I must admit that Polanski’s first American venture (A.D. 1967) had at least an unconventional and bold narrative concept (which subsequently influenced the film’s reception).

Rafał Grynasz

10 June 2024


He aimed for a parody of horror, specifically conservative vampire horror. He took ancient legends as a starting point, which soon came to life under rather unusual circumstances of pastiche.

He spiced up The Fearless Vampire Killers (a.k.a Dance of the Vampires) with buckets of fresh blood, unusually sharp fangs owned by those with an irresistible attraction to necks, and kilograms of light-hearted humor, absurdity, and irony, juxtaposed with raw horror cinema. There was no lack of spine-chilling tension, sudden plot twists, and dramatic situations, and the ending has an almost catastrophic tone – making one ponder the genre purity of this comedy. After all, vampires are no laughing matter!

The Fearless Vampire Killers Dance of the Vampires

In The Fearless Vampire Killers, we experience what belongs to a vampire movie. This means full orthodoxy in the realm of legends, tales, and other progenitors (mainly Stoker) of this phenomenon, creating an impeccable image of the vampire and the range of “rituals” associated with it. These are not tasteless abstractions a’la Blade or Dracula 2000. Polanski really put effort into conveying the entire “repertoire” and iconography of the genre, thus expressing his belonging to it. The set of places, characters, relationships, and other motifs has been preserved, albeit slightly modified. The film’s action follows the main pair of protagonists to forgotten and dark Transylvania, so well-known from previous achievements in this subject.

The Fearless Vampire Killers Dance of the Vampires Ferdy Mayne Sharon Tate

However, it is not a Transylvania of flesh and blood, that is, a terrifying and desolate setting, drenched in fog and permanent darkness, its face sketched by ranges of black peaks, cemeteries of bare trees, and incredible Gothic castles towering over the land, bathed in the ominous light of the moon. The world presented is extremely picturesque, almost fairy-tale-like. The idyll is completed by a cheerful winter scenery and carefree sun rays. In such natural surroundings, the hunters will face not one, but a whole horde of vampires. It won’t be healthy for them. Luckily for them and all human existence, threatened by the activities of bloodthirsty creatures, the hunters possess extensive knowledge about their enemy, as well as a specialized arsenal, effective in the extermination of the vampire progeny.

The Fearless Vampire Killers Dance of the Vampires Jack MacGowran Roman Polanski

Adhering to the canon of vampire knowledge, The Fearless Vampire Killers retains the practical accessories necessary to annihilate the intrusive beast: the most terrible weapon, namely effective aspen stakes, crucifixes, or garlic, the latter used in excess and too literally in the film. The vampire also retains its basic characteristics: terror-inducing teeth, easily piercing the pulsating aortas in the necks of beautiful women, an innate dependence on robust blood, immortality and age, lack of reflection, and falling into a lethargy during the day. We also observe a specific social hierarchy: the senior – an aged count, his privileged offspring, subordinate smaller vampires, and servants (the hunchback, a very unpleasant, vulgar, and disgusting type doing the dirty work).

The Fearless Vampire Killers Dance of the Vampires

It cannot be denied that the film The Fearless Vampire Killers is styled in the manner of blood-curdling content contained in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a specific canon of vampirism and an infinite source of inspiration. The classic scheme of this novel has been used since the dawn of the genre. The first child of vampire horror – Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror came from Germany, engulfed in brutal and frivolous expressionism, bearing the visible mark of Stoker’s work. Later films did not diverge much from this tendency, merely replicating and developing the excellent patterns. This allowed for the emancipation of this horror genre, creating a unique and unparalleled world, characters, and atmosphere in other branches. Thus, Polanski’s film can be considered an heir and propagator of the glorious traditions and indelible motifs of vampire cinema. The very structure of the plot allows us to observe an undeniable artistic affinity and analogy.

The Fearless Vampire Killers Dance of the Vampires Sharon Tate Roman Polanski

The main protagonists of The Fearless Vampire Killers, representing the side of good, undertake a risky mission to annihilate the forces of darkness, threatening the lives of innocent people. Besides altruistic motives, the hunters are also driven by personal ambitions. Dr. Ambrosius, with a significant wink, is stylized as Dr. Van Helsing and is fascinated by the vampire nature and the phenomenon of vampirism. We can see this when he gives the count a “fascinating” lecture on sleepwalking bats. His student Alfred (played excellently by Polanski) falls in love with the innkeeper’s daughter (the beautiful red-haired Sharon Tate), who is abducted by the bloodsucking prince with the first manifestation of vampire activity. These characters can be easily compared to the main pair of Dracula, Mina and Jonathan, except that in Polanski’s version, Alfred is not a romantic, fearless, and determined lover but a cowardly weakling fainting at the sight of a stake.

The relationship on the human-vampire plane is also different. Alfred’s beloved does not turn out to be the object of fascination and desire of the count; instead, it is Alfred himself.

The Fearless Vampire Killers Dance of the Vampires Roman Polanski Sharon Tate Jack MacGowran

The count’s son (and here is the first vampire discord, as the question of vampires having offspring is dubious) feels an irresistible attraction to the young hunter, somewhat undermining the very idea of romantic and tragic love (although, in purely aesthetic terms, it is indeed tragic). The characters are thus shown in a distorted mirror… well, maybe not the best term for vampire film characters, after all, it is hard to show vampires in any mirror, but that’s how it is. Forget the illusory ironic title and the valiant hunters destined to kill the monster. The fate of the world is placed in the hands of the greatest failures and bunglers, the hilariously comical Ambrosius and the cowardly Alfred. The vampires also lose their dread and decadent arrogance. To cement the threads and build the comedic background, Polanski weaves into the plot the character of Yorgi, a simple innkeeper who eventually joins the ranks of the unusual vampires, leading to many funny situations.

The Fearless Vampire Killers Dance of the Vampires Roman Polanski Sharon Tate Jack MacGowran

The comedy is full-blooded, subtle at one moment, ribald and mocking at the next. The director of The Fearless Vampire Killers plays with the convention; the ancient legend takes on new colors and a new comedic face in his hands but is not deformed. The film is supported primarily by an extremely atmospheric, varied score by Komeda and Polanski’s exceptional craftsmanship, full of precision, artistry, and atmosphere. He himself fulfills the role of an actor, his dreamed profession, which he abandoned for directing. It must be admitted that he performed the multiple functions of director, actor, and co-author of the screenplay masterfully. The film itself (European director’s version) has earned the epithet “cult” in less than thirty years (at least in goth circles, I suppose), becoming a kind of cinematic gem despite its commercial failure (no matter). It is a pity that there was no touch of horror and the concept of horror, that it is still more of a comedy than horror. I say this because I am sure that Polanski in the field of pure vampire horror could create something on par with his achievements in satanic horror or Coppola’s work. In the meantime, he treated us to a daring pastiche, and for that, he deserves praise and glory.