Halloween Movie Review: THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS

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Three years ago around Halloween, I published a list of five psychological horror films that I considered some of the best in the genre (Do NOT Watch Alone…). These are films about the mind that will keep you awake at night.

The film I’m reviewing this time isn’t disturbing like the others. But it has wonderful atmosphere, and I can’t think of another film like it. Critic Leonard Maltin calls it a “near-brilliant mixture of humor and horror.” It is Roman Polanski’s 1967 satire The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (known as Dance of the Vampires in Europe). *

No matter what you think of Roman Polanski’s sexual imbroglios, as with the great Woody Allen, it’s beyond dispute he’s one of cinema’s most talented writers-producers-directors. His 1965 British movie Repulsion is a tour-de-force of psychological horror (and made my aforesaid list). Two years after Repulsion, he made this more lighthearted film.

Since Tod Browning’s classic 1931 film Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, vampire films had become progressively stale. The bottom came with the asinine Billy the Kid Versus Dracula in 1966. (Don’t watch this unless you have a large supply of alcohol on hand…enough to drink yourself into stupefaction.) So it was about time someone knocked the stuffing out of the vampire genre.

(Has anyone yet knocked the stuffing out of ubiquitous vampire books??)

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The movie plot is simple: in the mid-19th century, a scatterbrained German researcher named Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his bewildered assistant Alfred (Polanski) travel through the snowy Transylvanian mountains to a small village in search of a vampire who supposedly lives nearby. While Abronsius is obsessed with tracking down and killing the bloodsucker, Alfred is more dazzled by the lasses in the local inn, including the lovely redheaded Sarah (Polanski’s future wife, Sharon Tate), whom he encounters while she’s soaping herself in a bubble bath.

The vampire, Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne), disrupts Alfred’s attempt at courtship when he kidnaps Sarah one night. Abronsius and Alfred then track him through the snow to his castle perched on the mountaintop. Bag of vampire-slaying tricks in hand, Abronsius is determined to destroy von Krolock, and Alfred is equally determined to rescue his damsel before she turns into a hollow-eyed blood bank. Without giving anything away, Abronsius and Alfred undergo various nail-biting (and neck-biting) escapades at the castle.

Expressive Irish actor MacGowran is perfect as Abronsius, with his faux pedagogy reminiscent of the standup comic “Professor” Irwin Corey (the “World’s Foremost Authority”). Instead of scientific jargon and Pyrex tubes, though, Abronsius speaks vampire clichés and wields garlic (“GAR-leek”), a wooden stake and mallet, and various crucifixes. Polanski makes a good shell-shocked stumblebum assistant. Tate, one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood at the time, doesn’t act much, or well, but she’s a visual delight. (Her horrific fate only two years later lends this film a tragic edge).

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Bathtub scene with Tate and Polanski (photo Turner Classic Movies)

In addition, Ferdy Mayne as Count von Krolock gives veteran vampire actor Christopher Lee a run for his money, with his murky, imposing stature and ominous, throaty voice.

But the minor characters provide most of the funny moments. There’s the hunchback who serves as von Krolock’s personal “Igor,” with his gargantuan buck teeth and Beatle hairstyle. In an inspired move, Polanski gives von Krolock ’s creepy son Herbert (Iain Quarrier) a homosexual spin; Herbert is as sexually attracted to Alfred as he is thirsty for his blood. Best of all is actor Alfie Bass, who is Sarah’s father, and the innkeeper.  After turning vampire, he struggles to locate a comfortable place in the castle in which to situate his coffin. His exaggerated Yiddishness is hilarious.

The movie is filled with many moments of visual humor. The moonlit snowy landscape, courtesy of the Italian Alps, is another attractive feature. As is the shimmering music, particularly the psychedelic-Gothic score that accompanies the opening credits, created by the same person, European jazz musician Christopher Komeda, who later composed the score for Polanski’s universally acclaimed Rosemary’s Baby.

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If you’re like me, you’ll get an adrenaline rush every time the doorbell rings on Halloween night. And if you’re really like me, after the doorbell stops ringing, you’ll plop yourself in your armchair and get a rush from a good horror flick. My suggestion this year is Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers.

And if you one day find yourself in Transylvania… beware of isolated mountain villages that have inns with “gar-leek” hanging over the front door!

(* Originally released in the U.K., The Fearless Vampire Killers was butchered by MGM when released in the U.S. Twelve minutes of the film were deleted, a cartoonish opening sequence was added, and MacGowran’s voice was given a deliberately comical and ill-suited dubbing. Polanski was understandably outraged, and campaigned to have the original version restored, which didn’t happen until the early 1980s.)

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27 thoughts on “Halloween Movie Review: THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS

  1. Good writing, Pete. I always enjoy it. Just curious…. I didn’t see you make mention of the classic. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Hmmm (smile).

  2. Peter: as soon as I saw your opening lines I immediately thought of Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, and voila they we right there on your list.
    I distinguished the two thus: Rosemary was a scary fantasy, totally unreal but expertly delivered to seem real; Repulsion was scary because it could be real, and believable as such. Catherine Deneuve never recovered in my memory. Whenever I saw a Chanel commercial I immediately linked to razors, nail clippers and raw chicken!

    • I loved everything about “Repulsion.” I think it was one of Deneuve’s earliest flicks. That closing scene, with the photo of her character as a young girl staring into oblivion, was perfect. And I agree with your assessment of “Rosemary’s Baby.” The only quibble I have is the ending. Polanski evidently likes downbeat endings, but I was pulling for Farrow’s character the whole time, and then…ugh.

      Thanks, Phil!

  3. Interesting. A page out of the book of CB. I’ve always heard of this movie but only in relation to the Tate murders. It sounds weirdly ’60’s-ish. I may have to check this out. I know Tod Browning only from “Freaks.”

    • I think Browning did “Freaks” right after “Dracula.” It was banned in a lot of places at the time. There’s also a good documentary about him somewhere that I’ve seen. I think the biggest ’60s vibe in “Vampire Killers” might be the strange music, and the fact that it was stylishly offbeat, in a European way (but still accessible). It wasn’t formulaic like the Hammer series, and it wasn’t as goofball as things like “Abbot and Costello Meet (Whomever).” I agree with Maltin in that it was just the right combination of horror and humor.

      • “Freaks” was one of those ones they used to show in theaters back in the day (hippies=freaks, yes?) along with “Reefer Madness.” Get high and laugh. Or whatever.

    • Iain Quarrier, the chap who played the vampire’s son, has an interesting if weird bio. He was one of those swinging ’60s dandies. He was also friends with Tate, and her death evidently messed him up bigtime.

      • So of course, being a nosey parker I had to go look him up .Do you recall a Jean-Luc Godard movie called “One Plus One?” Among other things it details the Stones evolving the tune “Sympathy for the Devil.” (They made that kind of stuff in the Sixties, as you recall.) I’ve seen bits of it and it’s not all the exciting. But here’s a clip with (for some reason) German subtitles:

      • I did read about that, and Godard’s punching him later. You’re right, “One Plus One” (“Sympathy for…”) isn’t too exciting. I saw it many years ago. I love the Stones, but “Sympathy’s” not my favorite of their songs, and a couple minutes of studio starts and stops is all I need!

  4. I knew there was a reason I haven’t got around to this one. You did!. Great flick. Great job Pete. I love the look , feel, performances and the humor. It’s all atmosphere. I wanted to be in that world. I’m a Polanski fan (Man did he make a huge life mistake). From his well known films that you mentioned (Chinatown) to his lesser know ones like this one (The Tenant). I remember sitting through this a few times in my rundown movies house (City Lights). You nailed it Pete. Jacks turn as the professor was very good.. Found out later he was the drunk agent in ‘The Exorsist’. Roman was perfect as his assistant. I love the way the film ends. I might have to watch it again. Just watched it at this time last year. Oh yeah I will probably watch some kind of Hammer Film on the big day.

    • Sounds like we’re once again on the same wavelength, CB. This is one of many films I saw with my brothers late at night, after sneaking downstairs. It was so refreshingly offbeat after Universal, Hammer, William Castle, and worse (Edward D. Wood, Jr.?). A good director can handle any genre of film, and I think Polanski proved it. Will have to see “The Tenant.” Thanks!

  5. Pete,
    I became aware and viewed of “FVK” around 1969.
    My wife was a recent graduate of NYU and one of her courses was Cinema History (Citizen Kane, Birth Of A Nation…). Young love has many conversations and that movie was one. She took me to see that movie in a late night Greenwich Village “Art House”.. think the Deuce) 😉

    Those were the days my friend
    We thought they’d never end
    We’d sing and dance forever and a day
    We’d live the life we choose
    We’d fight and never lose
    For we were young and sure to have our way…Mary Hopkin

    rob

    • Looks like you beat me to that movie, Rob. I first saw it in the late ’70s, I think. Stylish, a bit Euro-arty, but also accessible. Another one I love, non-horror, is Antonioni’s “Blow Up.”

  6. “Looks like you beat me to that movie, Rob. I first saw it in the late ’70s,”

    Hi Pete, that early view was one of the advantages of falling in love with an NYU / Washington Square beautiful, young woman.
    Hong Fats, the Alice statue in Central Park, Exploring Greenwich Village, skipping classes at Furman to hop on a flight to NYC to surprise and sit in with her to listen to Horst Jansen (The Dean of Art History) and Robert Rosenblume (friend of Andy Warhol).

    If the Fillmore East ever becomes an essay from you I’ll chip in a fun story.

    rob
    Do you believe in magic in a young girl’s heart
    How the music can free her, whenever it starts
    And it’s magic, if the music is groovy
    It makes you feel happy like an old-time movie
    I’ll tell you about the magic, and it’ll free your soul
    But it’s like trying to tell a stranger ’bout rock and roll

  7. Pete,
    remember the Sgt. Peppers costumes ?
    I bought a 2nd hand West Point military jacket in a Village thrift shop.
    My parents were aghast…lol

    rob

    ps – Polanski, much like Woody, will be forever tarnished by their moral failings (much like Fatty Arbuckle).
    Thankfully my “auteur” of that period of film making was, and still is Kubrick.
    Unfortunately he left us with his worst film…Eyes Wide Shut.

    • I love Kubrick’s films too, Rob. I’ve even seen his very first (homemade) feature flick, “Fear and Desire,” featuring a young Paul Mazursky. And I’m impressed, not many people these days know about silent film star “Fatty” Arbuckle, let alone his tragedy.

      I’m not excusing Polanski’s crimes, but he lost a mother in Auschwitz, and a wife (and unborn child) to a mass murderer. That shit has to leave permanent scars on a person’s brain. I still need to see his highly acclaimed movie about the Holocaust, “The Pianist.”

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