What can I say about this movie that hasn’t already been said? Also known as Dance of the Vampires, it’s my favorite vampire movie, and I watch it every year around this time. It’s a masterpiece of style and atmosphere, and very clever (particularly for it’s time (1967)). It was written and directed by a young Roman Polanski (with help from his Repulsion co-writer Gérard Brach), and was his first big budget film.
The story focuses on Professor Abronsius (Jack McGowran, who played Burke “Your cunting daughter” Dennings in The Exorcist) a bumbling, elderly scholar who specializes in bats, and who is obsessed with the idea of hunting and confronting vampires. He is aided by his naive young student/ assistant Alfred, played by director Polanski himself. While traveling through Transylvania, they stumble across a cult of vampires living in a castle close to the inn they stop in when the head vampire (Ferdy Mayne) abducts the hotel owner’s daughter Sarah (Sharon Tate).
They follow him to the castle and end up as guests, while trying to figure out how to put a stop to his evil and rescue Sarah.
This movie is so filled with atmosphere it almost caves in on itself. Every frame is chock full if lush, beautiful scenery; the homey country inn, the snowbound countryside, and the spooky, decaying castle, filled with spiderwebs and old paintings and moldy furniture- very few movies have such exquisite set dressing as this. It gives it a fairy tale feel, very whimsical despite it’s horrific nature. It’s almost like a Grimm Fairy Tale by way of Hammer studios (which, tho it’s not a Hammer production, the atmosphere closely resembles. However I would say The Fearless Vampire Killers is a bit more lavish and atmospheric than even Hammer’s gothic horrors) brought to life in sweeping anamorphic widescreen.
The balance between comedy and horror is done very well (it is primarily a comedy), and tho it borders on camp and slapstick at times, it never goes completely over to that level of ridiculousness. The humor is very clever, and a lot of issues that you have about how vampires would actually work in the real world are confronted for the first time on screen (such as whether a cross would affect a Jewish vampire or not, and are there any gay vampires?).
The characters are all slightly bigger than life and very likable (even the bad guys). The acting is old fashioned and superb; Polanski always manages to find interesting looking people to fill his movies with, and this one has them in spades (watch out for Ronald Lacey, who played the creepy Nazi who burned his hand on the medallion in Raiders of the Lost Ark, in a small role as a goose plucking village idiot who almost gives way that there’s a castle in the area). Shagal, the lecherous old innkeeper and his wife are played over-the-top for comic relief, but never become crude stereotypes (tho they are obviously very Jewish). Count von Krolock could easily have been played as a joke, but he’s probably one of the most down to Earth characters in the movie (despite being a vampire, of course). Ferdy Mayne gives a great performance as the aristocratic, deep gravel voiced leader of the vampires. His son (who is homosexual) could also have easily been done quite stereotypically flamboyant (this was 1967), but is handled with some subtlety.
The vampires in this don’t seem to have a lot of special powers, other than living forever, having fangs and drinking blood. They’re almost more like zombies, decrepit and bored, and makeing it seem like being a vampire would be a real drag (and a lot of them look like they’ve literally lived forever).
Besides the incredible cinematography, atmosphere, and set dressings, the music is outstanding as well. Enhancing the dark fairy tale feel, it’s playful and moody and very original.
Tho it was a critical and commercial failure, I definitely recommended it for Halloween viewing. It’s a fun, dark fantasy, and gets better each time you watch it.