The following is my contribution to The LAMBs in the Director's Chair #18: Roman Polanski.
In reality, or at least in the reality of cinema (which let's face it, is the only reality we truly care about here), they really aren't all the fearless after all. More like inept but lucky, but then The Inept but Lucky Vampire Killers isn't that great of a title. And speaking of titles (as I wander off into an aside that will probably happen with a bit of frequency throughout the next few paragraphs) how is this for a title - The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck. Actually director Roman Polanski was very displeased with the title and subtitle given his film by the studio (his original title was Dance of the Vampires), but its irreverent nature does fit with the style of the movie itself. But enough of the title - let's get to the sex!
Actually the sex, or at least the sexuality comes from Polanski's then wife, the drop dead gorgeous Sharon Tate. But before we get to the lovely and tragic Miss Tate, perhaps a little background on the film. Coming on the heels of Repulsion and Cul-de-sac, Polanski was able to procure a large budget for his film and it shows in the lavish costumes and set design of the film. This would also be the director's first film shot in colour and in the widescreen aspect of 2.35:1. With its snow-covered, fairy-tale landscapes and textured, Chagall-esque moonlit-winter-blue color scheme, the film is a visual wonder - almost as if one had somehow fallen deep into the interior of a giant snow globe. Well, a snow globe with vampires of course. It is this magical looking world that makes the film work on much more than just the farce the studio was marketing it as.
The films stars the director himself as the younger of the titular duo (the elder being played by stage actor Jack MacGowran) who has come to this small remote mountain village in search of...well, you guessed it, vampires. After checking in to the village inn and getting the proverbial cold shoulder from the villagers when inquiring about any strange behaviour, the innkeeper's beautiful daughter (the aforementioned Miss Tate) is abducted by a vampire, and the hunt is on. Of course our somewhat bumbling yet intrepid hero Alfred (Polanski) has fallen head over heels for the lovely Sarah (Tate) and he breaches the vampire's castle to get her back. Meanwhile, Sarah, who may be a lot prettier than she is smart, plays the purring tease as the stakes of their situation grow higher and higher. And yes, the stake comment was a very much intended pun.
Anyway, without much further ado (other than a few chase scenes through the castle, the vampire's fanged son's futile attempt at seducing the bewildered Alfred and a buttload of visiting vampires) we come to the final set piece of the film - the dance of the vampires (remember that title?). This finale plays, in a way, like the finale in An American in Paris and showcases an elegant yet giddily terrifying danse macabre minuet. It is the gorgeous set piece that finishes an already quite visually succulent work of cinematic art. It is here that Alfred, Sarah and the Professor (MacGowran) must attempt their escape from the dread that awaits them. Add to this a great trick ending (though one surely sees such a trick coming, it is still a fun trick) and you have Roman Polanski's horror-comedy treat, The Fearless Vampire Killers (no subtitle, no matter how fun, is needed).
With elements of Kafka throughout, and Polanski's unique sense of humour (after a Jewish character is turned into a vampire someone comes at them with a cross and he laughs, saying"Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire.") The Fearless Vampire Killers is a great blend of pantomime, dark humour, self-referential moments (the MGM's iconic Leo has been transformed into a greenish fanged ghoul) and Hammer-style horror. 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."
And then there is Sharon Tate. Miss Tate gives the film an alluring sex appeal not just with her looks, which were to die for, but with the way she would slink about like an innocent cat ready to pounce. But it would be just a few years away when tragedy would strike. More specifically on the night of August 9, 1969. This would be the night that an eight-month pregnant Sharon Tate, along with her guests, were brutally slaughtered by the Manson Family. After this, Polanski's films would turn dark (the first film the director made after the murders is considered to be the bloodiest Macbeth ever put on film) and even though he would go on to make one the best films ever, 1974's Chinatown, the rest of career has been all hit or miss. His own personal life would eventually unravel with an arrest for rape and a guilty verdict in absentia as the director flees back to Europe, but then this is not the time nor the place to discuss such devisive tabloid tales, so let us finish by saying that even with the studio's attempt at turning the film into a kooky farce, The Fearless Vampire Killers remains to this day one of Polanski's best and most colourful cinematic works.