Dance of the Vampires

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.

15 thoughts on “Dance of the Vampires

  1. I have very mixed feelings regarding Polanski; on the one hand, his films have a superb artistry and potency of atmosphere, but, on the other, he deserves to pay for his crimes. THE TENANT is one of my favourite films (based on one of my favourite novels), in part because I see much of myself in Trelkovsky. I do not feel too ashamed for connecting with Polanski’s character, even if he is largely informed by the director’s own experiences as a foreigner in Paris, because many of us, I think, have been in similar situations, isolated, surrounded by hostility, unsure of our own identities, succumbing to paranoia. He is very much a case where one must separate the art from the artist.

    • I know little beyond a few headlines of what Polanski was accused of and nothing of what the outcomes were, but I love his work as a director. They say never make the mistake of meeting your heroes. While I greatly admire the films of the artist, writer and film director Jean Cocteau, having read a substantial biography and his ‘Diary of a Film’, I’m pretty sure I would not have relished his company as much as I enjoy his work. Sometimes the work just has to be separated out from the maker.

  2. Did not see the film when it came out, during my time of being a stay at home housewife and mother.
    I have ordered the Spanish Blu Ray. But does not say which version it is. I hope it is the good one.
    Thank you ever so much for this.

    Love from Madrid ( hot again, after a short reprieve ) for both of you.

    • Hello Maria. I do so hope you have the Spanish Blu-ray version I’ve acquired, which comes in at over 100 minutes, whereas the US version is just 88 minutes. The disc offers a Spanish-dubbed version, and a version in the language the film was made in, English. I greatly enjoyed seeing the film as it was intended by its director. Polanski’s humour is very gentle and whimsical, which I like. As Alfred, sidekick to the Professor, I think he’s charming. Let me know what you think. Love from Wales. XXX

  3. I always liked this one, in fact it terrified me when I first saw it since I was only about 11 or so, and the humour didn’t manage to overwhelm the horror. Every time I see it I’m amazed that he manages to outdo Hammer at their own game while making everything look much more costly than it must have been; a testament, as you say, to the artistry of all involved. Nobody at Hammer ever bothered to take the time to create something like the two mirror scenes. It’s very cine-literate as well. In addition to the obvious Hammer qualities, Alfred’s appearance is modelled on that of the Hutter character in Murnau’s Nosferatu while Professor Ambronsius resembles the sinister village doctor in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr.

    • John, I agree with all you say. I believe there was artistry in the Hammer films. (I have a soft spot particularly for The Brides of Dracula, with the wonderful Martita Hunt winsomely concealing her fangs behind a scrap of lavender veiling.) But it’s a fact that Polanski out-Hammered Hammer with Dance of the Vampires, and moreover with a film that managed to be both funny and true to genre, which is so often not the case. No one had made a squat, ripely steaming interior as atmospheric as Shagal’s inn since the heyday of German Expressionism, and no-one has done it as well since. Alfie Bass is FANTASTIC, and I relish every moment of the action he appears in. Watching this dvd the other night I was blown away by how physical he is in the role, throwing himself into some quite tricky stunts.

      Visually the use of miniatures and artfully painted landscapes is masterful, and there’s a real sense of the geography of the castle interiors, with spaces plausibly linking up rather than feeling like a few disconnected rooms, the way they would in a lesser film. It’s visually coherent, with not a single shot or un-matched location to spoil the illusion. That’s rare, even in big budget films. In fact I prefer the scale of Dance of the Vampires to that of bigger films. It’s like a lovely chamber-work, not bloated with special effects or indigestible visuals, the way so many films are. I’ve really enjoyed watching the Polanski cut again, after all the years of suffering the US version on tv. A pleasure from start to finish.

      • Alfie Bass was terrific. He stole the show. But I remember watching The Exorcist for probably the 3rd time and spotting a gentleman arguing with a chef in the kitchen. Calling him a Nazi. His body language rang a bell. It was Jack MacGowran without the Dr. Abronsius makeup on. I didn’t know of him then and had never seen him without makeup. The both of them, real thespians.

  4. Such a poetic and elegiac tribute to a great film. The tragedy of Sharon Tate’s life has overshadowed it. I was working on an adjoining stage at Shepperton when Roman was directing MACBETH – with one stage filled with another castle courtyard.
    I will check to see if that was by Wilfred Shingletonas also…. Well written!

    • Thank you, Stephen. Yes, the tragedy did overshadow it, but the changes imposed by the producer for the US release didn’t help either. It was a European film and attempts to ‘Americanise’ it were misplaced. I think it didn’t find much favour with critics either, and that can’t have helped. Bosley Crowther was HORRIBLE about it. No point in talking about what a film isn’t – and this isn’t in the same comic universe as Young Frankenstein – but it tells the story straight-forwardly, looks beautiful and I love the dexterous physical clowning of the cast. Polanski honoured the genre, and there’s nothing wrong with that when done as well as this. I can see that an appreciation for the film has grown over the years. I have never seen Polanski’s Macbeth. I must seek it out. I’d love to see Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth!

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