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When Roman Polanski's horror comedy was first released in the United States, MGM wanted to make sure everyone knew it was a farce by saddling it with a longer title - The Fearless Vampire Killers, Or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967). The director was less than pleased and he had reason to be upset. Not only did Martin Ransohoff, the American executive producer, change the original title from the more eloquent Dance of the Vampires, he also chopped out 16 minutes of footage, redubbed some of the actors' voices, and tacked on an opening animated credit sequence which features the famous MGM lion as a grinning, fanged vampire.
Despite Ransohoff's changes, The Fearless Vampire Killers remains one of the most visually dazzling and entertaining horror parodies in the history of the genre. At a glance, the plot appears fairly conventional. A vampire hunter (Jack MacGowran) and his inept assistant (Roman Polanski) conspire to rescue the beautiful Sarah (Sharon Tate) from the clutches of the evil Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne), a vampire who has been terrorizing the local village. Polanski, however, takes the traditional vampire myth and spins some hilarious new variations on it, like his introduction of both a Jewish vampire (he's immune to the sign of the cross) and a homosexual bloodsucker into the plot. Most striking of all is the way Polanski is able to transition smoothly from knockabout slapstick sequences to scenes that are genuinely dark and disturbing, like von Krolock's descent through the snow-covered skylight as Sarah takes her bath.
It was always Polanski's intention to parody the genre in an affectionate manner and he had very definite ideas about the casting as well. He conceived the part of Professor Abronsius for Jack MacGowran (they had worked together previously on Cul-de-Sac, 1966) and envisioned that character as "a snow-dusted Albert Einstein." The part of Sarah was originally slated for Jill St. John, but the producer had a "new discovery" he wanted Polanski to cast in the role - Sharon Tate. The director was doubtful at first whether she could handle the role, but he soon discovered that Tate was "more than just stunning to look at." (They fell in love on the set and married a short time later.)
In his autobiography, Roman, Polanski discusses some of the difficulties in filming The Fearless Vampire Killers: "Our first month's outdoor filming became a series of ingenious improvisations, mainly because the last-minute switch from one location (Austria) to another (Ortisei, an Italian ski resort in the Dolomites) had left us so little time to revise our shooting schedules. The fact that we were filming in Italy entailed the employment of a certain number of Italian technicians, and that, in turn, bred some international friction. Gene Gutowski (the film's European producer) rightly suspected that the Italians were robbing us blind.
"One of my minor problems was Terry Downes. I'd hired this young former middleweight boxer because his face and physique were perfect for Kukol, Count von Krollock's hunchbacked servant. Terry was one of the gentlest men imaginable, despite his looks, and his part required no previous acting experience. He did, however, develop a couple of quirks when drunk. One was to perform a weird striptease act, the other to vent his hatred of Germans....He celebrated his first night on location by picking a fight with some German guests in the hotel bar....from then on, he was never left unsupervised in the evenings.
"Hans Mollinger acted as stuntman for all the really dangerous scenes. Our trickiest moment came during the sequence in which Kukol tries to prevent Abronsius, Alfred, and the inn-keeper's daughter from fleeing the vampire count's castle. Hans, doubling for Terry Downes, had to grab a coffin and hurtle down the snow-covered slopes to cut them off at the pass. We made several takes with Hans using a coffin mounted on runners - the three of us galloping along in our horse-drawn sleigh, Hans overhauling it on his bizarre toboggan. The first time he was a little early. I altered the timing slightly to bring him in closer. On the fourth take I overdid it: Hans shot across our front, shaving the shaft of the sleigh with his head and only narrowly missing the horses' hooves. That, needless to say, was the take I used. Roy Stevens and I played stuntmen, too. I ignored Filmways' s instructions and did all my own skiing as Alfred."
Despite numerous production headaches, Polanski had a marvelous time making The Fearless Vampire Killers. His cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe, was quoted by Ivan Butler in his book, The Cinema of Roman Polanski, as saying, "I think he (Roman) put more of himself into Dance of the Vampires than into another film. It brought to light the fairy-tale interest that he has. One was conscious all along when making the picture of a Central European background to the story. Very few of the crew could see anything in it - they thought it old-fashioned nonsense. But I could see this background....I have a French background myself, and could sense the Central European atmosphere that surrounds it. The figure of Alfred is very much like Roman himself - a slight figure, young and a little defenseless - a touch of Kafka. It is very much a personal statement of his own humour. He used to chuckle all the way through."
Producer: Gene Gutowski
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Gerard Brach, Roman Polanski
Art Direction: Fred Carter
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Costume Design: Sophie Devine
Film Editing: Alastair McIntyre
Original Music: Krzysztof Komeda
Cast: Roman Polanski (Alfred), Jack MacGowran (Prof. Abronsius), Alfie Bass (Shagal), Jessie Robbins (Rebecca Shagal), Sharon Tate (Sarah Shagal), Ferdy Mayne (Count von Krolock), Iain Quarrier (Herbert von Krolock), Terry Downes (Koukol), Fiona Lewis (Maid).
C-108m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
By Jeff Stafford