Professor Abronsius (Jack McGowran) is absolutely sure that vampires are real and that they have to be destroyed before they become a danger for the whole world. Together with his assistant Alfred (Roman Polanski) he travels into deep Romania. Arriving half-frozen in a small tavern, the wannabe vampire hunters notice lots of garlic hanging around, but the local people are keeping mum about the strange events in their town. When Sarah (Sharon Tate), the pretty daughter of the innkeeper Shagall (Alfie Bass) is abducted by a vampire, Alfred and Abronsius slowly get on the track of the local bloodsuckers.
Vampires are a dime a dozen in film history since Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau had introduced the first long-toothed blood drinker as Nosferatu in 1922 to the silver screen. In 1931 the first official adaption of Bram Stoker's Dracula was created and made the genre popular for the first time. Bela Lugosi's interpretation of the most famous vampire of them all became a huge favourite of the audience in the 1930s, with Christopher Lee taking over the role in the late 1950s in the productions of the Hammer studios, becoming the embodiment of the cinema vampire. But practically all vampire movies hail back at least rudimentially to Bram Stoker's Dracula story from 1897, which, after numerous alterations, had only been filmed again true to the original by Francis Ford Coppola in the 1990s. It had also inspired Mel Brooks to a deft parody and was again rediscovered in Hollywood as the action blockbuster Van Helsing.
One big exception of the many vampire horror movies was created in the mid-1960s in England. The young polish director Roman Polanski had already made a couple of movies in his native country and in France before he achieved international success with the psychological thriller Repulsion, providing him with a powerful resumée for his first big production. Under the patronage of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the independent studio Filmways of producer Martin Ransohoff a production with the working title Dance of the Vampires was started - not as a usual horror movie, but as an intelligent balancing act between homage, parody and classic vampire story.
Polanski, who before had to make do with only miniscule budgets, invested the capital increase in huge sceneries built in the British Elstree and Pinewood studios, location shoots in the italian alps and the best film crew available in England. As cinematographer, the director was able to hire the legendary Douglas Slocombe, while the production designer became Wilfrid shingleton, who had also worked for John Huston on African Queen. Polanski wrote the script together with his co-author Gérad Brach, who together invented a perfect mix of classic horror elements, bizarre characters and intelligent slapstic comedy.
Roman Polanski also had the double job of director and actor, working behind and in front of the camera, which had, however, no influence on his very precise direction and his acting ability. Polanski portrays Alfred, the aloof assistant of Professor Abronsius, with an almost pity-inducing insecurity, while Professor Abronsius seems to be somewhere between brisk, fearless and academic goofyness. The british stage actor Jack MacGowran plays the white-haired Professor with the help of thick makeup as an affectionate mix of Albert Einstein and Groucho Marx, not overdoing the slapstick too much. Polanski and MacGowran, the two heroes of the story, have surprisingly little dialogue, but manage to hold up their characters alone with their great facial expressions and wonderful physical humour.
The female lead of the pretty inkeeper's daughter Sarah had originally been cast with the american actress Jill St. John, who had unfortunately left the movie shortly before the start of production. As a replacement producer Martin Ransohoff had suggested the texan-born Sharon Tate, whom he had already cast in a couple of his other movies. While Tate and Polanski had already met by chance in England before, he was not very enthusiastic about the relatively inexperienced actress, but after a few initial difficulties she was able to work with her character very well, even if her appearance was not too complex and mostly relied on her good looks. In spite of their mutual scepticism, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski became acquainted so well that they became a couple and married in 1968. Tragically, in 1969 the pregnant Sharon Tate became one of the many victims of a murder spree committed by the Manson family.
Brilliantly cast were also the villagers of the town plagued by vampires. The wonderful english actor Alfie Bass plays the innkeeper Shagal nearly mute, but with a brilliant mimic which says more than a thousand words, earning the most laughs of the movie. Also amazing is the appearance of Jessie Robbins as Shagal's whife Rebecca, who has her husband firmly under her thumb and is only slightly fazed by his vampirization. During the scenes in the tavern there is almost no clearly articulated talk except the dialogue between Professor Abronsius and Albert. The locals, among them a barely recognizable Ronald Lacey, are only communicating with an unintelligible murmur, which is barely recognizable as a kind of heavily accented English. The people act realtively normal, but only relaitvely - strange, mad glances and faces like from a waxworks museum make these people almost look like a freak show.
The vampires of the story appear completely different. The German actor Ferdy Mayne basically plays a barely concealed Dracula with the name Count von Krolock, but is far away from the animalistic portrayals of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. This vampire is a learned aristocrat, who only gives in to the bloodlust out of necessity and otherwise appears as a noble gentleman, albeit with a dangerous undertone. Ian Quarrier as Krolock's son Herbert has the honour of playing the first and maybe only gay vampire in film history and appears sufficently salacious, without making the character too embarrasing - the gag even gets serious when Herbert extends his teeth to get after Alfred.
And there is also Terry Downes, who has a lot of fun as the Count's crooked-teethed, hunchbacked servant called Koukok, making his mark in the story with his grotesque appearance.
The look of the movie is impressive, but not in a grandiose or overloaded way. Mainly responsible for the unique atmosphere were production designer Wilfred Shingleton and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who had taken Roman Polanski's idea of a remote transsylvanian village and a dusty, cobwebbed castle to heart and made the wonderful atmosphere of the movie possible, rivaling and overshadowing similar productions of the era. After some scenes had been already filmed on location, Roman Polanski and Douglas Slocombe decided to switch from flat 1.85:1 to Panavision 2.35:1 to widen the scope of the picture even more. Some footage was optically converted, making some compositions a bit tight - the budget seems to have been big, but not as big as to allow reshoots.
How much of the movie was shot in the italian Dolomites and which parts were made in the filmstudios in Elstree, Borehamwood and Pinewood is not exactly known today, because Roman Polanski chose to use much back projection, matte paintings and other technical tricks. The opening titles with their falling drops of bloog segueing into a painted picture, which seamlessy blends into the real footage, is a real work of art, as are many other mattes used in the movie. They were created by Peter Melrose and Doug Ferris in the famous matte painting department of Shepperton Studios, who also extended a few shots filmed in 1.85:1 to widen them for the 2.35:1 Panavision ratio. With their lifelike paintings the scenery seems very vivid and hardly leaves the impression of having been staged completely in a studio.
The music of Roman Polanskis fellow countryman Christopher (actually Krysztof) Komeda was a musical balancing act. The jazz pianist did not leave his roots completely and had built a bridge between baroque, classical orchestral arrangements and bebop-like sounds. Mixing eerie chorals with jaunty melodies, the composer did not stop with the catchy title tune, but also introduced a number of other themes ranging from the downright scary to incredibly funny. In many scenes the music practically takes over the direction and transforms the literal Dance of the Vampires in a kind of silent movie, which sometimes reminds of the more dramatic performances of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.
Roman Polanski refused to be boxed into only one genre and successfully managed to link horror with comedy, parody and homage. With a decidedly menacing, gloomy and pessimistic atmosphere and a conclusion, which was far away from a typical Hollywood happy ending, the story became more like a scary fairytale with a very careful balance of humour and horror. Polanski liked to play with the sympathy of the audience and left it completely ambiguous if the hapless vampire hunters or the tightly organised vampire clan, who are basically only interested in their own survival, should be the heroes of the story. Polanski's vampires were no simple monsters and in spite of all the humour the story makes the quite fatalistic point that evil cannot always be conquered by good.
The dark and scary mood of the story was of course considerably lightened by the carefully placed humour, which in itself was quite simple and not particularly sophisticated, but proved to be very important for the balance between humour and horror. The story was liberally laced with many small and big references to the vampire film genre, but Roman Polanski die not simply borrow from his predecessors - instead he created a fully original story, which was able to differentiate itself in a refreshing way from other movies of its kind. The director was able to successfully mix several genres without losing the carefully crafted balance and simply refused to be categorised into one single corner.
The Fearless Vampire Killers was premiered in spring 1967 in England with its working title Dance of the Vampires and was able to completely captivate the british audience. When the movie was to be released in the USA by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at the end of the year, the studio bosses denounced Polanski's original version as too intellectual and complicated for the American audience. The film was cut by more than ten minutes, partly revoiced and introduced by a silly animated prologue. The mutilations were often attributed to Martin Ransohoff, but only much later it became apparent that the producer hat nothing to do with it. The movie had been a victim of Margaret Booth, who had the position of supervising editor at MGM, posessing the power to alter every movie to which the director did not have the right of the final cut.
The mangled version with the overlong title The Fearless Vampire Killers, or, Pardon Me Your Teeth are in my Neck was not able to make much money at the boxoffices when it finally premiered in December 1967 in the USA - it was simply branded as a failure. While Dance of the Vampires had become a big hit in Europe, MGM had only started to show the original cut in arthouse cinemas more than ten years after its making. Luckily the American version of the movie was soon forgotten, but the title The Fearless Vampire Killers was kept for all English-language versions of the movie and continues to be the official title until today.
In Germany, The Fearless Vampire Killers was released as Tanz der Vampire (Dance of the Vampires) at the end of 1967, but luckily Polanskis original European cut was used as a basis and not the American version. The German dub was largely true to the original and had not even inserted more jokes to reinforce the slapstick humour. Initially the movie also failed to impress in Germany, but like in many other countries the movie became a timeless classic made possible by many television broadcasts and arthouse revivals all over the world. A remake has thankfully never been attempted, but at the end of the 1990s a very successfull musical was created in Germany with the cooperation of Roman Polanski.
At the end of the 1990s, the american television channel Turner Classic Movies, which was broadcast in Europe over the Astra satellite, had surprised with a showing of The Fearless Vampire Killers in anamorphic 16:9 format with surprisingly good quality, raising hopes for a possible DVD release. But it took actually more than half a decade to finally happen - only in autumn 2004 Warner Home Video had finally released Roman Polanski's little masterpiece on DVD worldwide.
There seem to be many different versions of The Fearless Vampire Killers, but they all can be boiled down to only two incarnations. Roman Polanski's original cut, used for all European versions, is running 108 minutes at 24 frames per second. The re-cut andre-dubbed American version was rumoured to have a runtime of over nearly hours, further confusing matters - but it was actually about ten minutes shorter than the original version, because the animated prologue was added, artificially pushing the runtime.
The German cinema release was actually uncut and corresponded to the British original, but with the television premiere in 1976 the ZDF had shortened the movie a little bit. Only in the 1990s the original cut was shown as a "restored version", which was actually the initial German release. A later broadcast by the German-French culture channel arte had even been shown with both the German and English soundtracks at the same time, showing that the German version was in fact complete.
Warner's DVD of The Fearless Vampire Killers had even been released in the USA with a German soundtrack and region code 1-4, but the German RC2 version reviewed in this article is, apart from the technical differences, completely identical to the US version. Unfortunately the DVD turned out not to be the sensation it could have been, because instead of a complete restoration with decent image and sound, the studio had only done a medicore transfer, not worked at all on the soundtracks and neglected the bonus materials.
It's not as if this DVD is technically unacceptable, but a classic like The Fearless Vampire Killers would have deserved a much better treatment than this disc. Unfortunately Warner Germany had also replaced the wonderful hand-drawn cover of the US release by a motive from an old VHS release, although the press releases had shown an adaption from the international cover before. There has been no re-release of The Fearless Vampire Killers on any kind of medium since the DVD of 2004 and no new high-definition transfer seems to be in existence.
Many thanks to Glenn "DVD Savant" Erickson, who had already written in 1999 about the differences between the strange American version and the original European cut in his article The Fearless Vampire Killers: A Tale of two Versions. His review of the American DVD release was a big help during the research for this article.