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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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2010s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs, all the way back in 1992, was a film about acting in crime film drag where Tim Roth’s antiheroic Mr Orange was the prototypical Hollywood wannabe, working to become his role so deeply all lines between life and performance vanish, immersed in a game of whose tough guy act ruled. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, his ninth film, inverts that proposition to a great extent: it’s a film explicitly about acting, intersecting with crime and other random and inescapable cruelties of life, and the feeling when that gravity you’ve been defying through the transportation of creativity suddenly kicks in. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood sees Tarantino returning to the climes of Los Angeles he recorded in his first three films, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction (1994), and Jackie Brown (1997), albeit a recreation of a remembered city, the one of Tarantino’s childhood, recreated in such fetishistic detail it constitutes an act of conjuring. As ever in Tarantino’s cinema, fantasy and reality are blended to a delirious and unstable degree, but this time nominally subordinated to a pastiche of the familiar true crime ploy of outlaying narrative as a succession of checklist items in terms of who did what, where, and when.

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Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood revolves around one of the most infamous episodes in modern crime, by extension often regarded as an authentic pivot in the psyche of an epoch: the conversion of the counterculture dream into a nightmare by the marauding of Charles Manson’s “family” of young, disaffected disciples, events that refashioned not just Hollywood’s social landscape but in the whole relationship of celebrity culture to the world beyond. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood’s title pays overt heed to Sergio Leone, one of Tarantino’s singular heroes, but its resonances go right down into the psychic life of Tinseltown and its misbegotten children. Tarantino’s narrative befits such fairytale associations, offering a revision of familiar history mixed with character dramas enacting a legend of renewal in a triumph of hope over experience. It also evokes the strange relationship between Hollywood, which was entering a crisis point at the time the film is set, and the filmmaking world Leone represented, in particular the Spaghetti Western. Today known for a rich and peculiar annex of pop culture, that mode was at the time so generally deplored and regarded as a synonym for cheap and nasty that one of Tarantino’s central characters, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), is left distraught by the proposition of turning to it for career extension.

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Tarantino rose swiftly to the top of the heap of eager young independent filmmakers in the 1990s not just for his postmodern nimbleness and evil comic sensibility, but for his eagerness to resurrect the careers of actors out of favour for whatever reason. Tarantino’s belief in the special connection between actor and role, audience and on-screen avatar, brought immediacy and amity to his bricoleur excursions. Tarantino’s time as a struggling young talent who turned to acting to try and make a few bucks seemed to have honed such identification as well as armed him with some of the core themes of his oeuvre. Tarantino highlights the likeness between the industry schism of the ‘90s where once-mighty, now-waned stars like John Travolta and Burt Reynolds took their shot in indie film, and the more urgent upheaval of the late 1960s, where Hollywood almost collapsed in on itself with backdated product, a breakdown that also cheated many interesting and promising performers of the careers they seemed to deserve. Dalton is glimpsed at the outset in his heyday as the star of the TV show Bounty Law, being interviewed along with his stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

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By 1969, agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) is trying to talk Rick into going to Italy, as Rick’s career faltered after his decision to leave Bounty Law and try for a movie career, and now he’s trapped in a succession of guest roles as bad guys in TV series, a punching bag to build up new stars. Rick’s great consolation is that he owns his house on Cielo Drive, nestled in the groves of Beverly Crest, with new neighbours in Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). “I could be one pool party away from starring in a Polanski movie,” Rick notes. Sharon’s career, in sharp contrast to Rick’s, is just taking off, ushering her into the jet set. The bulk of Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood unfolds on a single day in February ‘69, as Rick struggles to keep an even keel whilst playing the villain in a pilot for Lancer, a new Western being helmed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond).

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After buying a fateful first edition copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles for her husband, Tate takes time out to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew (1968) in a downtown theatre. Cliff has fared in even more undignified straits than Rick, living in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theatre and working as Rick’s chauffeur, professional buddy, and general dogsbody because he can’t get any stunt work, for reasons that emerge later in the film. Whilst driving around town, Cliff repeatedly encounters lithe, gregarious, jailbait hippie Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and finally picks her up. He agrees to drive her out to the Spahn Movie Ranch, a rundown former shooting location for Westerns where she lives with a peculiar gang of fellow waifs and weirdos. Pussycat is disappointed their beloved chieftain Charlie isn’t around, but Cliff is nostalgic to see the Ranch, where he and Rick used to shoot Bounty Law, and wants to talk to the owner George Spahn. But Spahn is laid up blind and guarded by a squad of young women who keep him sexed into submission, of which the most aggressive is Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning). Cliff runs the gauntlet and chats with George, who doesn’t remember him, but upon emerging finds one of the young men in the gang has put a knife in one of his car tires.

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Tarantino grows his story out of the tempting morsel offered by the Manson Family’s residence at the Spahn Ranch, one of those details of history charged with layers of irony. The Ranch’s decaying state spoke of the sharp decline of the once-booming production of Westerns for both movie screens and TV, of which Rick and Cliff become avatars. Pop culture at large is being reinvented and colonised by a new sensibility represented by the so-groovy Tate and other exalted beings she’s glimpsed partying with at the Playboy Mansion, colourful and urbane rather than terse and rustic. The Family’s resemblance to the kinds of ruffians beloved of Western plotlines, a gang of disaffected and free-floating cultural exiles under the thumb of a lowlife posing as a guru, comes sharply into focus as Tarantino shoots Cliff’s arrival at the Ranch as a variation on Clint Eastwood’s arrival in town in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), threat vibrant behind every gesture even without an apparent cause. One reason that Manson’s onslaught lodged so deep in the psyche of Hollywood wasn’t simply because he bade his followers invade their mansions and desecrate the bubble of their community, but because he seemed to have fashioned a grim alternative version of the fantasy dynamics of the town, the great male visionary with his small army of rapt followers and pliable harem. The damage his female followers inflicted on Tate wasn’t simply execution but a wrathful act of blood sacrifice that punished her not simply for being successful, beautiful, and exalted in the world but for being their counterpart.

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For most of its first half, however, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood barely touches on the Manson cult, instead drifting with its central characters in their various spaces of labour and lifestyle. Cliff sighs his way acquiescently through odd jobs for Rick but loves tearing about the streets of the city in his car with the radio cranked in the meantime. Tate puts her feet up and gets to enjoy the movie, beholding herself transmuted into movie star gaining laughs and cheers from fellow patrons and all the fruits of a job well done. The Family girls wander the streets salvaging food and scrap whilst in a beatific bubble, seemingly happy as fringe dwellers in the great society, a little like Cliff, who proves receptive to their presence, aware of them as weird fixtures around the LA scene. Rick, even in the midst of personal and career crisis, has a wellspring of professional skill he can tap. This approach to narrative signals Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood as much closer to a character study than a standard plot-driven thriller, where the time and place are also a character.

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Rick’s career is also a compendium of anecdotes, many with unhappy endings, as when the star of Lancer, James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), asks if it’s true he almost got the lead in The Great Escape (1963). Tarantino mischievously offers digitally altered sequences inserting DiCaprio-as-Rick over Steve McQueen, as Rick grudgingly mumbles his way through explaining what happened. Acting is an eternal hall of mirrors filled with alternate selves, prospects grasped and missed, integral to an industry that needs the star actor as interlocutor between audience and art but also beset by ambiguity, a job with less security than the average mailman knows even for a man like Rick who’s colonised the dream life of a generation. The actor’s image achieves immortality, but the actor certainly doesn’t. By contrast Cliff is at once more curious and pathetic. Sent by Rick to fix his aerial whilst he shoots the Lancer pilot, Cliff drifts into a reverie recalling when Rick guest-starred on The Green Hornet, when Rick finally managed to talk the show’s stunt supervisor Randy (Kurt Russell) into giving Cliff the chance to possibly get some stunt work on the show, only to get lippy with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) as he showed off to the other stuntmen and accepted his challenge to a fight.

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Cliff as stuntman is the working stiff supporting the star show pony, the one who, whilst still immersed in the reflective glamour of the movie world, nonetheless has to put actually body and soul on the line for the construction of effective and convincing action cinema. Thus the stunt artist exists in that nebulous zone between fantasy and reality Tarantino loves plumbing. Lee is a taunting object for a man like Cliff not simply as a potent rival but as one making the leap from one caste to another: Lee has not just usurped his position but also achieved the ultimate promotion. So Cliff stokes Lee’s famous temper and they come out of it tied in terms of hits laid, although the fact that Cliff left a great dent in a car he threw Lee against seems to prove him the victor. Randy’s wife (Zoë Bell) interrupts them and gets her husband to throw Cliff off the set. Tarantino cuts back to Cliff as mutters, “Yeah, fair enough,” in the sure realisation and acceptance that even if he did get another chance he’d surely find a way to screw it all up again.

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This sequence reveals much about Cliff, including his genuine ability as a fighter as well as confirming all his talents for self-sabotage. It also deliberately begs many questions, as it’s revealed the big objection to Cliff is a strong rumour that he murdered his wife. A flashback is even added as Cliff recalls drunkenly handling a spear gun on a fishing trip with his wife who was just as soused and abusing him, but whether Cliff actually meant to kill her or some ugly mishap happened out of focus because of the booze isn’t shown. This all seems to explain a lot about Cliff’s situation. And yet the way Tarantino deploys it lodges it firmly in an ambiguous zone, affecting the way others regard Cliff in his memory and yet, much like his impression of Lee, possibly so non-objective that it’s hard to trust – compare it to the way Tate remembers Lee as a gracious tutor. Rick certainly doesn’t seem to believe Cliff killed his wife, but then again he’s so joined at the hip with Cliff, so reliant on him as a friend and helpmate, that he hardly counts as objective either. This is unusual territory for Tarantino who, whilst always engaged in a slippery dance between realist and fantasist postures, usually avoids engaging in destabilising the integrity of his storytelling in this manner. Much as a movie like Kill Bill (2003-4) had the undertone of a tale created by the child of a single mother designed to mythologise their parent, it maintained the rules of that fantasy.

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This disquiet in Cliff’s background lends a troubling aspect to what otherwise seems his easy-to-idealise valour in all other respects, as a near-forgotten war hero, a loyal pal and manservant to Rick, and unswayed enemy of Manson’s antisocial thugs. This is certainly in keeping with Tarantino’s general disinterest – the women of Death Proof (2007) and Django excepted – in the kinds of unsullied knights pop culture prefers, or at least likes their dark days well-hidden. Like his previous film, the often aggressively misunderstood The Hateful Eight (2015), Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood needles our laziness as viewers over who we assign sympathy to in movies and why and the kinds of myths we like swallowing and why. Most of Tarantino’s narratives have revolved around characters who can be hero or villain depending when you meet them. It also invokes awareness over the treacherousness of the history he’s engaging, with the tendency of the members of the Manson Family to blame each-other for heinous acts and the various forms of apologia attached to them depending on one’s personal and socio-political sympathies, as well as Polanski’s swift trip from tragic lover to exiled creep. The Manson murders were a long time ago now, and yet they still retain relevance, still inflecting aspects of the zeitgeist from political discourse to the difficulty as a film viewer to be had in watching Tate’s body of work, short of roles worthy of her startling beauty and comic talent.

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Rick’s career is explored with such fanatical detail, from his spot hosting and performing on the TV music show Hullabaloo to his B-movies like the Nazi-roasting war flick The 14 Fists of McCluskey, for which he learned how to use a flamethrower, to the point that we know his oeuvre better than many a real career. This serves not just Tarantino’s delight in pastiche but also his larger narrative target. Rick’s body of work is replete with echoes of Tarantino’s own – Bounty Law depicts a professional bounty hunter a la Django Unchained (2012), The 14 Fists of McCluskey offers a simplified version of Inglourious Basterds (2009) – and the feeling that Tarantino’s facing down his own middle-aged, mid-career demons through Rick repeatedly surfaces. Tarantino’s no longer the coolest kid on the indie movie block, but to all intents and purposes an establishment figure who’s taken some licks in recent years and facing the challenge of constantly trying to outdo himself when it comes to outré provocation and trying to mature without sacrificing his specific cachet. More immediately, Rick’s attempts to hold himself together in the course of shooting his guest role seem almost trivial given the forces waiting in the wings, and yet they’re all-consuming to him and vitally important in terms of his profession, a gruelling study in shattered confidence duelling with professional pride and abused talent.

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Rick is confronted with a preternaturally smart and disciplined eight-year-old co-star, Trudi (Julie Butters), clearly a kid with everything before her and impatient with his old-school affectations. Rick bursts into tears as he tries to explain the plot of a Western novella he’s reading to her as he sees the likeness to his own lot in the hero’s struggle with aging and wounding. This moment doesn’t simply acknowledge a metatexual commentary but makes an active aspect of the story, Rick knowing full well as he explains it to Trudy exactly how it reflects his own story and also connects with a very specific instance in Western movie folklore, the bullet in the back John Wayne’s character in El Dorado (1966) stands in for his aging, a reference that comes full circle in the finale as Cliff takes a similar wound that will also compel him to act his age. “’Bout fifteen years you’ll be livin’ it,” Rick mutters as Trudi tries to console him over his wane, reflecting both his own awareness that as a female actor Trudi’s up against even more daunting forces than him and also taking a momentary pleasure in the cruelty of acknowledging it, stealing just a tiny flame of her magic back from her, before his shame kicks in. It’s one of the best bits of writing Tarantino’s ever offered, not just in terms of the way it characterises Rick but also in the way it registers in terms of the larger narrative. The Manson Family will attempt to do just the same thing in far louder and more pyrotechnic terms, and the likeness echoes again as Rick’s role on Lancer is playing a vicious criminal mastermind with a coterie of henchmen.

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On set, Rick struggles to get through a lengthy scene with Stacy, and unleashes a torrent of abuse at himself once he’s back in his trailer, aghast at his inability to do what he’s known and prized for. This moment drew me back to Orange rehearsing his legend in Reservoir Dogs, as if we’re seeing the other end of a train of thought for Tarantino, the contemplation of what mastering such skill means at different ages, the fantasy of transcending self finally and inescapably exhausted, but with the bitter kicker that the only answer is to recommit to it. So Rick returns to the shoot newly galvanised and attacks his next scene with such gusto even Trudi is bowled over. Such are the absurd and yet inescapable measures of an actor’s gravity. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood posits what could have happened if the Manson Family had targeted someone a little more capable of taking care of themselves. The key precept here is a great one: acting, especially in the language of old-school machismo, is often written off as an inherently phony art for creampuffs and pretty boys. And yet the Hollywood of the 1960s (and now) would have been filled with people who really could fight, shoot, ride, and do many a difficult and dangerous thing, and many lead actors were, then and now, rewarded to the degree that an audience sensed something authentic about the way they handled the world – no-one doubts, for instance, that Lee could have won just about any fight in life even if many a barstool brave could, like Cliff, fancy himself as the one who could take him.

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Tarantino offers a system of rhyming vignettes binding together the real and the imagined in these terms. Tate defeating an opponent in The Wrecking Crew wrings applause from the audience she sees it with, and she learned her karate moves from Lee, whose tutelage of her is briefly glimpsed as one of the film’s most cheery, fleeting visions of two ill-fated people alight in their youth and ability. Later Cliff and Rick’s honed skills will be used in a more immediate and consequential way which the audience knows is both total fiction and yet palpably real in the viewing context. Where Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) dealt with an LA left paranoid and punch-drunk in the aftermath of the Manson killings, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is a prelude where the possibility of something malignant and dangerous is only slowly registered and reality is just starting to lose a certain shape. Manson himself (Damon Herriman) is only glimpsed once in the film, appearing in Polanski and Tate’s driveway seeking Dennis Wilson, who used to live there, looking like just another weedy, hairy hipster. Tarantino stages the finale with Cliff under the influence of acid and has trouble being sure, when he’s confronted by the Family members, whether he’s hallucinating or not. In his Lancer role Rick is called upon by Wanamaker to remake himself in a vaguely hippie image with buckskin jacket and Zapata moustache, adopting the new apparel of the popularly perceived reprobate. Rick himself doesn’t like hippies either, in large part because he senses accurately they’re part of the forces corroding his career as well as decorating the corners of his town with strange sounds and smells.

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Cliff is easier-going in that regard, buying an acid-soaked cigarette off a hippie girl (Perla Haney-Jardine) for eventual delights, and laughing indulgently as Pussycat bawls at a passing cop car. But Cliff’s intrusion upon the Ranch sees a collective of gangly, unwashed drop-outs gaze at him like irritable marmosets from the old mock-up frontier cabins. This spectacle changes the film’s tone subtly but radically as something enigmatic and dangerous manifests amidst the otherwise entirely ordinary world we’ve been watching, and suddenly we’re in one of Tarantino’s classic, patient suspense situations. A scene like the beer cellar shoot-out in Inglourious Basterds depended on a sense of the unexpected suddenly and steadily turning an apparently straightforward meeting into a slaughter. Here Tarantino plays on the audience’s presumed awareness of the various signifiers here and there, like the names Spahn and Charlie and Tex, to lend menacing undercurrents to a situation that otherwise seems borderline silly, with the mistrustful youths ranged about like Hitchcock’s crows and Squeaky playing hard-ass watchdog. Cliff is unfazed by the attitude turned his way but also not aware, as the viewer is (presuming the viewer knows anything of the Manson story), of the kind of danger he’s in.

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Cliff eventually does manage to chat with Spahn (Bruce Dern), who proves aged, cranky, and barely aware of who Cliff is. He’s also an elder avatar for Cliff himself, a physically ruined and impoverished old stuntman, used by the Family in a way that surely feels like beneficence to him. When he fixes on Clem (James Landry Hébert) as the one who knifed his tire, Cliff beats the shit out of him and forces him to change the tire. The cliquish, self-cordoned sensibility of the Family – the adoring girls of the gang signal their sympathy to Clem and hurl abuse at Cliff – is noted with a fastidious sense of black comedy mixed with a sharp understanding of the rituals of such a gang for whom their own expressions of violence are considered honest and those of others unforgivable offences, crashing against Cliff’s complete indifference to such signs, a natural loner who’s long since mastered the arts of surviving that way. One of the Family girls rides up to fetch Tex Watson (Austin Butler), the most murderous of Manson lieutenants, who’s off running riding trail tours: Tex’s speedy ride back the Ranch transforms him into the quintessential Western henchman dashing to save a useless underling, only to find Cliff already driving away. Jose Feliciano’s cover of “California Dreaming” rings on the soundtrack, pursuing the various characters on their journeys back home with a note of wistful longing: the adventures of the day are passed, and what’s left is the mopping up.

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Rick and Cliff’s experiences are counterpointed throughout with Tate’s, free and easy on the Hollywood scene, somehow managing, despite the fact she lives right next door to Rick, to exist in a different universe. Rick and Cliff finally catch sight of her and Polanski in their convertible entering their driveway, like a glimpse of the anointed. The couple’s arrival at the Playboy Mansion for a party is a glimpse of a moment’s idyll, the apotheosis of a period in-crowd with so many of them doomed to an early grave. Tate dances with Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass whilst Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) watches and explains to Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker) the strange situation Tate lives in with husband Polanski and former fiancé Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch): “One of these days that Polish prick’s gonna fuck things up and when he does, Jay’s gonna be there.” There’s a suggestion Tate’s living arrangement with Polanski and Sebring was essentially a ménage a trois, but Tarantino keeps a wary distance from engaging with that. There’s a surprising gentlemanly streak to the way Tarantino lets Tate retain her almost too-good-for-this-world lustre, and not replacing her visage in her movies with Robbie’s. Tate gently mocks Sebring for his penchant for listening to Paul Revere & The Raiders and enjoys using her new if still fledgling star status to get herself in to The Wrecking Crew screening. Tate has no reason to worry about the disparity between herself and her screen self, recreating her on-screen movements from the audience in muscle-memory of the acquired skills and thrilling to the impression of cool reflecting back at her.

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Late in the piece Tarantino introduces an amusing codicil to the way the entwined yet distinct Tate and Rick stories relate, as it’s revealed both Tate and Sebring are fans of Rick’s and too shy to breach the distance between them. TV, cheap and unglamorous, is a nonetheless a common lexicon for everyone. Watching The FBI ironically unites Fromme and Spahn and Rick and Cliff, the latter two watching Rick in one of his guest roles as another bad guy: these stark little morality plays join the highlife to the lowlife, planting different seeds for cultivation. Tarantino spins this as he finally shifts focus onto the murderous crew Manson sends out to Cielo Drive, with Tex in command and including Susan ‘Sadie’ Atkins (Mikey Madison) and Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty). As they work themselves up for the oncoming attack after being abused by Rick for driving their old and noisy car up his street, they latch on to a motive, the felicity of killing actors like Rick: “We kill the people who taught us to kill,” Atkins raves in increasingly demented enthusiasm in a vignette that captures the pseudo-radical morality of the Manson clan whilst also hinting Tarantino’s having a sideways swipe at the rhetoric often swirling around his films.

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It’s passing inane to note the obvious, that Tarantino deeply immerses himself in not just the movie business but specific wings of that business that have long tended to obsess him. He makes a show like Lancer, a second-string The High Chaparral or Bonanza, central to his plot precisely because of its virtually forgotten status and thus a fitting totem for pop culture’s mysterious melding of the ephemeral and the perpetual. Tarantino even allows Atkins that much grace in grasping an aspect of a truth. The little myths and legends we absorb day in and day out as consumers of such fare, so vital in the moment and readily discarded, are part of our substance whether we like it or not. Rick’s anxiety is made clear precisely because he knows he’s being actively written out of the mythology of his day remembered to less dedicated movie and TV buffs. What’s most interesting here is the way it frees Tarantino up on other levels, with a story structured and sustained in a way I’ve never quite seen before. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood often seems scattershot as it’s unfolding, when in fact many apparently random vignettes and details prove carefully designed, in an attempt to deliver an entire film that’s one of his long, slow burns. Even a digression depicting Cliff in his trailer feeding his dog, has a function in this regard beyond simply noting Cliff’s shambolic life: we also see the perfect control he has over the pet, and like Cliff it’s a lethal weapon awaiting a signal to attack. By the time Tex and the others finally stalk the night in black clothes with butcher knives in hand, they’ve become actuations of fate stalking our heroes as well as very real terrors.

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When Tarantino resumes his story six months after the long day he’s described, the season has shifted. Rick has been to Italy, shot four movies that even gave Cliff a chance to recover his mojo, and is returning home married to Italian starlet Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo). The great days are over: Rick has no idea if his sojourn will bring him more work so he’s looking at selling his house and tells Cliff he can’t employ him anymore. So the two men get roaring drunk before returning to Rick’s house and Rick lights up that fateful acid cigarette, and the doors get kicked in. Finally all of Tarantino’s gestures large and small reveal their larger pattern: Rick and Cliff have been granted as much solidity in their existence as Tate, Sebring, and their friends Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) and Voytek Frykowski (Costa Ronin), their movements ticked off as part of the same historical ledger, the grim stations of the true crime calvary doubling.

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The way Tarantino twists the true story of the fateful attack on Cielo Drive to his own purposes isn’t that hard to predict but still arrives as a set-piece of blackly comic ultraviolence as Cliff in an acid daze smashes Tex and Krenwinkel to bloody pulps, and Rick, shocked by the bloodied, sceaming Atkins crashing through his window and into his pool, grabs the first weapon on hand, which proves to be that flamethrower from The 14 Fists of McCluskey. As a climax this is of course similar to the finales of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained with a similar blast of gruesome, schadenfreude-tinted catharsis not just in the absurdly hyperbolic destruction of a truly malignant enemy, but also in releasing Rick and Cliff and even the bewildered Francesca from feeling like guest stars in their own lives. That part of Tarantino’s oeuvre which has long felt inspired by MAD Magazine reveals the depth of the influence in the way he transposes those old “Scenes We’d Like To See” strips into his movies. Indeed, the more one knows about the real brutality of the killers the more punch there is to it. Tarantino can make the revenge fantasy as nasty as he likes and still it cannot compare to what was really done to Tate and her friends.

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And yet this also made me wonder if Tarantino might have done better to swap his signature absurdist bloodshed for a harder, more realistic battle, all the better for breaking the spell of dark magic the Manson Family managed to weave about itself despite all. But as catharsis it still packs such a giddy, outlandish punch it’s hard to care too much about the distinction. The real brilliance of it becomes clearer in the subsequent scene as Cliff and Rick take leave of each-other not in any paltry parting but a scene of heroic gratitude and kinship. Rick encounters Sebring, brought out by the disturbance to the gate of Sharon’s house. Rick explains what transpired to the startled and fascianted young man, and gaining exactly the sort of potentially career-changing rapport he’d hoped for with Tate, who’s been saved. Sebring, as a fan, even grasps why Rick had the flamethrower. This particular revelation managed somehow to make me laugh and tear up all at the same time, as it finally becomes clear what Tarantino’s been trying to describe, for all his love of posturing as a cynical bastard. He knows well that part of us still longing to be saved by our heroes, even long after we learn what clay we’re all made of.

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