I watched three Roman Polanski movies for last year's PopGap coverage, including his 1965 breakthrough Repulsion, which was an incisive and harrowing study of a young woman in the grip of a mental breakdown, set mostly within the confines of her London apartment. If there's one word that doesn't apply whatsoever to Polanski's subsequent film, The Fearless Vampire Killers, it's "incisive." the young filmmaker boldly attempted a drastic switch of gears by following his riveting black & white psychological horror with a broad send-up of Hammer Studios' popular vampire movies of the 1960s. However, he makes a silly mess of it, botching nearly everything except for the gorgeous photography.
Polanski stars in The Fearless Vampire Killers (or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck) as Alfred, assistant to doddering old vampire hunter Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran). They arrive in a small, snowbound Eastern European village where Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) is on the prowl for voluptuous young maids to add sparkle to his vampire dance parties. After fumbling around an inn, the professor and Alfred discover von Krolock's castle and fumble around there for a while.
There is almost no plot in The Fearless Vampire Killers, which is primarily a series of lazy riffs on mid-1960s vampire movie tropes. the humor can be generously described as a low-effort knock-off of The Benny Hill Show: there's ample mugging, cleavage and run-of-the-mill slapstick. It's not unamusing for the first half-hour, and some moments stand out as well-conceived, but when the plot should be advancing and nearing climax the pacing gets slower and slower, as if in a post-modern lampoon of vampire cinema the movie itself is attempting to resemble a corpse.
One of the other Polanski movies that I watched for PopGap in 2015 was his dark 1976 comedy The Tenant. There, Polanski skillfully employed a mesmerizingly slow pace to create a maddening sense of paranoia, and successfully extracted solid dry humor from a dastardly creeping eerie weirdness. None of the same intent nor skill is on show in The Fearless Vampire Killers. Purposefully, I think, all of the characters are incompetent, and whatever personality they display lacks the depth of a cartoon. It's a fairly boring horror comedy, with too little of either, relying too heavily on the atmosphere formed by dead space, and no real sense of purpose to make up for its many debits.
The main saving grace of The Fearless Vampire Killers is Douglas Slocombe's vivid cinematography, which skillfully sets a rich canvas — on which Polanski aimlessly fiddles about with broken crayons. Krzysztof Komeda's score appealingly combines gothic European folk with late 1960s dream pop. the vampire ball during the climax is a neat idea (the movie's original UK title was Dance of the Vampires), and looks great, but like everything else in this forgettable trifle, nothing notable comes from it. Polanski's future (doomed) wife Sharon Tate appears as a busty maiden who takes a lot of baths.