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.
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 and Roger Ebert reported in the Chicago Sun Times that in the movie theatre “nobody laughed”.
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. It restricts itself to copying scenes from the Twilight movies and adding abysmal and bizarre jokes.
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.
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?