Imagine if the Young Frankenstein era Mel Brooks decided to make a Hammer horror film. That is not quite what Fearless Vampire Killers is like, but it is very close. This is a film that is very fun in its concept, but not necessarily in its execution. It tries to go for satire when it wants to be a spoof, and then decides that it wants to be a serious horror film. This was only director Roman Polanksi’s fourth film (and was made before he directed such masterpieces as Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and The Pianist). It is also one of the strangest he has ever worked on in any capacity. I do feel that the film is The film is an important one, as it was one of the first spoofs to become popular. But Polanski also seemed very respectful of the genre, which almost dooms it. Polanksi wanted to create a serious horror film, and almost succeeds. But it doesn’t WANT to be a horror film, which makes the film a failure.
The film takes place in Transylvania (naturally) and concerns Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his assistant Alfred (Polanski himself). They are trying to find a vampire, but are clearly too weak to survive such a task. They come across an inn, where the innkeeper’s daughter Sarah (Sharon Tate) flirts with Alfred. She is kidnapped by Count von Korlock (Ferdy Mayne) and the two intrepid heroes go to save her.
The film does work as a legitimate horror film. The images are wonderfully gothic, and was the best looking vampire film until Werner Herzog remade Nosferatu. The Ball scene at the end demonstrates Polanski’s strengths. He has always been a director who knew how to properly manipulate images to get his point across. One of Chinatown’s best moments was of the corpse being fished from the reservoir. The Fearless Vampire Killers has moments like that in abundance.
The thing is, Polanski tries to hard to make sure that we understand it is all a giant joke. And the points of “humor” are not even particularly funny. A running gag in the film involves the professor becoming frozen – literally. He has to be thawed out. Now, the film does begin with this gag, but then keeps repeating it. Besides, it doesn’t match the character (who is actually quite intelligent, if a bit absent minded). Same with Sarah, who is introduced over her love of bathing…but it never goes anywhere beyond that. By themselves, these images would have fit within a traditional horror film (especially with a character like Sarah). If they were tweaked, they may have even worked as comedy. But Polanski was not able to decide which tone he wanted to strike. He was halfway to horror and then decided that his first two films were already depressing enough.
Normally I would not mind as much. Again, this was only Polanski’s fourth film. But the film has not seemed to die. It was the inspiration for a very popular musical in Europe and some cult fanatics point to the film as an unsung masterpiece of comedy. Sorry, but that is just not going to fly. The film is unfunny and is, worse yet, trying to insist so very hard that it is. Compared to his first films, and his subsequent work, this film is more like a minor road bump in an otherwise fine filmography. The Fearless Vampire Killers is a great looking film, but it is not even sure what to do with its own gothic aesthetic. Taking the hipster approach and laughing feels like a cop out.
I would also like to close by saying that the image of Sharon Tate’s blood stained soap suds (she is kidnapped from her bath) takes on a much different meaning now than it did at the time when the film was released. Polanski had no way of knowing what would happen to her, but it is still an unusual choice to cast your partner as a victim of a vampire. Maybe that is why I found myself unable to laugh at the plight – I knew the punchline, and it’s not funny.