The Fearless Vampire Killers


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THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS was popular in Europe on release in early 1967, with its original title Dance Of The Vampires. When it came to the US that fall, MGM re-cut it, lopping off 20 minutes, tacked a silly cartoon prologue and gave it a new title, which, in the fashion of several other films of the period, added a further, supposedly ha-ha mouthful— or Pardon Me, but Your Teeth Are in My Neck. Critics were not amused and it didn’t find much audience. With the irksome subtitle dropped, the restored original 108-minute version has been re-evaluated and its reputation has been restored. * (with personal 6-degrees tie-in buried at bottom, un-earth if you dare)

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Deep in the heart of Transylvania”, sometime in the mid-1800s. ‘Prof. Abronsius’ (Jack MacGowran), doddering vampire hunter, and his clumsy young assistant ‘Alfred’ (Roman Polanski) arrive at an isolated country inn during deep winter, hoping to get the suspicious locals to help them locate the regional dark lord of the night, ‘Count Krolock’ (Ferdy Mayne). Alfred falls for the innkeepers comely daughter (Sharon Tate) and when she’s kidnapped by Krolock, the two bumbling heroes make their way to Krolock’s castle to rescue the maiden and put a stake to the Count. Be careful what you wish for…

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With three critical successes under his belt (Knife In The Water, Repulsion and Cul de Sac), 33-year-old director Roman Polanski chose this for his next project, co-writing the script with frequent collaborator Gérard Brach. His producing partner Gene Gutoski expended $2,000,000 (twice the original budget), with ace cameraman Douglas Slocombe (The Blue Max, The Lion In Winter, Raiders Of The Lost Ark) shooting exteriors on location in the Dolomite mountains in Italy (Fischburg Castle subbing for Krolock’s lair), interiors back in England.

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Not getting (or caring) that it was essentially a fairy tale dusted with elements of horror and humor, MGM clumsily marketed it as a zany comedy. That extra title gimmick must have seemed hopeful to the suits in a day that saw How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines–or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes, Those Daring Young Men In Their Jaunty Jalopies, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and so on…and on…As it was, they barely gave it a release; after opening in New York, it didn’t screen in L.A. until almost a year later, at midnight showings. Polanski was understandably outraged. He later said, 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.” During the lengthy shoot he fell for his leading lady, 23-year-old Sharon Tate—and no wonder. ’67 was the roll-out year for the promising, doomed beauty, with showy parts in Eye Of The Devil (of interest), Don’t Make Waves (it didn’t, but she’s gasp-worthy) and Valley Of The Dolls (camp classic, huge hit).

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I first saw this cult item at a drive-in in the early 70s (a re-release capitalizing on Tate’s murder) and, even with the help of repeatedly administered marijuana, was unimpressed with it, beyond appreciating the considerable physical charms of the late actress. The movie had a lame rep at the time, with the critics missing its positive ingredients. Today it’s perhaps over-praised, with reviewers overlooking the parts of it that flail.

On the downside, the clumsy humor angle—mostly a tiresome and continual series of pratfalls from MacGowran and Polanski—gets old. The editing drags, and some of the supporting players are broad and grating. A good deal of tedium is present, and the script is weak.

Looking up, the detailed production design is fetching, and— thanks to Douglas Slocombe’s excellent cinematography and Polanski’s staging— there are some great images and individual scenes that work splendidly; the dog pack chasing the sleigh, the dark, snowbound landscapes in the full moon (what else would it be?), the costuming, Krolock’s abduction of the girl from her bath, the vampire dance at the conclusion. Tate is stunning, Mayne makes an elegantly aloof vampire, the goofy hunchback (Terry Downes) is suitably revolting, and Iain Quarrier registers wicked ick as Krolock’s son (fitting, given the actors later history–see below). Unusual, unnerving music score by Krzysztof Komeda (Rosemary’s Baby) adds to the weirdness.

With Alfie Bass, Fiona Lewis, Jessie Robbins, Ronald Lacey.

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*  Horror mixed with guffaws: Jill St.John was the first choice for the role of the village maiden (‘excuse me while I fall down laughing’). Even with dubbing to disguise an utter inability in her native-English-language to say a line without sounding like words were foreign concepts, she would have further hexed the project, which may as well have been soaked in garlic anyway from the way MGM treated it. Picking the dreamy Tate was a smart move.

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Life imitates Art, Not in a Good Way Dept: Polanski’s pal and Euro-trash hanger-on Iain Quarrier was caught in 2008, twice, trying to abduct girls from a supermarket. He was 67, they were 5 and 9. I guess if the part calls for a blood-slurping degenerate, you may as well cast to type.

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Speaking of ghouls, it is kind of odd how many comedies have been inspired by the idea  of throat-draining fiends. Giggle or groan: Vampire In Brooklyn, Love At First Bite, Vampire’s Kiss, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Once Bitten, Vamp, Dracula: Dead And Loving It, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Vamps, Dark Shadows….

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—-Fang this personal 6-degrees tie-in—–back in the mid-60s, starlet Sharon Tate landed bits in 15 episodes of TVs The Beverly Hillbillies. My late brother-in-law, Larry Pennell, likewise did a fun 10-episode gig as ‘Dash Rip Rock’; they worked together on one in 1965. He recalled the 22-year-old hopeful as pleasant, rather shy, kind of ‘flower-powerish’. Later, Larry lost a part in Don’t Make Waves, which co-starred Tate (good thing, the film bombed). A few years on, in another part of L.A., my other sister, working in a bank, took notice of a young female customer, seeking to wire money from her uncle to buy a motorcycle for the strange, scrawny dude who always accompanied her: later she found out the creep was Charles Manson, the girl one of his budding murderesses—Leslie Van Houten. My sis and her boyfriend at the time would often go horseback riding at the Spahn Ranch—where Manson’s ‘family’ hung out. As if this wasn’t creepticular enough, when she later married, she found her husband, a retiring Los Angeles sheriff, had been one of the officers in charge of escorting ‘Charlie’ from his cell to court. So, curious reader, you now can say “you know” someone who knew people who knew people, one beautiful and doomed, one horrible and infamous.  As far as I’m aware, none of them, however knew Kevin Bacon….

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