Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Jack MacGowran, Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate
Spoilers Within: Yes
Originally posted 7th April 2016 on Letterboxd.
A few weeks ago it occurred to me that I’ve seen less classic films from some of the cinema’s most revered directors than I’d like to. This could be in part because I tend to hold out for repertory cinema to give me my first experience, or I spent too much time watching dross like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Thanks to a wonderful repertory cinema in the heart of Barcelona I was able to tick another off my list of early features from some favourites: a 35mm print of The Fearless Vampire Killers (or to use the better, American title: Dance of the Vampires).
The story follows Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran), an elderly, Einstein-esque bat researcher and his div of an assistant Alfred (Roman Polanski) as they hunt for vampires in a snowy, mountainside village in Transylvania. When an innkeeper’s daughter gets kidnapped, the two clumsy fools travel to a traditional vampiric mansion to rescue her and kill the dreaded Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne). If it sounds a little trite, that’s because it is, albeit knowingly so.
Frankly, the weakest component was the primary duo: Roman Polanski is certainly a better director than actor and MacGowran’s professor erred on the side of annoying with his bumbling physical comedy. Only in his restrained humour did I find him endearing, but that was too few and far between to override the moments of lunacy. It was down to the inhabitants of the tiny village to bring the comedy to life: with Mayne’s terrifically hammy Count, Iain Quarrier’s amusingly suggestive uranian son and the disarmingly charming Sharon Tate as the innkeeper’s daughter, Sarah.*
Other positives included Douglas Slocombe and Fred Carter’s wonderfully cheesy backdrops that looked like a parallax-scrolling video game; the excellent costume design from Sophie Devine (seriously, the ruffled ball gowns looked cracking) and the perfectly utilised score (long stretches of silence comfortably mixed with off-screen singing and jolts of well-arranged music). Such positivity can’t be said about the pacing, though, which ambled through miniature set-piece to slightly less-than-miniature set-piece before concluding with the midnight ball: the highlight of the film for both set/costume design and goofy humour.
Whilst it sure had its problems – most notably the pacing and needlessly longer running time (the USA cut is a brisk 90 minutes as opposed to the 108 minute version I saw) – The Fearless Vampire Killers was a somewhat enjoyable horror-comedy from a time when farcical parodies indicated something much less negative than it does now.
*In my post-film fact- and name-checking I discovered that Sharon Tate is the very same that – in real life – was murdered by the Manson family not two years after this release. This lends a certain melancholy to Tate’s ‘damsel-in-distress’ role and gives the on-screen sentiments of Polanski and Tate (the two of whom were married at the time of her death) extra weight.