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The Fearless Vampire Killers

Retrospective by Scott Hutchins

Christopher Komeda may not have written more than about half an hour of music for Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers (1966, which has the tagline "or pardon me, but your teeth are in my neck."), but what he did write should have warranted an album. This review has a breakdown of essentially every cue in the film. The score, despite he comic nature of the film, really has no mickeymousing whatsoever, though the score cannot be said to be entirely serious, either, despite this.

The film begins with MGM's Leo turning into a green, droopy faced vampire with dripping fangs, whereupon a magnificent piece with a choral melody begins. The music sounds serious enough, but the title design features scrawled credits scrolling up the screen in front of a spinning-moon background (though in the compressed home video version, it's difficult to tell that's what it is supposed to be, particularly since it is too tight to see the edges) as blood drops continue to move down, spread across credits, and dot Is with flames, it sets forth the amazing balance Polanski achieved between comedy and horror. Both forms appear to be masters without leaving one to the other. The horrific elements of the film are never brought down or softened to make way for the comedy, despite the fact that the latter is often old-fashioned, even to the point that the camera is frequently undercranked in funny scenes. Paula Vogel, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning off-Broadway play, How I Learned to Drive, cites the film as a major influence for just that reason.

The main title has a descend-ascend pattern that sounds vaguely baroque, a bit like a Morricone choral piece with a dash a Glass and a bit of Nyman's The Draughtsman's Contract (all of which would come later except for Morricone, whose music of this sort was concurrent). The piece is backed by harpsichord, drum set, and classical guitar. The melody is back by another choral part, a warbling ostinato that leads me to liken it to Glass.

The opening scenes of the film last for about twenty minutes without music, in which all but one of the major characters is introduced. These would be Dr. Abronsius (Jack McGowran), an old, cartoonish chiropterologist, known to his colleagues as "the nut," constantly in danger of freezing to death, and his faithful assistant, Alfred (Roman Polanski), who have arrived in Transylvania in winter to try to end the plague of the vampires. The rest of the characters are already at the inn: Sarah (Sharon Tate), her parents, the innkeeper, Shagal (Alfie Bass), and his wife, Rebecca (Jessie Robins), the miad (Fiona Lewis), and the various other guests (Ronald Lacey, Sydney Bromley, Andreas Malandrinos, Otto Diamant, Matthew Wallers). The music finally recurs when the hunchback, Koukpl, who startled the tenants previously, has returned with Count Von Krolock, in a darker arrangement of the main theme.

When the Count attacks Sarah in the bath, the music is similar, but backed with wails of sakauhachi, which appears to be the only out-of-place ethnic instrument, or perhaps it is a regular flute mimicking the sound, as the flute, though not heard in the main theme, is a major component of the underscore.

After this scene, Shagal leaves the inn, eating garlic, to find his daughter accompanied by a clarinet piece that appears to be a folk tune. In the morning he is found dead, covered with vampire bites, drained of blood and frozen in an odd position. Rebecca will not allow him to be staked, so after inept practice on a pillow, Abronsius and Alfred come down in the evening to stake him, but he rises and flees, accompanied by an ostinato that switches from guitar to flute and back while accompanied by lower reeds. When he attacks the maid, holding a crucifix toward him, he laughs and says, "You've got the wrong vampire," humor which breaks resistance to the terror. The cross works on all the other vampires in the film, but not this one, because he was Jewish!

Whenever Shagal runs, the camera is undercranked, and upon drinking from the maid, he is pursued on skis by the doctor and his assistant. This scene is uncharacteristically scored with a pop-oriented piece on flute and guitar, with a backbeat. It does sound dated, but it emphasizes the beauty of the scenes, despite the slapstick humor one might expect from the old gent on skis. The scene also appears to be in broad daylight. Of course, though vampires of old were nocturnal, it was F.W. Muurnau who invented the idea that sunlight destroys vampires, while Polanski adheres only to the characteristics given them by those of old who actually believed in them, hence new ideas such as this, and that of a single bite causing transformation, are not held to here. They do not like the sun, though.

This piece of music leads into a suspense theme in low reeds, which does not shift in the slightest when Alfred appears to skewer his hand on a spike, only for it to just be his glove. When after much struggle, the hunchback takes them to the count, a harpsichord ostinato leads to an even darker realization of the main theme that ends when the door shuts.

In this fairly long gap without music, we are introduced more formally to the count, and to his soon, Herbert (Iain Quarrier), who is blatantly homosexual and takes an interest in Alfred. (This probably has a lot to do with the twenty minutes that were cut from the original release.) The next theme we hear is an eerie, echoing soprano wailing that is expanded to include a chorus, organ, and harpsichord later in the piece. We hear the beginning of this theme a bit later when Alfred really does find Sarah, again in a bath.

While the count and his son are in the tomb, the hunchback, who has kicked Shagal's coffin into the stable, keeps guard "like a Cerberus," so the professor tries to get into the crypt from the exterior, a difficult task, which leaves him stuck in the window. When Alfred is too faint of heart to stake the vampires, there is no music, but when they are trying to get in, there is a four-note ascend-descend plunks, accompanied by other ostinatos on reeds, voices which continuously crescendo, and eventually, xylophone, ending with buzzing noises as Alfred slides in. When he leaves to pull Abronsius out from the other side, he is distracted by the aforementioned music, then a clarinet and harpsichord love theme verges into minor chords on the flute and harpsichord when he realizes he has left the doctor. He returns to pull him out, as a chorus sings notes that sound like the opening and ending strains of Elfman's "The Breakfast Machine," from Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

Other brief cues worth noting are the faint chorus that sounds almost meditative as Alfred first observes Saturn in the telescope, then Rebecca looking out the window, then Shagal scurrying (undercranked again) up to the maid's bedroom, the piece for male chorus with female chorus, bass guitar, and harpsichord in counterpoint for the emergence of the vampires just prior to the ball, and the final cue that sounds like a piece Ennio Morricone could have written for Edda Dell'orso before resuming with the main theme, closing with an adagio for flute.

There are two chase scenes worth noting as well, one before and one after the ball. In the first, Herbert makes his attraction to Alfred clear, and tries to bite him. A chorus descends in the minor key accompanied by guitar and drum set (a little bit like Morricone's "The Garden of Delights" or "Magic and Ecstacy." It stops when Herbert grabs onto a column. Alfred runs around the trellised walkway unscored, but is running in a square, and the music resumes, after a humorous delay, when they are face to face again. Alfred manages to flee after a bite of his own that might have inspired Mike Tyson, and Herbert ends up collapsing Abronsius's bed before the chase is over. The other chase scene has male vocals on the melody with female voices on harmony and a primitive-sounding drumbeat, with wailing flutes at key moments. When Koukpl comes after them on sled, a xylophone plays a theme very similar to Mancini's Charade, just before he crashes, twice.

The Fearless Vampire Killers was also released under the title Dance of the Vampires for the lengthy ballroom scene that ensues. The music here is classically baroque, but probably original, though I cannot ascertain it. The scene is very much a comedy of errors, which comes to an abrupt halt when the vampires see the reflections of Abronsius and Alfred in the mirror. (They also see Sarah's, but they have not fully transformed her yet.) If the piece in this scene was not written in the eighteenth century, Christopher Komeda seems to have achieved a masterful hand of the baroque style, as well as a very latter-20th century, while baroque-influenced, idiom in the rest of the score. My repeated comparisons to Morricone are unjust, as Komeda very much has a voice of his own, though Morricone fans would be wise to seek out Komeda. His name is not indicated on the box of MGM/UA's pan and scan release that often makes the framings uncomfortably tight, as it was originally shot in Panavision. I had not heard of Christopher Komeda before screening this film, and I must say his work is as vastly underrated as this piece, focusing on the music, is unable come close to expressing the rich delights of this amazing film.

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