We last reviewed Roman Polanski’s horror comedy on tape way back in VW 3:11, and signed off hoping for a laserdisc and a CD release of the outstanding Kryszstof Komeda score (both were forthcoming). Now there’s a DVD too*. All home format versions bear the title THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, used theatrically in the US for a 90m cut-down (with or without the subtitle OR; PARDON ME, BUT YOUR TEETH ARE IN MY NECK), but otherwise contain the original 107m European cut which used to be called DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES. In the spirit of defaulting-to-American titling, even the UK R2 disc goes with FEARLESS rather than DANCE. The sleeve art comes from a cartoon campaign which mispositions the film as an all-out spoof (‘who says vampires are no laughing matter?’), relegating a more sophisticated painted poster redolent of pastiche rather than parody to the disc-surface itself. This approach may explain why the film didn’t find its audience in 1967 and is still undervalued, both as a subtler type of comedy and a more serious vampire picture.
FEARLESS seems less a parasite on the Hammer Films which were its immediate inspiration than an extension of the absurdist, cruel, silent-film-style comedy of the director’s early shorts and CUL-DE-SAC. It’s a picture in which dialogue is relatively unimportant (even Alfie Bass’s famous ‘oy you, have you got the wrong vampire?’ underlines a gag made visually). Mostly, we follow the bumbling and mumbling of Professor Abronsius (BEHEMOTH THE SEA MONSTER’s Jack MacGowran), Van Helsing by way of Ben Turpin and Samuel Beckett, and his meek assistant Alfred (Polanski, who always knows how best to cast himself), a silly, timid, wistful homage to the hysteria of Gustav von Wangenheim in NOSFERATU as they dim-wittedly investigate the possibility of vampire activity in the Transylvanian vicinity of Castle Krolock. Many other characters, like the drooling hunchback minion Koukol (A STUDY IN TERROR’s Terry Downes) and the muttering innkeeper Shagal (Bass), keep mum or express themselves through gestures and verbal tics. Those who talk in whole sentences are misunderstood (Sharon Tate’s heroine Sarah, dubbed by someone European) or misleading (Ferdy Mayne’s dignified Count Von Krolock, who also narrates archly). Even the village idiot (DISCIPLE OF DEATH’s Ronald Lacey) seems hardly less inarticulate than his saner neighbours – and the main joke about him has the other villagers preventing him from telling a truth. There are verbal felicities, like the way the servile Shagal feels the need to address the fleeing villain who is absconding with his daughter as ‘your excellency’, but the self-awareness that usually characterises genre spoof can’t get established (except, perhaps in the Jewish vampire) because Polanski deals with people who have no idea how ridiculous they are.
It’s not a comedy of schtick or ridicule, like CARRY ON SCREAMING or YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and its ‘target’ is not the vampire film per se, but the behaviour of those who ignore Nietszche’s warning that those who fight monsters risk becoming monstrous themselves. The vampire Shagal seems to be exactly the same person he always was, creeping away from his huge wife (Jessie Robins) to grope the luscious maid (DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN’s Fiona Lewis), indicating that these vampires transform their victims into immortals rather than kill them off. The only killers in the film are the heroes, and Alfred can’t bring himself to drive the stake into the sleeping Count. The Professor turns out not to be the destroyer of vampirekind but the means by which the undead escape from their Mittel European backwater and spread out over the whole world. Underlying the slapstick messing-about, hanging from castle exteriors and dashes across the snow is a sense of stately melancholy, perhaps best-expressed in the decayed ball scene (inspired by KISS OF THE VAMPIRE) that climaxes with a moment (lifted by VAN HELSING) when the humans in the throng are exposed in a mirror that otherwise reflects an empty room.
It is also light, charming and sensual in a way Polanski’s heavier films can’t allow themselves to be: snowy Transylvania, Tate’s heartbreaking loveliness, Tutte Lemkow’s elegantly creaky choreography and Komeda’s music are infallibly pleasing. As a vampire movie, it is modestly innovative: with a fanged punchline that prefigures the Count Yorga movies and many other downbeat 1970s exercises, the first actual as opposed to coded gay vampire in the Count’s predatory son Herbert (Iain Quarrier) and an incidental suggestion that famous historical characters (eg: Richard III) live on as bloodsuckers. Shagal’s amused shrugging at a raised crucifix is a much-imitated NIGHT GALLERY-type blackout gag, but also opens a revisionary approach to classical film horror lore which informs almost every subsequent vampire novel (and quite a few films). This may be the moment when the vampire was first detached from the purely Christian mystical status of Dracula and the creature’s status as a physical and metaphysical being, central to the works of Anne Rice for instance, had to be debated.
Warners’ DVD has a reasonable transfer of a decent print, perhaps not as shimmeringly beautiful as it might be but very attractive, with especially nice white snow and frosting on the windows and bloody scarlet for the lining of the Count’s cape and Sarah’s smashing ball gown. The Mono mix has made some complain about line readings which were always indistinct (MacGowran has as few coherent sentences as Ralph Fiennes in SPIDER) but teases out the delicacies of the wonderful score (astoundingly ditched in favour terrible Jim Steinman music when the Polanski-Gerard Brach script was reworked as a stage musical, DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES).
DVD review from Video Watchdog.
*and a BluRay.