Do vampires and laughs mix?

Watching Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers on a Saturday night that I will never get back, I would be tempted to say no. Considering Polanski’s reputation for dark classics like The Knife in the Water, Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion I was hoping for better.

A shocker of a movie

The film mocks the style of 1960s horror, particularly of vampire Hammer Horror films which would have been instantly recognisable to the audience of 1967. So we get the staple clichés of heaving bosoms and ponderous overacting. The film simply points to the familiar styles of the horror films of the period. The fearless vampire killers; a professor and his assistant, are not really fearless and don’t do much killing of vampires. They are parodies of the heroes we might expect from the title. They fall over a lot, so there is some laughter to be had from slapstick physical humour. They seek out Count von Krolock, who looks very much like Christopher Lee’s Dracula. So we recognise the look and the conventions, and this is the joke.

Of course the spoofing of film genres has had its successes. Just look to the example of Airplane! which took the 1970s disaster movie into the realm of the absurd in order to send up the genre and the climate of hysteria of the time that created it. The Fearless Vampire Killers never quite manages this. It looks and feels too much like the horror films it mocks to be distinct from them.

Maybe the problem stems from conflict between the film studio and Polanski. Polanski’s preferred title was Dance of the Vampires. He was reportedly not happy with the released cut of the movie and wanted his name taken from the credits. Apparently MGM’s cut had made it into a farce. So was he trying to make a serious vampire film?  Certainly part of the charm of the Hammer Horror films is that they make us laugh, even if they don’t always intend to. But something just doesn’t quite gel in The Fearless Vampire Killers, and I could neither take it seriously or have fun with it. Maybe this point of view is shaped by viewing these films over 40 years on, and maybe Polanski’s film worked better for viewers in 1967. But it did get critically panned on its release. The New York Times called it dismal[1] and Roger Ebert reported in the Chicago Sun Times that in the movie theatre “nobody laughed”.[2]

I am trying to think of any parodies or comedies of vampire films that actually work. James Corden and Matthew Horne’s Lesbian Vampire Killers? The title says it all thanks, and I will stick with Gavin and Stacey.  I certainly won’t be rushing to watch Vampires Suck. Having seen a trailer and a couple of clips it looks even more painful to watch than Twilight itself. W Scott Poole points out that Vampires Suck mainly targets the Twilight films, rather than referencing other vampire films or TV, so it fails as a genre spoof.[3] It restricts itself to copying scenes from the Twilight movies and adding abysmal and bizarre jokes.

abysmal

Even Mel Brook’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It is just another mash up of laughs from clumsy falling over, stereotypical funny accents and you guessed it, heaving bosoms. Not his best work.

Weirdly enough only vampire comedy seems to fail so badly. There are plenty of good examples of other horror comedies that work. Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein is a parody that is genuinely funny and effective. Shaun of the Dead is fantastic, but rather than just sending up zombie films it affectionately draws on the genre and combines its features with original characters and storytelling. New release Tucker and Dale vs. Evil plays on horror genre stereotypes of evil Southern hicks to great effect.

Zombie Rom Com. What’s not to love?

I also can’t fail to acknowledge that when horror utilises comedy (rather than comedy being the main aim) this can really work. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is full of well-written funny lines and well-timed comedy moments. When Giles is hit by a dart from a stun gun intended for a werewolf and dryly comments, “Bloody priceless” before he falls to the floor it really is bloody priceless.

So maybe the question should be why bother with spoofs when original stories work best for laughs and fear too?

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6 thoughts on “Do vampires and laughs mix?

  1. Actually they do… if they are done in such a brilliant way as in Roman Polanski’s “The Fearless Vampire Killers”. I remember watching the movie as a kid and getting very scared. I saw it recently yet again and found the mix between well-done slapstick and pure thrill just amazingly well balanced. The music contributes significantly to establish the mood of the film. The scene with “Herbert”, a gay vampire biting the love-poem book and then Albert (Roman) running all the way around the castle balustrade to meet him again where he left is just fantastic ! Also the scene of the three humans dancing “alone” in front of the mirror at the ball belongs for me to a classic landmark in horror movies genre. The movie offers even today a fresh approach to the whole Vampire saga (remember it was done in 1967!) and it does it all without all this CGR digital paraphernalia!

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  2. I found that upon my first viewing of Roman Polanski’s “The Fearless Vampire Killers” back in the late 1960s that I enjoyed the film tremendously and found it a very well made Vampire spoof. Beautifully shot and with fine performances throughout. Maybe a bit eerie/frightening for a spoof but being that the director is Polanski it should be expected. The music by Krzysztof Komeda is absolutely wonderful. Lets not forget my favorite moment when the Jewish innkeeper who has been turned into a bloodsucker is confronted with a crucifix, he just smiles and says “Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire.” I own a copy still today and re-watch it from time to time with a smile on my face.
    Now a real monster spoof and my favorite of all time is the classic 1948 “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”. If you haven’t seen this do so by all means. It works beautifully with laughs and horror. Why? Because A&C go all out for the laughs as usual, but the monsters play it seriously and these are our classic Universal monsters seen here together for the last time including Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. as Lawrence Talbot/The Wolf Man and Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster. Even Vincent Price’s voice makes a cameo as The Invisible Man. This is the Horror comedy of all Horror comedies.

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  3. I love this movie, you needed to see it back in the days when it was released, I saw it at a drive-in, 1968, remember those? I couldn’t at first tell it it was a comedy or a real horror movie. It does flip flop, strongly, but that is part of its unique appeal.

    The vampires for the most part play it straight. Sharon Tate is great in this thing, “you mind if I get a quickie”,”it’s a habit I picked up at school” or whatever she said wanting a bath, then the snow fallen from the sky light and the Count drops in. The Count is wonderfully acted, love his embarrassment from baring his teeth. But the shocker for the viewer in the late 60s was the Count’s son, let’s just say that no closet coffin would hold him. The bath, bed, library book scene is funny as hell.

    I don’t know anyone else that likes it, but they are all way younger then me, as I say, it had to do with the release timing, after seeing all those Hammer Studio movies then seeing this. It marked an end of an era. Horror lost its campy-ness after this.

    I think as horror, it is up there with The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

    I believe the movie has been restored to its longer length. I didn’t like the animated Title credits, I believe Roman disliked this too. It doesn’t do the movie justice. Rock Horror has much better opening, the singing lips.

    I believe the reason it never had a following is because it was shelved for many years so never found that late night audience. It made it to VSH tape but was very hard to find. The sound track on the tape is poorly done, much to loud or harsh. I seldom watched it because of this but I catch it on TV about once a year now and it sounds fine, maybe remastered?

    What is your take on Doctor Strange Love, it’s a mixture of black comedy and very serious acting. The air crew, Slim Pickens wasn’t told he was in a comedy, he was only given his part of the script. He was told to play it str8. That movie works well.

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    • Thanks for your comment, it’s interesting to hear how much the movie was enjoyed at the time of it’s release, it does sound like the context of seeing it after the recent releases of Hammer Horror films made a big difference.

      I did really enjoy Dr Strangelove, I found it both funny and sad.

      Particularly I think that with vampire fiction, working comedy into a drama rather than spoofing off vampires, works so much better, Buffy the Vampire Slayer being a great example of this.

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