Hey, hey, it’s Halloween and all that sort of thing, donchaknow.
The Fearless Vampire Killers, 1967
Directed by Roman Polanski, written by Roman Polanski and Gerard Brach
Jack MacGowran as Professor Abronsius
Roman Polanski as Alfred, Abronsius's assistant
Iain Quarrier as Herbert von Krolock
A spoof of the vampire myth and Hammer Horror movie styles. There is a loving attention to all that Transylvanian atmosphere and some lovely cinema work just for its own sake. So we’re lavishly situated in the consensus-gothic horror film-reality before we ever get to such inversions and comedic frustrations of trad-vampire-lore as Alfie Bass playing a Jewish vampire impervious to a crucifix waved at him. The bit we’re interested in here though is Polanski’s turning on its head of the usual sexual vampire menacing the virginal female trope.
So, fairly ingeniously for the day, the shy, bumbling, feckless ,fearful young assistant, Alfred, played by Roman Polanski, finds himself the target of a lascivious gay vampire, Herbert von Krolock.
Albert has two previous brief encounters with Herbert von Krolock before this scene. The first is when the vampire hunters have infiltrated the castle of Count von Krolock, and are being given a tour by the Count himself. They happen to meet Herbert and the Count introduces everyone. When Herbert first meets Albert, he looks him up and down, then Herbert fingers his cravat as he looms over the anxious Albert to gently shake his hand. As the Count leads the vampire hunters away, Albert nervously looks over shoulder to see Herbert looking back at him.
Later the pair discover the two vampires asleep in their coffins, so by this scene Albert knows Herbert is a vampire, to compound the general fear and awkwardness of Albert.
The reason Albert enters this room and this scene is that previously he had encountered the girl he is in love with here taking a bath, and so he expects to discover her here again. Instead of which, his sexual anticipation is deflated by the presence of Herbert, and the following hijinks ensue:
What the scene really offers us is an early, and well-executed example of the standard humour of homosexual panic when a straight man finds him the object of gay advances. The whole vampire aspect gives it an additional flavour so that the scene doesn’t thump you crassly about the head.
Herbert isn’t a large character in the film, so there’s not that much to say. Part of the joke is that the usual foppish poses of the Byronic - the dandyish concern and affected manner - readily lend themselves to gay interpretation.
As a characterisation to sustain the gag/horror of the scene, Herbert’s portrayal slowly but effectively escalates. First there’s the surprise of finding that it’s Herbert, not Albert’s girl. Secondly, it’s a Herbert clad only in a shirt and underpants. From there Herbert is solicitous of Albert, then comes across to him to adjust Albert’s attire – a gesture both slightly fussy, and also introducing a physical intimacy. Even as Albert tries to escape (because of his discomfort, or because of his fear of the vampire), Herbert implacably yet gracefully leads them both to sit on the bed together (ramping up the intimacy discomfort). Herbert then becomes slightly flirtatious, comparing Albert’s eyelashes to golden threads.
Up to this point, though slightly soft-spoken, Herbert’s accent obscures obvious homosexual mannerisms. Herbert starts to become a bit more fey now. Pulling a bit of a moue when complimenting Albert on “guessing with his pretty little head” (and note how everything is “little” this or that), this builds into the camp gesture of waving his hand above his head to complement “you’ll be able to dance” and then Herbert gets up to swish about to his own trillings. So if there were any doubts, its obvious Herbert is not manly.
Finally, we get Herbert making an actual move on Albert. I think “Shall we allow an angel to pass?” is a lovely line, delivered with just the right hint of insinuation from Herbert. So the scene reaches its climax as the fear of sexual attack gives way to an outright physical attack from the vampire on his life. Which as far as homosexual panic goes is probably not much of a subtle difference.
For a more contemporary take on homosexuality by Polanski, have a look at Peter Sellers as “A. Queen” in “A Day at the Beach” (1970)