There are times when I think Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) is the filmmaker’s finest work. Certainly, with the exception of Tess (1979), it is his most stunningly beautiful film—a moon-drenched eastern European fairy tale perfectly rendered onto film. (And I doubt that it’s coincidental that Alfie Bass’ character is named Shagall or that he resembles Marc Chagall’s painting “The Green Violinist.”) The film follows the adventures of a dotty vampire hunter (Jack MacGowran) and his sole faithful disciple (Polanski) on their trek into Transylvania to “rid the world of vampires.” Perhaps the greatest thing about Polanski’s film is that it’s effective as both horror and comedy.
Comedy has been mixed with horror since the very beginning of horror, but rarely has it been so deftly blended as it is here. Polanski instinctively knows when to guy the material and when to play it straight—and can do so “in the twinkling of an eye,” to borrow a phrase from MacGowran’s vampire hunter. On some occasions, Polanski even manages to do both at once. The film’s climactic set piece—an elaborate dress ball (the European title of the film is Dance of the Vampires)—blends both comedy and horror, and then tops it off with genuine suspense. Only a true master could do that.