Who says vampires are no laughing matter?
Those who know Roman Polanski from his arresting dramas and thrillers are not always familiar with his sense of humor. It is certainly evident in most of his films, but in discreet ways. That is not the case with The Fearless Vampire Killers, an unashamedly silly horror-comedy. However, this film has great personal value to the director. Not only does the story and its setting reflect his Central European heritage, but he also met his future wife, Sharon Tate, while making it. She was introduced to Polanski via a movie executive and he ended up not only casting her but also falling in love with her. In the movies, Tate fell victim to vampires, and in real life to Charles Manson. For good and bad, this film is steeped in blood.
On a dark Transylvanian winter night, the elderly Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) of the University of Königsberg and his younger assistant Alfred (Roman Polanski) arrive in a small town. As Alfred tries to warm up the seemingly deep-frozen professor, it becomes obvious that the villagers are protecting themselves from something, which includes hanging garlic bulbs from the ceiling. It turns out that Abronsius and Alfred are on the hunt for vampires and they know that they’re close to this unspeakable evil. They rent a room in a local tavern where Alfred falls in love with Sarah (Sharon Tate), the tavern keeper’s daughter. When she’s suddenly whisked away, our vampire-hunting duo realize that if they follow the trail they might find what they’ve been looking for…
Comedy relies a lot on slapstick
At the time, this was (visually speaking) an unusually attractive Polanski film, featuring beautiful matte paintings that blend exceptionally well with actual snowy Dolomite locations, all thanks to the work of cinematographer Douglas Slocombe and production designer Wilfred Shingleton. The movie is primarily a comedy, but its horror content is boosted by Krzysztof Komeda’s music score, a hysterical composition of strings and choirs that connects quite well with the Central European themes (which are heavily represented by the simple but charming comedy routines involving the Transylvanian villagers, especially Jessie Robins (“Oy! Oy, oy, oy, oy….) as the tavern-keeper’s wife). The vampiric ingredients are hardly remarkable; Ferdy Mayne’s count is another take on Dracula complete with an Igor-esque hunchback as assistant; what might seem more unusual is the fact that he has a son, the very “flamboyant” Herbert (Iain Quarrier) who takes a liking to Alfred. The comedy relies a lot on slapstick and is certainly amusing, even well-made on occasion, but not really the stuff of greatness. MacGowran is a little too predictable as the absent-minded professor, although he makes a very sympathetic team with Polanski’s Alfred; the latter is more effective in a role that is allegedly very close to the real deal.
Much of this movie sounds awfully old-fashioned, but it’s genuinely funny and even sexy at times. Above all, it moves fast, especially thanks to an often hand-held camera that seems to take part in every chase with delight – and that goes also for a brilliantly choreographed dance sequence where our heroes try to blend in with 18th-century bloodsuckers.
The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck 1967-Britain. 107 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Gene Gutowski. Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay: Roman Polanski, Gérard Brach. Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe. Music: Krzysztof Komeda. Production Design: Wilfred Shingleton. Cast: Jack MacGowran (Professor Abronsius), Roman Polanski (Alfred), Sharon Tate (Sarah Shagal), Alfie Bass, Ferdy Mayne, Terry Downes.
Trivia: Also available in a 98 min. cut. Later turned into a Broadway musical under the name of “Dance of the Vampires” (which is also an alternative title for this film).
Last word: “Very few of the crew could see anything in it – they thought it old-fashioned nonsense. But I could see this background… I have a French background myself, and could sense the Central European atmosphere that surrounds it. The figure of Alfred is very much like Roman himself – a slight figure, young and a little defenseless – a touch of Kafka. It is very much a personal statement of his own humour. He used to chuckle all the way through.” (Slocombe, “Comedy-Horror Films: A Chronological History, 1914-2008”)