31 Days of Horror: ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’ is one of the most aesthetically sumptuous horror comedies around

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The Fearless Vampire Killers
Written by Gérard Brach and Roman Polanski
Directed by Roman Polanski
USA/UK, 1967

Roman Polanski’s comedy was his first foray into both Hollywood and colour filmmaking, and, whether intentional or not, feels like a deliberate parody of the Hammer studio’s brand of gothic horror. Polanski’s film has similarly striking castle locales, but the general aesthetic here excels beyond imitation and is among the most beautiful in both horror and comedy cinema. Taking place in a snowbound Transylvania, the lavish studio sets and location shots from the Alps combine to create a gorgeous widescreen film that feels like a winter wonderland; a snow globe environment host to production and costume designs fit for a period epic.

The production of The Fearless Vampire Killers was also where Polanski met his doomed love Sharon Tate. Though the director himself and Jack MacGowran are the stars, it is Tate who shines brightest in the film, despite prolonged absences from the narrative due to being a captured damsel in distress. A luminous presence, many of her scenes with her future husband are achingly tender, the highlights of the film’s forays into dreamlike, romantic leanings. Special mention must also be made of Krzysztof Komeda’s haunting score, one led by choral vocals. It is especially effective in scenes like Tate’s bath-set capture by the lead vampire.

This is a film of hugely memorable scenes and moments, like those previously cited and a mass ballroom dance of the walking dead. Unfortunately, as terrific as the aesthetic consistently is, the film as a whole isn’t entirely successful. Dabbling in broader humour than normally found in most of his career, the film is very rarely amusing and, bar a reveal in the surprisingly cynical ending, never spooky or unsettling when it occasionally tries out strict horror. Though only around one hundred minutes in length, the film is an unfortunately bloated-feeling slog, alternating between that dreamy, intoxicating atmosphere and tedious bumbling by its ineffective vampire hunters. Tate and the aesthetic are what will stick in the mind, but the framework around them is not so suited to revisiting.

Josh Slater-Williams

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