Between his being kicked out of the Academy because of his embattled personal life and his home being the site of the infamous Manson Family murders, it’s easy to forget that Roman Polanski is a talented filmmaker, despite the fact that he’s constantly churning out movies, from Knife in the Water in the early sixties to Venus in Fur in 2013. His two horror masterpieces are Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, but in between those two movies, in 1967, he made the quirky little horror comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers.
The Fearless Vampire Killers is about a 19th century vampire hunter named Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran from The Exorcist) who, along with his assistant, Alfred (Polanski himself), travels “deep into the heart of Transylvania” while searching for bloodsuckers. When they find themselves in an isolated village full of superstitious townsfolk, they know they are on the right track. While they happen to be there, the innkeeper’s daughter, a lovely young woman named Sarah (Polanski’s future wife Sharon Tate from Valley of the Dolls, who is best known as the most high-profile victim of the Manson murders), is kidnapped by a vampire named Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne from Night Train to Terror and The Vampire Lovers). So, of course, the professor and his young charge mount a rescue. Unfortunately, Abronius and Alfred show up at the Count’s castle on the same night as his planned annual vampire’s ball, and the place is teeming with bloodsuckers who are all thirsting for human plasma.
Originally known as Dance of the Vampires, the script for The Fearless Vampire Killers was written by Polanski along with Gérard Brach (who also co-wrote Polanski films like Cul-De-Sac and The Tenant). Production was troubled for the auteur director, from his not being able to use his first-choice location Swiss castle to producers cutting more than twenty minutes for the American release, rendering the movie incomprehensible. Despite its internal problems, Polanski made the most out of what he had, and the resulting film is a pioneering vision in both the vampire and horror comedy subgenres.
It’s clear from the opening frames of the movie, a sequence that shows the roaring MGM lion morphing into a cartoon bloodsucker, that The Fearless Vampire Killers is a screwball comedy. Actually, it was clear from the original title The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck until producers dropped the last half of the name for the sake of brevity. The comedy in the film is lowest-denominator stuff, made up mostly of the ribald British style of humor mixed with slapstick physical gags. The movie was made even more hysterical in post-production, as Abronsius’ voice was re-dubbed to make it more cartoony and comedic. The change makes Abronsius seem feeble, which, in addition to Alfred’s innocent naivety, paints a hilarious picture of the inept vampire hunters.
At its root, The Fearless Vampire Killers may be a comedy, but there’s still some haunting and gruesome imagery in the film. Both the inn and the vampire’s castle are packed with gothic influence, from the creepy wooden coffins to the darkly ornate furnishings. Count von Krolock himself is horrifyingly charming in the same charismatic, don’t-turn-your-back-on-him way as the classic Dracula-style vampires. The mythology of the film is almost stereotypical by today’s standards, using all the garlic and crucifix tropes that audiences know and love. And, between the ominous fang marks on the vampire victims to the eerie stiffness of the frozen characters who get caught in the snow, there are plenty of reminders of death, even when the bloodsuckers are nowhere to be found. As a horror movie, The Fearless Vampire Killers is pretty tame, but it does have some terrifying moments.
The Fearless Vampire Killers was filmed by legendary cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who shot genre films like Scream of Fear and Rollerball, but is best known as the director of photography for the Indiana Jones movies. Slocombe shot the film in color using a widescreen aspect ratio, a Polanski first for both. The muted and neutral color palette is perfect for the winter setting, which makes the sporadic red of the blood really pack a punch. Because it draws influence from gothic horror, there are plenty of neat shadows, both creepy and comedic. Externally, Slocombe makes wonderful use of the Swiss Alps location as well, accurately capturing both the visual beauty and the visceral cold of the area. Although it will never be listed as one of Douglas Slocombe’s crowning achievements in cinematography, the photography in The Fearless Vampire Killers looks great.
The music for The Fearless Vampire Killers was composed by Krzysztof Komeda (under the Americanized name of Christopher Komeda), who also scored other early Polanski movies like Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby). The folksy/baroque strings-and-woodwinds score feels like a sonic companion to the music from The Wicker Man, only without the feeling that the cast may burst into song at any moment (although that vibe almost shows up during the climactic vampire’s ball). The score is used sparingly, and while there’s not a lot of music in the film, what is there is masterful.
In the seventies, Roman Polanski would go on to make a bunch of cinematically important movies, including Chinatown, which many films fans consider to be a top-five-of-all-time film. He’s still going strong well into the 21st century, having made the modern classics The Ghost Writer and Carnage. He hasn’t returned to pure horror since the sixties, and with the new developments in regards to his standing in Hollywood, it’s unclear how many more Polanski movies that we’ll get. But we’ve always got his early output, movies like Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Knife in the Water…and The Fearless Vampire Killers.