Criterion Prediction #58: The Fearless Vampire Killers, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me but Your Teeth Are in My Neck (aka Dance of the Vampires)
Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Jack MacGowran, Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate, Alfie Bass, Ferdy Mayne, Iain Quarrier
Synopsis: Professor Abronsius (MacGrowan) and his clumsy assistant, Alfred (Polanski), journey into the snowy mountains of Transylvania in search of vampires. The admirably simple Alfred falls for the innkeeper’s daughter, Sarah (Tate). However, their romance is interrupted when she is abducted by the sinister Count Von Krolock. The Professor and Alfred infiltrate the Count’s castle to save Sarah.
Critique: We don’t equate humor with the popular works of Roman Polanski. Chinatown isn’t exactly a laugh riot; neither is Repulsion. But I would say Polanski’s most effective wit comes in the existential ironies in the likes of Cul de Sac or Ruth Gordon’s sardonic doting in Rosemary’s Baby. Moments when he’s directly engaged in comedy such as his bizarre sex comedy, What?, aren’t all that amusing, while Carnage has a few laughs (thanks to playwright/screenwriter Yasmina Reza). So what do we make of a film like The Fearless Vampire Killers, a cross-bred specimen of horror and comedy? Likely overshadowed by the more straightforward works of terror like Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, or The Tenant, but Polanski’s 1967 film seems to be the anointed middle child of his directorial career. A collective consensus on The Fearless Vampire Killers is that’s it’s not funny enough to be a comedy, nor is it genuinely scary to bear the title of genuine horror fare. The humor of The Fearless Vampire Killers might be broad, referred to as a spoof but the proceedings are more of a playful imitation. Polanski’s obviously no slouch to tension and horror, not to mention the genre that made him a star leaves to reason that he could have spun The Fearless Vampire Killers into an effectively scary yarn but opted for a more atmospheric type of horror. So if the film isn’t effectively funny or scary what is so great about The Fearless Vampire Killers? If you put a buffer between the movie and the two main genres we “expect” it to deliver on Polanski’s movie is thoroughly enjoyable less as a horror film and more of a beautifully detailed revisionist sendup of Hammer’s Dracula series (which was massively popular at the time) with a nod to artifice, but an eye for historical detail.
Polanski is a remarkable director and his deceptively subtle aesthetic structure leads to a film (like many of his works) that is spilling with personality. This venture into Transylvania of centuries past is weathered, detailed, and lived-in, the extras are ruddy-faced, rotund, stubby and bearded, Alfred performs dated medical procedures on the professor, the Count’s castle is expertly furnished with winding hallways, and expressive use of gothic architecture. The mythic is tended to with great care. Anchored by a presence of realism but expanded upon with a bountiful air of fantastical whimsy. The Fearless Vampire Killers is decorated with beautifully fake studio snow, matte paintings, whirling camera movements, hammy accents, hunchbacks, sporting exaggerated buck teeth. The marriage of realism and artifice is something that Polanski has shuffled into his deck of artistic flourishes, and he attains a unique poise as an artist with an entry that’s difficult to explain but impossible to ignore. The film is a lustrous and subversive wink that doesn’t call attention to itself as revisionist vanity. It’s a thoroughly realized film from Polanski.
The “heroes,” Professor Abronsius and Alfred, are oafish but endearing. His mentor is skillfully brought to life as a hybrid of Van Helsing and Albert Einstein by stalwart character actor Jack MacGowran, who might be more recognizable if we think of him as Burke Dennings in The Exorcist. These two flexible performances feel like a composite of the foiling and jocular emoting consistent with the silent era, especially Polanski’s interpretation of Alfred, whose impish bumbling sculpts his character into a Chaplinesque underdog. Sadly, anything featuring Sharon Tate immediately conjures up the overwhelming sadness that was the tragedy of her killing. The film elicits an emotional response equally heartbreaking and endearing to see Roman and Sharon very much fall in love on camera. Tate, a woman of tremendous beauty, illuminates the screen every second she appears; it’s no wonder Roman fell so hard for her.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: With classic cult/horror films, it’s hard to determine where they will turn up regarding distribution – the three most exciting contenders: The Criterion Collection, Twilight Time, and Shout/Scream Factory. Some OOP, Criterion releases such as Dead Ringers, are soon to be heralded by Scream Factory on Blu-Ray, while other (former) contenders for potential Criterion releases such as Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo, or Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory going into circulation with the precious few Twilight Time pressings. Anything is possible concerning what lands where, but given the popularity of Polanski’s work in The Criterion Collection, and that the rights to a movie like The Fearless Vampire Killers are more likely less expensive than let’s say Chinatown? Giving light or second life to great Polanski films like Tess, Cul-de-Sac, Macbeth, and shining even more light on already renowned classics from the director like Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion, I can’t imagine The Fearless Vampire Killers going anywhere else regarding distribution.