By Kris Tronerud
The Fearless Vampire Killers (aka Dance of The Vampires) • 1967 • dir. Roman Polanski – Original Theatrical Trailer
Someone’s heart is beating around in their bosom… pitter pat… pitter pat… like a rat in a cage…
— Iain Quarrier to Roman Polanski in The Fearless Vampire Killers
From the beginning of the long and winding road that has been the film career of Roman Polanski, the Polish-born director’s films have been judged not only by their often considerable merit, but as a kind of post facto barometer of his tragedy-haunted, scandal ridden life. The corrosive alienation and jaundiced world view of his early successes Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-Sac (1966) taken as a reflection of his being left alone to escape the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto and survive the war in the Polish countryside at the tender age of nine; the pessimistic, paranoid (and brilliant) Rosemary’s Baby of the fears of a successful young director dependant on strangers in a foreign environment; the brutal, feral violence of Macbeth redolent of the horrific murder of his wife, unborn baby and 4 friends at the hands of the Manson family; with his whole post-exile career seen as a long string of reflections on personal morality, corruption, and the terrible difficulty of human relationships in general, and a string of artistic missteps and/or commercial failures viewed as some sort of karmic/filmic comeuppance. All this ephemera has been, happily, put to rest with the commercial and critical success of the Oscar/Cannes Prize-winning The Pianist and the presumably healing effect of the 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired; a good time, perhaps, to revisit the one Polanski film that can truly be enjoyed completely on its own, the light-hearted and baggage-free The Fearless Vampire Killers, an affectionate, charming homage to the Golden Age of Gothic Cinema in general, and 60’s Hammer vampire films in particular.
The plot is, in fact, classic Hammer: Dedicated vampire hunter Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran), with his naïve assistant Alfred (Roman Polanski), is hot on the trail of master vampire Count Korlock (Ferdy Mayne), who is terrorizing a small Balkan village from a perch in his standard-issue forbidding castle in the surrounding foothills. After receiving the requisite “Vampires? What vampires?” response from the cowering villagers, Abronsius and Alfred settle down for a decidedly uncozy night in which Alfred falls instantly in love with the innkeeper’s ravishing daughter Sarah (Sharon Tate) only to witness her violation and abduction by Korlock and his minion, hunchback-from-central-casting Koukol (Terry Downes). Determined to eradicate the scourge of Korlock’s iron grip of fear and rescue the somewhat less-than-innocent Sarah, Abronsius and Alfred head for Castle Korlock, armed only with the Professor’s encyclopedic knowledge of bats, and a bag of antique vampire killing tools which the lovestruck, albeit terrified Alfred is far to squeamish to actually use…
The special magic of Vampire Killers, is of course, its loving evocation of the mood and visual splendor of Hammer classics such as Brides of Dracula and a long line of Christopher Lee Dracula vehicles stretching over 15 years (Horror of Dracula, Dracula Has Risen from The Grave); as well as Roger Corman’s seminal Poe series (Fall of The House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum); and while the first third of Vampire Killers evokes an almost slapstick, spoofy (and even occasionally lame) ambiance, once our intrepid vampire hunters head for the castle, the extraordinary team of Production Designer Wilfred Shingleton and Art Director Fred Carter go into overdrive, riffing on the great production designs of Hammer’s Bernard Robinson and American International’s Daniel Haller with ten times their budget; and Vampire Killers becomes an eerily whimsical adult fairy tale, replete with moonlit mountain vistas, snow-covered parapets and a sensual, if musty decadence. Quotations abound from its sources: the vampire aristocracy and midnight ball from Don Sharp’s Kiss of the Vampire, the hall full of leeringly evil family portraits from House of Usher, and even a sly nod to Nosferatu in a vampire’s fast-motion skittering across a rooftop. Vampire Killers even occasionally rises to the poetic, as with a shot of our heroes’ skis drifting, dreamlike, into the darkened forest, leaving them stranded at Korlock’s castle. All this ethereal atmosphere is aptly coloured by the sly, provocative score of constant Polanski collaborator, Polish Jazz composer Christopher Komeda, who died in a tragic skiing accident months after completing Rosemary’s Baby (whose score essentially invented the now common horror-movie trope of the sinister children’s voices ‘la-laa-laaa’ theme).
Vampire Killers is, admittedly, not without its faults, and, notwithstanding an only sporadically clever script, the film’s main problem lies primarily with its two protagonists. Savvy enough to know he wasn’t stalwart hero material, Polanski makes of Alfred a timid, simple sort, but lacks the skill of a great clown necessary to make him a believable hero as well. And, despite terrific character performances in many a European film, and a brilliant turn in his own masterpiece Chinatown, here Polanski is reticent and hard to understand, and just, well, Not Quite Right For The Part. And frequent Samuel Beckett interpreter Jack MacGowran, while lovable enough (in a slightly hammy, theater-y way), seems to be channeling not a brilliant, courageous Van Helsing type (Peter Cushing’s pivotal Hammer role) but rather the sort of local color, comic-relief-in-a-bad-wig usually provided by the equally hammy and lovable Michel Ripper. Still, however ‘slightly off’ Polanski and MacGowran may be, they grow on us; and the rest of the cast is wonderful, starting with the great Ferdy Mayne as Count Korlock. All sneering suaveté and deadly menace, Mayne walks the fine line between dead sincerity and parody with just the right tone: Gently tongue-in-cheek enough to fit perfectly into the movie he’s in, but commanding and charismatic enough for us to wish there had been an equally deft Van Helsing stand-in for Korlock to confront, and to long for that non-existent, never-to-be ‘serious’ Hammer vampire film led by Mayne as Dracula. While Mayne carries the film’s delicious last third, the whole structure and playful, saucy tone of Vampire Killers is woven around the wonderful Tevye-esque innkeeper Shagal, played by veteran British comic actor Alfie Bass (best known to Americans as Harry on Are You Being Served?). Incorrigibly lecherous yet adorable while human, and completely amoral yet adorable as a vampire (though one of the kvetchiest vampires on record!) Bass utters (when confronted with a cross) the film’s most famous line — ‘Oy, have you got the wrong vampire’ — and dominates the film when Mayne is not on screen. Equally good are Sharon Tate as the purring semi-virginal Sarah (fresh from a turn on The Beverly Hillbillies as Miss Hathaway’s secretary [!], Tate is not only luminously, ingenuously beautiful, but touched by a canny intelligence not generally found in the average amply-bodiced Hammer Heroine; it is impossible not to imagine the crushing blow her death must have been to Polanski; and actor-producer (Godard’s Symapthy for the Devil) Iain Currier, who turns what might have been a silly, stereotypical Gay Vampire bit into a genuinely sensual and sexy foe, seemingly on loan from Andy Warhol’s Dracula: we are tempted to wonder whether the flummoxed Alfred is recoiling in horror from the foulness of vampirism or the fact that Quarrier is turning him on.
It is interesting to note that this spot-on synthesis of 60’s Horror Style was made, not with the foreshortened, nostalgic hindsight of a Quentin Tarantino tribute, but at the height of the genre’s cycle, and, despite the fact that Polanski (semi spoiler alert!) cannot resist a typically mordant (and genuinely surprising) twist at film’s end, The Fearless Vampire Killers/Dance of the Vampires remains Polanski’s most innocent and purely ‘enjoyable’ film. Shall we ‘Dance’?