The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967, Roman Polanski)
Subtitled Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in Your Neck in American prints in an attempt to underline that it was a comedy and not a straight horror film, Roman Polanski’s first color movie is perfect Halloween viewing by any name, and delightful in nearly every possible respect, hilarious now as much as ever. Perhaps it hasn’t the extra boost of cultural phenom status that Young Frankenstein enjoys, but it’s nearly as funny and maintains an effectively spooky atmosphere all the while. Most of the comedy comes from the performances, particularly those of Jack MacGowran and Polanski himself, and is subtler than we might expect from its over-the-top premise, with big laughs from facial expressions and slapstick timing and surrealist dialogue, which recalls Help!. Indeed, your feelings about Help! may be a better indicator of how you’ll feel about this than your feelings about any other actual horror comedy, but I loved it as much as I did when I was a teenager on my recent revisit and was thrilled that Amber was just as taken with it.
Oddly, contemporary reviews suggest that The Fearless Vampire Killers was considered on release in 1967 to be horribly tasteless, unfunny, and over-the-top. In Roger Ebert’s review, he talked about the film eliciting no laughter from the audience and even making a couple of people cry. It remains a point of debate today but many — myself included — name it as one of the greatest black comedies ever made, very nearly the finest horror/comedy fusion, and one of Roman Polanski’s three or four best films, not to mention one of the best-kept secrets of ’60s cinema.
You know something nifty is about to play out when the MGM lion turns into an animated vampire, and the credits roll with a backdrop of fog and wondrously creepy electronic music by Christopher Komeda. What you end up getting is a really delicious, ageless comedy in the classic mold and an even better horror flick, with grandly bleak and masterfully claustrophobic set design and European atmosphere. Polanski tells his story carefully, with very little dialogue, indulging in the possibilities he has in front of him with pure visuals. For those who don’t know, it is indeed about vampire killers, but they are hardly fearless. Amorous assistant Polanski helps out bumbling vampire expert MacGowran on the trail of local evil, but sex-starved Polanski complicates matters by falling in love. It all leads up to one of the loveliest sequences — comedic or otherwise — in any film, a dance of vampires with civilians aboard that ends in a wonderful shock. Absolutely graceful genius, this sequence, and as great as everything else in the film is, the dance is what it will — and should — be remembered for.
Inevitably, it all comes with the baggage of ugly and oppressive history, but what Polanski film doesn’t? His work tends to be cursed, often his own doing but not in this case — this is the film project on which he met actress Sharon Tate, who engages here in one of her biggest acting roles. This is the ’60s and Tate’s purpose in the film is primarily to show off cleavage and look pretty, with the film not even providing the plum feminine presence that Mel Brooks later would, but she still gets a chance to prove her mettle with good comic timing and to share some warm and sexy scenes with Polanski, a happy moment in a shared life that was soon to grow tumultuous. Tate would be dead in less than three years, slaughtered by the Manson family, and one assumes given the cult interest in the case that the film has enjoyed a grisly number of rentals on the basis of her presence; one hopes that such morbid curiosity led many viewers to enjoying something far better than the unwieldy B-movie title could suggest.
More interestingly, the film in retrospect completely conquers its morbid context by, well, delighting in the morbid. In stark contrast to the pregnant menace of Knife on the Water and the adventurous, innovative scares of his disturbing Repulsion (and indeed, the next film he’d make, Rosemary’s Baby), Polanski’s rare dabbling in comedy is an opportunity for him to expose a surprising streak of traditionalism — respect for the classic tropes of both slapstick humor and of gothic horror itself. The film toys with familiar iconography, placing itself in Transylvania and making much of castles and coffins, garlic and wooden stakes. But he goes all the way with it, cobwebs and all — you’re too distracted by the gorgeous sets and the comedically brooding atmosphere of it all to find it objectionably predictable, or to cast it in the unfavorable light of, say, an AIP movie that would’ve used a lot of the same production-design ideas.
At a time when it’s common to attack directors for appearing in their own films, it may be tempting to look upon Polanski’s presence in a lead role of this film (though he doesn’t take an opening credit) as narcissistic, but if it is, what of it? Polanski is excellent and very funny, and it’s genuinely affecting to see him playing off Tate. I suppose it would be impossible to argue that the impending sense of doom one gains from the knowledge that their lives would be turned upside down two years after this project wrapped does not affect the movie, but it would be foolish to deny that it enhances it. It only increases its palpable, dead-end feeling of dread that bounces off the comedy in some uniquely sinful and striking fashion. Strangeness that lay ahead can’t ever really dilute something with this much imagination and sense of fun. More people really should see it.
[Fleshed out from a review posted in 2006.]