Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, a Halloween Treat

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 NeckA 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!

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  • Kat says:

    This film was fun­ny and scary at the same time, it strikes a good bal­ance because the set­ting (a lone­ly cas­tle with vam­pires in it, while our mea­ger­ly armed Pro­fes­sor and assis­tant attempt to bat­tle them and save the girl), which nor­mal­ly would be the stuff the scari­est hor­ror films are made of, is bal­anced by the fun­ny char­ac­ters and fun­ny sto­ry­line…

    It nev­er gets TOO scary, although it DOES have some scary chase scenes, the view­er is able to relax and enjoy the film because he feels the humor means that noth­ing bad will hap­pen to the char­ac­ters.

    At the same time, the beau­ti­ful snowy alps and ancient cas­tle make for a fairy tale like set­ting, very warm and give great atmos­phere to the film.


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