Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.
NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.
Grade: 85 (A-)
Every great director has at least one film that wildly divides his critics and fans. Steven Spielberg has Artificial Intelligence (masterpiece). Woody Allen has, among others, Deconstructing Harry (piece of shit). Roman Polanski has more than a couple (count Cul-de-sac and The Tenant among them), but none more so that 1967’s The Fearless Vampire Killers. Originally titled Dance of the Vampires and subsequently released with the too-wacky subtitle Pardon Me, But Your Teeth are in My Neck, the film polarized those who dug its offbeat mixture of humor and horror and those who found it laughless and joyless. Much of the divide was determined by whether one saw the 107-minute original cut or the compromised 90-minute U.S. cut, but even today, where Polanski’s preferred version has supplanted the U.S. cut, the film has more than its share of haters. Well phooey to them: The Fearless Vampire Killers is one of Polanski’s most entertaining films.
The film concerns the journeys of Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his trusted assistant Alfred (Polanski) as they travel to Transylvania in search of the unholy undead. They take up with Yoine Shagal (Alfie Bass), whose inn is filled with garlic and crosses despite Yoine’s being Jewish. Alfred falls for Yoine’s beautiful daughter, a compulsive bather named Sarah (Sharon Tate, later Polanski’s wife). But when Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) attacks the inn and kidnaps Sarah, it’s up to Alfred and Abronsius to save the day.
The film is jam-packed with references and affectionate parodies of classic horror films, with every version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula being riffed on from Nosferatu to the 1931 Bela Lugosi-starring Universal version to the 1958 Christopher Lee-starring Hammer version. Polanski crosses classic horror tropes of hunchbacked assistants, monsters of refined tastes, sexually-charged villains, men of reason who try to stop them, and eerie music (courtesy of frequent collaborator Krzysztof Komeda) with the taste for broad humor he developed in Cul-de-sac, to great effect. Sure, it’s even broader here, but Polanski strikes a greater balance here in situations that showcase Polanski’s cleverness, his strength at building suspense, and his over-the-top and irreverent sense of humor. Gone are the occasional lurches in tone from Cul-de-sac. Now Polanski pulls off the thrills of Hitchcock and horror and the borscht belt humor that Mel Brooks would come to define (though Young Frankenstein would outdo Vampire Killers a few years later) with the lightness of touch befitting of Chaplin.
One scene in particular shows Alfred and Abronsius infiltrating the vampires’ ball in over-the-top costumes. Here, Polanski drops the characters in the middle of an absurd and dangerous situation, drags out the suspense as to whether or not they’ll be caught, and gets some good laughs out of the two mixing with the vampires. Even better: Alfred having to deal with von Krolock’s homosexual son Herbert, who clearly has a thing for the hapless vampire hunter; Abronsius trying to outwit von Krolock by explaining his presence as a bat-study (“don’t they sleep in the winter?” “NOT ALWAYS!”); Yoine, now a vampire, meeting a girl who tries to ward him off with a cross, to which he kvetches “Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!”; Yoine then having to deal with being treated inequally as compared to the rich goy vampires (“what can you do with such people?!”). There’s a few misses here and there, but the hits far outweigh them.
Polanski makes great use of the gorgeous Alps scenery, but credit has to go to his work with the actors. Jack MacGowran is best known today for his final role as Burke in The Exorcist, but Polanski knew him as the Samuel Beckett collaborator with a bawdy sense of humor, and he uses that to his advantage. Abronsius is like a doddering version of Van Helsing, intelligent but absent-minded, brave but physically incapable. Ferdy Mayne’s ham performance as the head vampire is equally glorious.
Most of the attention today goes to Sharon Tate and Polanski, given where their relationship went and Tate’s death at the hands of the Manson family two years later. Polanski’s films have always turned on exaggerated portraits of sexuality, and The Fearless Vampire Killers is no exception- much of the first third of the film uses Polanski’s love of deep focus as an excuse to throw in raunchy humor (“do you mind if I have a quick one?”). But what makes The Fearless Vampire Killers more than just a sex-comedy is the genuine sweetness of their relationship. Tate only has a handful of scenes, but she’s absolutely radiant as Sarah and has a daffy charm that no doubt would have been a delight had she gone on to make more films. Polanski, for his part, is quite good playing against type as an introvert (which he was anything but) whose own obsession with sex belies a certain sweetness. One could easily see Woody Allen playing a more overtly neurotic version of this clumsy hero, but Polanski feels just right, and the love he had for Tate translates to an amiable romance onscreen.
But this is a Polanski film, so don’t expect rainbows and sunshine. Certainly the film pokes fun at the darkest elements of horror films, but it’s another Polanski feature that shows a world out of order trying and failing to deal with pure evil (something that would be central to his upcoming masterwork Rosemary’s Baby), not to mention some subtly-wrought class and power concerns about rich gentiles lording over poor Jewish characters. And the film has one of the great ironic endings that would pop up again in the New Horror movement of the 60s and 70s: it’s through true love between Alfred and Sarah that evil conquers, rather than being conquered. Still, it’s hard to complain that your true love is a vampire when she looks like Sharon Tate.