Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers Or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck (1967)

I'm open to persuasion that I just didn't get this film. I've read glowing reviews of it, and went into it expecting wonders, but I didn't see any. As comedy it's horrifying, and as horror it's a bad comedy.

It has some promising elements. A Jewish vampire (broad ethnic comedy), a gay vampire (broad sex comedy): something nice (if destined to become dated) could have been done with these. The justly famous Vampire Minuet at the end: it almost has the breathtaking, I-can't-believe-I'm-seeing-this effect of a Tim Burton scene. The luminous settings: you can imagine Polanski reaching for a kind of Eastern European fable atmosphere (I'm hardly the first to connect the innkeeper Shagal with a certain Russian painter of village life).

But the film simply doesn't work dramatically, for me. None of the jokes are funny. None of the characters are interesting. None of the performances are effective. Jack MacGowran's vampire-hunting professor is typical: visually, he's wonderful, straight out of a Phiz drawing. But his lines are so lame, and delivered with such an odd mix of hamminess and incoherence, that I started to wonder if there was a script at all, or if he was just improvising badly.

The only intriguing performance is by Polanski himself, as the professor's assistant Alfred. Not that it's a good performance - like MacGowran's, it suffers from painfully unfunny comic gestures and a lot of verbal floundering about. And even when he does have meaningful lines, he delivers them with such bad timing that they kill any sense of interaction between him and the other actors. But Polanski has a charisma here that surprises someone who knows him only from his cameo in Chinatown. He has a wistful, graceful look, like a boy-elf in a fairy tale, and it makes him the focal point of any scene he's in.


I want to point out, for what it's worth, that this film was famously butchered for its original Stateside release. A lot of commenters here and there around the tubes seem to think the version that's out on DVD now is the botched version, but it's not. It's the original version. Except for the title: Polanski's choice was evidently Dance of the Vampires. Which is a better title, but wouldn't have saved the film. For me at least.

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