LAST NIGHT: ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is my favorite horror-comedy – yes, even before Ghostbusters. It also scared the crap out of me when I was about seven. My father decided to show it to me because it was the film that proved to him that monsters were something to laugh at. And what effect did it have on me? Well, Dracula climbed out of his coffin and I ran screaming from the room. This was further exacerbated by the fact that we lived in an old Victorian townhouse on 9 acres of woods that was regularly infested by bats. My father spent the rest of the evening trying to convince me that Dracula wasn’t real and that he was not going to turn into a bat and suck my blood.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein still gives me chills, but that’s mostly a result of that childhood experience. In the adult world, it’s simply an entertaining film, especially for those who enjoy the original Universal Monsters. Because they’re all here! The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man – the latter two played by the actors who originated them. The plot revolves around the resurrection of Dracula (Bela Lugosi) who has plans to revive the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange) with the help of Sandra (Lenore Aubert), a crazy doctor who eventually loses some blood to the Count. The crux? Old Franky needs a new brain and he’ll find it in the head of Wilbur (Lou Costello) a dull-witted baggage clerk. Opposing the gruesome ghouls is Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) who keeps turning into a wolf – that full moon lasts an awfully long time.
The monsters play it fairly straight while Abbott and Costello ham it up around them – but they’re all game. Lugosi in particular seems to be enjoying the chance to play his most iconic role and spout lines like “What we need today is young blood … and brains.” I only wish that Karloff would have agreed to reprise his role as the Monster.
I think the reason this kind of freaked me out when I was a kid was the fact that the whole film turns on the notion that monsters really do exist:
Chick (Bud Abbott): I know there’s no search a person as Dracula. You know there’s no such a person as Dracula.
Wilbur: But does Dracula know it?
The comedy is broad, the plot nonsensical, and the film is deliciously fun. But honestly, it kept me believing in monsters.
Confession time: I totally love Roman Polanski. I don’t mean that I love the man — I don’t know him and there are certain issues that I’m not exactly sympathetic towards. What I mean is that I love the director, the public artist. As far as I’m concerned, there are three great living directors: Polanski, Scorsese and Herzog. Everyone else is secondary. I also happen to greatly enjoy Polanski’s screen persona in the few films he actually appeared in, like Innocent Sorcerers, Chinatown, The Tenant and the subject of this article, The Fearless Vampire Killers. I often wish that he’d actually gone ahead and cast himself as the lead in Knife in the Water, just to have the pleasure of watching him act.
Right, so that’s out of the way. Now, onto what is perhaps my favorite Polanski film (although not, in my estimation, his ‘best’ work): The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me But Your Teeth are in My Neck. As the title suggests, this is one of the few unabashed comedies that Polanski has made. All of his films have some element of absurd or grotesque humor — even the incredibly disturbing and nihilistic Macbeth. But Vampire Killers is pretty much a horror-comedy.
The plot comes right out of a Hammer film: Professor Ambronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his assistant Alfred (Polanski) arrive in a small Eastern European village in search of vampires. They find, naturally enough, buxom barmaids, wiley innkeepers, and well-dressed gents with long sharp teeth. The film floats along with a series of comic mishaps. Professor Ambronsius is the most useless vampire killer imaginable; he’s far more interested in proving the existence of vampires than he is in actually killing them. MacGowran gives Ambronsius a wild look, the very picture of an out-to-lunch academic and a far cry from Peter Cushing’s elegant and rational Van Helsing of Hammer Studios. Alfred, while far more gallant, is quite obviously a coward. The one opportunity he has to defeat the vampires he blows because he’s incapable of actually driving a stake through anyone’s chest.
The film in many ways is a send-up; the spurting, garish blood and heaving bosoms recall the films of Hammer Studios, as does the extreme costuming of Ferdy Mayne in the role of the Count, complete with rolling eyeballs and massive plastic teeth. All of the requisites of vampire movies are here: the elegant gentleman vamp, the promiscuous barmaid, the naive and lovely innkeeper’s daughter. As Shagal (Alfie Bass) states when Abronsius asks him about a castle in the neighborhood:
“A castle? No, no castle. There’s no more a castle here than there is a windmill. Are there any windmills in the neighborhood? … You see? No windmills, no castles.”
But Polanski, never one to be outdone in his social critique, also teases out the ancient notion of Jews as vampires. The innkeeper Shagal is transformed after the abduction of his daughter Sarah (Sharon Tate, more on her in a minute) by the Count. And he’s a ridiculous caricature; a vampire who, because he’s a Jew, is not permitted to sleep in the same crypt as the Count and his son; who is not repelled by a crucifix because, as he says, ‘Oy, have you got the wrong vampire!’ The whole subplot involving Shagal is a beautiful send-up of European notions of vampirism: Jews having been accused, in medieval times, of drinking the blood of infants; the use of Jewish caricature in films like Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula. That the victims of the vampires are primarily Jews and the vampires are all characterized as decaying Old World Teutons makes plain the project underlying this otherwise innocent, comic film: Polanski sends up, with characteristic viciousness, the very basis of the vampire genre.
What is adorable about The Fearless Vampire Killers is how marvelously innocent it is. And, oddly enough, that innocence comes straight from Roman Polanski himself. As Alfred, he’s a small, boyish figure, dressed in short pants and a cap that accentuates his youth. While Tate doesn’t have a great deal to do, her few scenes, imbued with a playful innocence, give the film an extra dimension. The scenes between Alfred and Sarah have a sexual charge, but there is a sweetness to their relationship, making it the kindest, gentlest romantic relationship in any Polanski film. It’s difficult to watch Vampire Killers without recalling that this the film that the couple met and began dating on. Anyone aware of Tate’s life and death cannot help but feel a level of sadness watching her on screen, and the two of them together.
The Alfred/Sarah relationship drives the second half of the film, where Sarah is
abducted by the Count. Alfred and Ambronsius go to great lengths to save her. Arriving at the castle, they become acquainted with Count von Krolock and his son Herbert (Iain Quarrier). In a sharp twist on the usual, Hammer-style vampire/damsel relationship, but quite in keeping with the shifting sexuality of vampires, Herbert is overtly gay … and thinks Alfred is pretty cute. The scene between them recalls films like The Brides of Dracula (Quarrier is a dead ringer for David Peel in that film), only Polanski (not for the last time in his own features) is placed in the position of the damsel in distress. It’s a weird, uncomfortable, funny scene.
I’ve called this my favorite Polanski film and it is. But it is far from his best. It drags quite a bit in the middle, dwelling on the meanderings of Alfred and Ambronsius through the castle as they search for Sarah. Certainly the most fun are the beginning scenes in the inn, the final scenes during the dance of the vampires (the original title of the film), and the haphazard, slapstick escape. Alfie Bass should get some serious credit for the characterization of Shagal, a role that could easily have become offensive. Polanski also removes much of the attractive sexuality of the vampires that is so typical in vampire movies. They are represented as decaying, decadent creatures, literally falling apart. They are, after all, the undead, and it certainly shows.
In some ways (and this is odd), The Fearless Vampire Killers is Polanski’s most hopeful, most playful film. While not shying away from some very trenchant commentary, it mostly delights in its own comedy. The tenderness of the love story, even with the tinge of sadness attached to it, from a director not exactly known for warm and fuzzy films, is something of a revelation. Which is not to say that this is not a Polanski film. It is. When watching it, there’s no possible way to forget that.
Add me to the long, long list of annoyed geeky bloggers with a serious chip on her shoulder over the Twilight franchise. Add me also to the long, long list of hipsters who, like, totally was into vampires before vampires were cool. And I’m talking PROPER vampires. The ones with fangs and bloodlust; not the sparkling vegetarian high school ones (what the fuck is a vegetarian vampire, after all?)
Back in the long, long ago, vampires were scary as well as sexy. Apparently True Blood is attempting to fill that void, as it were, but even those Bayou vamps are more the descendants of Anne Rice’s sexually confused dandies than Bram Stoker’s creation of pure evil. And you gotta admit, Bram Stoker gave us the world’s greatest vampire, the King of Vampires, evil incarnate. Stoker’s Dracula was not sexy; he was not tortured over his vampire-ishness. Despite a fairly pronounced death drive, what he really wanted to do was drain everyone’s blood and create an empire of the undead. You know, a good, old fashioned take over the world kind of villain. He had fangs. He turned into a bat and a wolf and assaulted Victorian womanhood, manhood and childhood. He brought out the evil in the staunch Victorian middle-classes, making them turn on each other, forcing them into deeper and deeper depravity in their attempts to annihilate him. He was one evil sonofabitch.
Dracula has been a lot of things over the years, and has been progressively defanged since Browning’s 1931 film made him into a foreign gentleman. Time passed, Christopher Lee gave us a sexier Dracula, then a Dracula who rides the number 7 bus. Finally, Frank Langella gave us disco Dracula. And that was sort of the stake through the heart for ol’Drac. Gerard Butler in Dracula 2000 proposed that Dracula was actually Judas (!); Gary Oldman in Coppolla’s inappropriately named Bram Stoker’s Dracula definitely had the tortured romantic thing going on, but then he also did some raping and pillaging. At least Dracula never really lost his fangs, or the whole ‘I want to suck your blood’ mentality. Until now.
Vampires have typically represented the sexual confusion and mores of their time periods. It’s no accident that the most memorable vampire showed up nearing the end of the Victorian era, a time characterized by excessive sexual repression, two very ugly occurrences involving sexuality (Jack the Ripper and the trial of Oscar Wilde) and the escalating debate over the rights of women. That Dracula transformed over time into a tortured lover, a gentleman, a man not quite as evil as he initially seemed, seems to reflect the changing desires of the culture he comes out of. Dracula began to stop being scary when sex stopped being as scary. But today, something very weird has happened.
Twilight has enacted a sort of double repression. The vampire, rather than being an eruption of the chaos world, an embodiment of the darkness at the heart of middle class society, becomes instead fully integrated into that society. A misunderstood, not terribly dangerous celibate, continuously repressing natural desires (in the case of a vampire, blood and sex) in favor of asceticism: being a ‘good’ vampire. Sex is not to be indulged until marriage, at which point it becomes violent and bruising, resulting in a rather Cronenbergian pregnancy and C-section. And that’s romantic. The books and films present Edward as the ultimate romantic lover, but the entire romantic relationship is a reinforcement of the very patriarchal norms (men are animals, sex is evil and painful, etc.) that the vampire was originally a reaction against. By making the vampire the hero, the Twilight franchise has managed to invert the purpose of the monster (the return of the repressed) and make the monster himself into a romantic symbol that reinforces that repression. The Victorians couldn’t have accomplished it better. Vampires have ceased to be scary. They’re now pale young Englishmen with sparkling skin who resist the passions of the flesh … until, of course, they beat the hell out of their partners in the marriage bed. How romantic.
It saddens me to see Drac and his brethren fall so far from grace. I hope that we someday regain some of the kinkiness that has always characterized vampire lore (True Blood is the one hope for the future of the bloodsuckers). I don’t know what Edward Cullen and the rest of those sparkly Mormons are, but they sure as hell aren’t vampires.