Hammered Polanski

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When people think of Roman Polanski they undoubtedly think of Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Pianist, and maybe even Repulsion. For all the memorable titles who remembers some of his other stuff? The Ninth Gate with Johnny Depp? What was that? And Oliver Twist, which may not measure up to the David lean version, but it does contain a pretty great Sir Ben Kingsley performance (that actually beats Alec Guinness’s Fagin, in my opinion, although Robert Newton is still the best Sykes). My personal favorite lesser Polanski is Cul-de-sac. But that is not what I wish to talk about today. This is about Roman Polanski’s overlooked Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Catchy title, no?

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First off, to fully appreciate Fearless Vampire Killers (also titled Dance of the Vampires) you have to sort of understand the aesthetics and mechanics of Hammer horror films. Fearless Vampire Killers is half tribute and half spoof of the classic British horror movies that came out of Hammer Studios in the 50s and 60s (frequently starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, and a bevy of big-titted women). Hammer films were, in a sense, inspired by the even more classic Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s (frequently starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr.). Universal horror was black and white, set at indeterminate times in history, and relied more heavily on expressionist touches (which dates back even further to the 20s and silent expressionist films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, etc.). Hammer horror was stylistically more straightforward and featured elegant period costumes, detailed sets (that generally do feel very set-like), and nice color. Both studios loved castles, monsters, and gruesome makeup.

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Fearless Vampire Killers features Polanski himself as one of the main characters (like in The Tenant). He is Alfred, the feckless waif-like assistant to vampire expert, Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran). They stumble upon a stereotypical superstitious Bavarian village beset by vampires. Most of the action takes place in and around the frozen castle of Count von Krolock and company. The spindly but unflappable Abronsius plans to kill the Count by driving a stake through his heart. Alfred, meanwhile, wants only to rescue the girl (played by Sharon Tate).he met at the inn in act one.

I liked Jack MacGowran’s character. He talks funny and looks funny and his calm demeanor in the face of danger is humorously juxtaposed by Polanski’s jittery Alfred. Professor Abronsius looks like an anorexic Einstein, although he is meant to be a comedic stand-in for the Professor Van Helsing.

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Polanski’s film is a little odd. Most of the slapstick is kinda awkward. It’s not really scary enough to be a proper tribute and it’s not really funny enough to be a spoof or comedy. But I liked the castle. The castle, like all good spooky castles in horror movies, is more than an impressive set piece; it’s a character. The ersatz snow and faux-frost covering every (clearly soundstage) location gives the film a strange, phony atmosphere that sort of appealed to me too. Then there’s the awesome, bone-jangly musical score composed by Krzysztof Komeda. It feels like what it would have sounded like if Philip Glass had composed the music for Argento’s Suspiria (1977). There’s also a pretty good vampire ball towards the end. Vampires of all ages don fancy regalia and dance in an elegant—albeit a bit dust-covered—ballroom.

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Fearless Vampire Killers is a mostly toothless affair, but it’s sort of charming in its own stupid way. Do I kinda wish there were more ghosts and monsters? Yeah. Do I wish it was funnier and/or scarier? Yeah. But it was worth checking out an overlooked Roman Polanski flick, and it’s nice to see he was a Hammer fan. Now if I only could muster the plums to see Polanski’s Pirates (1986). Shudder.

Picture references:

http://gethemoviez.com/the-fearless-vampire-killers-1967/

http://cinemaatheart.tumblr.com/post/27457617615/the-fearless-vampire-killers-1967-roman

http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/jack%20macgowran?language=ru_RU

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” July 29th, 2013.

The Post Apocalyptic Movies You Didn’t See…Way Beyond the Thunderdome

Deserts and desperation. From Mad Max (1979) to Children of Men (2006) we sure do love speculating about what the world might look like after a nuclear holocaust. The post-apocalyptic sub-genre of the dystopian movie is something of a Hollywood staple nowadays (The Road, Book of Eli). There have been many a fine example of what a story can do with a clean slate. After the disaster you can make your own rules…unfortunately a lot of post-apocalyptic flicks don’t seem to realize that the possibilities of what a post-apocalyptic world can be are endless. You can go all out weird-bad bonkers like John Boorman’s misguided wtf Zardoz (1974) with Sean Connery, or you can go total glittery-cape-wearing zombie-war like in the Charlton Heston classic The Omega Man (1971). Most of the films mentioned in this paragraph are fairly well-known or popular (ok, Zardoz is a little out there), but I’d like to focus on a few post-apocalyptic movies you probably didn’t see. Both good and bad these films celebrate the endless possibilities of life after the bomb drops.

Come travel back in time with me as we explore the future.

When I hear a title like Hell Comes to Frogtown (1987) a little twinge of excitement tickles my spine. I watched this movie knowing it was going to be bad. It did not disappoint. Hell Comes to Frogtown stars wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (They Live) as Sam Hell, one of the last remaining fertile males in the not too distant future. Hell is captured and his netherbits are locked up by the provisional government so that he can go on a mission—wait for it, wait for it—to impregnate all the fertile females that are held hostage in Frogtown. So what is Frogtown? Frogtown is the steam-filled factory-like settlement inhabited by mutant frog people. Ribbit. If this movie sounds a little campy and chauvinistic, it’s only because it is. This movie can’t go ten minutes without women disrobing themselves. Frogtown has everything you’d expect from a campy eighties sci-fi action comedy. You got your butch, cigar-chomping, short-hair chick who’s always stroking a big gun (Cec Verrell). Then there’s the “nerdy” chick with the stick up her butt who lets her hair down and removes her gigantic owl glasses (and several articles of clothing) to reveal she’s secretly super hot (Sandahl Bergman). There’s your regular Joe protagonist (Piper) who just wants to get the blasted electrocution diaper off his junk. Finally there are some truly silly people in big frog puppet suits. The film is ugly and terrible…just the way I like it sometimes. If nothing else, it’s better than Super Mario Bros.

The eighties had some hits, but man, when you find its forgotten misses. Don’t hate this one because it’s Canadian. Hate it because it sucks. The mercifully short Rock & Rule (1983) is just as yucky as anything to come out of the eighties. In the distant future some mutant rodent people have formed a mediocre rock band. The band is made up of the obnoxious tool of a guitarist, the loveable but paunchy intellectual keyboardist, the goofy and uber-annoying drummer, and the kind and soulful hot girl. Everything is going nowhere for these guys until an evil all-powerful rocker named Mok needs to use the girl’s voice to unleash a demon out of hell for some reason. I found it interesting that all of the male characters look rather gross or strange but with the girl they really try to minimize her rodent features and sexualize her. Anthros will love it. The story is stupid, the characters are grating, the colors are oppressive and dim, and there’s really nothing to care about in this unpleasant fantasy adventure, but the animation is actually really, really good. I was genuinely impressed by the animation in this dumb movie. The same studio animated Eek! The Cat and The Adventures of Tintin cartoons. Most of the songs are pretty forgettable, but there’s a few decent ones. The songs are performed by (get this) Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick, Debbie Harry, and Earth, Wind, & Fire, so there’s that. All in all something this bad and strange should not be forgotten…because that means I have to find it.

The bad is now behind us. Now we move into the realm of the good ol’ off-the-wall post-apocalyptic movies.

A Boy and His Dog (1975) is the touching tale of the undying bond between man and man’s best friend. Kind of. In the distant future (post-apocalyptic, of course) Vic (Don Johnson) and his telepathic dog Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire) search for food and females. The landscape is reminiscent of Hell Comes to Frogtown, but it was actually Mad Max who was inspired first. A Boy and His Dog was directed by L.Q. Jones (the old, blonde, mustachioed guy in The Mask of Zorro) and is appropriately taglined as “a rather kinky tale of survival.” The protagonist, Vic, is not only a bit of an immature, reckless jerk, but he’s also a bit of a rapist too. The dog is ten times smarter than Vic is, which really makes you consider a dog’s steadfast loyalty in a whole new light. When Vic meets Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton) he is convinced he must see the strange, enigmatic underground city. If everyone above ground is wild and dangerous and resources are scarce then maybe it’s time to go subterranean. The problem is that Blood is wounded and so he elects to wait for Vic to return up top. Once underground Vic discovers a whole populated world of people wearing clown makeup (and the world is run by Jason Robards!!!). He then learns that they need his seed to repopulate (Frogtown! Confound you!). Initially the idea appeals to the perpetually randy Vic, but when they take all the fun out of it and keep him prisoner that’s when things get serious. I would love to tell you more, but I can’t ruin it for you. It’s a pretty odd film that gets away with a lot of its shenanigans by not taking itself too seriously. Oh, and the ending is definitely one for the books.

Lastly, and my personal favorite on this list, is the surreal British comedy The Bed-Sitting Room (1969). The film takes place in a desolate British wasteland full of oddball characters trying to carry on with their daily lives. These characters are played by many familiar English personalities such as Michael Hordern (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), Sir Ralph Richardson (Time Bandits), Dudley Moore (Arthur), Peter Cook (Bedazzled), Roy Kinnear (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), Rita Tushingham (Doctor Zhivago), Marty Feldman (Young Frankenstein), Harry Secombe (The Goon Show), and more! It was based on Spike Milligan’s play (he also stars in the film alongside everyone else) and it was directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Musketeers, Superman II). The film really operates more as a series of somewhat connected interludes and non-sequiturs, all as bafflingly surreal and morbidly funny as all get out. It almost feels like what would happen if Terry Gilliam and Alejandro Jodorowsky did a movie together. It has that absurd—almost Monty Python flavored—satire, but with the stark desperation and dreamlike transmogrifications that imply an even more cynically surreal hand at work. It’s a marvelous commentary on society and if you can get into people turning into furniture then this just might be the film for you. I absolutely loved its darkly warped wit. This is Richard Lester untethered and the cast is superb. And even weirder than Lester’s How I Won the War.

Post-apocalyptic movies have remained popular through the years and it’s no wonder. You can get really imaginative with them. I picked these films not only because they are exceptionally unusual and maybe less well known, but also because they employ a unique and welcome twist to the genre: a sense of humor. Hell Comes to Frogtown and Rock and Rule may be rather heinous, but they only mean to have fun and provide a strange escape. A Boy and His Dog and The Bed-Sitting Room are inventive and edgy, but it is their humorous spirit that defines them and makes them special. Humor affords them special privileges. Humor can say and do things drama cannot, and vice versa, but with so many dour and serious post-apocalyptic films out there, why not take a chance on one of these weird babies? If you like post-apocalyptic movies you might enjoy checking out these peculiar specimens…but you already know which ones I’d recommend first.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 13, 2011

The Inconsequentials

Somewhere there’s in immense list of all the movies you should see before you die. They are powerful, iconic, historic, influential, quotable. We call these movies “The Essentials.” Most of them you’ve seen or at least heard of; anything from Star Wars to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. How many people know The Pink Panther (1963) with Peter Sellers? Now, how many people know Topkapi (1964) with Peter Ustinov? In an effort to preserve all of the iconic, unmitigated masterpieces from film history (which is a very good thing), we can sometimes forget the smaller, old films that might not exactly be considered “essential” viewing.

Personal feelings: I think Topkapi is a far superior heist comedy to The Pink Panther.

I use the term “inconsequentials” as a sort of joke, but I think it’s a shame more people are not clamoring for copies of West of Zanzibar (1928), Shanghai Express (1932), and White Zombie (1932). These are three movies that I personally love and I will tell you what makes them special and why nobody cares today. Join me as we travel from the deepest African jungle to dangerous Chinese railways and then into Haitian voodoo country on our tour of some of the “inconsequentials.”


Lon Chaney, Sr. is a gateway drug into the world of silent cinema. Chaney, Chaplin, Fairbanks, Sr., the whole lot. They pull you in. West of Zanzibar is one of those strange silent jungle melodramas, and if you have ever heard of this one it was because you are a die-hard Lon Chaney fan. It also has the added cult appeal of being directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks, The Unholy Three). Chaney is most famous for his roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His uncanny ability to utilize makeup and physically painful-looking bodily distortions are what made him a legend of the silver screen. This film is a little different. Chaney wears no disguises. No clown makeup, no monster deformity, no Fu Manchu getup, no drag. Nothing. Chaney plays a stage magician of great prominence named Phroso. He is betrayed when his wife, Anna, cheats on him with his arch rival, Mr. Crane (played by Lionel Barrymore of Key Largo and It’s a Wonderful Life). When Crane announces that he is taking Anna away with him to Africa, Phroso attempts to stop him, but is thrown off the balcony and becomes paralyzed from the waist down. Later Phroso, now a paraplegic, discovers that Anna has died and so he vows revenge. Phroso moves to Africa to get Crane. Eighteen years have passed and Phroso is now the grimy “Dead Legs,” a strange witch doctor type guy to a primitive jungle tribe. He uses his magic tricks to frighten the natives of a nearby tribe…who happen to be under the watch of who else but Crane. “Dead Legs” kidnaps Crane’s daughter and tortures her to make Crane feel the pain he felt. *SPOILER ALERT* Well into the plot, “Dead Legs” learns that the girl he captured is actually his own daughter and that Crane has been taking care of her all these years, but it is too late to fix the damage he has done. He has killed Crane and his real daughter sees him as an evil murderer. To reveal his true identity at this point would destroy the girl, so he sacrifices himself to the natives to buy her time to escape into the night with her main squeeze.

The movie is dark, demented, and perfect for fans of Lon Chaney. He’s great at playing these deranged patriarchs, vengeful creeps, sympathetic deformed characters, and the subject of impossible tragedy and in West of Zanzibar he gets to play them all at once. The story is very pulpy and silly, but it’s a lot of fun and it has a wonderful exotic feel. The reason West of Zanzibar gets overlooked is because of the more popular films like The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula. The average person gets a sense of who Chaney and Browning are and moves on, never discovering their smaller films. Like I said, you’d have to be a real Lon Chaney geek or silent film nerd to seek this one out, but for my money it is well worth it even if you’re not.


Shanghai Express is an exorbitantly pulpy flick about women of sin, how much faith it takes to love someone, and a train on an exotic track with a rendezvous with the Chinese civil war. Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution, Destry Rides Again) stars as Shanghai Lily, the most famous and successful prostitute in the orient (don’t worry, she’s not in yellow-face). When she boards the Shanghai Express with her friend and fellow woman-of-ill-repute, Hui Fei (played by the always fascinating Anna May Wong), everyone is perturbed by their presence. Several colorful and leisured characters are on board the train including a very outspoken missionary, an officer, a fickle woman, an opium dealer, an exceedingly gregarious gambler (Eugene Pallette, who always seems to be playing priests, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro), the shady half-Chinese Henry Chang (Charlie Chan himself, Warner Oland), and Lily’s old flame, the stoic British Captain Harvey (Clive Brook). Lily still has feelings for Captain Harvey, but Harvey is displeased with the life she now leads (although we sense he still fancies her greatly despite their 5 year separation). Can these two lost souls rekindle their dwindling romance? Moreover, will everyone get out alive after the train is stopped and they are taken hostage by Henry Chang who turns out to be a powerful warlord and rebel in the civil war? What makes this film work is the fun cast of characters, the steamy locations, the feelings of entrapment, the themes of faith and love…and revenge. I was only nominally with this film until the train got stopped. Then I was fully invested. The stakes are raised and the plot thickens. Murder, torture, sex, betrayal, the works. It’s amazing how much they got away with in those pre-code days.

Shanghai Express is pulpy fun. Most of the characters are fairly broad or rigid. I honestly don’t know how Captain Harvey and Shanghai Lily ever got together to begin with. The film also throws in random spiritual elements that don’t exactly seem to mesh, but it’s a good trip on a mysterious train that collides with danger and intrigue. Shanghai Express is filmed well and Eugene Pallette really livens things up and Anna May Wong delivers another dark and subtle performance that steals every scene she’s in. I love this movie for its simple but interesting story and rich atmosphere. The reason why this movie gets overlooked? Because Casablanca was a better movie. Plain and simple. Brooks can’t compete with Bogart, but Shanghai Express is still a great little movie on its own and should be celebrated more these days.


The last two films I talked about had a few things in common. They were pulpy, exotic, and atmospheric “inconsequentials” and my last pick is no exception. White Zombie might be a little more well-known for two very important reasons: a.) it stars Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and b.) it’s the first zombie movie. Many people regard George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as the first zombie movie, but White Zombie has it beat by a good 36 years. Romero’s film changed the rules for zombie flicks and added social commentary, but White Zombie is all just for fun. Bela Lugosi plays Murder Legendre, an insidious voodoo master and owner of a Haitian sugar plantation. As you might have guessed, his Haitian slaves working the spooky sugar cane mill are actually zombies! Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Charles (a plantation owner) loves Madeleine, but Madeleine is in love with and getting married to Neil, so Charles goes to Murder for help. Simple. But!…the only way for Murder to make Madeleine love Charles is to make her into a zombie. So that’s exactly what they do, but Neil discovers his dead fiancee’s tomb to be empty and recruits the knowledgeable missionary, Bruner, and meanwhile Charles is regretting his decision for a zombie romance and Murder is actually slowly turning Charles into a zombie too! It all builds up to an exciting climax in Murder’s cliff-side castle. Zombies attack and spells are broken and there’s voodoo and people die and stuff and bad guy’s name is Murder! It’s fun.

Despite the relative cheapness of the production, White Zombie boasts some fantastic atmosphere and one of Bela Lugosi’s best performances. The scenes in the zombie sugar mill are spooky and deliciously atmospheric. The castle is great and the shots of the zombies assembling in the hillside cemetery are fun and a lurking Lugosi practicing voodoo in the shadows is  just great. It’s a slight movie (some might call it “inconsequential”), but I really love it. The reason you don’t see this one on a lot of lists is because of legendary movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and others that overshadow it. White Zombie has a fairly insignificant villain as far as supernatural antagonists go and it doesn’t seem to have been made with as much care…or money. All that being said, it’s a great bit of cheap horror and much better than The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It also makes for a delightfully inconsequential double-feature with The Vampire Bat (1933) starring Fay Wray (Doctor X, King Kong), Lionel Atwill (Doctor X, Captain Blood), Melvyn Douglas (The Tenant, Being There), and the always wide-eyed Dwight Frye (Frankenstein, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein). (Incidentally the guy who directed the extremely “inconsequential” Doctor X just so happens to be Michael Curtiz, the guy who directed Casablanca. It all comes full circle).

 

One more film I must mention as I recently revisited it after several years and I am pleased to say it still holds up is Bluebeard (1944). Fans of John Carradine are probably quite familiar with it. Carradine plays Bluebeard, a puppeteer/painter/serial-strangler in 19th century Paris. It’s a delightfully low-budget yarn of the macabre.

As a lover of old movies it takes more than just the undeniable classics to appease me. Sometimes I like the smaller films just as much as the great ones. Don’t let the greats cast too long a shadow that they blot out the smaller film achievements. Use them as a reference point to find more movies from those eras. West of Zanzibar, Shanghai Express, and White Zombie may not be on anybody’s “essentials” list, but I’d say make room for these “inconsequentials.” You might be surprised by what you find.

picture references:

mubi.com

doctormacro.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 9, 2011.