Sunday, October 18, 2009

31 Days of Halloween: There's No Escape from Polanski and The Fearless Vampire Killers

Many of the characters in Roman Polanski's films are trapped in some way, unable to escape. Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965), on a psychological level, is trapped within herself, avoiding most human contact (particularly male). She even seems a prisoner in her own apartment. Likewise, Polanski in The Tenant (1976) rarely leaves his apartment, obsessed with the previous tenant, who committed suicide. Other Polanski films, such as Death and the Maiden (1994) and The Ninth Gate (1999), tell stories of characters who are captives of their desires. It's fitting that the director often exploited the wide-angle lens (which makes space seem smaller by pushing objects together) and had his camera closely follow the subjects. It's as if the characters are incapable even of eluding the audience.

In spite of its humorous approach, Polanski's 1967 movie, The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (originally titled and released in other countries as Dance of the Vampires), features characters who are ostensibly confined. The film begins with Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his assistant, Alfred (Polanski), traveling through the snow by horse and sleigh. A pack of wild dogs starts chasing the sleigh (Alfred attempts to fight them off with an umbrella), but fortunately, the dogs retreat when the sun begins to rise. The sleigh is traveling on the only path available for transportation. So the men have but one choice for a destination: the direction in which they are already headed. They cannot turn around, lest they be torn to pieces by wild dogs, much like the beasts did with Alfred's feeble weapon of choice.

Once they reach an inn, the professor is near death from the bitter cold. The innkeeper and guests tend to Abronsius and Alfred, and they are given a room. It is soon abundant that the two men have a goal in mind. They are hunting vampires, and the professor is excited to see garlic hanging from the ceilings. But these "vampire killers" cannot even handle the people at the inn. The innkeeper, Shagal, tiptoes to a maidservant's quarters late at night. When his wife goes looking for him, she inadvertently whacks the professor on the head, knocking him out cold. Shagal claims that the men's room is best due to its proximity to the bathroom, but this is immaterial when his daughter, Sarah (Sharon Tate), monopolizes the washtub. Later, Sarah is taken by vampire Count von Krolock. Shagal heroically rushes out to save his daughter and is found dead the subsequent morning. His wife refuses to drive a wooden stake through Shagal's heart, so Abronsius and Alfred wait until night to do it themselves. However, by the time they get to Shagal's corpse, following a practice run with pillows, the former innkeeper has awakened and runs out the door.

Polanski creates a claustrophobic atmosphere at the inn. The professor and Alfred must succumb to everyone else's behavior. When they finally take the initiative and travel to the Count's nearby castle, they are still burdened by obstacles. A hunchback watches over the vampires in repose, a
nd when they manage to reach the vampires' coffins, Alfred's trepidation (he's anything but "fearless") prevents any action resulting in vampire death. These two men are so absorbed with themselves -- the professor and his infatuation with vampires, Alfred with his incompetence and wandering eyes for the ladies -- that they often do not understand one another. At the castle, Alfred is upset, believing that Sarah is dead. Unable to discern Alfred's mutterings, Abronsius questions him: "Sarah's dead?" Alfred mistakes it for confirmation, gasping and exclaiming softly, "Oh my God!" Alfred's perpetual confusion carries over to others as well. At the inn, Sarah stops by his room, complaining about her life. Alfred is so mesmerized by the beautiful woman that when she asks, "Do you mind if I have a quick one?" he stumbles through a response, "I don't mind at all!" She, of course, is simply asking to use the tub in the adjacent room.
The professor and Alfred are on the prowl for bloodsuckers, but they truly are prisoners, unable to accomplish basic tasks and always at the mercy of others, human or otherwise. This makes for many an amusing sequence, as Polanski includes jabs at the vampire legend, with a Jewish vampire (who chuckles when a potential victim tries to protect herself with a cross) and a flamboyantly gay vampire whose got his sights set on poor Alfred. MacGowran is remarkable as the professor, and Polanski proves equally adept in front of the camera, with a charming performance as the bumbling assistant. Tate is quite appealing as Sarah, and her scenes with Polanski are bittersweet.

In the U.S., Polanski's movie was given the ridiculously long title and snipped of almost 20 minutes. Additionally, a silly and ultimately superfluous cartoon was added before the opening credits, all in an attempt to make the film a slapstick comedy. Most copies available today retain the Americanized title but are thankfully uncut.
The Fearless Vampire Killers is undeniably funny, but it is also exhilarating and wonderfully made, an exemplary model for the cinema of Roman Polanski.


  1. Sark, it seems superfluous to say this is a wonderful article - they are all good. I avoided this movie because of the title all these years, but you make it sound like something I probably would like. I love spoofs if they are well done. I'm a big Mel Brooks fan, and despite its bombing at the box office, I laughed like a fool at Dracula Dead and Loving It. I'm going to get hold of Polanski's film for Halloween month!

  2. Sark, you’ve got thinking me about one of my favorite films in a completely new light. The theme of confinement is definitely there and, as you skillfully point out, it links FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS to other Polanski films. There is much to enjoy in this film, which also functions as an amusing parody of Hammer Films’ fangs-and-damsels formula with all the expected ingredients: attractive women in low-cut attire, a Transylvanian setting, a Gothic castle, garlic hanging from the ceiling of a beer haus, a hint of eroticism, and a well-prepared (though, in this case, incompetent) vampire hunter. I love how Polanski shifts effortlessly from horror (e.g., vampires emerge from graves in a cemetery, still wearing their rotting clothes) to broad humor (e.g., Alfie Bass as a new vampire who wants to keep his coffin in the Krolocks’ vault and not in the drafty barn). This was a superb choice for the 31 Days of Halloween! And, by the way, i love the photos.

  3. I'm glad you've highlighted this film, Sark. I managed to see it within the last few years and came away thinking it hadn't gotten it's due. Good job.

  4. This is a fun entry, Sark, and great job on the photos! I remember the first time I saw the scene where Sharon Tate is in the tub and a vampire breaks through the skylight above and soon other characters enter the room as well. It is a movie that you need to watch with a blanket handy to cover up with because the scenery looks so cold it makes the viewer feel chilly. It is sometimes tongue in cheek yet still frightening.
    Loved your detailed write-up!

  5. Ahhh, Sharon Tate, so beautiful, so sad. Nice piece and Happy Halloween.

  6. Sark, iam not really into Horror films.But,i think i would like to see this movie.Good job.