The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967)

It doesn’t suck…
…but I have a feeling that my very good friend and long-time fellow film lover Chris is not going to be too happy with my review of Roman Polanski‘s Dance of the Vampires (1967) (which was its original, European title). The great director, apocryphally, still considers this as his favourite work which, considering this is the man who gave the world Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Chinatown (1974) and more recently The Ghost Writer (2010), is surprising, to say the very least.

I think the problem I have with the film is that it proves, unfortunately, just how difficult it is to actually combine comedy with horror, even though the two genres are in fact the most closely linked. Love both kinds of film though I do, I am hard pushed to think of more than two films that pulled off the trick of scaring you and making you laugh at the same time (they would be John Landis’s sublime An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Joe Dante’s not-quite-as-good-but-still-damn-fine The Howling (1981)) and, I am sorry, but Polanski’s film simply does not manage it.

To be fair, humour does tend to date rather quickly and, while the tale of noted vampire scholar Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his dim-witted and lovelorn (for Sharon Tate, and who wouldn’t be?) assistant Alfred (Polanski) falling prey to Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) and his band of vamps was probably charming to its contemporary audiences, the ‘jokes’, such as they are, now seem to involve little more than Abronsius and Alfred falling over a lot and saying stupid things.

Don’t ge me wrong – there is still much to admire in Polanski’s film, but only when he plays it straight – Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography is nothing short of breathtakingly beautiful and, when writers Polanski and Gérard Brach actually get around to paying homage to horror conventions, instead of mocking them, there are key set-pieces that actually work very well, such as the hapless pair finding themselves at the eponymous ball with many vampires, then alone when they see themselves in the mirror, and Mayne gives the impression that he might well have been among the very best ‘Draculas’, if he had ever been given the chance to play it straight.

No matter – I hope this has not emerged as a slamming, as this is not my intention, but I remain unconvinced that The Fearless Vampire Killers can now be viewed as being anything more than a one-off mixed-genre curiousity.

108 mins.

6 thoughts on “The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967)”

  1. Dear Picturenose,

    Oh no! How can you dismiss this great work as ‘being anything more than a one-off mixed-genre curiosity’? We need to get you a nice new funny bone to chew on.

    I first saw The Fearless Vampire Killers aged 15 at our local ‘arts’ cinema. I cried with laughter. I have revisited this film many times and still love it. It’s in my top ten best films for sure and I am really pleased to hear that Polanski still loves it too. Yes it’s silly, slapstick and childish, I agree, but Polanski does it intentionally and so brilliantly. Back in the day before CGI and the overload of vampire and sex schtick, …Vampire Killers was novel and very clever and as good as any Chaplin classic.

    ‘Oy vey, but have you got the wrong vampire?’ is one of my all-time favourite lines. Who had ever heard of or dared create a Jewish vampire before? This was radical and Polanski’s performance as the unworldly wide-eyed Alfred is better than perfect.

  2. Dear Victoria,

    Many thanks for your great comment, and welcome to Picturenose! 🙂

    I did wonder whether my review would perhaps bring responses of this kind – clearly, your thoughts are diametrically opposed to my own on this film, which is your absolute right, of course.

    Humour is a very subjective thing (as, interestingly enough, is what scares us as individuals) and I am sorry to repeat that for me, The Fearless Vampire Killers raised only a smile at best. I hope that I came over as being suitably impressed, at least, by the set-pieces in the film that work as straight horror, but I am sorry to add that I simply found the two central performances to be irritating in the extreme and, such was the at-times unintelligible nature of the script’s delivery by both MacGowran and Polanski, I resorted to subtitles merley to understand what on earth was going on.

    Maybe you’re right, maybe it deserves a second viewing, but I would not hold your breath in expecting a critical about-turn from yours truly, sorry.

    Thanks again for the comment, though, and here’s hoping we hear more from you.

  3. Dear James,

    You are welcome! I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but it’s great that this old movie is still being discussed. I am not sure, but I think this might have been the first vampire film to send up the genre?

  4. Dear Victoria,

    I certainly agree with you that it’s a pleasure to be able to still discuss the film, particularly with you. 🙂 And, as far as spoofing the genre goes, Bela Lugosi played Dracula (as opposed to a common-or-garden vampire, which he did in two other films during the 1930s and 1940s) for the second and final time in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), one of Bud and Lou’s ill-advised earlier spoofs of Universal’s ‘Golden Age’ of horror. Subsequently, there was of course the excellent Love at First Bite (1979) and Mel Brooks’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), which really wasn’t any good, and I am sure many other examples. 🙂

  5. It’s been a long time since I saw it, but I remember the horror more than I do the comedy. It has all the staple Polanski themes: an innocent lost in a world he can’t comprehend. Evil triumphing over good, and triumphing because the heros foil their own attempts to defeat it. So, like Jake in Chinatown, Alfred’s best attempts and intentions lead to the worst possible outcomes. In this respect, like many Polanski movies, it has an extremely pessimistic perspective.

    It has a strange history. Apparantly the US version, which Polanski all but disowned, was heavily mucked around with by MGM and ramped up the slapstick whereas the European version, Dance of the Vampires, had more balance. The film I remember was extremely dark despite the humour and very troubling to boot. For all its beauty it was nevertheless choc-a-bloc full of nightmarish imagery. I remember the moment when Sharon Tate is taken being extremely distressing and far more horrific than the Hammer films that it was ‘sending up’.

  6. Hi Chris

    Thanks for the restrained, reasoned response. Truth be told, I was fearing a more ‘you don’t know anything about film James’-based approach. 🙂 It is interesting what you say about the differences between the two cuts because, quite frankly, the version I saw could have used a great deal more of the type of scene that you cite, and a great deal less of the ‘oh, I have fallen over and I am really old and stupid’ ‘hilarity’ with which the version I saw appeared to be plagued. Mayhap I will have to seek out the European cut – if it is markedly more balanced, as you say, then I will give the film a justified reappraisal, fair enough? 😉

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