Roman Polanski's third English-language film is an affectionate, humorous homage to vampire myths and Hammer horror films (namely BRIDES OF DRACULA and KISS OF THE VAMPIRE) that was badly tampered with for U.S. release. Originally known in its native U.K. as DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES, the U.S. version was shortened, some of the voices were re-dubbed, an animated prologue was tacked on to the opening, and the title was changed to what we best know it as today. Polanski's longer and better cut had been released on VHS (pan and scan) and laserdisc from MGM, but now Warner is premiering it on DVD, since they hold rights to the old MGM back-catalog. Again, it's the uncut, definitive version and remains a masterpiece of the genre.
Polanski himself stars as Alfred, the young, naïve assistant to the more seasoned but inept Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) who together comb the snowy landscapes and inns of Transylvania, hoping to find a genuine vampire. They end up staying at a tavern owned by Shagal (Alfie Bass), who lives with his massive wife (Jessie Robins), beautiful red-headed daughter Sarah (Sharon Tate, soon to be the wife of Polanski before her tragic 1969 death), and the busty maid (Fiona Lewis). A number of clues make our would-be vampire-hunters believe they are close to the real thing, including the cloves of garlic hanging all over the place, as well as a visit from a grotesque hunchback named Koukol (British ex-boxer Terry Downes), whom Alfred later witness feasting on a wolf. Later that night, in one extraordinary sequence, the vampire king Count Von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) descends on Sarah, in one of her frequent bubble baths, from the skylight above, biting her on the neck as she splashes recklessly for a freedom. Sarah is captured, with only a smear of blood remaining in the suds. In love with Sarah, Alfred accompanies the Professor to the castle to rescue her and bring down the vampiric Count. They are at first welcomed as guests at the decaying, gothic castle, but by day they are crawling into crypts--wooden stakes in hand--in a number of misfired attempts at vampire hunting. Sarah is later discovered safe and sound, and the whole show culminates in a fancy dress ball where the undead rise from their buried wooden coffins to attend.
Despite various production dilemmas (some which are documented in Polanski's autobiography) and the clash with executive producer Martin Ransohoff (ultimately responsible for the bastardized U.S. version), THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS remains a triumphant effort in its director's cut, which is now what is commonly shown to the public, and thankfully what we get on DVD. With the snowbound locations in Ortisei, Italy, the fairy tale-like sets constructed at both Elstree and Pinewood Studios in England, and the luscious Panavision cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, the film has an extravagant look to it. The screenplay by Polanski and frequent collaborator Gérard Brach cleverly blends humorous dialogue, quirky characters, sight gags and slapstick, while embracing the horror elements with equal intelligence. Polanski's direction is masterful, and he is perfectly cast as Alfred, having great chemistry with MacGowran as the goofy professor. The cast is quite marvelous, with Bass getting the most laughs as the screen's first Jewish vampire, and there's also an openly homosexual blonde vampire (played by Iain Quarrier), who looks to be poking fun at David Peel's performance in BRIDES OF DRACULA. Most notable here is undeniably German-born Ferdy Mayne as the suave yet intimidating vampire Count who gives Christopher Lee's Dracula a run for his money.
Warner Home Video presents the full 107-minute version of THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS on DVD in its original 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. This is the best that the title has looked on home video, with crisp picture detail, good colors and natural fleshtones. The only major fault with the print source comes with some white speckling that is witnessed throughout the running time--but this is still a cleaner, sharper transfer than what was available on VHS and laserdisc. The mono audio presents an adequate balance between dialog, action and the wonderful music score. If some of the dialog sounds muffled, that's just the way the actors spoke them and why the U.S. version opted to re-dub them. There's also an optional French language track, as well as optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.
has unearthed a vintage featurette entitled "The Fearless Vampire Killers:
Vampires 101." Shot in 2.35:1 and running about ten minutes in length, this
promotional film stars British actor Max Wall as a professor who instructs the
audience on how to destroy vampires. Set in a gothic castle, Wall is seen projecting
scenes from the FEARLESS trailer, and he also confronts a pesty bat and a sleeping
Dracula-like vampire. The only other extra is the American theatrical trailer.
It's a shame that Polanski wasn't approached to do a commentary or an interview,
but Warner also omits two extras that were on the old MGM laserdisc: the cartoon
prologue seen in the U.S. version and the featurette entitled "All Eyes on
Sharon Tate" which spotlighted the starlet on the set of EYE OF THE DEVIL.
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