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Another Polanski Classic
on 21 October 2004
This is one of Polanski's less appreciated efforts, and is often dismissed as a mere "horror spoof" , but it is a far more valuable film than that. I've watched a lot of movies in the horror genre and this is an outstanding example of its type, managing to be a near perfect blend of fairy tale, horror and comedy.
The plot is quite a simple and familiar one... a couple of travellers arrive at a remote Transylvannian inn and immediately suspect that all is not well...indeed, this being Professor Abronsius and his devoted sidekick Alfred they are hoping that all is not well. Straight away vampiric activity commences and Abronsius and Alfred leap into what they consider to be "action".
The hapless pair find their way to an absurdly remote and snowbound castle where the local Count and his son live in ragged and faded splendour. Needless to say, both of them avoid the sunlight....
The eccentric Abronsius, an expert in vampirology (although a generally unappreciated one) is marvellously played by Jack MacGowran, whilst his mild mannered assistant is equally well portrayed by Roman Polanski himself. They are very ably assisted by Alfie Bass as the Jewish inkeeper, the ill-fated
Sharon Tate as his vampire-bait daughter, Ferdy Mayne as the Count, Iain Quarrier as his son and Terry Downes as the brutish and mandatory hunchbacked sidekick. In less talented acting hands the film could have had problems, but all of the main characters and the supporting cast (including Ronald Lacey as the
village idiot) are excellent and carry off the plot comsumately.
Visually, the film is stunning. The snow-covered landscape manages to be convincing, yet has a fairy-tale beauty about it whilst the castle and its grounds do nothing to detract from the other-worldy atmosphere. The inn, the setting for all of the early scenes, is solid and functional but looks the part so much more than its counterparts in the Hammer horror films of the time. Although I suspect one of the aims of this film was to affectionately nod towards Hammer, its general production values are so much higher and its obvious that a great deal of care was taken to have everything looking and feeling right.
The laughs might not appear quite as often as some people might prefer, but overdoing the humour and slapstick would have detracted from the overall effect. The jokes tend to be confined to little set-pieces or the odd line of dialogue thrown in at the right time. More overt comedy might have detracted from the sense of menace that does pervade throughout... the vampires are charming and given to the odd pun, but they are still after blood. The heroes are committed to the cause, but they're not all that good at the job.
However, they are always in mortal (or immortal) danger. When the film decides to be chilling, it manages to be more so than in the vast majority of films made at around that time, and it does it with some considerable style. Particularly effective is the ballroom scene set in the castle when the humans are exposed to the assembled vampires by their appearance in an unfortunately placed mirror.
The soundtrack, composed by Christopher Komeda complements the film perfectly and is suitably distinctive and memorable (and its available on CD).
The original British release title for the film reflected perhaps its most effective and memorable scene...
"The Dance of the Vampires", and whilst I personally prefer this to "The Fearless Vampire Killers", it's only a minor quibble. This release appears to be the complete restored cut, which is far superior to the 90 minute or so version which was released in the States and which prompted Polanski to ask for his
name to be removed from the credits. It's strange how some "horror" classics have been treated...just
listen to Christopher Lee discussing the "Wicker Man".
The extras are a little disappointing, but interesting enough, consisting of the theatrical trailer and a quirky
ten minute "making of" type piece. A decent re-appraisal and a commentary from someone or other involved in the film would have been very much appreciated, but its just satisfying to have the film released on DVD at last. Surprisingly maligned and shoddily treated since its original release, I'd go as far as to say this film is a true classic in that it defines its own little sub-genre, and excels throughout. So, for a Jewish vampire who is tickled pink by a defensive crucifix, a member of the gay undead and a couple of bumbling but sympathetic heroes, look no futher.
Whatever it's name, this is a true classic.