DECEMBER 20 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967)
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Roman Polanski's gentle horror comedy was considered a foolish misfire in America, after being a great success in Europe under its original intended title Dance of the Vampires. The reason was simple. MGM used its final cut authority to do a lot of chopping and soundtrack-tampering, adding a fairly lame cartoon prologue and probably cutting eleven or twelve minutes out of the picture. Only around 1979 or so did the studio begin to distribute Polanski's original European cut to revival theaters, but it remained an unheralded restoration. People who saw the picture new didn't know about the chopped-up version, and most of the people who saw it before didn't go to the trouble of seeing it again.
Savant wrote a fairly popular article about the restoration, which occurred before the advent of Home Video, in one of his early DVD Savant articles. It's at This link in the Savant Articles index, and it has a complete rundown on what was changed, with images from the butchered American version that, thankfully, is no longer circulated.
That this favorite fantastic movie is on DVD is good news, but if you happen to have the old MGM laserdisc version, don't get rid of it! It has unique extras not carried over to this DVD release. More on that below.
Professor and Vampire Hunter Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his faithful servant Alfred (Roman Polanski) stop off at the inn of Shagal (Alfie Bass) while en route to destroy the notorious Count Von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne). But Krolock strikes first, kidnapping Shagal's beautiful daughter Sarah (Sharon Tate). Abronsius and Alfred journey to the Count's forbidding castle to flush him out, and become tangled in confusion and bumbling. Meanwhile, Krolock, his effiminate son Herbert (Iain Quarrier) and their vampiric retinue are preparing for an elaborate ball to celebrate the survival of their flock and their luscious new victims: Sarah and Shagal's maid, Magda (Fiona Lewis). And don't forget our two vampire hunters; as Von Krolock shouts between his fangs to his 'beloved brethren': "Two more humans are in our hands!"
The Fearless Vampire Killers is always a pleasant film. Until gothic horror went big-budget in the 1990s, there was nothing even remotely like it. The lavish production has location photography in the Alps, a wonderful castle fit for an epic, and costumes and other physical trappings beyond reproach. As I've said before, it's like a fairy tale, only minus happy endings and plus lots of snow.
Roman Polanski touches base affectionately with the entire history of vampire horror, before the idea of homage had sunk its teeth into the filmmaker lexicon. His two vampire hunters dress like characters in Dreyer's Vampyr and Murnau's Nosferatu. The crimson vampire king Count Von Krolock is a cross between Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, with just enough aristocratic hauteur of his own to stand apart from them. Even though some of his actions are played for laughs, Ferdy Mayne's Krolock is one of the best vampires ever. There is something new to find with each viewing. This time I finally saw dance choreographer Tutte Lemkow off to the side with his dancing stick. The fast-motion keystone kops comedy is used a lot more than I remembered, and the skis that seem to run away from the evil castle evoke silent-movie fantasy magic.
Almost as a replay of his short Polish films Mammals and The Fat and the Lean, Polanski sets up Krolock's contempt for the lower classes as equally menacing as the fact that he is a vampire. For the local rabble, Polanski uses an unsentimentalized Tevye- like Jewish inkeeper to represent everything pitiful and hopeless about being an ignorant peasant. Nothing anti-Semitic happening here; Alfie Bass's Shagal is simply not as lovable as the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof.
The Fearless Vampire Killers wasn't meant to be a laugh riot. It instead walks a fine line between uneasy horror and slapstick. There are lots of moments where we don't know exactly to react, at least not at first. The little green goblin that stares at us in place of the MGM Lion seems to be telling us to watch out for surprises. Herbert, Von Krolock's gay vampire son, is funny until his predatory instincts show, along with his fangs. Five or six broad slapstick moments later, Herbert has wrestled poor Alfred down to the floor while really odd-sounding lighthearted music is playing. We're not sure how to react.
The movie is fall-down beautiful. It looks like a fairy tale, except with real snow that can freeze people to a real death. The lovely greeting-card forests are filled with wolves. The vampires live frozen in their crypts, and the warm-blooded human characters are at a real disadvantage. Snow beautifies frightening scenes, like the shower of snowflakes over Sarah's empty bathtub with its telltale bloodstain. Alfred tries to escape through one of those tiny castle windows, and the camera trucks in to frame a perfectly beautiful snow vista -- beautiful, but forbidding. The minuet ball is one of the best-filmed scenes of its kind, and concludes in an almost perfect mirror-illusion trick. That tour-de-force wouldn't be impressive at all in a new movie, which would most certainly use CG imagery.
The Fearless Vampire Killers is a Kafka nightmare as well. Abronsius and Alfred mean well but they're entirely ineffective against the horde of organized living dead. Von Krolock and his clan have black magic on their side. By contrast the forces of good have no solidarity whatsoever, and are hampered by ignorance, indecision and faint hearts. As foolishly as Abronsius behaves, he knows the truth about the vampires and is usually correct in his judgment. He even 'predicts' the concept of bat sonar. But Abronsius is also an absent-minded elitist, overly impressed by Von Krolock's library. He peers through a telescope at cold, dead planets when he should be killing vampires. Young Alfred can't seem to make any progress either. He's easily distracted, terrified and too romantically addled to be of much use. Every step forward toward their mission is two steps backward.
The climax helps lift our spirits. Abronsius and Alfred get their act together, improvising a steam cannon and pulling off a master stroke by forming a giant cross from two swords. Abronsius foils the imperious Count and Alfred steals away with his romantic prize, the girl who loves to take baths. But, of course, nothing's perfect ...
Warners' DVD of The Fearless Vampire Killers is a great disc to have and a tiny disappointment. The transfer is very good and the color and detail are of course an improvement over the old laserdisc but there's something slightly hazy about the image. The stunning Metrocolor hues are a bit weak and the blacks aren't dark enough. The soundtrack is fine, however, with Christopher Komeda's amazing score (one of the two or three best for any horror movie, ever) coming through with ear-pleasing clarity.
For an extra there's something we've never seen before and didn't know existed: A 1967 one-reel comedy short subject. Max Wall (one of the inventors in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) is an Abronsius-type silly professor who talks to us about vampires in his office, an elaborate set. He has a nicely made-up vampire in a coffin (attention Don Glut) that comes to life at the end. Besides starting up an ancient movie projector to show us the trailer for The Fearless Vampire Killers (included as a separate extra with its full soundtrack), the professor goes through the various anti-vampire devices and lore, as if the 1967 audience wasn't already hip to the subject via Universal reruns and popular Hammer films. He holds up a crucifix and tells us that it's no good against a Jewish vampire, and then holds up a Star of David and tells us that if we tried to use it on a Muslim vampire, it would just make him angry! The short subject looks great (it has the rich blacks the main feature needs) must have cost a pretty penny, and I doubt it saw much use.
What the DVD lacks are the extras found on the old MGM laserdisc, which should now be even more collectable than it used to be. The old Eye on Sharon Tate short subject doesn't count, as that technically goes with the David Niven film Eye of the Devil which will probably show up in the future. But the laser also had the MGM-futzed alternate opening sequence with the silly cartoon prologue, and the MGM Lion that, instead of turning into a ghoul, sprouted fangs.
I almost think that ditching that material was someone's idea of an aesthetic choice at Warners, for the disc and menus use the minimalist "B" advertising poster art with the chicken-scratch drawings that looks like an art movie sell. Nowhere is there a representation of the great Frank Frazetta poster art that we remember from the theaters.
As a must-buy disc, The Fearless Vampire Killers is a no-brainer (see, I can write like other web reviewers if I'm tired enough). And DVD fans that can adjust their sets slightly to offset the minor grievance about the transfer will easily be able to overcome the image problems that bothered me. This is one of the best Halloween movies ever!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Fearless Vampire Killers rates:
Video: Excellent -
Supplements: Trailer, 1967 promotional short comedy film
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 16, 2004
DECEMBER 20 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967)
It's a typical scene from a typical horror film: a vampire romances his unwilling victim before finally attacking them, leading to a chase sequence. Except in Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, the vampire is gay, the "damsel" is also the ostensible hero (and male), and the chase sequence involves slick floors that cause both pursuer and pursued to slide crazily as they run.
Another director might play up the slapstick of the sequence with exaggerated angles and silly sound effects. Polanski avoids such clichés, pointing his camera as a documentarian would, observing the behavior of comedy in the wild. There is an implicit acknowledgement that, yes, this is humor we're watching, but Polanski refuses to cajole us into accepting it as funny. That is our own decision to make.
While this almost scholarly regard for comedy is not apparent in all parts of the film, it is legion enough to affect the overall result of the film. The Fearless Vampire Killers often engenders admiration more than it does screams or laughs. Polanski is attempting to make an horror-comedy-art movie, and it's quite possible he succeeds, but at the cost of the visceral reactions that two out of the three genres require to function.
The plot has all the trappings necessary for madcap fun: two inept vampire killers (Jack MacGowran and Polanski himself) who can't seem to find vampires, a buxom beauty (Sharon Tate) so enamored of luxury that she never quite understands the danger she's in, and a passel of sophisticated bloodsuckers who are all far more intelligent than anyone else in the film. Toss in a Jewish vampire who chuckles when a crucifix is brandished at him ("Oy, hev you got the wrong vempire!") and you have enough of the right ingredients that any semi-competent director could toss together a nutty caper with laughs every other minute.
Polanski is more than simply competent, however, and takes the standard elements of comedy and repositions them in an unexpected fashion. Production design plays a huge part in this. Fearless Vampire Killers is set in winter, and the mise-en-scene reflects the cold, chapped nature of the weather and creates a feeling of being trapped in wide open plains. The snow that blankets everything imbues each frame with a sinister, faerie tale quality. These sensations are too bleak for comedy, but they play nicely into the horror elements. As dunderheaded as MacGowran and Polanski act, they would still be in grave danger were they competent, and it's difficult to ignore that.
Furthermore, the wintry setting helps to carry out the themes of isolation that Polanski explores throughout his career -- most notably in Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, where the protagonists are alone, but also completely surrounded by destructive, evil forces. This particular concept is given visual representation in Fearless Vampire Killers at the end of the ballroom scene. Our heroes, having infiltrated the vampires' celebration, believe that they have gone completely unnoticed -- until the latest step plants them in front of mirror, where they are the only beings apparent, despite being surrounded by fiends.
Perhaps the artful, detached approach that Polanski takes for the majority of the film is his own attempt at reconciling the thrills and the laughs. By viewing the action from behind objectivity, he's asking us to choose which type of film we wish to see. Although the comedy elements are the most apparent, the horror tends to work better, at least in the way that Hammer horror films work (a similarity that can't be unintentional, since certain plot threads are open parodies of Kiss of the Vampire and Brides of Dracula).
Even with its lack of overt visceral reactions, Polanski's film tends to work despite itself. It's difficult not to appreciate the film for its quirky approach. Certainly, there is almost no slacking in any particular aspect of the filmmaking process (except the makeup, which never quite gels with the face to which it's applied). Everyone appears to get what Polanski's attempting, even if it's not always apparent what that is.
Often derided as little more than an interesting failure in Polanski's oeuvre, The Fearless Vampire Killers deserves a second glance. It's a striking, beautiful film that approaches both horror and humor in a manner to which they are unaccustomed. For that reason alone, it should be given at least one viewing.
DECEMBER 20 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967)
IT'S no wonder Roman Polanski would prefer to repudiate the cut of his new film, "The Fearless Vampire Killers or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck," which was put on, despite his objections, yesterday at the Baronet. For this beautifully produced, superbly scenic and excitingly photographed spoof of old-fashioned horror movies is as dismal and dead as a blood-drained corpse.
It appears to be hopefully intended as a sort of Grand Guignological farce about a studious investigation of vampires in an ancient castle in Transylvania by a nutty, bewhiskered professor and his younger and nuttier associate. And it looks at the very beginning, when these two come careering up to a crowded inn in a Transylvania village to begin their abnormal search, that it may be headed for imaginative regions and may turn out to be good fun.
Jack MacGowran as the nutty professor looks mad enough to be a front-running clown, and Mr. Polanski as his pinch-nosed associate seems just the fellow to act his foolish, frantic foil. Alfie Bass is expansive and propitious as the comical proprietor of the inn, and Sharon Tate looks precisely the sort of bat-bait into which you may expect any lurking vampire to sink his teeth.
Also the style of the production, which runs to flatulent forms and somber hues, is appropriate to the mephitic spirit of an anticipated black-humored spoof.
But, heavens, how bleakly unproductive of wit it is as it goes along, and how sluggishly heavy and obvious are the fumblings towards haunted-house fun. Ferdy Wayne looks a promising vampire, in his elegant count's costume, his Bela Lugosi manner and his mouth full of bright, incipient fangs, and Terry Downes clomps around appropriately as his buck-toothed and hunch-backed slave. But they are used to no advantage whatsoever in the hackneyed working out of the play.
Evidently Mr. Polanski feels his film has been so badly cut (from 107 to 88 minutes) and so ineffectually dubbed with new voices in many scenes that whatever he had in the picture originally has been largely lost. Therefore he has asked that his name be removed.
Perhaps his film has been mutilated, but I cannot imagine what might have been so rich about the excised material that would cause it to make the film better than it is. It could only have been more ponderous clowning, more vampires risen from their midnight graves with terrible teeth gleaming in the moonlight, more elaboration of a tedious spoof.
There is no sign that Mr. Polanski was pointing towards some sly satiric jest, some arrangement of weird allegory so that his society of vampires would have significance apt for today. He was evidently only trying to make fun of horror films, forgetting that horror films, played straight, are now more often funny—unconsciously to—than horrible.
DECEMBER 20 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967)
Imagine if the Young Frankenstein era Mel Brooks decided to make a Hammer horror film. That is not quite what Fearless Vampire Killers is like, but it is very close. This is a film that is very fun in its concept, but not necessarily in its execution. It tries to go for satire when it wants to be a spoof, and then decides that it wants to be a serious horror film. This was only director Roman Polanksi’s fourth film (and was made before he directed such masterpieces as Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and The Pianist). It is also one of the strangest he has ever worked on in any capacity. I do feel that the film is The film is an important one, as it was one of the first spoofs to become popular. But Polanski also seemed very respectful of the genre, which almost dooms it. Polanksi wanted to create a serious horror film, and almost succeeds. But it doesn’t WANT to be a horror film, which makes the film a failure.
The film takes place in Transylvania (naturally) and concerns Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his assistant Alfred (Polanski himself). They are trying to find a vampire, but are clearly too weak to survive such a task. They come across an inn, where the innkeeper’s daughter Sarah (Sharon Tate) flirts with Alfred. She is kidnapped by Count von Korlock (Ferdy Mayne) and the two intrepid heroes go to save her.
The film does work as a legitimate horror film. The images are wonderfully gothic, and was the best looking vampire film until Werner Herzog remade Nosferatu. The Ball scene at the end demonstrates Polanski’s strengths. He has always been a director who knew how to properly manipulate images to get his point across. One of Chinatown’s best moments was of the corpse being fished from the reservoir. The Fearless Vampire Killers has moments like that in abundance.
The thing is, Polanski tries to hard to make sure that we understand it is all a giant joke. And the points of “humor” are not even particularly funny. A running gag in the film involves the professor becoming frozen – literally. He has to be thawed out. Now, the film does begin with this gag, but then keeps repeating it. Besides, it doesn’t match the character (who is actually quite intelligent, if a bit absent minded). Same with Sarah, who is introduced over her love of bathing…but it never goes anywhere beyond that. By themselves, these images would have fit within a traditional horror film (especially with a character like Sarah). If they were tweaked, they may have even worked as comedy. But Polanski was not able to decide which tone he wanted to strike. He was halfway to horror and then decided that his first two films were already depressing enough.
Normally I would not mind as much. Again, this was only Polanski’s fourth film. But the film has not seemed to die. It was the inspiration for a very popular musical in Europe and some cult fanatics point to the film as an unsung masterpiece of comedy. Sorry, but that is just not going to fly. The film is unfunny and is, worse yet, trying to insist so very hard that it is. Compared to his first films, and his subsequent work, this film is more like a minor road bump in an otherwise fine filmography. The Fearless Vampire Killers is a great looking film, but it is not even sure what to do with its own gothic aesthetic. Taking the hipster approach and laughing feels like a cop out.
I would also like to close by saying that the image of Sharon Tate’s blood stained soap suds (she is kidnapped from her bath) takes on a much different meaning now than it did at the time when the film was released. Polanski had no way of knowing what would happen to her, but it is still an unusual choice to cast your partner as a victim of a vampire. Maybe that is why I found myself unable to laugh at the plight – I knew the punchline, and it’s not funny.