“Parody was never my intention. I wanted to make a fairy tale, something that’s frightening as well as fun, but also an adventure story.” – Roman Polanski
Fresh from psychological thriller Cul-de-Sac (1966), filmmaker Roman Polanski shifted gears with his next effort, the horror comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), where he would meet, cast and fall in love with his second wife, Sharon Tate. It saw the director in a playful mood – as if he was cheekily thumbing his nose at the successful Hammer horror movies populated with beautiful, busty women, bright red blood, and exotic Eastern European settings, usually filmed on a set. He proceeded to turn many of these elements on their head. So much so that distributor MGM decided to market the film as a farce and changed the title, saddling it with the clunky addition, Or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, as well as cutting several minutes out. Over the years, the excised footage has been restored and the film can be seen as it was originally intended.
“Deep in the heart of Transylvania,” we meet Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his assistant Alfred (Polanski) as they hunt for vampires. It’s a cold night as they make their way through a snowy landscape. Their sleigh is set upon briefly by a pack of wild dogs that only Alfred seems to notice, which establishes a slightly ominous tone. They arrive at a small village where Abronsius has to be thawed out. As he and Alfred warm-up, the older man notices strings of garlic hanging all over the inn and the nervous owner is afraid to mention the nearby castle – their ultimate destination. While staying overnight, they encounter Sarah (Tate), the innkeeper’s beautiful daughter, whom Alfred becomes fond of, and hobbies include taking numerous baths.
Polanski creates an off-kilter vibe during these scenes as he establishes the relationship between Abronsius and Alfred and the goings-on in the inn, which they inadvertently get mixed up in to comic effect. There’s a nice moment where Alfred charms Sarah by making a snowman only to get hit with a snowball by some meddlesome local children. Polanski gradually eases us into the main story by sprinkling little moments of comedy among a study of the villagers as a hard-working, superstitious lot.
Watching these early scenes with Alfred and Sarah flirting with each other one can’t help but think about how Polanski and Tate were falling in love with each other in real life. He was no doubt captivated by her considerable beauty, and this is evident in the way he films her, with close-ups that highlight her radiant face. It’s obvious that the camera loved her.
Almost 25 minutes in and Polanski masterfully orchestrates a riveting scene where, while taking a bath, Sarah is attacked from above by Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) that begins with her noticing flakes of snow falling around her. Krolock appears and savagely bites her neck. As she struggles desperately, Polanski shows the splashing bath water drenching the nearby door, which an unsuspecting Alfred is behind. It is a sudden, jarring attack that is very effective in shaking things up after all the light comedy that came before it.
Another beautifully orchestrated set piece, and the one that the film is most famous for, sees the Count introduce Sarah as the latest addition to his undead “family” as the other members partake in a minuet that is quite a sight to behold – ghouls pretending to be aristocrats – while our heroes attempt to masquerade as one of them. It is a sequence that best typifies the film as a whole – the deft marriage of horror and comedy. It’s a tricky balancing act that Polanski maintains throughout. Unlike a lot of horror movies, he doesn’t wallpaper the film with scary music. He uses it judiciously and knows when silence, like when the vampire hunters sneak into the Count’s castle, is more suspenseful with just sound effects.
Abronsius is a methodical, wise old man but also physically frail, and Alfred is his bumbling, timid apprentice. They are hardly the heroic, able-bodied men of action like swashbuckler Captain Kronos in the film of the same name, but that’s the point of The Fearless Vampire Killers as Polanski deliberately goes against this convention for laughs. Jack MacGowran and Polanski play well off each other with the former trying to teach his assistant the ways to detect and kill vampires because he is getting too old physically, while the latter is too clumsy to do the job, stumbling over each other, bumping into things and generally being inept. They have their moments of competency, though, like when Alfred gracefully skis down the snow-covered countryside in pursuit of a newly turned bloodsucker.
The idea for The Fearless Vampire Killers came to Roman Polanski while on a skiing vacation in Austria during post-production on Cul-de-Sac. He and his co-writer Gerard Brach had been thinking about making a “vampire spoof” for some time. Polanski remembered seeing horror movies in Paris and audiences laughing at them. He said, “Why not make a film they could laugh with, rather than at?” He also wanted to eschew the “tatty rural location situated conveniently near a film studio,” for “swaths of frosted pine trees, massive snowdrifts, and majestic mountain peaks.”
Accompanying Polanski on this trip was his producing partner Gene Gutowski. As they were putting the finishing touches on Cul-de-Sac, the latter met with American producer Martin Ransohoff, joint head of Filmways, a production company financed by and had a distribution deal with MGM. He liked Cul-de-Sac and agreed to distribute it in the United States. He also wanted to work with Polanski and Gutowski on their next project, then-entitled, The Vampire Killers.
Ransohoff had a reputation for clashing with filmmakers and Polanski was no different. The director wanted to cast Jill St. John in the role of Sarah because he envisioned the character as a redhead, but the producer wanted Sharon Tate, a young actress he had been grooming for stardom. Polanski felt that she didn’t look Jewish enough for the role but finally agreed to do a screen test with her. Once he saw Tate in a red wig and her character’s costume, he was convinced that she was right for the role.
Polanski wanted to cast himself in the co-lead role of Alfred but neither Gutowski or Ransohoff thought he was right for the part and were concerned that he wouldn’t be able to juggle double duty as director and actor. Polanski had experience as an actor and to appease his producers did a screen test. Co-head of Filmways, John Calley, was convinced and pressed his business partner to go with the choice.
Gutowski scouted locations and found an Austrian castle in a snowbound area in Northeastern Italy. The production was all set to film there but a day before they were to fly out an unexpected change in weather caused all the snow to melt! The production scrambled to find another suitable location and settled on a snowy plateau near an Italian ski resort. There was no castle and so sets would have to be built at the studio for an additional cost, causing the budget to increase from $1 million to $2 million.
Filming lasted five months and had its share of difficulties. Principal photography took place in a snowy environment and the crew had to haul heavy equipment through the snow over long distances every day. After shooting there, the production moved to the confines of the studio backlot in England. Due to the late start in filming, their time was limited because Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was taking up a lot of studio space. As a result, the production moved to nearby Elstree Studios.
Ransohoff did not like the time it took for principal photography to be completed or the number of takes Polanski would do – sometimes over 40 for a given scene but Gutowski defended his friend’s methods. The lengthy shoot, coupled with a busy shooting schedule at Elstree, forced the production to move yet again to Pinewood Studios.
Polanski finished his rough cut and then showed it to Ransohoff and Calley in Los Angeles. Ransohoff didn’t like it and told Polanski that it was too long and needed to be reworked, which was his right contractually as the studio could cut their own version in North America while the director could release his own version internationally. After he went off to make Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Polanski had a chance to see the version with Ransohoff’s changes and was horrified to find that he changed the title to Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, redubbed all the actors so they would sound more American, tweaked the score, and cut 20 minutes out. Understandably upset, Polanski said at the time, “I’ve called them and asked them to have my name removed because I don’t want credit for a film I didn’t really make. The one now showing is far from the one I filmed.”
In addition, the truncated version received negative critical notices and MGM cut their losses, barely giving it a theatrical release. It didn’t screen in L.A. until almost a year later at midnight showings. Polanski’s film did find a second life at regional college film societies all over the country that rented 16mm copies of it due his rising popularity with the success of Rosemary’s Baby.
While the film’s humor is hardly subtle – it relies a lot on physical gaffs – it isn’t quite as broadly slapstick as, say, Young Frankenstein (1974). The Fearless Vampire Killers has the occasional moments of dread. It was an approach that Polanski would apply again in the underrated supernatural thriller The Ninth Gate (1999). The film ends in a fashion that is consistent with many of the filmmaker’s other efforts: pessimistically as Alfred’s love for Sarah proves to be his last inept act that he is unable to bumble his way out of thereby dooming humanity, much like the ill-fated protagonists in Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown (1974). As Glenn Erickson put it so well in a review, the ending shows “the ineffectualness of virtue in the face of organized evil.”
Nuiman, Philip and Constantine Nasr. “Dancing with Vampires: Roman Polanski’s Homage to Fangs, Fairy Tales and Fearless Vampire Killers.” Little Shoppe of Horrors. October 2011.