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The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

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aka Dance of the Vampires ; The Fearless Vampire Killers, or, Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are In My Neck

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Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriters: Gerard Brach, Roman Polanski

By Roderick Heath

The Fearless Vampire Killers has long suffered a benighted reputation. It’s remembered to pop culture lore chiefly as the film on which Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate met. Tate’s sorry fate and Polanski’s later disgrace tend to weigh heavily on attempts to appreciate the film’s near-unique, bewitching blend of horror and comedy, two modes notoriously difficult to blend. The Fearless Vampire Killers was Polanski’s follow-up to his first two films made in Britain, the psychological horror film Repulsion (1965) and the tragicomic thriller Cul-de-Sac (1966), films that established Polanski as a force to be reckoned with outside his native Poland, where he’d first gained notice with his debut feature, Knife in the Water (1962). The Fearless Vampire Killers saw Polanski working with a comparatively large budget and filming in colour for the first time, on a production shepherded by producer Gene Gutowski and co-written with Polanski’s regular writing partner Gerard Brach, partly filmed around the Italian Dolomites. Originally screened as Dance of the Vampires upon release in the UK, the film was retitled The Fearless Vampire Killers, or, Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are In My Neck for its American release, heavily edited, appended with a new, animated opening credit sequence, and marketed overtly as a campy, farcical parody. Seen in this form the film was largely dismissed as a creative blip before Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the film that brought Polanski to Hollywood with a bang. The proper cut has long since been restored and generally known by the plainer title of The Fearless Vampire Killers.

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The original title perhaps contained more of the essence of Polanski’s odd melding of elegance and bite, in a film that his cinematographer Douglas Slocombe correctly saw a sensibility strongly rooted in a rarefied central European evocation of fairytale menace. Certainly, Polanski intended to make sport of the waning Gothic horror film revival of the late 1950s and ‘60s, particularly Hammer Films’ beloved imprimatur with its boldly textured use of colour and lushly coded sexuality. Ironically, Polanski gained a bigger budget and heftier technical collaborators, like Slocombe, than what he was targeting could dream of. With Repulsion Polanski had helped formulate the modern horror movie with its basis in socially transmitted evil and psychological roots of mayhem, inaugurated by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, advance a few more degrees. But The Fearless Vampire Killers is executed in a fashion that reveals Polanski’s deep affection for and peculiar understanding of the gothic style of horror movie even as he’d done his bit for rendering it antiquated, crossbred with aspects of silent movie comedy and Yiddish music hall humour. Polanski cast himself in the film as Alfred, the gangly, jittery assistant to Professor Abronsius (Jack McGowran), a former teacher at the University of Konigsberg and expert in nocturnal wildlife who’s turned his hand to the great and holy mission of proving the existence of vampires, tracking them down, and exterminating them.

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Abronsius has been chased out of academia by colleagues who, as Ferdy Mayne’s inimitable opening narration tells us, blessed him with the nickname of “The Nut.” The opening scene evinces Polanski’s strange and ethereal mood blended with absurdism, envisioning a snow-caked Mittel Europa landscape through which a sled carves a laborious path. The sled carries Abronsius and Alfred, and Alfred realises they’re being chased by wolves, forced to fend off the animals alone because of the driver’s obliviousness and Abronsius is almost frozen stiff in the bitter cold. The film’s first shot signals Polanski’s technical mastery with a complex, multi-plane matte shot, zooming out from a model moon and pulling back to an eerily beautiful wide shot of the snowy landscape across which the sled progresses laboriously. Immediately we’re drawn out of any sense of the real world and into one that’s more like illustration, only for the mood to shift to one of dry slapstick in Alfred’s panicky fight with the wolves and attempts to alert his companions. Polanski continues such a dance of tones throughout, rarely going for big laughs or overt horror, but tracing the edges of a queasy zone where a sense of the ridiculous abuts a sense of the oneiric. Abronsius and Alfred are installed in the inn of Yoyneh Shagal (Alfie Bass), a place where the local yokels assemble in a haze of steam and goose down flecking the air, with garlic cloves hanging all around.

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Abronsius and Alfred are defrosted and installed in an overpriced room by Shagal, who has a rotund and watchful wife, Rebecca (Jessie Robins), a pretty daughter, Sarah (Tate) just returned from a girls’ school, and a maid he patently lusts after, Magda (Fiona Lewis). The coming of the crusading duo causes friction in the Shagal household, as Sarah admits to Alfred she became very fond of having a bath when at school, but the only tub in the inn, located in a room adjoining both hers and the new arrivals, is placed off-limits to her, after they catch sight of her naked in the bath when Shagal shows the new arrivals the amenity. Polanski and Brach have fun with their concept of Abronsius as a vampire killer whose general method is to obey genre cliché. Abronsius notes the garlic hanging all around and feels he’s getting close to his goal. “Is there by chance a castle in the area?” Abronsius enquires, only for the yokel who tries to answer in the affirmative (Ronald Lacey) to be quickly silenced by his fellows. Alfred meanwhile becomes smitten with Sarah, catching her eye by building a snowman in the yard.

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When a grotesquely misshapen hunchback, Koukul (Terry Downes), arrives at the Inn on a sled, Abronsius suspects he’s the vampire overlord’s traditional minion. He assigns Alfred to track Koukol to his base, but Alfred quickly abandons the task as it proves too hard to cling onto Koukol’s sled and after he’s been treated to a bloodcurdling sight, as Koukol, far from being harassed by the same wolves that chased Alfred and Abronsius earlier, stalks after one of the animals and returns with his massive buck teeth dripping gore. Man bites dog is news indeed. Shagal makes midnight excursions, first to nail shut the door to Sarah’s room and then to set about trying to get into bed with Magda, who coolly rebuffs his advances. He attracts the attention of both his wife, who stalks him with a huge salami to bash him on the head, and the would-be vampire slayers, out to learn what’s afoot. Shagal successfully eludes his wife by hiding behind Magda’s door and she instead the wallops Abronsius on the head, knocking him out cold. The next day Abronsius meets only stonewalling shrugs as he tries to alert the Shagals to his assault. Sarah gets around her father’s barricade by sneaking into the duo’s room and begging Alfred to let her use the tub, only her choice of words makes him think at first she’s talking about lusty needs provoked when she was at school: “I adore it…Besides, they say it’s good for your health…do you mind if I have a quick one?” But Sarah has fatefully attracted the attention of Koukol’s master, the Count von Krolock (Mayne), who lurks on the roof awaiting his chance to spring on her.

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The Fearless Vampire Killers nods occasionally to comic territory familiar from other movies of its time. Some bawdy gags would fit in with likes of the Carry On… films, as when Shagal becomes mesmerised by Magda’s rhythmic backside as she scrubs the floor, and his games of hide-and-seek as he tries to get into the maid’s bed. Other jokes have a basis in the broadening social compass of pop culture, ribbing the blind spots of the old, square, carefully constrained horror style. That old Jewish theatrical tradition, which also echoed through the work of some comic filmmakers emerging in the late ‘60s including Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, inspires the best-known gag in Polanski’s film. The vampirised Shagal waves his hands in delighted disdain at the crucifix brandished at him by Magda and declares, “Oy-yoi, ‘ave you got the wrong vampire!” Queerness was a common subtext in many a classic horror film, but Polanski made it plainer as Alfred encounters Von Krolock’s gay son Herbert (Ian Quarrier), “A gentle, sensitive youth,” as the Count put it, with Alfred threatened with a new form of the fate worse than death as Herbert’s undying toyboy.

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Polanski also weaves in a stream of visual puns. A shot of what seems to be Alfred staking Shagal at Abronsius’ instruction, filmed in silhouette as per genre visual convention, proves instead to be a practice run on a pillow where Alfred whacks his mentor’s fingers. An attempt to stake a presumably hidden vampire releases a gushing red torrent that proves to be wine. When Shagal sneaks into the duo’s room to close off the bathroom, he’s seen at first to have what looks like huge fangs jutting from his mouth but prove to be nails. Other comic sights have a more subtle, weird inflection, like Alfred placing heated cups on Abronsius’ skinny, pale blue back, or a shot of Abronsius sprawled asleep over a desk, his snoring gusts causing a piece of paper to flutter and unfurl, straight out of a Looney Tunes animated short. The silent comedy influence becomes clearer in Polanski’s lyrical sense of peculiar motion, watching Alfred and Abronsius trying to ski across the snowy landscape, or lope from block to block on a castle battlement, Abronsius’ long, stork-like limbs and Alfred’s rubbery physique providing a study in constantly linked yet distinct modes of ambulation. Late in the film comes a priceless piece of visual comedy based in the nearly Escher-like sense of the castle’s geography, as Alfred tries to flee Herbert, dashing at speed around the balcony over the castle courtyard only to arrive back face to face with his would-be lover-killer.

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Sarah’s assault by Von Krolock changes the film’s initial atmosphere, however, from one of general, oddly textured play to one charged with a rather darker undertone. A few flecks of fairytale snow falling onto Sarah’s bathwater alert her to something strange, and she glances up to see Von Krolock floating down towards her with red eyes and long teeth. As he would do more extensively on Chinatown (1974), Polanski switches to hand-held shots to evoke physical urgency and distress, as Von Krolock pinions Sarah and bites her neck as she thrashes in the water, soap and water flying, and when he departs he leaves only a red stain on her bath bubbles. There’s a charge of genuine disquiet that certainly feels consistent with Polanski’s more familiar, dire portrayals of intimate violence. The scene is further augmented by one of the film’s most remarkable elements, the music by Christopher (Krzysztof) Komeda. Komeda, a jazz musician and another of the people involved with the film who died tragically young, had scored Polanski’s three previous movies, and here he provided one of the greatest and weirdest film scores with stark, throbbing instrumentations interwoven with vocal ululations, remixing familiar aspects of many a horror score – organs, harpsichords, ominous choruses – into a truly weird melange, reaching an apogee during Von Krolock’s attack. And yet Polanski sneaks in a fillip of humour here too as Alfred, catching sight of Von Krolock through the keyhole and cringing in tongue-thrusting, ferret-eyed fear.

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The Shagals’ distraught reaction to Sarah’s vanishing treads a line between the two states, at once a depiction of parental grief and vaudeville shtick. Shagal heads out into the snowy night to try and bring back Sarah, girding himself for battle by chewing up garlic cloves. This proves an insufficient defence, however, as he’s found outside the next day frozen into a bizarre sculpture and riddled with vampire bites that Abronsius uncovers with justified satisfaction, although the rest of the villagers continue to obfuscate and call them animal bites. Abronsius tries to convince Rebecca her husband’s body needs to be staked, only for her to chase the vampire hunter off at the point of his own stake. So Abronsius and Alfred decide to do the job themselves, cueing one of Polanski’s best pieces of visual humour, as the two men pause to crouch down by the table Shagal’s corpse is laid out on, and take out vampire killing implements only to see Shagal revived and watching them in grinning bemusement. Shagal flees as eludes the hunters in the wine cellar, and attacks Magda in her room. The dynamic duo give chase on skis to Shagal as he dashes out into the countryside, leading them to Von Krolock’s castle. The ski pursuit becomes a lyrical moment of physical action upon vast spaces of snowy land stained blue in the moonlight, ski track cutting the frame with ribbons of blue and lines of action following contorted geometry.

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The familiar heroic figure of the Van Helsing-type vampire slayer, the iron-willed and well-versed enemy of evil, is perverted into an extended and acerbic joke about intellectual dilettantes, taking on monolithic evil with tunnel-visioned confidence and book learning. McGowran’s peerless comedic performance presents Abronsius as a man of no small mental muscle – witness how cleverly he extracts himself and Alfred from being imprisoned by Von Krolock by making use of an old cannon – but who’s also the epitome of the absent-minded professor, aging, distractable, and hardly a dynamic swashbuckler. Abronsius is too often more absorbed in and pleased by proving himself right than cognisant of entering a dangerous situation and provoking his quarries. He and Alfred evoke many a classic comedy team, transposing Laurel and Hardy into Hammer Horror, constantly getting themselves into another fine mess, or a subtler take on Abbott and Costello’s adventures in horror-comedy. Polanski had been acting in movies as long as he’d been directing them, having appeared in Andrzej Wajda’s A Generation (1955) in the same year he made his first short, but he was still taking a chance on casting himself as Alfred, a role that would’ve certainly fit some British comic actors of the day like Michael Crawford or Norman Wisdom. But he might have been precisely hoping to avoid making the role too comedic in the familiar sense: Polanski’s gawkily handsome, rather boyish façade and light Slavonic whistle lend a faint abstraction, and he managed to balance his characterisation at the intersection of comic foil, romantic lead, and holy fool. Tate, for her part, gives a deft comic performance, bewitching Alfred with painted-on freckles and mane of red hair, although she’s not in the film for much of the runtime, inhabiting it more as an elusive dream.

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The funny – or unfunny, depending on your viewpoint – thing about The Fearless Vampire Killers is the way it mediates Polanski’s essential themes, more often articulated in bleak psychodramas, in a style usually considered beyond his purview, although he’d make periodic returns to black comedy for sharply diminishing returns on What? (1973) and Pirates (1986). The figuration of a monstrous and all-powerful overlord who lays claims to the young innocent would be taken up again in Chinatown. Polanski gained attention with his early films for his stark sense of setting matched to a fascination with psychology and power and the nexus of the two, couched in a ready lexicon of modernist literature and art. Knife in the Water, set mostly on a sailing boat in dead calm stretches off Poland’s Baltic coast, isolated his characters in a setting stringent in its lack of orientation, turning space claustrophobic; in Repulsion he did the opposite, as a tight London apartment became, through its heroine’s viewpoint, a plastic space remade by her own crumbling psyche. Cul-de-Sac’s setting mediated the two, private castle perched atop an islet separated from the mainland by vast reaches of sand and mud. Polanski’s feel for landscape echoed Salvador Dali’s hallucinatory plains, abstract spaces of time and memory, a fitting setting to deploy dramas laced with influences from culture heroes like Kafka, Ionesco, and Beckett, mixed in with pulp fiction tropes.

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The Fearless Vampire Killers revolves around a detected likeness between the icy satire and allusive yearning for meaning in Kafka’s The Castle and the traditional format of the vampire tale, as the vampire killers are caught between obfuscating villagers and the dominating castle which they try to penetrate and locked in an extended game of politesse covering mutual intent to destroy. Like Kafka, Polanski was a product of the Eastern European Jewish experience, although the terrible experience of World War II separated them. The little humiliations and descriptions of a perverse and purposefully illogical social structure Kafka depicted had given way long since to mass murder and destruction and then resumed a superficial placidity with imposed political order: Polanski knew intimately about both. The Fearless Vampire Killers, in its own mordant, frisky way, analyses the familiar vampire myth as codified by Bram Stoker in a manner attentive to its purpose as political parable, an aspect usually kept as a strong subtext in the vampire movies of Fisher and Don Sharp, whose Kiss of the Vampire (1963) seems to have been a particular touchstone for Polanski and Brach. In offering vampires as an inferred stand-in for the impacts of Nazism on the landscape of his homeland, Polanski both echoed and also repatriated the theme after Robert Siodmak’s Son of Dracula (1943), which offered the same idea except as a warning over invasion and subterfuge. The devolved and desiccated remnants of aristocratic power still nonetheless rule the locale Abronsius and Alfred enter in blithe disinterest for the laboured efforts of academic do-gooders, the gnarled and desiccated ranks of the undead still wrapped in shabby robes of power and crawling out of their coffins to suck the life out of the few remaining specimens of beauty and potential left. Polanski uses vaudeville shtick to soften ever so slightly a tale of malignant power that starts out as a purely regional ill before gaining a chance to spread across the world.

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The comedy-horror film has always been a difficult tightrope to walk. Many a great horror film has made capital from characters’ natural habits of making quips amidst menacing surrounds, conspiring with the audience’s temptation to do the same thing in order to undercut it. But Polanski aimed for something distinct, and also different from a more straight-laced kind of spoof, which aims to disassemble familiar tropes and making sport of them, but tries to dig down to that niggling nerve where horror and humour converge, as different expressions of anxiety. A much later brand of gross-out movie, like Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986) and Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead (1991), would adopt a quick path to stoking appalled laughter by deploying outrageous visions of gory depravity, whilst something like Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods (2011) offered an essay analysing the function of genre essentials even whilst provoking laughs at their recognition. Polanski followed more a model employed by the old Bob Hope vehicles The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), and which would in turn also be taken up by An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Ghost Busters (1984), where funny characters are unleashed in a situation that obeys classical horror genre rules.

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Mayne’s terrific performance as Von Krolock works in part because he’s assigned to play the traditional vampire master totally straight except with dimensions of deep existential dread and mocking humour aimed at Abronsius and Alfred, who he knows are unworthy foils. A sight like Downes’ Koukol, with overgrown pageboy haircut and colossal buck teeth, crouched in a pose reminiscent of a Hanna-Barbera animated grotesque but with a huge axe in his hands, somehow manages to be bizarrely funny and genuinely menacing. Much like the yacht of Knife in the Water, the flat of Repulsion and the castle of Cul-de-Sac, the labyrinthine sprawl of Von Krolock’s castle becomes a stage where the human interlopers’ efforts to prove themselves in control founder amidst the ridiculous. Polanski offers homage to Laurence Olivier’s films as director, as his vampire homestead becomes, like Olivier’s Elsinore in Hamlet (1948), a twisting, mimetic trap for behavioural perversity, whilst late in the film he includes a dancing vampire who looks like Olivier’s Richard III. Polanski suggests a sense of Horror cinema history as the echoing singing of Sarah recalls the haunting melodies echoing in dark places in the Val Lewton-produced Isle of the Dead and The Body Snatcher (both 1945). Alfred and Abronsius spend their time lurching around the confines of the castle and yet find themselves ludicrously ill-equipped for some simple breaking and entering, unable to come to grips with their enemy even when prostrate before them, often locked up in small rooms by Koukol, and reduced finally to literally running around in circles.

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Von Krolock plays the indulgent, engrossed host for Abronsius and Alfred once they gain access to him, confessing a liking for the Professor’s book on bats and drawing him into an extended, increasingly silly attempt to sustain his cover story over chasing a bat flying well out of season. The heroic duo’s efforts to penetrate the family crypt see them fended off by an axe-wielding Koukol at the gate, so they stagger around the battlements to access it by a skylight. Alfred slips through but Abronsius gets stuck, so the Professor tries to coach Alfred through staking the Count, but Alfred lacks necessary killer instinct. Alfred’s attempts to circumnavigate back out of the crypt and around again to the roof to pull Abronsius free are delayed when he hears eerily melodic singing echoing around the castle, and encounters Sarah bathing, preparing happily for her role as guest of honour and unwitting main course at the Von Krolocks’ annual ball and hiding the bite wound on her neck with a lock of hair. The love-struck Alfred tries to convince her to leave with him immediately, but as he scratches a love heart on the frosted window sees Abronsius still jammed in the skylight and dashes out to free him.

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The recurring joke about people being frozen solid or near enough makes sport of the farceur tradition’s sense of elastic physicality by making actors at once exploit their muscular control but also deny it: they become an object. It also offsets one of the film’s most fervent concern, with human (and inhuman) connection, peculiar pacts and perversities rooted in mutual need. Alfred’s love for Sarah and desire to rescue the damsel in distress offers the most traditional frame but the same force binds Alfred to Abronsius and makes Herbert fall for him, makes Von Krolock play “pastor” to “my beloved flock,” and drives Shagal to madcap excursions in his efforts, both alive and undead, to claim Magda: even the dead can’t stand being alone. Von Krolock touches his son’s arm with a tender solicitude as Herbert gazes mournfully out upon another sunrise as they prepare for sleeping in their coffins. Malignant as they are, Polanski sees even his vampires as creatures beset by pains of solitude and need echoing on with strange intensity across aeons rather than the mere lifespan of humans. Such need is however also repeatedly seen to be consuming: to love is also to destroy, to consume.

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Understandably, then, high-flown romantic chestnuts come in for a ribbing as well as horror clichés, as Alfred digs a book out of Von Krolock’s library entitled “A Hundred Goodlie Ways Of Avowing One’s Sweet Love To A Comlie Damozel” for the purposes of wooing Sarah, only for Herbert to snatch it from his hands and start using it to guide his own advances: whereupon Alfred finds the book remarkably useful not as lubricant but as a prophylactic – shoving it into Herbert’s mouth to ward off his bite. When Alfred and Abronsius manage to infiltrate the ranks of dancing vampires Alfred announces himself to Sarah as her saviour: “It is I!…life has a meaning once more.” A late gag, which also signals the final veering into territory close to romantic tragedy, takes a swipe at La Boheme as Alfred grips Sarah’s frigid fingers and exclaims, “Your tiny hand is frozen!” When Alfred tries to track down Sarah again when he thinks he hears her singing, he finds the squeaking voice is actually a water pump Herbert’s pumping. Meanwhile Von Krolock tells the vampire slayers, with a blend of mordant irony and pride as they watch the vampirised Shagal snatching Magda from the Inn via telescope, that the innkeeper’s been blessed with the restoration of his youthful vigour and life-lust. But Shagal, tasked with helping Magda dress to be another guest of the ball, finally gets too greedy and accidentally kills her in drinking too much of her blood.

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The social element to Polanski’s satire resurges as Shagal finds to his chagrin that Koukol won’t let him share the Von Krolock family crypt with the Count and Herbert, even dragging the newcomer out in his coffin and kicking him down stairs into the adjoining cemetery. Yes, even the undead have their undesirables and their clubs that won’t let Shagal’s kind in. When Alfred later penetrates the crypt, he finds, in a moment at once hilarious and pathetic, that Shagal’s still managed to get back in and has curled up, like a faithful dog, on top of Herbert in his coffin. Von Krolock hints at the kind of existential angst Werner Herzog and Francis Coppola would later dig into with their variations on the Dracula tale, as he promises to Abronsius that once he’s a vampire they can talk it all over during “the long evenings,” Mayne wittily stretching out the enunciation with both threat and also aspects of pain he’s all too happy to share with his enemy. Von Krolock clearly fancies himself not merely as patriarch to his vampire clan but a kind of priest-king who ministers to his “flock” and considers it an exalted status, promising Abronsius that he’ll understand “when you attain my spiritual level.” And yet Polanski undercuts Von Krolock’s pretences as he keeps revealing the animal edge of his behaviour, his leering, toothy visage as he hovers over Sarah, and baring his fangs as he torments Alfred, only to quickly hide them again as he resumes a veneer of haughty dignity: Von Krolock’s quasi-Nietzschean faith is actually Hobbesian nightmare.

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When his undead cotillion begins arriving for the ball, they crawl out of their graves and assemble in his hall, a collection of rotting, mouldering visages wrapped in dusty clothes from an ancien regime still clinging to existence in its cordoned corner of the world. Although it’s hinted the vampires’ success in retaining overlordship of the district has been self-defeating as fewer travellers bother coming there. Von Krolock, after saluting his brethren with the devil’s horns gesture, rouses them with a speech promising a feast this year after the gloom of the previous ball: “There we were, gathered together gloomy and despondent, around that single, meagre woodcutter.” Von Krolock plays the triumphal impresario as he bids his guests come closer before unveiling Sarah as bauble that will sate unholy hungers. The pivotal moment of the climax, and perhaps the film’s most ingenious melding of the droll and the surreal, comes when Alfred, Abronsius, and Sarah try to disguise their efforts to escape the vampire ball as part of the dance, only to find themselves confronted by a huge, dirty but still effective mirror affixed to the ballroom wall. Of course, the hapless trio are the only ones reflected in the glass, prancing puppets in foolish exposure.

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Tellingly, this is again a joke based in social distinction, the ultimate act of being outed as an outsider. It’s reminiscent, in a distant but crucial manner, of the moment where Tom Cruise’s Dr Harford is unmasked by a similarly controlling, perverse, youth-and-beauty-consuming crowd in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The main difference is that in Polanski’s film the bloodsucking is entirely literal. Alfred and Abronsius’ know-how proves equal to the moment, however dumb they look, however, as they improvise a huge cross out of old knightly swords and place it on the floor to keep the vampires at bay. Von Krolock sends the unaffected Koukol after them, and Koukol uses one of the coffins he’s fashioned as an improvised sled to chase down the sleigh the humans escape in. Koukol miscalculates, however, and crashes over a precipice to become food for the vengeful wolves. It seems like a victory for good, an unlikely yet hard-fought end for such dopes. Except that Sarah, possessed by the vampiric taint left in her bloodstream by the Count’s bite, unveils massive fangs and sinks them into Alfred’s neck. The oblivious Abronsius cracks the reins and transports the infected duo out into the world, free to transmit evil unchecked. A perfect resolution for Polanski’s stringent ransacking of genre familiarities, and one in keeping with the filmmaker’s career-long habit of ending on a downbeat note of misanthropic assessment. Alfred’s naively charming ardour proves, far from ennobling him, to be the ripest target for evil to find a purchase in.

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Collected Film Writings of 2018

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Friends, you can now download on pdf all my writings for Film Freedonia and sister blogs This Island Rod and Ferdy on Films for this year. Just click on the link below which will take you to PDF Archive and download the file:

Roderick Heath 2018 Collected Film Writing

Here’s wishing you all happy holidays; be sure to check back here next week for my annual year in film review, Confessions of a Film Freak 2018.

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The Duellists (1977)

To mark the founding of a new film site carrying on the legacy of Ferdy on Films, the site I co-authored with Marilyn Ferdinand for 13 years, I offer as the first piece on Film Freedonia the previously unpublished full-length version of the first essay I ever posted on that site, my look at Ridley Scott’s debut feature, The Duellists

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Sir Ridley Scott today stands at the forefront of popular cinema with a raft of works easily nameable to any self-respecting cineaste – Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down – and also a long mid-career slump with a slew of artistic and commercial failures. Scott often falls into the familiar trap of visually-oriented directors, turning in works overly-stylised and dramatically under-powered. But he has proved a remarkable survivor. Scott rode the vanguard of a generation of film-makers who stressed a visual sumptuousness almost unknown in British cinema outside of David Lean and Michael Powell; some were trained in television and advertising, like Ridley, brother Tony Scott, Hugh Hudson, and Alan Parker; others, like Peter Greenaway, rooted in a far more arty sphere, but in some ways similar in their love of gaudy flash. Most were instinctively commercial, and found varying degrees of success in Hollywood. Aiding many of these men was the impresario producer David Puttnam, who led a short-lived but impressive campaign by British cinema to reconstitute itself as a global force after a collapse in the early ‘70s.

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Puttnam pursued a strategy of tapping American money, hiring slick, commercially amenable talents, telling strong stories made with care and artfulness, and taking advantage of what was then the British industry’s surpassing, underused technical talent, to turn in films both ravishing in appearance, solid in drama, and cheaper to boot. They soon achieved Oscar success and box office victory with products including Parker’s Midnight Express and Hudson’s Chariots of Fire. The Duellists is one of the first films in this campaign, but it does, however, stand apart; it’s basically an art film, a hit at Cannes and not at the box office. It did, however gain Scott enough attention to land him the job of directing Alien.

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I would say his masterpiece is still his debut. Most first films are messy affairs; The Duellists, however, is remarkable for being the most concise film Scott has made. It is obviously influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s exercise in historical storytelling, Barry Lyndon, from two years previous, (indeed, the influence of Kubrick is still strong in later Scott works) in evoking with its cinematography the texture of still life and landscape paintings of the eighteenth century. As with Barry Lyndon, a swashbuckling story is turned inside out by this cool style, and becomes a study in irony, in watching what passes for classically heroic achievement revealed as idiocy and baseness. Yet it is its own film and it could be argued to be superior to its model, chiefly in being half as long but telling its story with equal impact. The story, adapted from a Joseph Conrad tale itself drawn from an apparently true account, is relatively simple. Beginning in Strasbourg in 1799, “the year Napoleon Bonaparte became ruler of France” as Stacy Keach’s narration puts it, we encounter Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel), a Lieutenant in the 7th Hussars, swiftly and happily skewers the nephew of the town’s mayor in a duel because the man spoke disparagingly of Bonaparte.

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This incident sets in a rage the formidable General  Treillard  (Robert Stephens, the first in the film’s pitch-perfect series of character turns), and he orders D’Hubert, also a lieutenant in the Hussars, to find his vague acquaintance and place him under house arrest. He finds Feraud at the salon of Madame de Lionne (Jenny Runacre). Feraud is, naturally, less than pleased at this errand. On their way to Feraud’s billet, the gentlemanly, uncomfortable D’Hubert constantly trips verbally over Feraud’s fuming, and by the time they get there, Feraud has directed his rage at D’Hubert, promptly challenging him to a duel, and with his bullying D’Hubert cannot avoid it. Their furious fight in the courtyard is interrupted when D’Hubert slashes Feraud’s arm, causing Feraud’s mistress to promptly assault her lover’s assailant. What unfolds in episodes across the next fifteen years is a personal conflict backgrounded by a world war, and the nature of their antagonism broadly reflects that war. At first glance, The Duellists seems a disjointed, episodic film. We only see these two men in the times when they come across each-other in the course of the Grand Army’s campaign across Europe, and after. We come into the various chapters, identified by locale and date, and are made aware of the passing of time and the toll of war as friends and faces disappear, reappear, make their indelible impression, are lost and forgotten. In this way, The Duellists manages at once to maintain the economy of its short story basis but also evoke a novel’s complexity of texture.

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The chief – indeed only – similarity between Armand D’Hubert and Gabriel Feraud is that both are exceptionally good and brave soldiers. In fact, we see in them a study of two different kinds of bravery and honor. Armand is a relentlessly honorable man. We suspect, and later find it’s true, he comes from wealthy circumstances, and his manner is scrupulously gentlemanly and reasonableness. Yet he is a man who does not entirely understand himself, because he is ultimately so willing to engage in this trap of ethics and masculine pride. Late in the film is own self-defence, “I’m a temperate man! Temperate in my speech-” is rightly laughed at by his fiancé, because as we know already, his strength of character is at odds with his projected surface. His sense of honor forces himself to enter into circumstances when his good sense warns him away. He cannot be seen to turn tail, to tell tales, despite the fact that he does not even himself know just what exactly offended Feraud so badly, and thus considers their quarrel incoherent. Nonetheless he fears Feraud’s savagery. D’Hubert has the kind of guts that arise from necessity. Feraud, on the other hand, relishes violence, and Armand lives in constant, queasy-making fear of his enemy. In one of my all-time favorite lines, Armand’s physician friend Jacquin (played by Tom Conti), in considering Feraud’s face (D’Hubert has had him attend Feraud’s injury), describes perfectly one kind of bigot; “The enemies of reason have a certain blind look. Feraud has that look don’t you think?’ Jacquin has crucially recognised that Feraud is quite set on carrying on the quarrel until he kills Armand, and gives three crucial pieces of advice; keep away, keep ahead in rank, and hope Bonaparte keeps the wars going, all of which forestall further duels.

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Feraud is not a one-dimensional bully. Where the essentially Romantic Armand reckons their quarrel to be around a supposed disrespect shown for Madame de Lionne, it is to Gabriel about Bonaparte, and Gabriel’s private class war. He seems driven by deep resentments, and the surface reasons he finds to enact them, whether it’s assumed disrespect for Bonaparte or the fact that he can no longer win arm wrestling contests because of the wound Armand gave him, are excuses for a deeper resentment. Indeed, he has a psyche that feeds on such hates, to drive him in his pleasurable seeking of war and hate. He refers to Armand as a “boudoir soldier” and a “staff lackey” where he himself is, in the words of one fellow, a “man who would ride straight at anything”, a man’s man who fills his tent with other soldiers and vivandieres, boozing, screwing and betting. The duel is more than just an outlet for his angers; it is his equivalent of an extreme sport, the thing that sirs his blood, renews his soul and gives a mode of self-expression. “You make fighting a duel sound like a pastime in the Garden of Eden!” Armand comments in Madame de Lionne’s apartment.

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Armand’s own ‘woman of the garrison’ is Laura (Diana Quick). She is the last of an old crew of camp followers, representative of the women who have kept, comforted, and celebrated this roaming mass of organised madmen. Sprightly on the surface, increasingly melancholy beneath, she keeps account of what happened to her fellows and the soldiers they loved. She has a standing marriage proposal from one invalided ex-soldier, but passes it up to be with Armand, “the only one I ever loved”, when she accidentally comes across him in Augsburg (1801, the second “chapter”). Laura, however, soon finds herself driven to worry and anger at the spectacle of her man not merely endangered as a soldier but living in fear and readiness in between campaigns. She is forced to live constantly with the spectacle of death, maiming, and ruination not as a brave soldier and gallant but as a passive onlooker and ledger-keeper, the price paid for bathing in their collective sexy and spectacular glory. After their second contest, where, in a swift set-to, Armand almost accidentally receives a nasty gash in his chest that prevents further fighting, but Feraud will not shake hands with him. Laura subsequently confronts Feraud and his fellows in his tent. When he jokingly draws a sword to protect himself, saying, “I once knew a man who was stabbed by a woman, it gave him the surprise of his life”, she ripostes, immediately sizing up this figure as a mere cheap macho bully, “I once knew a woman who beaten to death by a man. I don’t think it surprised her at all.” Finally, Laura, inspired by a tarot card reader’s assessment of the situation, leaves Armand, leaving him a pointedly poignant farewell by writing “Good-bye” in lipstick on his sabre. Left grimly barren, Armand throws himself into an exhausting, brutal match with Feraud where the two men end up wrestling in utter exhaustion on the ground.

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Kingdom of Heaven featured one moment that tellingly quoted Scott’s debut work, The Duellists, when Balian (Orlando Bloom) recognised the head of his Templar friend (David Thewlis) stacked amidst many others, covered in a glaze of dust, a personal signature of the unseen brutality of battle, and a replica of a scene, in a different climate, in The Duellists, when Armand D’Hubert (Keith Carradine) discovers the frozen form of his friend and fellow soldier Lacourbe (Alun Armstrong) during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. The Duellists, a film made on a stringent budget that nonetheless manages to be at once one of the most beautiful films ever made, one of the best evocations of an historical period, and a work where the visual texture is in complete unity with the dramatic material.

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Ironically, despite the trouble it brings his personal life and the tirades he receives from Gen. Treillard, Armand actually benefits from this situation. “You’re a notorious and savage duellist,’ jests Lacourbe when he, Laura and Armand are dining in an Augsburg restaurant, and there’s the suggestion his career is helped along by this reputation. “All the little girls adore you.’ Lacourbe observes, and indeed, these soldiers are hold the dazzling, florid, outside-the-common status held only for rock and film stars today. Their duelling, though illegal, is actually grand theatre and entertainment. Their next fight, in Lubeck, 1806, is done on horseback, as “a compliment to the cavalry”. Here Armand encounters Laura once more; having married her invalided suitor, and then lost him in a typhus epidemic, she has returned to following the army but is now a bitter wreck, and when Armand ardently recommends she give up this life in spite of her tearful account that her husband suggested she return to “that fool Armand”, she hisses back spitefully; “This time he’ll kill you!” and runs away. Indeed, Armand becomes convinced of this, prompting Lacourbe’s angry answer; “Dammit, kill him!” In this duel, Scott makes a brilliant and inspired stylistic shift; as the two men face off on their chargers, and race in for the kill, a series of flash cuts illuminates Armand’s mind, recalling Feraud’s impudent savagery and Laura’s past love and present wretchedness; realising the evil mark Feraud has left on his life til now, Armand gains warrior rage and rather than dying leaves his enemy with half his scalp torn from his head.

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“Six years later,’ Keach intones, “The Emperor’s Grand Army regrouped for Armageddon.” “Russia, 1812”, gives a glimpse of the grim destruction of this grand force and its dashing, beautiful men. Frozen, whiskered, faces bitten into by chilblains, starved and without boots, they drag themselves tediously across a vast frigid landscape. All the trappings of decorum, civility, and humanity have fallen away, and the second they catch sight of each-other, Feraud bunks down paranoiacally with two rifles and eyes D’Hubert as they both huddle in shiver in a blizzard. They are now in a barren landscape where only instincts reign. Against all the codes they have been following to this point, they head off, under the pretext of reconnaissance, to duel in private. This scene is only stopped by the intrusion of a Cossack who mocks them, and, realising they are surrounded, the two men fight off their mutual enemy – only survival overwhelms their grim enmity. Feraud’s particular comfort with this animalistic state is seen when he calmly slices the wounded Cossack’s throat and refuses D’Hubert’s offer of a drink to celebrate their approaching the Neiman and escape. It is at this point D’Hubert finds Lacourbe’s body, a haunting image of lonely death on the edge of nothingness.

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“Tours, 1814” finds D’Hubert, retired having risen to the rank of General of Brigade, living with his sister Leonie (Meg Wynn Owen) on her estate, walking on a wounded leg and telling his nephews war stories. With his injury and his psychic exhaustion, despite being still a relatively young man, he has convinced himself he is done with the world. Leonie, recognising the danger and waste of this, immediately sets about matchmaking Armand with the niece of an elderly neighbouring Chevalier (Alan Webb), who is both happy to be restored to his rank post-Bonaparte but also fussily proud of his acquired trade as a boot-maker. Armand’s subsequent romance with Adele (Christina Raines) aids in his regeneration from emaciated, limping burn-out back to a serving commander again. But Bonaparte’s escape from Elba brings another ghost back to his door. A Colonel (Edward Fox) brings D’Hubert the offer to command a brigade – “The Emperor is our strength,” he says, “We belong to him.” “I rather fancied I belonged to myself.” Armand answers icily. In Armand D’Hubert we have not just seen the death of Napoleonic zeal but the rude birth of the better kind of modern man; partly cynical (“I fear the army will have more realists than Royalists”he reckons after Waterloo), partly still idealistic and honorable, Armand has notably rejected the call of grand projects and ethereal ethics. “It has been said that you do not love the Emperor.” Fox suggests. “By whom?” “By General Feraud, for one.” “Ask General Feraud what the honor of the Emperor has to do with Madame de Lionne.” D’Hubert suggests. Forced to recall this long-ago event, Feraud remembers D’Hubert as saying “As far as I’m concerned they can spit upon Napoleon Bonaparte!” Where up til now these two men have been quarrelsome aspects of the same thing, they are now bent in diverging directions.

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Whilst there is still the fire of defiance in Feraud’s stance, and in the whole Napoleonic revival, it is a shame defiance, idealism and vision become partisanship, compulsive destructiveness, inability to change or adapt. After Waterloo Feraud and his fellows return with missing limbs, eyes, glowering, aging, misshapen stumps of men, where D’Hubert grows strong, rich, secure, gains a command under the King, and more importantly, has a child expecting by his beautiful bride. But there is still in his sense of honor a form of security he won’t allow himself. Using his contacts, Armand approaches Fouché (Albert Finney), a virtuoso of survival by his own description – or as Fox calls him, a sewer rat; a turncoat who has gotten the job of handling political prisoners (“Or else my name would most certainly be on that list”), an image of the kind of corrupt, sleazy men who have inherited the nation now the brave ones are dead and with whom the peace is necessarily a negotiation; Armand saves Feraud from the chopping block. We sense immediately Armand’s reasons; his personal code of honor will not allow him the shabby security of avoiding an enemy by letting him get taken care of by someone else. Yet we also suspect Armand has some small part of himself that considers this piece of business unfinished and needing one last true decision.

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Nonetheless, when the time comes, and Feraud, released, dressed in self-conscious imitation of his exiled idol, comes looking for his nemesis, Armand condemns the proposed duel. Once again, Armand finds his life and his relationship threatened. Their final encounter, enacted around a ruined castle in a pristine morning wood, ends with Feraud’s raw hunter’s cunning almost winning, but Armand’s wits finally clinch the moment; aiming his gun at the waiting, goading Feraud, we suddenly leave the scene behind, and see Armand proceeding home, humored smile on his face, greeting his worried wife with cheer. And Feraud? We return to him, wondering the woods in grimacing solitude, musing of their encounter, when Armand stated, “By every rule of single combat from this moment your life belongs to me, is that not correct? Then I shall simply declare you dead. In all your dealings with me you do me the courtesy to conduct yourself as a dead man. I have submitted to you notions of honor long enough. You will now submit to mine.” In short, Armand has won a more important victory, a victory of life. He is no longer playing by Feraud’s bloodthirsty ethic, but his own, and he finally frees himself from any last hint of responsibility for this wretched, outdated man. Our last glimpse of Feraud is in one of the most beautiful images ever put on film. He stands on a bluff overlooking a flooded valley in a sun-shower. The scene before him would lift most men to a sense of glory – but the final shot, closing in on his grey, implacable, brooding face, suggests he is doomed to eternally turn inwards in gravely gnawing spite.

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Beyond being a very relevant study of a peculiar kind of masculine madness that is most certainly not dead although the mode it express itself in here – the duel – is long defunct, The Duellists also provides a map for the greatness and failure of the Napoleonic movement; idealistic, liberating, beautiful, stimulating, ultimately monstrous, destructive, dead-ended, and for the creation of the hesitant, more humane, less volatile, less rhapsodic modern state of mind. It’s easy to miss the full depth of the finale’s implications on a first viewing. Gerald Vaughn-Hughes’ screenplay is at once a masterpiece of subtlety and economy, mixing light and dark with great deftness. Scott’s direction is invaluable. The best works of his oeuvre have tended to concentrate on fierce conflicts between opposites – sometimes individuals with each-other, or societies and ideas, sometimes as representatives of such, sometimes merely Manichean, yet often also complex and layered, common to so many of Scott’s subsequent films. The rigorous self-control evinced in The Duellists is redolent of enormous talent, but also one born partly out of determination to make a mark, partly out of pragmatic necessity to reduce costs. At times, Scott is a little too controlled, and serves up some overly-arch shots designed merely to awe with their resemblance to paintings. For the most part, however, the film’s enormous sensual beauty does not weigh it down, and Scott employs hand-held cameras and jump cuts with creativity and fidelity to the film’s physical evocation of an inherently more physical time. Cinematographer Frank Tidy’s work is the sort of work that movie dreams are made of, alive to every blade of grass, belt buckle and bead of water – a pity that Scott, who had worked with Tidy before on TV, has never subsequently done so, a point he laments on the fine DVD’s commentary. As a last note on the film’s fusion of technical and artistic skill, Howard Blake’s score is a masterpiece in itself.

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T2 Trainspotting (2017)

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Director: Danny Boyle

By Roderick Heath

Trainspotting was one of the signal cultural moments of the 1990s. After his helter-skelter debut, Shallow Grave (1994), Danny Boyle placed his name on the lips of the international caste of cineastes with his second work. Although set nearly a decade earlier, Trainspotting was the closest thing the decade’s cinema offered to a big screen avatar for the zeitgeist of the already waning grunge scene in music: grimy, blackly comic, pungent in its evocation of society’s margins and the up-yours attitude of its citizens. Adapting Irvine Welsh’s cult novel, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge depicted a landscape of scruffs and dropouts making do, without a countercultural era to lend them glamour, on heroin and dubious friendship, finally torn apart by money in an ultimate act of self-liberation that was also, in aptly sarcastic manner, an act of obeisance at last to an entirely commercialised world. Trainspotting’s antic sense of humour and its equally vital if sometimes exceedingly grim depiction of the junkie were visualised by Boyle in ebullient cinematic terms. I remember describing it to a friend a few years later as A Hard Day’s Night’s (1964) evil twin, a comparison the film readily courted in quoting the Abbey Road cover. This sort of touch also confirms Trainspotting’s complicity in the Cool Britannia moment of the mid-‘90s, when new pride in the nation’s post-war cultural accomplishments surged in time with the oncoming Tony Blair era. As for me, like many, the film was a galvanising moment in my teen years, when the indie film scene was roaring at full blast and interesting moviemaking could come from anywhere and still find an eager audience. Now, at a time when everything old is new again in the movie theatre, revisiting beloved movies from beyond the usual roster of multiplex fodder gains a certain attractiveness, particularly when pitched as an investigation into nostalgic as a contemporary state of mind.
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T2 Trainspotting is officially spun out of Welsh’s follow-up novel, Porno, but is as much about the original film, its place in the lives of anyone who saw it and loved it, as well as its unmistakeable lexicon of images and, perhaps even more crucially, sounds. This self-reflexive urge is both the most interesting aspect of T2 (the title itself is an act of cheek, appropriating the carefully groomed marketing contraction of another ‘90s hit, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991) and its most irritating. Or to put it another way, it’s like having a friend rave on in your ear about how great the good old days were whilst occasionally stepping back and making fun of himself for his nostalgia: the cake is had and eaten too. Reacting to this sequel also means reckoning with passing time and shifting attitudes. Boyle, who seemed to me the coolest cat on the street back when I was a teen, has long since revealed himself as a creature of facetious cinematic energy whose work I soon started to dread more than anticipate. Boyle and favoured star Ewan McGregor followed their breakthrough hit with the now blessedly forgotten A Life Less Ordinary (1998), a raucous mess that fulfilled the threat of ‘90s alternative culture to turn into a caricature of itself in throwing out all narrative sense and instead linking a series of pop cultural pastiches, and then actor and director purportedly fell out acrimoniously over McGregor being displaced by Leonardo DiCaprio on Boyle’s next film, The Beach (2000). T2’s status as a reunion project adds a charge of subtext to the scenes of angry and recriminatory but ultimately forgiving confrontation between old friends. Steve Jobs, Boyle’s surprisingly measured if flagrantly theatrical 2015 release, suggested Boyle was capable of restraining himself still, and I hoped returning to this ground might provoke something latent in the director.
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Boyle and Hodge here try to entwine the characters’ pining for a social past that was largely mythical with their own longing for their youth. The formerly dynamic duo of Mark Renton (McGregor) and Sick Boy, now going by his more mundane real name of Simon (Johnny Lee Miller), are now easily caught up in free-flowing rhapsodies about various national past touchstones in a way that feels less appropriate to these once-cynical drop-outs than to Boyle’s self-appointed status dating back to the London Olympics as the framer of the national psyche, proxies for an imagined audience of barroom mates for whom the original Trainspotting is a fixture along with George Best and James Bond instalments. The storyline here mimics the act of revisiting the past as Renton is driven back to Edinburgh after twenty years living in Amsterdam. The collapse of his childless marriage and impending joblessness, on top of a suddenly nascent heart problem, events he attempts at first to cover up, have compelled him to return home. Soon he’s walking along streets where wistful recall is forever accompanied by a low-key pang of anxiety, considering that he left Britain after ripping his mates off and absconding with the proceeds of a drug deal. Simon greets him by wrapping a pool cue around his ear, which is cute compared to what their vicious mate Francis ‘Franco’ Begbie (Robert Carlyle) will do when he meets up with Renton.
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Begbie is currently incarcerated, serving a twenty-year stretch for his many crimes, but after he’s rejected yet again for parole, he contrives to have a fellow inmate stab him to get transferred to hospital, and then to escape. Meanwhile Simon has taken over his aunt’s old pub, but that building is a solitary monolith now amidst a bulldozed neighbourhood, leaving Simon trapped between a disappeared community and an oncoming wave of gentrification. To make extra cash, Simon sets up opportunities for blackmail, making clandestine recordings of his pseudo-girlfriend, Bulgarian prostitute Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), in her romps with respectable clients. Once the visceral business of dealing with old betrayal is done, Renton and Simon quickly fall back into matey ways, to the point where Veronika sarcastically tells them, under the cover of a language they don’t understand, that they actually love each-other. Veronika and Renton quickly become lovers regardless, whilst Renton eagerly joins Simon in an enterprise to transform the pub into a brothel, an enterprise that demands capital, so they set about fleecing suckers whilst also applying for a business loan from a government panel. Meanwhile Begbie returns to his terrified wife June (Pauline Turner) and now-grown son Frank Jnr (Scot Greenan), only to experience impotence in bed and frustration with his wannabe hotelier son, whom he drags along with him on robberies. When Begbie visits Simon, he fobs him off with suggestions Renton is still in Amsterdam, but the two foes are doomed to encounter each-other in a rave palace toilet.
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Part of the original Trainspotting’s cunning lay in the way it mused with carbolic acidity on the then still-recent sting of insult so many felt from the ‘80s conservative reaction, but refracted through the cracked lens of a bunch of fuck-ups whose personal deficiencies only gained relevance through that context. The characters’ mordant pronouncements on modern life had their true side, but there was an irony involved, as their own lives were revealed to be littered with jagged shards of tragedy and violence and brushes with death, their rebellion a method of slow suicide. By comparison, T2 cannot commit to any new cultural thesis. There’s a gag early in the film when Renton is met by a flotilla of female greeters at the airport, all dressed up like stars in the first reel of a porn film, who turn out to be immigrants. As this joke evinces, T2 buys not so subtly into the logic of Brexit, that the present is a deracinated joke and Britain is now full of foreigners living out the dreams that were those of locals however many years ago; this idea is literally the underpinning of the plot, as Veronika reproduces Renton’s arc from the original. The film’s most political interlude is also one that takes aim not at contemporary malfeasance but at the habits of backward-looking pockets of the British Isles, particularly a social schism that’s long been niggling the Scottish community, as Renton and Simon infiltrate a club for right-wing Protestants who still celebrate ancient victories over Catholics. As Renton quips, “They have something we don’t – an identity,” for they retain a folksy brand of communality that just happens to be based in sleazy sectarian prejudices. Renton and Simon bluff their way out when they’re almost unmasked by improvising a song about killing Catholics, and then fleece many of their bank accounts simply by punching in the date of the Battle of the Boyne.
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Renton himself can’t even bear to listen to Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” the original film’s thunderous theme, on his old turntable, as the emotions it stirs are too intense. Meanwhile Danny ‘Spud’ Murphy (Ewen Bremner), the fourth pillar of the surviving gang, has relapsed into addiction after trying to settle down with old girlfriend Gail (Shirley Henderson) and their young son. Spud’s attempt at suicide is narrowly averted by Renton’s arrival, and as well as coaching the two eager entrepreneurs, Veronika pushes along Spud’s attempt to supplant his mania for heroin with a mania for writing down his experiences. Following the lead of Porno, T2 substantiates Spud as Welsh’s stand-in in this, the most wretched of the group whose scrappy creative gifts will nonetheless finish up the most viable for any real survival and prosperity. By contrast Renton and Simon’s labours add up to nothing when they’re leaned on by a gangster who nixes their project and dumps them in the woods, whilst Begbie romps around the city, alienated from his family and with no object in mind more profound than to visit cruel revenge upon Renton. The other three make an excursion into the hills to pay tribute to the missing member of their old gang, Tommy, whose death, Simon reminds Renton, was partly his fault in introducing him to the junkie lifestyle. Whereupon Renton reminds Simon in turn about how his neglect when high also killed his infant child. When the business loan is approved unexpectedly, Renton and Simon find themselves each trying to work up the nerve, and self-justification, to rip off the other man and flee to A Better Life 2.0.
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The major pleasure of T2 is seeing these actors snap so confidently back into their old roles, many relishing the new dimensions of the original’s rather Hogarthian sprawl of gangly, hyped-up caricatures. Miller’s performance here is a splendid roadmap of egotistical traits that have lost the sexy edge they had when he was a twenty-something and settled into mere scuzzy pathos: far from tongue-swapping Es with girlfriends, now he’s only gotten it up far enough to bang Veronika once, and prefers to get high and watch music videos on his big screen telly. Bremner, who has gained the charmed career natural character actors know, plays Spud with a blend of keen empathy for his flailing as he tackles the chance to regain control over his life, whilst retaining an edge of unhinged, almost alien attitude to his physical comedy, prancing like a denuded spider through some scenes, quivering like jelly in others, and sometimes finally locating the lode of character and creative zest under all his timorous, life-shy unease. Carlyle’s act as Begbie is just as uncanny as ever in describing the terrifying side of the Scots character, that inchoate berserker will, but it’s stretched here in some discomforting ways, as Begbie finally reveals a self-aware streak as he finally makes peace with his son. Welsh turns up playing the same part he did in the original, former small-time drug dealer-turned-fence Mikey Forrester.
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McGregor is by comparison not so well served as the straight man to these freakazoids: Renton’s successful but only temporary integration into the world at large has left him bereft of the outsider cheek and verve that once served him well, and it’s not until half-way through the film that he’s allowed a glimmer of the bard-like state of cynical ferocity that so famously marked him in the original. This comes as he explains the meaning of his and his mates’ old, sarcastic “Choose Life” motto and updates it to take a poke at the bullshit of the present day. One problem here, however, is that the original Trainspotting was rooted securely in its portrayal of an era, an era that was already slightly antique when the film was made: by this logic, T2 should be set in the late Blair era. But the reference points here are much hazier and generally present-tense, and when Renton delivers an updated “Choose Life” rant, it’s a sprawl of whinges directly transcribed from a million Twitter accounts: “Choose rape jokes. Choose slut-shaming, revenge porn…Choose 9/11 never happened.” The angry thrill of rejecting officially sanctioned bromides has lost its ironic pep and become a mere list of bugbears, as a vast slice of society at large has stolen Renton’s thunder but without the irony. In its best moments T2 coherently visualises the feeling of being plunged back into the past in the frame of the present, when that past was so much more vibrant if also often terribly ugly, as in a moment when Spud finds himself on a familiar street and remembers events that pierce him to the core – and the viewer, as those events are the iconic opening moments of the original.
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T2 locks itself into this pattern and can’t get out of it, reproducing the fault of its characters. These middle-aged goons are left looking back perpetually to a time when, however squalid they were, they were at least confident in their disasters. Building an entire film around this reflex is a dodgy move at best: long after the point where this film should have moved on to new business, the filmmakers are still busy rehashing the old. Almost everything that takes place in this entry is beholden in some way to the original, rather than presenting a new piece of art that properly creates an interesting present-tense. T2 reminded me of some other attempts to synthesise second acts for reasonably serious hits. One unfavourable comparison is Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986), which expertly crafted a mature continuation of a not-so-dissimilar character portrait whilst avoiding miring itself in retracing old steps. Trainspotting’s concentration on characters barely holding on to a place in society and thus moving from scam to scam might easily have loaned itself to such fresh contexts, but instead T2 takes the least adventurous course, never quite making truly effective drama and only occasionally wringing fresh and outrageous comedy out of the thin plot. Porno was more concerned with Spud’s reinvention as an artist and the other characters’ gleeful repetitions of the past. Boyle and Hodge make gestures towards rendering T2 as a kind of work-in-progress, post-modern depiction of its own creation as Veronika urges Spud to give us an ending to his tale. But to call these gestures hamfisted feels excessively kind. Teasing snatches of familiar music keep bobbing up on the soundtrack, calling back to the original’s anthemic use of “Lust for Life” and Underworld’s “Born Slippy,” but the new soundtrack is very forgettable, or littered with tracks straight out of Boyle’s iPod shuffle.
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The female characters retained from the original are left holding the bag in a way that confirms how suffocating the portrait of male ageing angst has become. Henderson, who loaned mischievous humour to the original, is reduced to a barely-glimpsed walk-on, a forlorn martyr to Spud’s fecklessness. Sadly, Kelly Macdonald returns only very briefly as Diane, Renton’s one-time randy, underage party girl pick-up. Now she’s a besuited, coolly confident lawyer installed in bright and shiny offices, whom Renton and Veronika hire to spring Simon from prison after his blackmailing racket rebounds. The spark in Macdonald’s eye as she teases Renton about his latest too-young girlfriend gives the film a momentary spark of knowing, randy energy that Veronika can’t match in spite of Nedyalkova’s admirable poise even wearing cavorting in a strap-on dildo: the foreign hooker girlfriend looking for her chance is a little too cliché a figure. Indeed, too much of the film’s would-be biting commentary has shop-worn aspect, like the opening that finds Renton not running through the streets but on a treadmill, an arch way to tell us he’s devolved into just another yuppie, and the gangster’s punishment of Renton and Simon’s disrespect by leaving them naked and forcing them to venture their back home, a sequence that feels like it stumbled in out of another movie. A scene in which Begbie reconciles with his son feels entirely phony, a sop to the imperative in so many modern films to offer some kind of maudlin connection even as everything we know about Begbie shouts at us that he’s an insensate psychopath without such capacity for introspection. Now Begbie has traumatic memories of a drunken father and a streak of class rage. But in the very next scene he’s carrying around a bag fool of tools intending violation and dismemberment of Renton. So who cares what his issues are?
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The original Trainspotting was a daft ode to its own bratty energy but it was in that way true to its characters and their smart-arse viewpoint on pop cultural mores. Boyle’s stylistic showiness was attuned to the frenetic highs of junkie life and to its wilful blindness and weak grasp on reality – moments of gouging tragedy passed by noted and then lost amongst oblivious recourse into more drugs, vignettes of fantasy and kitschy self-mockery coming at you with such fervour they coalesced into a kind of sense. Here, the mood demands something totally different, and if Boyle had been less concerned with re-establishing his hip bona fides he might have tethered this tale to an artistic palette rooted in the bleak feeling of being washed up after a shipwreck. Instead, Boyle’s style settles into weak self-imitation, replete with canted camera angles and freeze-frames of no function, and random film references – Spud imagining himself as the hero of Raging Bull (1980), and a finale that spoofs Blade Runner’s (1982) climax. Boyle pulls off one great shot when Renton first approaches Simon’s pub, a monolith in the midst of an apocalyptic landscape, remnant outpost of an age and a culture that has literally upped sticks and moved on. Indeed, Anthony Dod Mantle’s photography is perhaps the best thing about the film, even when Boyle makes him do nonsensical things. The film does still offer its occasional comedic coups, like the sequence with the Protestant clique, and the cleverly deadpan sequence in which Renton and Begbie finally encounter each-other, sharing cross words through a toilet stall without initially recognising the other’s voice, only then for the penny to slowly drop for both. And there are images that sharply capture the evanescent emotions Boyle is chasing, as when Renton watches Diane in her office from the street, the outsider looking in and pining for all lost time.
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After moving in circles for what seems like an eternity, T2 finally starts barrelling towards a climax as Begbie finally encounters Renton, and he leaves his quarry with a gashed arm as Renton flees him. Soon Begbie tracks down Spud and is momentarily stalled in his quest when he starts making Spud read his written anecdotes to him, taking great pleasure in hearing his old sadisms mythologised, only then to find the same way that Renton cut Spud in on the money he stole. At Veronika’s behest, Spud aids her in filching the money the lads got off the government, before trying to warn them about Begbie’s murderous intentions. But he arrives too late, as Begbie has already entered Simon’s pub, forcing his former friends to try and battle him. The trouble is that once the actual story pace of T2 picks up (as opposed to its shot pace, which remains stroboscopic), it stops making sense, and resolutions to the various plot lines carry unusually little weight. That’s in part because unlike his younger self, Boyle, like many a recovering cynic, has become an indulgent and syrupy filmmaker, loathe to drag any of his characters too deep off into the woods. Unsurprisingly for the guy who made me sit through Slumdog Millionaire (2008), far from revisiting this material to shock current cinema out of its lethargic state, Boyle instead has, in spite of the occasional bit of male nudity and his empty showiness as director, removed the fangs from his creation. T2 isn’t a bad film by any stretch, and yet I found it a profoundly disappointing, even dispiriting one on many levels. Not because of its melancholic streak, but because it doesn’t know how to frame that melancholia. Something I’ve long suspected is now hatching out in movie land: after decades whining about Boomer nostalgia, the Generation X equivalent threatens to be utterly insufferable. Where are the worst toilets in Scotland of yesteryear?

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