As the backward camera shot finds a lonely sleigh moving in the snow, a portentous, off screen narrator introduces us to the main characters, Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran), a discredited, absent-minded university professor modeled on Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing (completed by Albert Einstein fright wig and overgrown mustache), and his shy assistant, Alfred (Roman Polanski), the “fearless vampire killers” of the title. As the audience soon discovers, however, Professor Abronsius and Alfred are neither “fearless” nor are they “killers.” Instead, Professor Abronsius and Alfred are well meaning, but ineffectual bumblers, hardly likely to save anyone, including themselves, from the clutches of a centuries-old vampire and his cult-like followers.
Literally frozen stiff (the first of many physical gags) Professor Abronsius is carried into the nearest inn, where, under the watchful eye of Shagal (Alfie Bass), the innkeeper, he thaws under the glow of a nearby fire. Professor Abronsius surmises the close proximity of his quarry (the inn is festooned with garlic). Alfred, all repressed libido, quickly becomes enamored with Shagal’s daughter, Sarah (Sharon Tate). Shagal himself isn’t above attempting a dalliance with the maid (Fiona Lewis), much to his wife’s consternation. Sarah, also suffering from a repressed libido shockingly enjoys daily baths. In short order, Sarah draws the attention of His Excellency, Count Orlock (Ferdy Mayne), an urbane, red-and-black caped figure prone to insomnia. Rebecca’s disappearance, followed by the innkeeper’s disappearance (and later reappearance) leads Professor Abronsius and Alfred to Count Orlock’s castle, where they “enjoy” some Old World hospitality, courtesy of the urbane Count, and his less than appealing familiar, Koukol (Terry Downes), a hunchback with a bad skin condition.
Of course, their enigmatic host is absent during the day, giving them ample opportunity to search the castle, high and low, for the missing Sarah and for the resting place of the Count and his effeminate son, Herbert (Iain Quarrier). Following the subtext of repressed or misdirected sexuality, Polanski adds a subversive element: Herbert is outed as a gay (decadent, of course) character. Alfred, the object of Herbert’s desire, however, refuses to reciprocate his affection (his romantic infatuation is saved for the underseen Rebecca). The leisurely plot ultimately turns on a midnight ball, a danse macabre of the dead, a yearly event where the Count and his acolytes, rise from their graves (most in moldy, dust-covered clothing two centuries out of date) for the evening’s entertainment. There, Sarah, Professor Abronsius and Alfred encounter the vampires en masse, with nearly disastrous (but hilarious) results, as the chase devolves into spirited slapstick, with the Count’s servant pursuing Abronsius and Alfred through the snow-covered landscape, using a newly carved coffin for transportation.
Polanski’s deft mix of humor and horror, is evident from the opening credits, animated in black and dripping red, against a blue, mottled background (sound revealed as the moon), to the backward tracking shot that reveals an almost limitless snow and ice-covered landscape, lit only by moonlight (a combination presumably of matte paintings and actual locations). The audience is immediately aware of an eerie, Brothers Grimm-like world, a world one tempered by a knowing, mocking sense of humor, as evident in the punchline to the narrator’s description. In addition to a well-informed familiarity with genre conventions, influenced by then current Hammer Studio gothic horror films (primarily in set design and cinematography), Polanski and his co-writer, occasional collaborator Gerard Brach (Repulsion, Cul-de-sac, Frantic) obtain humor from multiple sources, including the continually frustrated libidos of the main characters, the downtrodden Jewish innkeeper (good for several gags), Herbert’s unwanted amorous affections (which leads to a foot chase around the castle’s courtyard), the bumbling, fearful protagonists, and two tension-rich scenes featuring mirrors and vampires (the second mixing dread with humor).
Humor aside, the gothic atmosphere contributes to a sense of inevitable dread and doom (for the characters), but the high point comes with the introduction of the Count’s followers (a high-angle camera shot, from the castle’s battlements, captures the exodus from their graves, a scene all the more settling because we both identify with the characters viewing the exodus and simply because their faces are unrecognizable in the distance) and culminating in the danse macabre. Audiences should also note Polanski’s idiosyncratic use of music here (by Christopher Komeda), which he limits to key sequences in the narrative (for the remainder of the film, Polanski relies purely on ambient sounds). Komeda’s musical composition, a combination of choral voices and harpsichord first heard over the opening credits, helps to evoke both genres. Komeda's score also perfectly complements Polanski’s little seen (and underappreciated) film.
© Mel Valentin, 19th January, 2005
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