Dance of the Vampires

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Roman Polanski as Alfred in Dance of the Vampires

A largely forgotten masterwork directed by Roman Polanski, Dance of the Vampires AKA The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) rewards on every level – if you can find it. Ignore the US print from which sixteen minutes of footage was butchered by interfering producer Martin Ransohoff, who additionally saddled the film with an unnecessary animated credit sequence. He also extended the title to The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck, and dubbed Jack MacGowran’s Prof. Abronsius with a silly, cartoonish voice. Polanski so resented Ransohoff’s vandalism that he asked for his name to be removed from the credits of the US version. I have a Blu-ray disc made with a dubbed soundtrack for the Spanish market (El Baile de Los Vampiros), but it comes with the original English soundtrack as an extra. It is, inasmuch as I can tell, Polanski’s original edit. (It runs at 103 minutes as opposed to the 88 minutes of the US release.)

The Vampire Ball

Dance of the Vampires/The Fearless Vampire Killers – as seen in Polanski’s original cut – is both a horror film and a comedy, and the two elements intertwine elegantly with no shortage of thrills along the way. It looks utterly ravishing, with designs embodying every trope which fans of the Transylvanian vampire genre could possibly wish for.

Ferdy Maine as Count von Krowlock and Sharon Tate as Sarah Shagal

Wilfred Shingleton and Fred Carter worked together on production design and art direction, and their creations of the garlic-festooned inn and the dark castle rearing out of a pristinely glittering snow-bound landscape, are nothing short of magnificent. Look out for the scary portraits of Count von Krolock’s ancestors lining the castle walls. The camera doesn’t linger, but what we see is typical of the attention to detail characterising a Polanski film.

The inn is a masterpiece of squat, labyrinthine passageways and interconnecting rooms, wonderfully lending the creaks and pistol-cracks of its expanding and contracting wood construction to a soundtrack ripe with stealthy footsteps on boards and the reassuring clucking of unseen poultry in the yard beyond. Beds with grey over-stuffed duvets, fat as ticks, cram into rooms too small to accommodate them. Everywhere there are unexpected spaces, with cupboard-sized rooms crammed under eaves and a wine cellar which provides a suitably claustrophobic setting for a vampire chase. The design aesthetic is European in every sense, but then Polanski is a European director clearly revelling here in the things he knows and loves. The Chagall-ian tavern (the owner is named ‘Shagal’) embodies the character of a shtetl in a way that would never be seen outside a European film, save perhaps in Fiddler on the Roof. In visual terms the film is completely consistent throughout, with nothing of the ‘real’ world to distract from its immaculate construct. Where real landscapes are incorporated, they are melded perfectly with exterior miniatures and with additional painted scenic elements. It’s a twilight landscape of picturesque snow-drifts and ice-bound forests, where characters freeze solid and have to be carried, stiff as boards indoors, to be thawed back into life. (Or in one case, thawed into undead life.)

The innkeeper’s wife laments the icy fate of her husband
Studio set: a landscape of snowdrifts and fenceposts

The castle is the best in any vampire film, ever. Polanski was paying tribute to Hammer Films with the lush, gothic style, but this goes way beyond anything the Hammer studios ever achieved.

The galleried castle courtyard was elaborately designed for the most perfect ‘chase’ gag, made in an unedited take, and it pays off wonderfully. But the film’s triumph of design is the sequence in which Professor Abronsius and Alfred pick their way across the snow-blanketed battlements and roof-scapes of the castle, and as the camera slides sideways to take in the full, wide-screen panoramic loveliness of the architecture against the mountains, the effect is simply breathtaking.

Above and below: the studio set of the castle roof with an atmospheric painted render of the landscape beyond
Polanski in costume for his role, in front of an exterior miniature of the castle

The cast is perfection, with stand-out ensemble work from Polanski as the timid Alfred and Jack MacGowran as a whippet-thin and physically elastic Professor Abronsius, as though Peter Cushing were being played Mr Pastry. Alfie Bass is outstanding as the obsequious innkeeper Shagal, bowing and bobbing in deference to the retreating vampire Count (the supremely elegant Ferdy Mayne) who’s just abducted his daughter. Shagal’s basilisk-eyed termagant of a wife is played by Jessie Robins, and Polanski brilliantly contrasts the couple’s physical disparities to create the sense of Shagal as a hen-pecked husband always doomed to come off worse within the marital state, though always straining to outwit the odds stacked against him. With her mountainous presence under an equally mountainous duvet in their tiny bedroom, he looks as though he’s about to be stifled under an avalanche of snow.

The Count’s shambling henchman, Koukol, is the British boxer Terry Downes, just thirty at the time of the filming, and he is astonishingly good. The character’s presence is one of the sinister/humerous lynchpins anchoring the film. He’s both funny and scary, and lumberingly lethal. (He polishes off an aggressive wolf with his bare hands and teeth!) And then there’s Sharon Tate, luminous as the Shagals’ daughter, Sarah, giving a performance so sweet and pitch perfect to the film that your heart aches for what we lost two years later. 

Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski larking about in front of the miniature of the castle exterior



Stand out sequences: 

The lyrical yet sinister moment when Tate in her bubble-bath suddenly realises that snow is falling in the room, the window above her having been opened. 


The Vampire Ball in which our heroes dance with the undead until the sublime moment when their game is suddenly up. 

Crossing the snowbound rooftops of the castle.

Alfred carries the frozen Abronsius across the castle battlements

A wonderful pursuit of Alfred by Count Von Krolock’s gay vampire son, Herbert, who has goodness knows what mischief in mind. (What I loved about this film both when I saw it on its release, and now, is that Iain Quarrier neither minces or camps, as a gay vampire would in any American or British film of the time (Kenneth Williams in Carry on Screaming), but plays it as a brooding, predatory dandy, like a blonde Lord Byron. It’s refreshing, funny and scary!)


Krzysztof Komeda’s music for the film shimmers with swooping vocal tracks that make a wordless vampiric chorus to the action. The effect is wonderfully atmospheric and spine chilling, and it was a crying shame he wasn’t enlisted to write music for the German stage musical, Dance of the Vampires, in which the magic of the film was utterly vanquished by relentlessly dreary songs, as though someone had pieced the show together from whatever leftovers never made it into Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. You can hear bits online and it’s deeply depressing. Komeda wrote the music for several Polanski films, including Rosemary’s Baby, but in my opinion his triumph was what he produced for Dance of the Vampires.

In the Realm of Monsters

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It’s with huge delight that I can reveal, at last, that my current big project is the commission to illustrate a new Beowulf for The Folio Society, in the acclaimed translation by Seamus Heaney. The illustrations must remain shrouded in secrecy until the book is ready for launch, and I won’t be showing work in progress. Suffice to say that I’m already deeply bedded in the project, awakening every morning excited to be in the thick of it and enormously enjoying the many discussions and planning sessions with my wonderful Folio Society art director, Raquel Leis Allion. But this little vignette is all you’re going to see before the book is published, because we’re keeping the images under lock and key.

I’ve greatly enjoyed the notion of ‘the monster’, whether in novels, in film/tv or in folklore and mythology. Aged eight I was sold on the idea of the ‘Gorgon’ from the first moment I read about her, and the Hydra, too, and the three-headed Cerberus, guard-dog of Hades. As a child, when too young to actually see X-rated films, I pored over imported copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland, so I knew all about the Universal Studios monsters – which were vintage even back in the fifties when they were being given lush spreads in the magazine – long before I ever saw the films themselves. I thrilled to the images of Lon Chaney being unmasked in The Phantom of the Opera, of Bela Lugosi curling back his lips in a pasty-faced vampiric leer, and Karloff sitting in Jack Pierce’s makeup chair being transformed into one of the most iconic monsters of cinema history.

I’m not a fan of all ‘horror’ – in extreme form I find it distasteful – but when makers are creative in producing something that nails you to your seat, the ride can be thrilling. I particularly love it when the scary bits are not too in-your-face. One of the greatest strengths of Alien, is that it pre-dated CGI, and so the fully-grown creature is half-shadowed and all the more alarming for it. I think the best scares in Jurassic Park are in the kitchen where a pair of Velociraptors hunt down the children, because most of what you see is staggeringly clever animatronics and puppetry, made even better by masterful editing. When the monster is actually there, in close contact with the actors, and not just a man in green wielding a ball-on-a-stick to cue their eye-lines for special effects to be added later, there are worlds of difference in the performances.

I’ve particularly enjoyed it when I’ve been given illustration opportunities to engage with old-school classic creatures. For the cover of These Our Monsters (2019, English Heritage), I was able to trace back to Bram Stoker’s account of Vlad Dracula, which was quite an eye-opener because the original descriptions are not remotely like any of the character’s film incarnations. (The cover image here is for The Dark Thread by Graeme Macrae Burnet, who sets his troubling and elegiac short story in Whitby at a time when the mentally fragile Stoker has returned to confront his own creation.)

There were entirely new monsters in the book, too, and I loved creating what Sarah Hall only suggests in The Hand Under the Stone, which is about as close as I’ve ever come to making a monster inhabiting a similar ‘between-worlds’ plane of existence to those found in the ghost stories of M. R. James which I love so much.

I’ve made several varieties of Witch for two quite different books on the theme of Hansel & Gretel, for a stage production in which she was presented via shadow-puppetry, and for a toy theatre for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop.

My first Hansel & Gretel book was a more or less textless picture-book for St Jude’s in which there was a Witch scary enough to require a warning for more sensitive readers. I made her glaucous-eyed and short-sighted – as witches traditionally were in some folk and fairy-tales, the Grimm Brothers telling of Hansel & Gretel included – but I dressed her in a garment embroidered with eyes to send out a different kind of message. (I stole the idea from a portrait of the first Queen Elizabeth in a gown embroidered with eyes and ears, as a coded message to her subjects – and more particularly her enemies – that the monarch saw all and heard all!)

A short-sighted Witch in a garment sewn with many eyes

For the Simon Armitage version of the tale, Hansel & Gretel, a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, I collaborated with paper-cut artist Peter Lloyd, providing him with rough drawings that he then transferred into elaborate stop-motion shadow-puppets. To begin with Hansel and Gretel saw only a crone in a bonnet and cloak, but when the cloak came off, the full horror of a spiny crab-like carapace was revealed, reverse-joint legs – like a bird – and a tail with a stinger that snaked into view and coiled and thrashed about.

Guide drawing for Peter Lloyd’s shadow puppets

Close up hands for the Witch created by Peter Lloyd

Animating a large Peter Lloyd shadow-puppet Witch’s head, used for close-ups

When Simon Armitage’s libretto for the stage production was published in 2019 as an illustrated book by Design for Today, I made a monstrous Witch – seen below as she’s turned into a gobstopper when Gretel pushes her into a cauldron of sweets boiled down into molten sugar – and a monstrous personification of the haunted forest, too, wonderfully described by the poet in a text that’s an illustrator’s dream.

The Witch transformed into a gobstopper
The personification of a fairytale haunted wood

Beowulf is jam-packed with the eponymous hero’s encounters with monsters of many varieties. There’s a deep-sea-creature that drags him to watery depths, a dragon he slays – though he becomes fatally wounded in the process – and that arch-monster of literature and father of all horrors that came after him, Grendel, who is of a sufficient size to stuff thirty human corpses into a bag and make off with them. Beowulf tears off Grendel’s arm as a trophy, and the fatally wounded monster slinks away to die ‘off-stage’. We then discover there’s worse waiting in the wings, for Grendel has a mother, and she’s as wrathful as a nest of Asian Hornets on the warpath when she sets out to avenge her son’s death. (And you thought the vengeful mother was invented by the makers of the second Alien film. Turns out that she goes back to Anglo-Saxon literature, and before that to even more ancient mythologies and tales.)

So I am thrilled to be making images of these archetypal monsters, and hopefully in ways that will be unexpected and visceral enough to raise a few hairs at the nape of the neck. But in a good way, of course.

The Hour That Never Was

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I was – and remain – a big fan of The Avengers. I loved the whimsy and style of the series, the brilliant pairing of the characters John Steed and Mrs Peel, brought so affectionately and stylishly to life by actors Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg, and the way it dipped so regularly into science fiction, weird fiction and a brand of folk-horror that was all its own.

In The Avengers the streets of London could always be relied upon to be strangely empty – which had the bonus of intensifying the tone of the series and foregrounding the players – and the countryside to be charmingly picturesque and devoid of eyesores. With droll dialogue and unexpected plots, each episode was a pitch-perfect jewel of escapist tv drama, and moreover was never un-balanced by overwrought visuals. The designers and special effects departments worked on a rigorously spare budget, and the constraint made everyone infinitely more inventive. Rigg and Macnee were masters of the quip and the ironic raised eyebrow, so that wherever the implausibilities of the plots would have tripped up more earnest actors, Steed and Mrs Peel instead exchanged knowing looks, poured glasses of restorative champagne and roared off in a convertible to the next chapter. (Or as below, trundled off on the back of a milk-float!)

The Hour That Never Was logged in at episode nine in the fourth series. As so often in the series … because actors know a good thing … it had a sterling supporting cast including Gerald Harper and Roy Kinnear. (The Avengers could always be relied upon for wonderful guest actors.)

Central to the plot of The Hour That Never Was, was a milk-float and a dead milkman. The United Dairies vehicle was an iconic one on the early-morning streets of the country, and there was a popular die-cast Triang toy of it.

My friend Simon Shaw, who is an aficionado of British tv/cinema horror and science fiction, has been busy producing wonderfully inventive models and figures for his Hobbs Lane Etsy Store. (He recently added a glow-in-the-dark possessed bed-sheet to his shop, based on the wonderful Jonathan Miller tv play Whistle and I’ll Come to You, starring Michael Hordern and adapted from the M R James short story Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.) Having found a vintage Triang milk-float in an extremely play-worn condition, he sanded it down (actually he got his ninety-four year old dad to do that bit for him), re-painted it in new livery and then added 3-D printed elements, including milk-crates and the body of the deceased milkman, to make a perfect miniature replica of The Hour That Never Was vehicle right down to the correct number-plate. Then he boxed it in a commercially available reprint of the packaging, adding bespoke stickers to complete the effect. Brilliant!

Hats off to Simon for ingenuity in this charming ‘homage’ to a series so many of us remember with great affection. And yes, dear reader, I did acquire it, to go alongside some of the other memorabilia of tv I’ve loved, including several boxed sets of characters featuring Jo Grant from Doctor Who, given to me by the girl herself, Katy Manning, who’s my much loved cousin.