When people think of Roman Polanski they undoubtedly think of Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Pianist, and maybe even Repulsion. For all the memorable titles who remembers some of his other stuff? The Ninth Gate with Johnny Depp? What was that? And Oliver Twist, which may not measure up to the David lean version, but it does contain a pretty great Sir Ben Kingsley performance (that actually beats Alec Guinness’s Fagin, in my opinion, although Robert Newton is still the best Sykes). My personal favorite lesser Polanski is Cul-de-sac. But that is not what I wish to talk about today. This is about Roman Polanski’s overlooked Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Catchy title, no?
First off, to fully appreciate Fearless Vampire Killers (also titled Dance of the Vampires) you have to sort of understand the aesthetics and mechanics of Hammer horror films. Fearless Vampire Killers is half tribute and half spoof of the classic British horror movies that came out of Hammer Studios in the 50s and 60s (frequently starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, and a bevy of big-titted women). Hammer films were, in a sense, inspired by the even more classic Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s (frequently starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr.). Universal horror was black and white, set at indeterminate times in history, and relied more heavily on expressionist touches (which dates back even further to the 20s and silent expressionist films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, etc.). Hammer horror was stylistically more straightforward and featured elegant period costumes, detailed sets (that generally do feel very set-like), and nice color. Both studios loved castles, monsters, and gruesome makeup.
Fearless Vampire Killers features Polanski himself as one of the main characters (like in The Tenant). He is Alfred, the feckless waif-like assistant to vampire expert, Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran). They stumble upon a stereotypical superstitious Bavarian village beset by vampires. Most of the action takes place in and around the frozen castle of Count von Krolock and company. The spindly but unflappable Abronsius plans to kill the Count by driving a stake through his heart. Alfred, meanwhile, wants only to rescue the girl (played by Sharon Tate).he met at the inn in act one.
I liked Jack MacGowran’s character. He talks funny and looks funny and his calm demeanor in the face of danger is humorously juxtaposed by Polanski’s jittery Alfred. Professor Abronsius looks like an anorexic Einstein, although he is meant to be a comedic stand-in for the Professor Van Helsing.
Polanski’s film is a little odd. Most of the slapstick is kinda awkward. It’s not really scary enough to be a proper tribute and it’s not really funny enough to be a spoof or comedy. But I liked the castle. The castle, like all good spooky castles in horror movies, is more than an impressive set piece; it’s a character. The ersatz snow and faux-frost covering every (clearly soundstage) location gives the film a strange, phony atmosphere that sort of appealed to me too. Then there’s the awesome, bone-jangly musical score composed by Krzysztof Komeda. It feels like what it would have sounded like if Philip Glass had composed the music for Argento’s Suspiria (1977). There’s also a pretty good vampire ball towards the end. Vampires of all ages don fancy regalia and dance in an elegant—albeit a bit dust-covered—ballroom.
Fearless Vampire Killers is a mostly toothless affair, but it’s sort of charming in its own stupid way. Do I kinda wish there were more ghosts and monsters? Yeah. Do I wish it was funnier and/or scarier? Yeah. But it was worth checking out an overlooked Roman Polanski flick, and it’s nice to see he was a Hammer fan. Now if I only could muster the plums to see Polanski’s Pirates (1986). Shudder.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” July 29th, 2013.