Out of the Past: Dance of the Vampires

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

To call Roman Polanski’s fourth feature film a mere spoof on vampire movies is as ridiculously shallow as to call it The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck. Polanski’s own title, Dance of the Vampires, far better suits this ambivalently comic, profoundly troubling sortie into cinema gothic. The villain in the case is the spectacularly myopic producer Martin Ransohoff, who cut some nine minutes from the original film (including some of the best sequences, if Ivan Butler’s description of the British print is to be believed), redubbed certain of the voices (including the director’s own), and slapped that insipid title on the film for its American release. With righteous indignation, Polanski asked that his name not be associated with the film as exhibited in the United States.

This request has not been honored, and it’s just as well, because even as it stands, the film is a magnificent tribute to the director’s cinematic genius. There is little plot, merely a series of episodes involving the efforts of Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his protégé Alfred (Polanski) to root out and destroy a band of vampires ensconced in a castle in a desolate region of Central Europe. Many of the episodes are very funny indeed, and on the spoof level Polanski displays admirable comic versatility. His screenplay ranges from verbal humor (when Alfred explains that he knew the young man chasing him was a vampire because he had cast no reflection in a mirror, Abronsius breathes, “I’d love to have seen that!”) to ethnic digs (Shagal, the Jewish innkeeper turned vampire, scoffs at the crucifix held up in defense against him: “Oyyyy—have you got the wrong vampire!”) to Sennettesque slapstick (Abronsius wedged, legs wriggling, into a window of the castle crypt; or Shagal, ejected from the crypt, sledding down snowy steps in his coffin). Yet virtually all of the humor is qualified. The ethnic joke is not entirely funny as Shagal shows up at the castle, wearing his shabby coffin under his arm à la Nosferatu, begging crypt space for the night, only to be tossed out by the hunchbacked servant Koukol and forced to lodge in the stable. And when a homosexual vampire, making advances to Alfred, gets his fangs imbedded in a manual of seduction techniques and struggles to extricate them, his chilling animal howls stop the laughter in one’s throat.

The comedy, as funny as it is, is always mitigated by terror or pathos. Shagal’s daughter Sara (Sharon Tate), a compulsive taker of baths, coaxes Alfred into letting her use his tub for a “quick one” in a scene filled with hilarious innuendo; but no sooner is she snuggled in beneath the suds than Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne), the arch-vampire, enters through the skylight and drifts down upon her, accompanied by a delicate shower of snowflakes. Alfred’s buffoonish, dumbstruck terror at von Krolock’s abduction of Sara leads directly into her father’s genuinely touching grief at the loss of his daughter, which turns again to burlesque as he tumbles, weeping, into her freshly vacated tub of sudsy water. Shortly after he leaves his inn in desperate pursuit of von Krolock, his body is brought back, drained of blood and frozen solid. Abronsius’s hilariously irreverent examination of Shagal’s ice-statue corpse is starkly contrasted with Madame Shagal’s pathetic tears of grief. And when she refuses to allow the professor and Alfred to give Shagal’s body the stake treatment, the innkeeper rises as a vampire and advances on the chamber of his love-in-life, Magda the maid. Later, his clumsy crash through her window creates a slapstick contrast with von Krolock’s earlier poetic descent through the skylight.

The simplicity of plot and sparseness of narrative serve the muse not only of comedy but of lyricism as well. Indeed, Dance of the Vampires is one of the most lyrical horror films ever made. Each superficially comic pratfall is performed and photographed with all the poetic grace of foreordained catastrophe. One of the most stunning compositions of the film is the longshot of Shagal, now a vampire, fleeing with human fear the determination of Abronsius and Alfred, stumbling with human awkwardness across desolate dunes of snow, as the camera creates a moving contrast between the concrete reality around him and his own incongruous figure, no longer fully human, no longer a part of his environment.

The studied, almost ritualistic movements of camera and actors through a Limboesque landscape recall Polanski’s early short films The Fat and the Lean and Mammals. As in those films, the composition and movement give Dance of the Vampires a haunting beauty that is far more affecting and memorable than any of its comic gags. With rarely equaled intensity the film’s individual images penetrate and haunt the consciousness: von Krolock’s airy attack on Sara, Shagal’s frozen body, the strangely aesthetic hideousness of Koukol, and the climactic dance of the vampires, magnificently staged and shot, at once stately baroque and stumping burlesque. All of this is powerfully enhanced by Krzysztof Komeda’s foreboding musical score, whose wailing voices and resonant, amplified echoes further extend the film’s unearthly atmosphere.

With the possible exception of Douglas Slocombe’s stunning Panavision Metrocolor photography, the single most remarkable achievement of the film is the late Jack MacGowran’s portrayal of Abronsius. He is Van Helsing merged with the absentminded professor, living in an ordered world far too fantastic for others to accept. He stands alone against the world (Alfred being of less than no assistance whatever); his devotion to his mission eclipses his comic mishaps. MacGowran’s wonderfully balanced performance sustains both levels of Polanski’s film: the world of vampires is fun (for the moviegoer, at least), but the battle of the righteous against evil, even if doomed to failure, calls for the most serious dedication. His conviction surpasses that of any previous screen vampire-killer, as he packs his anti-vampire kit (stakes, hammer, and crucifix in a priestly briefcase), and remarks, “Soon it will be dark and the vampires will rise: it’s the Order of Things.”

The Order of Things, alas—in Polanski’s universe, at least—includes the ultimate triumph of evil. Having escaped from the vampires at the castle, Abronsius and Albert depart Transylvania with Sara who, unknown to them, is already herself a vampire. Thus Abronsius becomes the agent by which vampirism spreads to the rest of Europe, and—tomorrow—the world. This explicit depiction of the preeminence of the Satanic looks forward to Polanski’s more popular Rosemary’s Baby, released the next year. In both films, the good, innocent individual stands alone; the evil find strength and victory in group solidarity. The final sequence of Dance of the Vampires, Sara’s transmogrification into vampire, is a puzzler for students of the vampire myth: Sara was clearly visible in the mirror just before leaving the castle, marking her as still among the living; yet though she has not visibly died, she is a vampire on the sleigh, and an active bloodsucker even though it’s already past dawn. Is this an oversight in vampirology on Polanski’s part? Or has vampirism now become so infectious that one may metamorphose after mere exposure, and the traditional defenses no longer apply? Or is Polanski at the very end deliberately allowing his metaphor to break down, in order to lend his moral one final, insidious punch?

DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES
(aka The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me but Your Teeth Are in My Neck)
Direction: Roman Polanski. Screenplay: Polanski and Gérard Brach; translated by Gillian & John Sutro. Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe. Production Design: Wilfrid Shingleton; Art Direction: Fred Carter. Costumes: Sophie Devine. Editing: Alastair McIntyre. Music: Krzysztof Komeda. Choreography: Tutte Lemkow. Production: Martin Ransohoff.
The Players: Jack MacGowran, Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate, Ferdy Mayne, Alfie Bass, Jessie Robbins, Iain Quarrier, Terry Downes, Fiona Lewis, Ronald Lacey.

Copyright © 1974 Robert C. Cumbow