An old Roman Polanski film I have a lot of affection for is his atmospheric horror-comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers, originally titled Dance of the Vampires. It isn’t usually considered part of the director’s A-list (even now it’s regarded a cult classic at best), but I think it’s a wonderfully well-made film that hits a fine balance between menace and goofy humour – two qualities that don’t normally mix well, assuming anyone even tries to mix them. I enjoy the fact that it defies classification: just when you think you have it pegged as a parody-tribute to the Hammer horror movies, it turns a corner and gives you an image or vignette so beautiful (or frightening) that it transcends nearly anything from the Hammer factory.
The story involves the many misadventures of old Professor Abronsius and his earnest, wide-eyed assistant Alfred (played by Polanski himself – this is probably his best outing as an actor) as they travel around Transylvania to find and destroy vampires (though I don’t think the word is ever actually spoken – not until the final 20 minutes anyway). They bumble their way around inns, enquire if anyone knows of “a castle in the vicinity”, wonder why each place they go to has large quantities of garlic handing from the ceiling and why the residents appear so nervous. Then an innkeeper’s voluptuous daughter (Polanski’s real-life wife Sharon Tate) is abducted by the creepy Count Von Krolock, and the pursuit begins.
Fearless Vampire Killers holds up quite well today considering it draws heavily on the Hammer template, which now seem so quaint and dated. It’s great to look at – with exquisite shots of the Alpine snows and many graceful scenes, including one of the most balletic vampire attacks you’ll ever see and a tense, funny, nicely choreographed ballroom dance where our heroes try to rescue the heroine from a hall full of aristocratic vampires. There’s even a lovely, tender moment between the Polanski and Tate characters (I think this was the only time they appeared together onscreen) that could easily have come out of any of the great romantic films.
And somehow, when all this is set against the goofier moments (the MGM lion turning into a cartoon monster before the opening credits, the manic prancing about of the innkeeper Shagal, the vampires solemnly getting back into their coffins to sleep when dawn breaks), it only adds to the viewer’s disconcertment. You never know when to expect a change of tone: one minute the professor and his assistant could be clowning around like Keystone Kops, the next moment a pair of fangs might be sinking into someone’s throat. It keeps you on the edge.
A couple of links (preferably if you’ve already seen the film, or if you’re interested but don’t plan to see it anytime soon). First, this fine appreciation of the musical score: it’s a sequence-by-sequence analysis, so it inevitably gives away everything about the plot. Second, this review, with information on how a severely re-edited version of the film was available in the US for many years – Polanski disowned that version, which no doubt contributed to the film being low-profile for a long time.
P.S. Given that this isn’t considered a “typical” Polanski movie, I was also intrigued by this quote from cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (link via Wikipedia): “I think he (Roman) put more of himself into Dance of the Vampires than into another film. It brought to light the fairy-tale interest that he has…The figure of Alfred is very much like Roman himself – a slight figure, young and a little defenseless – a touch of Kafka. It is very much a personal statement of his own humour. He used to chuckle all the way through.”
(Earlier post on Polanski's Macbeth here.)