The Fearless Vampire Killers ★★

Part of Hoop-Tober

“I’ve got a funny feeling we’re being watched.”

On your coffee table sits a black box. The box contains a disc labeled simply “MOVIE.” A note accompanying the box informs you that the film is a few decades old. It is a horror-comedy, spoofing the old Universal horror films of the 1930s and the Hammer horror productions of the 1950s and 1960s that they inspired—as such, it is also a period piece set in the menacing Transylvanian environs of many moons ago. It is directed by a prominent, well-respected, Academy Award-winning filmmaker working at the height of his powers. It includes a buxom wench unknowingly making sexytime puns, a man of letters as its hero, and a short bumbling sidekick. Naturally, it is set primarily at a Gothic castle in the mountains.

Excitedly, you remove the disc from its container and pop it into your entertainment system. You’re sure to be watching Young Frankenstein, right? Such a delightful and hilarious film—you can’t wait! Then the credits begin to roll, and you realize you are not watching Mel Brooks’ loving, rib-tickling homage to classic horror. No, you are watching Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, a film whose best joke has transpired as that title scrolls off the screen. You reach for the nearest alcoholic beverage and prepare yourself for a very, very long one hundred and seven minutes.

Few films are as disappointing as The Fearless Vampire Killers. Not as bad, mind you—many, many films are far, far worse—but as disappointing, and doubly so because the movie sounds so utterly beguiling on paper. Polanski, only two years removed from Repulsion and only one year away from Rosemary’s Baby, is a top flight horror director, and as each of those films show, he can capably handle dashes of dark wit of the offbeat Eastern European variety. Surely Polanski could fuse his odd, macabre sense of humor and visually striking sensibilities into an amusing horror spoof.

Alas, with its opaque plotting and slack pacing, The Fearless Vampire Killers never really grabs the viewer (I will resist the urge to make a “sinks its teeth into you” pun, though that would be as funny as nearly anything in the movie). It just kind of sits there, plodding along ever so slowly, refusing to be exciting or engaging or frightening or—worst of all for a purported comedy—funny.

Humor is in the eye of the beholder, of course, making comedy more susceptible to wide variances in personal opinion than perhaps any other genre. But even a film that doesn’t hit one’s individual funny bone can generally be identified as potentially humorous to others—you may not laugh, but you can appreciate why others would. Yet aside from a few scattered moments, The Fearless Vampire Killers is resolutely apathetic in its approach to humor. The ideas are there, but the execution is absent.

One can see the intent. The Fearless Vampire Killers takes the (very 1960s) approach of a widescreen comedy extravaganza about bumbling fools in the vein of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or The Pink Panther films. Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) is an academic vampire “expert” who, along with his assistant, Alfred (Polanski), travels to Transylvania in search of the real thing. Trouble is, Abronsius is daft and incompetent, and the meek, awkward Alfred is no better. Their ineptitude is clearly meant to be a source of madcap humor of the Inspector Clouseau variety, but the gags are so few and far between and so uninspired that the men come off as irritating more often than charmingly maladroit. If one’s comedic heroes are so bad at their jobs that they can’t immediately recognize Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) as a vampire—a man who sleeps all day in a coffin, comes out only at night, and has long, pointy incisors (which he uses to drink a virgin’s blood from her supple neck)—one had best make sure those heroes are uproariously funny. Otherwise, they’ll just seem obnoxiously stupid.

Polanski seems to be aiming for farce, with miscommunications and chases through various corridors and nonsensical misunderstandings. And occasionally he succeeds, as when Alfred seeks to escape the clutches of Herbert von Krolock (Iain Quarrier), the Count’s son, by running around the castle, finally stopping when he thinks he’s safe only to turn around and see Herbert right behind him. But mostly his pacing is so lackadaisical that no comedic momentum can be built—a gag is seen coming from a mile off, it limps its way onscreen, then the film lumbers on waiting for the next ostensibly funny bit. If any genre depends upon speed for its success, it’s comedy, and if any subgenre of comedy needs to be fleet of foot, it’s the hi-jinks laden farce. Instead, The Fearless Vampire Killers drags, and drags, and then drags some more, making its one hour, forty-seven minute runtime seem so much longer. (MGM, apparently noticing the film’s interminability, cut it severely for its U.S. run—that version is generally out of circulation, but was widely panned upon its release.)

Characters meant to be humorous, like Shagal (Alfie Bass), the local innkeeper, and his wife, Rebecca (Jessie Robins), mostly come across as grating. They are exceedingly broad, as might suit a spoof like this, but given little to do but gesture wildly to no end. Abronsius, looking like the misbegotten love child of Albert Einstein and Mark Twain, is supposed to be a human cartoon but is too subdued and spacy, and his gross incompetence at his vampire-chasing passion only makes him off-putting, not amusingly silly. Meanwhile, Alfred's flatness is unforgivable in a comic sidekick. (Viewing them with roles reversed—a milquetoast nincompoop accompanied by an unintelligible old ditz—is no help.)

Polanski’s wonderful eye is often visible, with gorgeous shots of the snow-covered mountains beneath the moon and marvelous set design in both the rundown inn and the crumbling, cobweb-laden castle. And there are isolated amusing moments: the tipping of the inn’s valet while he lies crushed under a pile of luggage; the series of remarkably ugly portraits lining the castle walls; the dark joke that ends the movie. But more exemplary of the film’s sense of humor are Abronsius’ drawn out, windbaggy improvised speech about sleepwalking bats and his declaration that “a castle without a crypt is like a unicorn without a horn.” That no one heard the thuds with which these lines landed is rather shocking.

There is one scene, though, that works remarkably well. Late in the film, Abronsius and Alfred seek to rescue Shagal’s daughter, Sarah (the luminous-yet-bland Sharon Tate), from a midnight ball hosted by the Count for his vampire cohort. The decaying, grey-skinned vampires are dressed in their finest wigs and evening wear and dance like something out of French Revolution-era story, all while the vampire hunters disguise themselves to retrieve Sarah, exchanging bits of information as they pass each other in their minuets. The plan seems to be succeeding—until the dozens of vampires notice that there are three individuals in their midst whose reflections show up in the ballroom’s mirror, leading to a climactic chase. It’s zippy and funny and visually arresting and plays knowingly on the vampire mythos. It gives you a glimpse of the film you had hoped to watch instead of the film Polanski gave you. Alas, while the characters have a funny feeling that they're being watched, I’ve got a funny feeling they aren't.

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