October Horror Movie Series-The Fearless Vampire Killers

October 21, 2008

The Fearless Vampire Killers(1967); Dir. Roman Polanski; Warner Home Video(2004)

A movie with the subtitle Pardon me, but Your Teeth are in My Neck would suggest to the viewer that they are about to watch something that is in the same vein(I just couldn’t resist) as Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It or the more accomplished Young Frankenstein. The trailer for the release of The Fearless Vampire Killers sets up the film as a parody of vampire movies by adding slapstick sound effects and there is a short special feature included on the disc entitled Vampires 101 which plays as a farce of how to protect oneself from and kill vampires in the form of a lecture given by a very serious and scholarly professor in a creepy castle. Having watched both of these before the actual film, I was almost expecting a film that was absurd, as well as very blatant and intentional about its efforts to parody classic vampire films.

Parody and satire, over the last several years, have gotten a very bad rap because of such movies as Disaster Movie, Scary Movie, Epic Movie, and the countless drone of films that attempt to lampoon everything in sight that could be classified as “pop culture sacred cows.” These movies show very little production value and operate on the lowest levels of humor by finding actors and actresses that can look or sound like the person they are parodying enough to get a few cheap laughs. I bring these movies up not to set them up as straw men in an easy argument for the merits of Polanski’s film but rather to point out that parody is a very delicate thing often taken for cheap entertainment.

What stands out immediately in The Fearless Vampire Killers is the sets and landscape of the film. The castle where a good deal of the action in the film takes place feels Medieval and haunted. The cobwebs, creaky doors, and other aspects that are so often used as cliches and convenient set pieces really feel like they belong there and add an ominous quality to the atmosphere as Prof. Abronsius and Alfred travel through the castle in search of answers.  The inn where Abronsius and Alfred first arrive at, as well as its inhabitants, seem strange and foreboding in their daily routines. You know from the start that things are not quite right when you see the rooms lined with garlic and crucifixes hanging on every wall. But everyone goes about their business and the innkeeper, Shagal, played with great attention to eccentricity and a great sense of comedic timing by Alfie Bass, is unwilling to disclose what it is all about. The inn and the castle are the only interior sets in the film and the rest relies on the beautiful snowy exteriors filmed by the great Douglas Slocombe(cinematographer on the first three Indiana Jones movies among many others).

This attention to detail and moody atmosphere perfectly compliments the performances given by the actors throughout the film. The characters are played with a seriousness that makes the satire work even more effectively, even when they are unrestrained and bumbling as in the case of Polanski’s Alfred or unabashadly sinister as in the case of Ferdy Mayne’s Count von Krolock. There is the homoerotic son of Count von Krolock, played by lain Quarrier and the wonderful hunchback servant to Count von Krolock, Terry Downes who chases after Prof. Abronsius and Alfred in a coffin used as a sled and refuses to let the undead Shagal sleep in the coffin room with his masters, pushing the coffin outside to Shagal’s neurotic complaints. The comic turns these actors give in the film range from the genuinely creepy to the inept attempts of Abronsius and Alfred to stop the vampires once they have discovered them. The darker undertones of the film seem to play out through these characters as they try to reckon with Count von Krolock and his undead forces while unwittingly doing more harm then good in the end.

There are many times when it is refreshing not to know what to expect from a movie, and this is certainly one of those times. What is unexpected about this film does not come from any scary surprises or plot twists that are supposed to shock us but through the landscape that Polanski creates and the attention to detail that he consistently uses throughout the film. He directs The Fearless Vampire Killers the same way that he would have with any of his more serious films and this gives the movie a charm that draws you in and engages you all the way through. Polanski demonstrates a sense of freedom in directing with a deft touch that emphasizes the satirical aspects of the movie while exploring the possibilities of the story material and this makes it more than just an odd curiosity in Roman Polanski’s long film career.

Up Next The October Horror Movie Series gets a tasty but deadly treat with Larry Cohen’s The Stuff.

Charles Jacob

vanheck123@hotmail.com, please feel free to contact me with any comments, questions or general thoughts that you would like to share.

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