Dance of the Vampires

Roman Polanski, USA 1967, 124 mins

Two incompetent vampire hunters travel through the Transylvanian winter in search of their prey. Arriving at Shagal's inn Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) soon realises that vampires are near - garlic festoons the walls and the locals are strangely reticent when asked if there is a castle nearby. Meanwhile his assistant, Alfred (the director) has taken a keen interest in the innkeeper's pretty daughter, Sara (Sharon Tate). When Count Von Krolock abducts Sara, the "fearless vampire killers" resolve to destroy the vampire and rescue the girl.

Dance of the Vampires is basically an affectionate parody of the Hammer horror films we all know and love from late-night TV. The irony is that Polanski and his co-screenwriter Gerard Brach seemed intuitively to know Hammer horror better than Hammer itself. Not only is Dance of the Vampires a far better horror-comedy than Hammer's own lamentable attempt at self-parody, The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), it also highlights ideas that Hammer would subsequently pick up on in later films. So rather than the professional savant of Dracula (1958) or a dozen other early Hammer films we get Abronsius. His insensitive and ineffectual interventions usually serve only to make matters worse, thereby prefiguring revisionist Hammer savants in the likes of Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971). With the likes of Herbert, the openly gay vampire who is interested in Alfred rather than Sara, the sexual deviations implicit in early Hammer films like The Brides of Dracula (1960) and Kiss of the Vampire (1964) are brought out. Hammer would increasingly exploit this in their lesbian vampire' films of the early 1970s.

In common with its models, Dance of the Vampires displays an impressive eye for detail in its production design and features a particularly effective score. Indeed, Krystov Komeda's music has been acclaimed as "the most innovative and haunting score ever devised for a horror movie" by the heavyweight Aurum Film Encyclopedia.

Dance of the Vampires is probably best known today for the wrong reason: Sharon Tate. Tate and Polanski fell in love during the making of the film and were married in 1968. Then in August 1969 the heavily pregnant Tate became the most well-known victim of Charles Manson's murderous cult.

Keith H. Brown
EUFS Programme 1998-99

It's been a long struggle to get Roman Polanski's Dance of the Vampires screened at EUFS and I sincerely hope you enjoy it. It's one of my personal favourite films; a guilty pleasure that it's hard to justify on grounds of cinematic quality. There's no doubt that Polanski has made better films - Repulsion (1965) and Chinatown (1974) spring immediately to mind - but I haven't seen another Polanski film that's quite as much fun as Dance of the Vampires. (The delightfully awful Bitter Moon (1992) comes a close second though.)

Arguably it took Polanski until his third horror film - Rosemary's Baby (1968) - to really find his own voice in the genre. If Repulsion was Polanski's take on Psycho and Peeping Tom (both 1960), then Dance of the Vampires is his take on the Hammer Gothics of the same period - films like Dracula (1958), The Brides of Dracula (1960), and Kiss of the Vampire (1964).

Visually and aurally the similarities between Polanski's film and the Hammer Gothic are immediately apparent. Bright colour cinematography highlights the low budget excellence of the production design or - when that coffin is too obviously cheap plywood or that snow too obviously fake - emphasises the aura of fairy-tale unreality. (The fake snow was a happy accident: Polanski originally intended to shoot at a real castle in the Dolomite mountains, where snow was supposedly assured - but didn't appear on schedule.) An evocative score, arguably "the most innovative and haunting ... ever devised for a horror movie", complements and underscores the action perfectly.

The ways in which Polanski plays with the themes of the Hammer Gothics are not so immediately apparent however. To quote Kim Newman's 'Nightmare Movies':

"Hammer horror treats the normal characters and the audience as innocent bystanders caught in a private battle between the forces of Good and Evil, as represented by the savant and the monster... Dr Van Helsing, Peter Cushing's fearless vampire killer in Dracula is the original savant ... an elderly mystic, steeped in arcane knowledge, apparently rational but with an Old Testament streak of 'vengeance is mine' fundamentalism. The monsters tend to be as suave, attractive, and plausible as Christopher Lee's Dracula, and as prone to red-eyed, fangs-bared hissing when thwarted... The duel between the monster and the savant inevitably begins with a minor victory for evil as an upright character is corrupted. Typically the repressed supporting heroine ... is turned into a vampire wanton. The proprieties are restored when the forces of Good pound a stake through her and the leading ladies ... are saved from a dark liberation... In the finale, the Savant brings down the Wrath of God... and the Monster's handsome face putrifies as he dies screaming."

From the outset Polanski proceeds to gently take the piss out of Hammer's Gothic formula. Whereas Van Helsing is a respected academic and professional as well as a vampire hunter, Professor Abronsius is, according to the mock-portentous voice-over, "A scholar and scientist whose genius was unappreciated. [He] had given up all to devote himself body and soul to what was to him a sacred mission - he had even lost his chair at Konigsberg University, where for a long time his colleagues used to refer to him as the nut."

Or, to take another example, note the way in which all the conventional tools of the vampire hunter - garlic, stake and crucifix - prove ineffectual. Shagal's inn is festooned with garlic yet Count Krolok enters with ease and takes Shagal's daughter Sara as his victim. Shagal bites disgustedly into a garlic bulb before going out to confront the vampire yet falls victim to the Count nonetheless. Abronsius and his assistant Alfred bungle their attempt to stake Shagal, arising the wrath of his widow in the process. So Shagal rises as a vampire and goes for his first victim, serving wench Magda. She thrusts a crucifix in his face, only for Shagal - a Jewish rather than a Christian vampire - to go "Oy-yoy! You got the wrong vampire" and bite her anyway.

But the brilliance of Dance of the Vampires is that it is more than just a comedic parody of Hammer Gothic. For one thing Polanski's film functions perfectly well as a horror film in its own right. For another Dance of the Vampires contributed to the generic tradition rather than simply being parasitic (i.e. a vampire) on it. Looking at later Hammer films we can see that they often pick up ideas from Polanski's film. For example the bumbling savants of Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, Demons of the Mind and Hands of the Ripper (all 1971) seem to have collectively taken a leaf out of Abronsius's book in their respective inability to conquer the forces of evil.

Programme note by Keith H. Brown
November 1998