DVD Review Of The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/5/07
One of the overlooked things about most of the vintage 1960s and 1970s Hammer Studios horror films is that they were quite funny, often in an unintentional way. Yes, Christopher Lee had a certain charm, but is it not true that he was also far more grandly silly than scary? Looking back on those films, they certainly do not hold up as well as even the Universal Bela Lugosi takes on the genre, much less superior vampire films like the silent F.W. Murnau classic Nosferatu, Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, nor Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, Phantom Of The Night. No, the Hammer films were always more along the line of the non-George Romero zombie flicks- full of hammy acting, bad gags, cheap effects, few scares, but a ton of laughs- not unlike the same era’s Godzilla films.
Thus, Roman Polanski’s 1967 color parody film The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck, his followup to the highly successful psychological masterpiece Repulsion, had a tough row to hoe, because it’s trying to satirize a genre that, by its nature, was borderline parody to begin with. The good thing is, that while The Fearless Vampire Killers is not a great film, by any stretch of the word, it is highly entertaining, and a good diversion from ones cares- right up there with some of the best Abbott & Costello Meet films. But, it is a bit more sophisticated, and the influence of the 1960s can be see in its choice of ironic title- far better than Polanski’s dull and misleading European original, Dance Of The Vampires, and is right in league with other big budget comedies of that time, such as It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (alternate titles were in vogue), Casino Royale, and What’s New, Pussycat? If only Polanski had cast Peter Sellers in this film it may have become a true classic, rather than a merely amusing curio.
This is the one film where studio imposed cuts actually helped the film, unlike the famed studio botch jobs on Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed. Originally, The Fearless Vampire Killers was 107 minutes long, and a smash in Europe, then retitled and cut to 88 minutes for American release. Also, an animated opening for the title shot was added. After the opening credits, the cartoon fades to a great studio shot of the hibernal Alps. Yet it all plays out like a human cartoon, a Monty Python film, or a pre-Tim Burton Tim Burton film, except better. A great choral cascade chants through the opening, and is the eeriest and scariest thing in the film. Sledding along the Transylvanian Alps we see noted vampire hunter and bat expert Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran)- a Mark Twain doppelganger and déclassé Sherlock Holmes, called The Nut by his colleagues, and he is literally frozen. His bumbling assistant, Alfred (Polanski), looks scared, as dogs try to bite at him. They arrive at an inn where Abronsius is thawed out. The interior sets are tiny, but magnificently detailed by production designer Wilfrid Shingleton. The innkeeper is a Jew named Shagal (Alfie Bass) and his townsfolk deny that vampires exist; they even dismiss talk of castles, until the village idiot contradicts them. A series of pratfalls and slapstick ensues as different folk fall prey to the local vampire, Count Von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne). One of them is Shagal’s daughter, the busty redhead Sarah (Sharon Tate), whom the vampire attacks as she bathes. Alfred lusts for her, and when she is kidnapped by Krolock, Alfred and his mentor take off for the castle, where the second act of the film takes place.
The Count and his shapeshifting animalistic hunchback, Koukol (Terry Downes), welcome them and put them up in a room, where the Count’s flamingly queer fop of a son, Herbert Von Krolock (Ian McQuarrie), lusts for Alfred. After some pussyfooting around, more slapstick, and Alfred’s idiotic inability to drive a stake through the vampires’ hearts, the duo manage to rescue Sarah, after a silly dance of the vampires- which comprises Act Three, where they gloat over having such a beauty to feast on, and plot world domination. Yet, the duo free Sarah, after a chase, and take off in a sleigh, as the Count’s hunchback ineptly tries to stop them by sledding after them in a coffin cover. Yet, Sarah is too far gone, she attacks Alfred, as the Professor blissfully drives on unawares that he is now aiding the vampires in their cause.
Yet, when The Fearless Vampire Killers works, and if one considers it successful, it is as a comedy. There is not a dram of real horror in the film, save for the creepy soundtrack by Polanski collaborator Krzysztof Komeda, and in this regard it’s about as scary a film as Mel Brooks’ later Young Frankenstein. The film was written by Polanski and Gérard Brach, who also worked with Polanski on Repulsion. The acting, given its small field of play, is solid, and the best of all is the loopy professor, played by MacGowran. Although his career was mainly in high profile dramas like Tom Jones and Doctor Zhivago, his comic talent shines. Polanski is not nearly up to it as his assistant. However, Alfie Bass, as Shagal, the Jewish vampire, gets off some of the best schtick and scenes. The rest of the actors do little to distinguish themselves. Tate is attractive enough, and the father and son vampires, played by Mayne and Quarrier, are generic.
The DVD, put out by Warner Brothers- although The Fearless Vampire
Killers was produced by MGM, is in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and is mostly free
of blemishes. It is also the 107 minute original European version of the film.
The cinematography by Douglas Slocombe is not notable, although there are a few
visual moments that stick- such as the Professor’s skis sliding away down a
hill, a few well executed fast motion shots, when the vampires notice the humans
amongst them because only they are reflected in mirrors, or the hunchback
following a dog, then coming back with a bloody maw. The DVD’s only extras are
the original theatrical trailer and a ten minute vintage featurette, which is
mislabeled as a Making Of sort, when it’s just a comic promo vehicle
titled The Fearless Vampire Killers: Vampires 101. In it, a nutty professor
type describes anti-vampire devices and explains that a cross is no good against
a Jewish or Moslem vampire- a fact which provides one of Shagal’s funniest
scenes, when his maid waves a crucifix at him and he smirks, ‘You got
the wrong vampire girl.’
However, for every slapstick gag that works- such as Alfred’s escaping Herbert by running all around a balcony and back to Herbert, whom he gets away from by biting the vampire on his ear, there are one or two that fall flat, and these only pad out the film and make it too long; thus why the studio’s cuts actually worked. The narrative of The Fearless Vampire Killers, such as it is, is less of a tale than a setup for gags. Yet, it is a likable little film, and shows Polanski at his lightest and most whimsical; something which is as rare as a scare from Christopher Lee.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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