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.)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.