Judge Mitchell Hattaway doesn't think this horror-comedy from director Roman Polanksi sucks, but he thinks that pun does.
Who says vampires are no laughing matter?
Long overdue, Warner Bros. has finally released Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, a horror-comedy chronicling the adventures of Abronsius and Alfred, a dimwitted duo determined to put a stop to an undead Slovonic count's reign of terror. The question is—should you make room on your shelf for this title?
Facts of the Case
Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran, The Exorcist) and his assistant Alfred (director Roman Polanksi) are searching for the castle of Count Von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne), a vampire whose minions are quickly wiping out the population of a quiet Transylvanian village. Arriving at an inn run by Shagal (Alfie Bass) and his wife Rebecca (Jessie Rubins), the two vampire hunters are promptly told there is no castle in the vicinity, nor have there been any strange occurrences or instances of people suddenly disappearing (although the crucifixes adorning the wall and cloves of garlic hanging from the rafters would indicate otherwise). On the second night of their stay, Alfred peeks in on the Shagals' daughter, Sarah (Sharon Tate, Valley of the Dolls), as she takes a bath. Von Krolock suddenly enters the inn through a skylight, bites Sarah, and whisks her away. Shagal gives chase, but he soon vanishes; his frozen body is recovered the next morning, riddled with bite marks and completely drained of blood. The professor tells Rebecca the only way to save her husband's soul is by driving a stake through his heart, but she refuses. Abronsius and Alfred take it upon themselves to perform the deed, but before they can strike, the now-vampiric innkeeper arises and attempts to attack the inn's maid (Fiona Lewis). Shagal is eventually driven off, after which Abronsius and Alfred set off for Von Krolock's keep. They are welcomed by the Count, who knows who they are and why they have come. Alfred finds Sarah, who tells him of the ball being held in the castle, at which Sarah, Abronsius, and Alfred will be the vampire's next victims.
When I first became aware of The Fearless Vampire Killers, I couldn't imagine Roman Polanksi directing such a film (look at how Pirates turned out); how could the man responsible for Chinatown and Tess pull off a pseudo-slapstick horror comedy? Well, he did pull it off. Thinking about it now, though, it's easy to see why he would choose such lighthearted subject matter as a follow-up to his two previous films, the dark psychological dramas Repulsion and Cul-De-Sac.
Imagine the Marx Brothers starring in a vampire film produced by Hammer Studios, and you'll have a pretty good idea as to the nature of The Fearless Vampire Killers. Jack MacGowran actually resembles Groucho Marx (with a bit of Albert Einstein thrown in for good measure), and Polanksi even has an air of Harpo about him, although physically he brings to mind Davey Jones from The Monkees. (Unlike Harpo, Polanksi's Alfred is allowed to speak, but not often.) The film isn't as frenetic or anarchic as the above description might lead you to believe, though. Both Polanksi's direction and script, written in collaboration with longtime associate Gerard Brach, do a nice job balancing the comedy and the horror; he does a high wire act here, but never stumbles or allows one element of the film to overshadow the other. Polanski and his cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe (who lensed the Indiana Jones films and Fred Zinnemann's Julia), have also chosen the perfect look for the film, bringing a naturalistic look to the scenes in Shagal's inn, and a hint of the gothic to Von Krolock's castle. The exteriors have a clod, bluish cast, simulating the harshness of a Transylvanian winter. The cinematography also does a good job concealing the fact most of the film was shot on soundstages.
There are several memorable moments in the film, the most notable of which is the climatic ballroom scene, in which Abronsius, Alfred, and Sarah dance with the gathering of Von Krolock's vampire converts, only to have their human nature betrayed when they stop in front of a mirror. The moment Alfred first stumbles upon Sarah is touching in a way; it's obvious Polanksi is falling for Tate right in front of our eyes (and it's easy to see why he would fall for her), although the moment becomes bittersweet knowing what would happen to Tate three years after this film was shot. There's a rather amusing scene in which Polanksi attempts to flee from the clutches of Von Krolock's son (whose interest in Alfred involves satisfying more than just his taste for blood); Alfred runs around the entire frame of the shot, stopping when he believes himself to be safe, only to discover he's run in a circle and once again ended up face-to-face with the young vampire. Abronsius plots to kill Von Krolock and his son while they sleep during the day, but while sneaking into their sleeping chamber he becomes stuck, much like Winnie the Pooh, in a narrow window; he then calls upon his assistant to slay them, but Alfred (naturally) bungles the job. For me, though, I think the funniest moment involves Shagal's first attempt at sinking his teeth into his maid. As he is standing over her bed, she takes a crucifix down from the wall and holds it out at arm's length, at which point Shagal laughs and says, "You've got the wrong vampire."
This release doesn't dazzle visually or sonically, but the presentation isn't too disappointing, either. The transfer is rather admirable, with nicely saturated colors (take a look Von Krolock's cape), very little edge enhancement, and only a small amount of grain (which only becomes intrusive in shots involving what appears to be some rear projection). The real problems lie in the source print: Visible specks, scratches, and dirt are visible in many shots. The audio, which is presented in the original mono, is thin and tinny, as can pretty much be expected from a film of this age; it has also been recorded at too low a level, so you'll need to turn it up a bit. Extras consist of the theatrical trailer, and a short featurette promoting the film's original release. This featurette masquerades as a scholarly lesson on preventing vampire attacks, and contains a funny bit regarding the use of a Star of David as protection against an Arab vampire, which I imagine some people will find to be in bad taste.
Just so you'll know, this release contains Polanski's original cut of the film, not the truncated version originally shown in the United States. If you've only seen this film on television, you're in for a few surprises.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Fearless Vampire Killers does drag in places, especially the midsection, so a faster pace would have helped. Other than that, this film's pretty much gold.
It's great to finally have The Fearless Vampire Killer on DVD. Although there are issues with the audio and video quality, not to the mention the skimpy extras, this is a great film and would make a worthy addition to your collection.
Not guilty by a mile. Much love to Warner Bros. for releasing this DVD, even if someone did misspell the title on the back on the packaging.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "The Fearless Vampire Killer: Vampires 101" Featurette
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