The Fearless Vampire Killers – a Not so Merry Dance!

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The Fearless Vampire Killers/Dance of the Vampires (1967) Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Jack McGowran, Alfie Bass, Sharon Tate, Ferdy Mayne, Jessie Robins, Iain Quarrier and Terry Downes

Oft quoted, but often mis-viewed, Roman Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires, aka The Fearless Vampire Killers or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967), concentrates on the mis-adventures of Professor Abrontius and his faithful, nerdy sidekick, Alfred (Polanski), as they travel to a mid-European castle to drive out the threat of vampirism forever.
Dance does exactly what Tom Holland’s Fright Night would later do with homage to the Dracula myth. Polanski takes everything one can remember having read in the Stoker novel: the wolves baying outside the Castle; Count Von Krolock; Ferdy Mayne’s finest fifteen minutes, being viewed by the prisoner through a keyhole as he disappears down the dank corridors waving his keychain over his finger.

 In make up resembling Albert Bras in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), Jack McGowran’s energetic performance as Abrontius – “The Nut!” – skulks, Max Schreck-fashion, over craggy battlements spouting “end of the world” eulogies, with Polanski, a dead ringer for Gustav Von Wangenheim in Nosferatu, trying to keep up.
I watch this film and constantly wish that Roman Polanski had played it straight. His unerring eye for sets took him out of Hammer’s cardboardian jungle and into a storybook land beyond the forest that harks back to Emily Gerard’s original mapping document. Alfie Bass’ lecherous landlord is funny, but the constant one-liners that fall clunkily to the ground, become tedious even before the punch lines are delivered.

What works for me in the film is the eerie atmosphere straight out of the first four chapters of Stoker’s novel. The crawling camerawork lends a nod to Polanski’s favourite film, Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), and two references point to Olivier’s Richard III: an oil painting of Prince Crookback and an extra, made up to look exactly like Olivier in the 1955 film. The scene in which Sharon Tate is vampirized in a bath is still to be bettered forty years on.

“I’m frightened,” states Alfred, hopelessly matter-of-fact, as he stares down onto a scene of tombs laid out in the same manner as Graf Orlok packs his coffins onto a coach to leave for Bremen. When these tombs open and the corpses walk, we realise that we are frightened too. It’s an incredibly charged scene, but is immediately undercut by the corpses having to dance the, supposedly, funny minuet of the title.

 At the end of the film, all the cast are thrown into an Abbott and Costello farce with the heroes, on the run with Tate, being pursued by the inhabitants of the castle. As a final punch to the nervous system, we see that Tate has already been turned and puts the bite on Polanski himself, while Abrontius blithely steers the coach out of harms way and; “spreads the disease across the world”.

Polankski’s fairytale set to one of the cinema’s most haunting scores by Krystof Komeda has, perhaps, the highest cult following than any other vampire movie. Perhaps the main reason for this being the brutal murder of it’s star Sharon Tate and her unborn child at the hands of Charles Manson’s degenerate strays.

The news that Polanski asked for his name to be removed from the credits is now in the annals of movie mythology. Polanski hated his partnership with Producer Martin Ransohoff and disagreed with his final cuts to the film – adding a new score and an animated title sequence. The directors own cut, Dance of the Vampires is the version that founded the reputation for the film – even though Polanski’s own edits seem perfunctory. Today it has had the full title restored – complete with both titles, such is the magic of technology. The DVD even includes the original trailer presided over by comedian Max Wall.

I still smile when Alfie Bass delivers the immortal line, “Oy, vey! Hev you got the wrong vampire!” when confronted by Fiona Lewis’s crucifix. I like the beginning of the movie as the MGM lion morphs into a vampiric gremlin and the credit to Ludwig Von Krankheit for supplying the fangs.

 But when boxer Terry Downes seemingly rips out the throat of a wolf – mercifully off-camera –  and Bass drags Lewis’s corpse into a coffin to indulge in a little night-time necrophilia, the hackles on my neck rise and I wonder where the action is going and the horror rating goes into the 5 star category.
On reflection, I stand in Ransohoff’s corner and wonder if he missed the joke like the rest of us.

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