One of the overlooked aspects of most 1960s and 1970s Hammer Studios horror films is that they were quite funny, often unintentionally so. Yes, Christopher Lee had a certain charm, but is it not true that he was also far more grandly silly than scary? Looking back on those films, they certainly do not hold up as well as even the Universal Bela Lugosi takes on the genre, let alone such superior vampire films as the silent F.W. Murnau classic Nosferatu, Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, or Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht / Nosferatu, Phantom of the Night. No, the Hammer films were always more along the line of the non-George Romero zombie flicks – full of hammy acting, bad gags, cheap effects, few scares, but a ton of laughs – not unlike the same era’s Godzilla films.
Thus, Roman Polanski’s 1967 parody, The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck, his follow up to the psychological masterpiece Repulsion, had a tough row to hoe because it’s trying to satirize a genre that, by its nature, was borderline parody to begin with.
The good thing is that while The Fearless Vampire Killers is not a great film by any stretch of the word, it is highly entertaining and a good diversion from one’s cares – right up there with some of the best Abbott & Costello Meet films. Polanski’s vampire comedy, however, is a bit more sophisticated, and the influence of the 1960s can be found in the film’s ironic title – far better than Polanski’s dull and misleading European original, Dance of the Vampires, and is right in league with other big-budget comedies of that time, such as It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (alternate titles were in vogue), Casino Royale, and What’s New, Pussycat? If only Polanski had cast Peter Sellers in The Fearless Vampire Killers – the film might have become a true classic rather than an amusing curio.
First of all, this is a rare instance when studio-imposed cuts actually helped a film. (Unlike the famed studio botch jobs on Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and Erich von Stroheim’s Greed.) Originally, The Fearless Vampire Killers ran 107 minutes; that version was a smash in Europe but it was later retitled and cut to 88 minutes for American release. Also, an animated opening for the title shot was added. After the opening credits, the cartoon fades to a great studio shot of the hibernal Alps, a set-up that plays out like a human cartoon, a Monty Python film, or a pre-Tim Burton Tim Burton film, except better.
A great choral cascade chants through the opening, and that is the eeriest thing in the film. Sledding along the Transylvanian Alps we see noted vampire hunter and bat expert Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) – a Mark Twain doppelgänger and déclassé Sherlock Holmes, called The Nut by his colleagues. The Professor is literally frozen. His bumbling assistant, Alfred (Polanski), looks scared as dogs try to bite at him. They arrive at an inn where Abronsius is thawed out.
The interior sets are tiny but magnificently detailed by production designer Wilfrid Shingleton. The innkeeper is a Jew named Shagal (Alfie Bass) and his townsfolk deny that vampires exist; they even dismiss talk of castles, until the village idiot contradicts them. A series of pratfalls and slapstick ensue as different folk fall prey to the local vampire, Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne). One of them is Shagal’s daughter, the busty redhead Sarah (Sharon Tate), whom the vampire attacks as she bathes. Alfred lusts for her, and when she is kidnapped by Krolock, Alfred and his mentor take off for the castle where the second act of the film takes place.
The Count and his shape-shifting animalistic hunchback, Koukol (Terry Downes), welcome them and put them up in a room where the Count’s son – a foppish flaming queen named Herbert von Krolock (Iain Quarrier) – lusts after Alfred. After some pussyfooting around, more slapstick, and Alfred’s idiotic inability to drive a stake through the vampires’ hearts, the duo manage to rescue Sarah following a silly dance of the vampires – which comprises Act Three. In that segment, the vampires gloat over having such a beauty to feast on, while plotting world domination. After the trio takes off in a sleigh, the Count’s hunchback ineptly sets out in pursuit by sledding after them in a coffin cover. Sarah, however, is too far gone. She attacks Alfred, as the Professor blissfully drives on unawares that he is now aiding the vampires in their cause.
Written by Polanski and his Repulsion collaborator Gérard Brach, The Fearless Vampire Killers works solely as a comedy. There is not a dram of real horror in the film save for the creepy soundtrack by Polanski collaborator Krzysztof Komeda. Indeed, the film is about as scary as Mel Brooks’ later spoof Young Frankenstein. But for every slapstick gag that works, e.g., Alfred’s escaping Herbert by running all around a balcony and back to Herbert, there are one or two that fall flat. These only pad out the story, making it too long. (That’s why the studio’s cuts actually helped the film.)
The acting, given its small field of play, is solid, especially MacGowran’s loopy professor. Even though MacGowran appeared mainly in high-profile dramas like Doctor Zhivago and Lord Jim, his comic talent shines. Polanski is not nearly up to it as his assistant, but Alfie Bass, as the Jewish vampire Shagal, has some of the best scenes. The rest of the cast does little to distinguish themselves. Tate is attractive enough, and the father and son vampires, played by Mayne and Quarrier, are generic.
Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography is not notable, but there are a few visual moments that stick, including a sequence in which the Professor’s skis slide away down a hill, a few well-executed fast-motion shots, the bit when the vampires notice the humans amongst them because only they are reflected in mirrors, or the hunchback following a dog – then returning with a bloody maw.
The DVD, put out by Warner Home Video (the Anglo-American The Fearless Vampire Killers was originally released by MGM), is in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and is mostly free of blemishes. It is also the 107-minute original European version of the film. The DVD’s only extras are the original theatrical trailer and a ten-minute vintage featurette, mislabeled as a “Making Of” when it’s just a comic promo vehicle titled “The Fearless Vampire Killers: Vampires 101.” In it, a nutty professor type describes anti-vampire devices and explains that a cross is no good against a Jewish or Moslem vampire – a fact which provides one of Shagal’s funniest scenes, when his maid waves a crucifix at him and he smirks, ‘You got the wrong vampire, girl.’
As it is, the narrative of The Fearless Vampire Killers is less a “tale” than a set-up for gags. Even so, this likable little parody shows a light and whimsical Polanski – something that is as rare as a scary Christopher Lee.
© Dan Schneider
The Fearless Vampire Killers / Dance of the Vampires (1967). Dir.: Roman Polanski. Scr.: Roman Polanski and Gérard Brach. Cast: Jack MacGowran, Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate, Ferdy Mayne.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.