Saturday, 10 May 2014

Art-house Hammer… The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

”Boy, have you picked the wrong vampire!"

Made after Repulsion and before Rosemary’s Baby, a gothic vampire comedy might seem an unusual creative progression for Roman Polanski but there’s enough grim in this fairy tale to reveal the continuity of his thoughts.

The Fearless Vampire Killers is a twisted meditation on the perils of bungling scientific intervention with the film’s nominal heroes being responsible for upsetting the balance of its strange Transylvanian eco-system. It’s closer to Dr Strangelove than Carry on Screaming (one of the classiest of that series…) and is infused with Polanski’s Polish humour throughout.

Even watching this on my tiny black and white portable long ago, I picked up on the strangeness of the film’s atmosphere and Douglas Slocombe’s expert cinematography coupled with huge, expressive sets are used to create a claustrophobic, unsettling, quietly-hysterical world populated with a demographically-diverse set of vampires. The “horror” isn’t with the blood and gore but the sexual paranoia of a world where even taking a bath can be a risk…

The Moon rises over a perfect snow covered night-scape and a sleigh speeds into view. On board, gradually being frozen solid sit Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran – a Polanski regular) and his assistant Alfred (Roman Polanski). They arrive at a remote hostelry where the innkeeper Yoine Shagal (Alfie Bass) arranges a defrosting as well as a room for two.

Alfie Bass bothers Fiona Lewis
It’s a weird hotel, garlic hangs from the eves and the customers seem abnormally jumpy… almost animalistic… and young Alfred is not so different staring with virgin fascination at the chest of Magda, Shagal's maid (Fiona Lewis) as she warms his feet and then later reaching out to cop a feel only to have his hand slapped away. Are all vampire films ultimately about sex?

Sarah in the suds
Shagal shows the men to their room and opening the door to the bathroom all are surprised to see his lovely daughter Sarah (Sharon Tate) taking a bath. She’s addicted to washing but, for some reason, her father is determined to keep her away from the bathroom… there’s something about those suds… Alfred builds a snowman and looks up to see Sarah smiling down at him.

Over the snows comes a new entrant into the bar: the shambling, weirdly-disfigured Koukol (Terry Downes) servant to the local nobleman, Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne). Magda dives under the table to avoid him whilst the clientele stay rooted to their seats. On his way out he glances up to spot Sarah at her room window where she had been watching Alfred…

Alfred and the Magda hide from Koukol
That night Koukol returns with his master. Still looking for a bath Sarah enlists Alfred’s help in getting into the bathroom but, as she relaxes in the warmth a face appears at the skylight and, as snow drops onto her head, the Count opens the window and climbs down to begin her initiation into the cult of the undead.

Alfred and the Professor react too late and open the door to find her gone, just a small red spray on the suds revealing the vampiric attack. Shagal is distraught and heads off in pursuit followed by the not-so-fearless vampire hunters.

So far so Hammer and yet the atmosphere is very strange, the dialogue is whispered and sometimes garbled and the characters react almost like silent film actors, as if in a pantomime. Following the traditional story arc, the young girl is bitten by the ghoul but can still be saved from transformation if the heroes prevent too much blood being taken so, off they set.

At the castle matters get stranger still as the intrepid duo get locked up by Koukol before being called for their interview with a vampire, Count von Krolock (almost an anagram of Nosferatu’s Count von Orlock…) who toys with the new arrivals. Alfred finds Sarah alive and rather distant… sapped of her will by the Count who meanwhile introduces him to his son Herbert von Krolock (Iain Quarrier camping it up) thinking he will provide him with the prefect young companion…

Herbert takes a shine to Alfred
The Count intends to complete the vampirification of Sarah in front of the undead dancers in the film’s great set-piece: it feels like an MTV video twenty years early – no doubt because of its influence on subsequent videos.

Can the intrepid duo engineer an escape for themselves and the beauteous Sarah or will they be dragged down by the sheer weight of vampiric numbers as the undead strut their desiccated stuff?

It’s an odd and unsettling film that’s just a little too grotesque to qualify as easy-viewing and that’s the way it was intended. Polanski was aiming for the same dreamlike disturbance as Carl Dreyer achieved in Vampyr (1932) with the Professor’s look borrowed from one of that film’s protagonists. Which is why the language is conflicted and the well-trodden narrative trajectories head off in unpredictable ways.

Who are these men that want to interfere and over-analyse? IS scientific rationality the only way to truth and how do we, by observing alter the course of events?

Dusty verdict: There’s always the chance that The Fearless Vampire Killers could just be a daft story aimed at cashing in on the vampire vogue but I really doubt it… yes it’s funny but it’s also disturbing: who would have thought the sight of a small ring of blood in bathroom bubbles could be so creepy?

Favourite moment: Alfie Bass’ Jewish vampire laughing at being threatened with a cross… vampires are a broad church…

Jack MacGowran provides professorial, Sharon Tate brings beautiful and husband-to-be Polsanski does distinctive directorial along with his Alfred acting. Mention should also be given to the supernaturally-superb score from Krzysztof Komeda which perfectly matches the film’s comically-eerie mood: we laugh because it’s funny and because it’s strange…. uncanny.

Sharon Tate
The Fearless Vampire Killers is available on DVD from Amazon and others.

Mr and Mrs Polanski


  1. Hi,

    I run an official, non-profit "Are You Being Served?" site at:

    I would be very interested in using the pictures of Alfie Bass and Ferdy Mayne from the following page:

    on my site at:

    Please let me know of I can do this or not and if so, how you would like to be credited.

    Elina M. Lampart

    1. Hi Elina - please be my guest I took the liberty of screen grabbing them from my tape but I always give a link to where the DVD of the film in question can be bought - it's their copyright but this is free publicity for them etc.

      Thanks for reading and good luck with your site - I saw Are You Being Served in Blackpool when they did the stage play in 1976. Great to see the gang on stage and I remember them getting down off the stage and dancing through the audience.

      Best wishes