Over the years, when Roman Polanski was asked to name the film he was happiest with, his answer was surprising: The Fearless Vampire Killers.
The film was a commercial and critical flop when it was released in 1967, and Polanski was furious when MGM chopped 20 minutes out of the movie and changed the title from Dance of the Vampires to the farcical The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck. A reviewer for The New York Times pronounced the film “as dismal and dead as a blood-drained corpse.”
But as the years went by, Polanski professed a fondness for it. “The film reminds me of the happiest time of my life,” he told Le Nouvel Observateur in 1984. “It’s Proust’s Madeleine to the power of a thousand. All my memories come flooding back in one shot.” Polanski fell in with actress Sharon Tate while filming on a soundstage in England and on location in the Italian Alps.
Polanski also liked the film because it was unpretentious. He told Cahiers du Cinéma in 1969, “As a filmmaker who wants to show something interesting or new cinematically speaking, I made Cul-de-sac. But for those people who want to go to the cinema for two hours and have a good time, I made The Fearless Vampire Killers.”
Some viewers have protested that the film is not especially funny or scary. Polanski said his intention was to create a kind of cinematic fairy tale, a fantasy adventure. “I wanted to tell a romantic story that was funny and frightening at the same time,” he told Positif in 1969. “These are the things we like to see when we’re children. We go to the funfair, sit in the ghost train, and hope to be frightened. When we laugh or get goose-pimples at the same time it’s a pleasant feeling because we know there’s no real danger.”
The film tells the story of the eccentric Professor Abronsius (Jack McGowran) and his young apprentice Alfred (Polanski) as they venture into Transylvania in search of vampires. They arrive at an isolated Jewish inn, where a hapless proprietor (Alfie Bass) has trouble keeping tabs on his beautiful daughter (Tate).
“In the film there’s an Eastern European culture which was desolated by the Germans and that’s been killed off for good thanks to Polish Stalinism,” Polanski told Positif. “It’s the kind of thing that you can see in the work of figures like Chagall and Isaac Babel, and also in certain Polish paintings. This culture, which never reappeared after the war, is part of my childhood memories. There just aren’t any traditional Jews in Poland any more.”
There are some beautiful, dreamlike moments in The Fearless Vampire Killers. The opening scene, in which the protagonists are pursued by a pack of wild dogs, evokes the sort of childhood nightmare in which we find ourselves unable to call out for help. In another scene, a hunchback uses a coffin as a sled, gliding over the curving hills like a surreal Norelco Santa.
The Fearless Vampire Killers is good fun as long as you follow the director’s lead and don’t take it too seriously. This version (which has been added to our collection of Free Movies) runs one hour and 43 minutes. The American theatrical release ran one hour and 28 minutes, so it appears that most of the missing footage has been restored. Make some popcorn, turn down the lights and enjoy the film!