it credit, with some shrewd screenplay analysis and Benson even talks at regular intervals about his planned book The Art of Screenplay Writing which sounds like a useful handbook. Hepburn was outfitted as ever by Hubert de Givenchy who betrays her terrifyingly anorectic frame and he also gets a credit for her perfume despite this not being released in Smell-O-Rama. Hepburn had legendary Claude Renoir (the same) fired as director of photography because she felt he wasn’t flattering her and had him replaced with Charles Lang, who accompanied her to her next film, Charade, which shares a location with this – the Punch and Judy show at the front of the Theatre de Marigny. There’s a sinuous score by Nelson Riddle.

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The death has taken place of George A. Romero, a true horror auteur whose Night of the Living Dead  (1968) extended the boundaries of the horror movie in some style – political and racial. And it gave zombies a voice!  He began his career as a gofer on the set of North By Northwest – not too shabby an introduction to the world of cinema. It would be another decade until he set the world alight – and he continued to make zombie films in a loosely affiliated series that he was going to continue as late as July 13th last when he released poster art for the forthcoming Road of the Dead, the first of the series he wasn’t going to direct. He had a lot of friends in the horror world, literary and cinematic, because they respected the tone of his films, his originality, his sensibility and his tenacity. He gave Stephen King his first screenwriting job in the anthology Creepshow, a Valentine to all those 50s comics that so influenced American writers and directors. Pittsburgh was of course home to most of his best known works and The Crazies and Martin remain minor classics. He was such an original and such a smart, conscientious filmmaker that it’s hard to qualify his contribution. Legend. Icon. Rest in peace.

Vampyr (1932)

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Aka The Strange Adventure of David Gray, Not Against the Flesh, The Castle of Doom. One of those unique films that a film snob such as myself extols above all others. After the extraordinary Passion of Joan of Arc, Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer worked with Christen Jul on a more-or-less adaptation of Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly (mainly Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant) to come up with the story of Allan Gray, a dreamer (that old German trope) and student of the occult investigating phenomena in the village of Courtempierre, a place haunted by a vampire’s curse. For financial reasons, the film had to be shot in French, German and Italian, and this presented problems with dialogue so that was cut to the bone, with one of the financiers, Nicholas de Gunzburg, starring under the pseudonym Julian West. Sound was a new technology and French cinema was having trouble adapting so title cards were used where possible, contributing to the effect of the silents. The unique atmosphere is partly conjured by primitive effects, partly by the soft focus shooting style deployed by Rudolph Mate (returning from Joan of Arc) and the production design by Hermann Warm (ditto) and in part again by the ensemble of freaked-out weirdos populating the cast. If you ever wondered where that grain silo scene in Witness was lifted from, you have to watch the last reel …  Dreyer had directed his locations assistant to scout for “a factory in ruins, a chopped up phantom, worthy of the imagination of Edgar Allan Poe. Somewhere in Paris. We can’t travel far.” Except in the mind. To die for.

Grave of the Vampire (1972)

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My favourite TV show when I was a kid (and of all time…) was The Rockford Files. Except I hated all the episodes that had New Joisey mooks usurping Jim’s turf. What on earth were they doing in Malibu?! Who put them there?! David Chase, that’s who. Of course until he hit the big time with The Sopranos I had no idea of his deviant past. And here is more of it, writ large as the originator of the story (The Still Life) and harbinger of a bloodsucking vampire baby, born to Leslie, impregnated on date night not by her fiance but by the man who has left his coffin’s silence to bathe the world in blood. The baby, sustained with a regular supply of the red stuff, grows up to become William Smith (an exploitation staple whose finest hour was as villainous Falconetti in TV’s Rich Man, Poor Man) who tries to hunt down the man who ruined his perverted mom.(She just will not abort the parasite despite the doc’s best pleading). He fetches up in a college because night school is (logically) where a vampire hangs out, right? Michael Pataki is pretty impressive as the ghoulish Caleb Croft, walking this earth because the electrocution didn’t work and now plying his trade as a Professor. Forgive me if I seem compelling, he smarms to one ladyfriend, That quality is inspired by you! Hey, you had me at Hello!!! Wait for the seance! And, hey, genetics will always out … Good, evil, sheesh!

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

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This was one of THE cinema events of the 90s:  Anne Rice’s cult novel, which had been in development hell for years, was finally being brought to the big screen helmed by Neil Jordan – and she took out ads in the trades telling everyone how much she hated the project and the casting. Principally, Tom Cruise as her beloved Lestat. But she wrote the screenplay … and did an about turn upon its release. Brad Pitt plays vampish sidekick Louis and Christian Slater plays the role of the interviewer which should have been River Phoenix’ until his shocking death (the film is dedicated to him in an atypical incidence of taste). This is a tale of passions and tragedy and grand guignol. It turned into a folie de grandeur (or epic fail as the kids say) lurching from theatrical and baroque to camp and back again. The scenes with greedy little vampire Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) are particularly funny and make Lestat and Louis look like two especially inept gay dads. Antonio Banderas pops up for Olde Worlde authenticity. (It also boasts Domiziana Giordano, whose entire career appears to have happened due to having an amazing head of hair.) This is a whole lotta fun if you’re in the mood and if you’re a fan of N’Oleans, cher, then this could be the ticket. Which reminds me of my own trip into Rice country pre-Katrina and my experience in the vintage store run by her sister where I resisted the opportunity to buy the woman’s undies (with tag signed in purple ink by the authoress herself.) I got a signed book instead. The past really IS another country. But if Guns’n’Roses can get back together then anything goes (they sing the closing song, Sympathy for the Devil …)

Twixt (2011)

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Maybe it’s a twitch or muscle memory that makes him do it, but Francis Ford Coppola’s last release is hardly a sign of an aesthetic that needs to be exercised. Val Kilmer is the writer on a book tour selling his horror books from the trunk of his car to a dwindling audience when he arrives  in a small town where Edgar Allan Poe once stayed. A murder piques his interest and his dream leads him back to a personal tragedy.  The mix of visual styles, the supporting performances, the vampire conceit, all these suggest someone trying their hand at filmmaking for the first time – not a past master. Truly these are odd times.