Roman Polanski’s first color film is a strange mixture of Russian fairy tales, Carpathian vampire lore, and a send-up of Hammer style vampire horror. The film boasts breathtaking icy winter views of the Alps which make the viewer actually feel the cold. There is plenty of gorgeous camera work, with the camera never static, and the castle set is impressive. The trouble is, for a comedy, it’s not laugh aloud funny.
Polanski himself plays the dim-witted assistant to a possibly insane professor and vampire hunter (Jack MacGowran) who looks like Albert Einstein. They come half-frozen to an inn near their destination and are taken in by the owner (Alfie Bass) and his mannish wife (Jessie Robins). Although garlic hangs conspicuously throughout the building, the locals will not admit to being aware of any vampire activity; however, the innkeeper is all too aware of the danger because he beats his daughter, who is played by Sharon Tate, for bathing too frequently because the bathroom is too vulnerable to vampire attack.
When the vampire (Ferdy Mayne) comes over from his castle and kidnaps her, Polanski (who has fallen in love with her character just as he fell in love with the actress while filming) and his employer go after them. Unfortunately, they are so dumb that they end up in the vampire’s lair as “guests” and then take too long to figure out what is going on.
There are a few humorous moments, such as when the Jewish innkeeper, having become a vampire, is immune to a cross. I also enjoyed the vampire killers’ final escape from the vampire’s tower using a cannon, a broken door, and some melted ice. But most of the jokes are durr hurr, these guys are dumb. Then there’s the herp derp, the vampire’s son (Iain Quarrier) is gay and aggressively pursuing Polanski. Wharbl garbl. I may be missing something, but if that’s the whole basis for the jokes, then it’s just a personal problem that it’s not my idea of what’s funny. I can see stupid people anytime, and I don’t care for gay jokes.
Fortunately, and I believe this is what Polanski intended, the undercurrent of menace is effective, helped along by Krzysztof Komeda’s beautiful and chilling soundtrack. This accomplishment suggests that The Fearless Vampire Killers may have actually been intended as a horror movie with funny moments, rather than as the parody it was marketed as. We know that Polanski was particularly irritated by the way it was cut by the American distributor so that the “humor” was overemphasized. I did see the director’s cut, though, and I still didn’t laugh.
I know this has a cult following, and I understand. For me it was a curiosity, a lovely but poorly-paced visual experience (I forgot to mention there were long stretches without dialogue during which my eyes glazed over), and a bittersweet look at Polanski and Tate together on film. Recommended for Polanski fans and those who have some knowledge of Russian folklore.
Now, because I am a total mark for dance sequences, here’s the dance of the vampires.
And here is a bit of the theme music.