Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the release on Nov. 13, 1967 of director Roman Polanski’s movie The Fearless Vampire Killers. As the director has noted in numerous interviews and in his autobiography, “Roman by Polanski,” the making of this film marked one of the happiest times in his life, while the film’s release was one of the most despairing in his career.
The film, set in Transylvania during the mid-19th century, follows the often comical adventures of Professor Abronsius and his apprentice, Alfred, on their hunt for vampires. The film also represents one of just seven films that Polanski made that explored the supernatural.
One of the reasons this film still represents so many joyful memories for the director is that it’s the only movie he made that featured his wife, actress Sharon Tate, in a starring role (Tate had a tiny cameo as a party guest in Polanski’s 1968 horror movie Rosemary’s Baby.) In fact, Polanski first met Tate when the movie’s producer, Martin Ransohoff, pushed her for the role. Polanski and Tate were married in January 1968, and tragically, Tate was among five people killed in August 1969 by the followers of Charles Manson.
The release of the movie in November 1967 was a frustrating time for the director, who also co-wrote the screenplay with his longtime collaborator Gerard Brach and played the role of Alfred. Ransohoff and MGM studios decided to market this movie as a farce, rather than a mix of horror and comedy, so Ransohoff cut 12 minutes worth of material, added an animated cartoon prologue, and had the voice of Professor Abronsius (played by Jack MacGowran, who gained fame in the 1950s playing leading roles in Samuel Beckett’s stage productions) re-dubbed to sound like a cartoon character. The film was also re-titled as The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck.
Polanski strongly denounced this version as a travesty of his original intentions, and often pointed to the fact that the Ransohoff mutilated version quickly flopped at the U.S. box office, while Polanski’s edited version was a success in Europe. (This was one of only two Polanski films — the other was What?, to be re-edited and released in a different version.)
As it turns out, Polanski clearly got the last laugh, artistically. The Ransohoff cut disappeared from circulation in the mid-1970s and has since been lost. There is no VHS, DVD or BluRay version of the movie in release.
On the other hand, in the early 1980s, MGM unearthed a print of Polanski’s original edited version and sent it to repertory and revival houses for screenings, and it has since become a cult favorite. This version has become widely available on DVD, has won critical praise, and Polanski successfully turned the movie into a hit stage musical in Europe called Tanz Der Vampire, with songs by rock composer Jim Steinman.
The film also marks one of just six feature films that Tate made before her tragic death at age 26, and is clearly the best one she did.
Polanski and the Supernatural
The Fearless Vampire Killers (often called Dance Of the Vampires in European versions) also stands out as one of Polanski’s forays into the supernatural. Five of his seven supernatural movies are horror films, one is a historical drama, and the last is a black comedy about the war between the sexes. In most instances, the films explore the growing sense of unease and terror his central characters face in a world where evil seems likely to triumph.
Polanski, who survived the Holocaust as a child in Nazi-occupied Poland, and who lost his mother to Auschwitz and his second wife, Tate, to the slaughter of the Manson gang, understands the nature of evil, and how it can rise up in society in a host of different ways. Many of his depictions of the nature of evil are done in realistic films; evil is represented as a wealthy tycoon who uses a water shortage in Los Angeles to drive poor farmers from their land in Chinatown, as Arab terrorists willing to kill to get an American-made device that triggers nuclear weapons in Frantic, as a seemingly kindly physician who may have taken part in the torture of political prisoners in Death and the Maiden, as German soldiers who invade Poland and round up Jews for the concentration camps in The Pianist, and as CIA agents involved in assassinations to cover up war crime in The Ghost Writer. With the exception of Frantic and The Pianist, evil triumphs in most of these films, as humanity seems to collapse under the weight of such monstrous intentions.
Polanski has also used the supernatural to explore people coping under the intense pressures of confronting evil. Stylistically, these films often harken back to one of Polanski’s earliest influences, surrealism, a 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature that aimed to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind. In that sense, reality and fantasy often blend together and become hard to distinguish in Polanski’s supernatural films.
Thus, Polanski’s beleaguered characters confront ghosts in Repulsion, Macbeth, The Tenant, and The Ninth Gate; vampires in The Fearless Vampire Killers; witches in Rosemary’s Baby and Macbeth; Satanists in Rosemary’s Baby and The Ninth Gate; and a Greek goddess in Venus In Fur.
Although dealing with supernatural themes, these films often comment on power struggles in modern society. The witches in Rosemary’s Baby are not dressed in black and flying on broomsticks, but banal, middle class New Yorkers, whose pleasant exterior masks their sinister intentions. The witches in Macbeth lead him to murder the king, Duncan, in order to assume power. The Satanists in The Ninth Gate are rich, elitist, and eager to explore Satanism as a means of achieving even greater power.
In other films the terror is as much psychological as social. Macbeth is haunted by the ghost of Banquo, the former comrade that he had murdered to guarantee his silence. Carol in Repulsion walks past a construction worker on the street, and later finds him haunting her apartment, breaking in at night and raping her. Trelkovsky, the lead character in The Tenant, is haunted by the ghost of the woman, Simone Choule, whose suicidal leap from the apartment window meant the unit was now available to rent. In both films, and in Rosemary’s Baby, the neighbors in the apartment complexes turn out to be meddlesome, nosy — and far worse.
Polanski also uses a considerable amount of humor in many of these films, including The Fearless Vampire Killers, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant and The Ninth Gate — but the humor is a way of letting your guard down, because while the audience is laughing at the scenes, evil quietly and surreptitiously sneaks back up again, and Smack! Hits the audience right when they least expect it. Evil clearly relies on all of us letting our guard down.
On the anniversary of the release of The Fearless Vampire Killers, the movie is definitely worth discovery by those who have not seen it. Enjoy it for the innovative blend of scares and laughter, for the stunning cinematography and landscape that makes the film look like a painting by the Russian-French artist Marc Chagall, and for the only opportunity to see Polanski and Tate in a film together.
So happy 50th, Fearless Vampire Killers!
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..