The Fearless Vampire Killers / The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck / Dance of the Vampires (1967) **
Seven years before Mel Brooks spoofed Universal horror with Young Frankenstein, Roman Polanski played much the same trick on the Hammer vampire films. The resulting movie, The Fearless Vampire Killers/Dance of the Vampires, enjoys a reputation in some circles to rival that of Young Frankenstein, but to my way of thinking is not nearly as effective a parody. The Fearless Vampire Killers certainly looks the part— watch a randomly selected clip with the sound off, and you’ll be hard pressed to tell whether it came from this movie or The Kiss of the Vampire— but it comes up short in one immeasurably important respect: apart from a few scattered moments, it just isn’t funny.
Self-made vampire expert Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran, from The Exorcist and The Giant Behemoth), formerly of the University of Konigsberg, comes to some raggedy-ass Central European village or other with his sidekick, Alfred (Polanski, the size of whose role here means we can’t really say he’s doing a Hitchcock), while a voiceover narrator explains that he has sacrificed virtually everything of his normal life in the name of his obsessive anti-vampire activities. Abronsius seems to believe that this place is the epicenter of Austro-Hungarian vampirism, and it is his intention to put a stop to it all. He and Alfred rent a room at the inn belonging to Yoine Shagal (Alfie Bass) and his wife, Rebecca (Jessie Robins), and immediately find evidence that, the Yiddish accents of everyone in town aside, the situation in the village is far from kosher. For one thing, there’s garlic everywhere. Seriously, no matter which way you turn inside Shagal’s place, you’re confronted with at least a couple pounds of the stuff nailed to a wall, hanging from a rafter, or stuffed into some convenient crevice. Then, there’s the small matter of the castle out in the mountains, the existence of which Shagal and most of his customers are at pains to conceal from the newcomers. Finally, there’s the behavior of Shagal and his family, who seem constantly to be sneaking around behind each other’s (and their new guests’) backs. Yoine is forever trying to get into the loft occupied by the maid (Fiona Lewis, of The Fury and Dr. Phibes Rises Again); Rebecca frequently roams the inn by night, armed with a huge sausage; the Shagals’ daughter, Sarah (Sharon Tate, from Eye of the Devil and Valley of the Dolls), can’t seem to let an evening go by without skulking into the privy adjoining her room and Abronsius’s to take a bath in contravention of her father’s wishes. (Alfred, of course, takes every opportunity to spy on her through the keyhole when she does.) It’s all very strange, whether or not it actually has anything to do with vampires.
There can be no question regarding what happens on the travelers’ second night at the inn, however. While Sarah is busy with another of her clandestine baths, a tall, middle-aged man in a black suit and cape (Ferdy Mayne, from The Vampire Lovers and The Howling II, putting in a near-perfect Lee-Lugosi hybrid performance) lets himself in through the skylight, attacks Sarah in the tub, and then makes off with her, again through the skylight. When Alfred runs to bring Shagal— a few minutes too late, as it happens— the distraught man starts bawling something to the effect of “No, your excellency, not her!” out through the open pane in the ceiling. Then the next morning, Shagal sets off to rescue his daughter; he turns up dead in the inn’s front yard come the following dawn, his body covered with pairs of small puncture wounds about an inch and a quarter apart. Realizing that this is exactly the conclusive evidence he’s been waiting for, Abronsius takes Albert with him, and skis off to that castle Shagal didn’t want him to know about.
The sun is still just barely up when the Fearless Vampire Killers arrive, and the castle understandably appears deserted. There is a small cemetery in a courtyard just within the outer walls, and in it, Abronsius finds the tombstone of one Count Bredda von Krolock— presumably the “excellency” to whom Shagal was begging uselessly the night his daughter was abducted. Alfred and the professor poke around inside the place for a bit (long enough for the sun to set), but are soon discovered by a mute, retarded hunchback named Koukol (A Study in Terror’s Terry Downes), whom both men had seen earlier buying candles at Shagal’s place, and whom Abronsius had figured for a likely suspect as the local head vampire’s human familiar. The professor’s intuition is right on the money. Koukol locks the two interlopers in a small room, disappears for a moment, and then returns to bring them into the presence of his master the count— who is not, needless to say, reposing in that grave the professor found out in the courtyard. Von Krolock is very civil with Abronsius and his apprentice, as is only fitting for an undead nobleman in an old-school vampire flick. He is intimately familiar with Abronsius’s writings on bat biology, and claims to be most eager to discuss with him the material that will appear in the still-unpublished second volume of his treatise on the subject. Then the count has Koukol show his guests to the rooms where they will be staying the night— though if you ask me, sleeping over at a vampire’s castle probably isn’t a very smart thing to do.
Over the course of the next couple of days, our Van Helsing wannabes make a couple of singularly inept attempts to kill von Krolock and his son, Herbert (Ian Quarrier), in their coffins (Abronsius ends up stuck in the converted vault’s window, while Albert proves too squeamish to stake either vampire), Albert stumbles upon Sarah (she’s taking a bath, of course) in the castle and learns that von Krolock is planning to hold some sort of ball one night in the immediate future, and the professor discovers through the use of the count’s telescope that Shagal has risen from the dead and carried off both his wife and the maid to the castle. Albert also gets to spend an evening fending off the attentions of Herbert, who would appear to be the screen’s first openly gay vampire. Eventually, the night of the ball rolls around, and it is revealed that von Krolock has been keeping his guests alive so that his undead courtiers— and there are at least twenty or thirty of them— may have a real feast when the dance is concluded. Alfred and Abronsius are obviously in way over their heads going up against that many vampires, and understandably shift the emphasis of their mission to the rescue of Sarah from von Krolock’s clutches. But even here, the two of them prove to be easily the most incompetent vampire fighters of all time.
I think what undermines The Fearless Vampire Killers the most is the fact that it really has only two jokes up its sleeve, and neither one is terribly clever. The first of these could be summed up as “they’re the ‘Fearless Vampire Killers,’ but they’re really cowards, so it’s funny.” The other angle of comedic attack is even more feeble: “everybody in the village is Jewish, so it’s funny.” (Although I have to admit that it got a chuckle out of me when the maid waved her crucifix at the undead Shagal only to be told, “Boy, have you got the wrong vampire...”) The problem is then compounded in that neither one of these jokes follows terribly logically from the source material being parodied here. Effective satire plays upon the foibles and peccadilloes of the thing it’s making fun of; if you’re just filling up a skeletal story with random bits of unconnected wackiness, then what you’re making would be more properly reckoned a farce. But the comedic pacing of The Fearless Vampire Killers— it’s jokes-to-time ratio, if you will— isn’t nearly frantic enough for it to function as a farce, while the Hammer trappings are laid on so thickly as to leave the audience little choice but to interpret the film as satire. And yet the movie features but a single moment— the point at which Abronsius’s plan for rescuing Sarah is derailed in a neat inversion of the usual mirror plot device— that really works on this level. There are enough faintly silly things going on in even the best Hammer vampire flicks from the 60’s that any halfway competent parodist should have no trouble exaggerating them to the point of outright comedy. Polanski’s reliance on obsolete slapstick and ethnic humor thus feels like a contemptible cop-out, especially considering how spot-on his reproduction of the Hammer visual style is.