The Fearless Vampire Killers

(Roman Polanski, UK, 1967)


Although it has not proved a terribly popular enterprise, either commercially or critically, Roman Polanski has long been attracted to making purely light-hearted, even childlike comedies. Crafting a comedy is as irresistible a challenge to him as mastering the thriller or horror modes. The Fearless Vampire Killers is the best of his humorous films because it deftly inverts certain dramatic and atmospheric conventions he has used elsewhere.

Here, the suspense of dead moments and empty spaces creates not dread but hilarity. The usual traumas of sexual identity, domination and submission become a source of mirth, as an unheroic young man (played by Polanski) finds himself symbolically emasculated at every turn. Writer Gérard Brach and Polanski’s typically dark disenchantment with myths of rescue (this time the maiden in distress is Sharon Tate) and happy endings gives way, for once, to an affectionate brand of self-mockery.

Positioned in cinema history between the Hammer horror movies and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) – and flavoured with a personal, playful nod to the lore of Eastern European superstition – The Fearless Vampire Killers is a triumph of stylisation. The central castle becomes a labyrinth. Moments of silence generate a delicious disquiet before visual gags reveal their delayed punchline. Performances (especially from Cul-de-Sac‘s, 1966, Jack MacGowan) are pitched at a frenzied but controlled level of slapstick that would make Yahoo Serious proud.

As a divertissement that skilfully dives into darker Gothic undercurrents only to come up smiling again, The Fearless Vampire Killers comes close to the droll quality in Buñuel – a master admired by Polanski for his ability to make films in which everything is subtly "so queer".

MORE Polanski: Chinatown, Death and the Maiden, The Fat and the Lean, Frantic, The Ninth Gate, The Pianist, Repulsion, The Tenant, Tess, Two Men and a Wardrobe, Knife in the Water

© Adrian Martin June 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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