“That night, penetrating deep into the heart of Transylvania, Professor Abronsius was un-aware that he was on the point of reaching the goal of his mysterious investigations. In the course of which he had journeyed throughout Central Europe for many years accompanied by his one and only faithful disciple, Alfred. A scholar and scientist whose genius was unappreciated, Abronsius 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 Königsberg University, where for a long time his colleagues used to refer to him as “The Nut”.”
Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, to the second week in this excursion in horror cinema.
As I mentioned last week, we’re going to stay in vampire territory a little longer; I’m just taking a darker route than I did with my last review. We’re still going to Transylvania, though. But not to seek out Count Dracula. No, Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and Alfred (Roman Polanski) are looking for vampires in general, but what they find is more than they could ever have bargained for.
The quote above is the opening narration to the movie Dance of the Vampires or as it was later re-named, The Fearless Vampire Killers, directed by Roman Polanski.
I first watched this one in 1989. August 8th to be exact! And how did I remember that, you ask? Well, I didn’t, exactly, but I do remember watching it on Danish television when it first aired. I checked and it was on the aforementioned date that the movie played. I also remember that just before it was about to start, they announced that they had been able to obtain a longer version of the movie. I later found out that that was actually the restored, original cut that the director, Roman Polanski, had intended everyone to see in the first place.
For its release in the U.S., the studio re-cut the film and added a short animated prologue to make it more of a kooky comedy. They also changed its title to The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon me, but your teeth are in my neck. However, nowadays it’s mostly known as The Fearless Vampire Killers. It is a comedy, although just not a kooky one. Nope, the humor is dark, but at times it takes on an almost “slap-sticky” tone. So it’s kind of hard to label it. I did laugh out loud on more than one occasion, but then again I like this type of humor.
In The Fearless Vampire Killers, Roman Polanski, who has directed such diverse movies as Chinatown, Bitter Moon, Repulsion, Frantic, Rosemary’s Baby, and Pirates. plays Alfred, the assistant to Professor Abronsius.
When the film starts, Alfred and the professor arrive at an inn where they’re greeted by Shagal (Alfie Bass), the innkeeper, and some of the townspeople. The townsfolk help carry the frozen professor into the warmth. The first word he utters after he’s thawed out is: “Garlic”. That’s actually the first thing he sees, because the inn is riddled with it and he’s certain they’re close to a discovery.
Of course, the people are reluctant to speak, at least in front of strangers, but it’s clear they’re hiding something. Our two friends decide to stay for a while to further investigate the possible presence of vampires in the area.
Soon, Alfred takes a liking to the innkeeper’s daughter, Sarah, played by the beautiful Sharon Tate (Eye of the Devil, Valley of the Dolls) whom Mr. Polanski would later marry in real life. (Their story doesn’t have a happy ending, unfortunately, but I won’t delve into that tragedy here.) The scenes at the inn are great because they show the daily life of the people there, which makes them more human. It really makes you care about the characters, you know?
Alfie Bass, who plays Shagal, did a lot of TV-work including the TV-series Dick Turpin and The Army Game. He creates a great and funny character. He lusts after the maid and is deathly afraid his wife will find out. Yet, if need be, he will defend his family with his life. And when his daughter Sarah is later kidnapped by the vampire, Count Von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne), that’s exactly what happens.
Later, Professor Abronsius and Alfred follow Shagal to the Count’s castle and sneak in. Alfred wants to save Sarah, but Abronsius, who’s actually rather selfish and cares more about his mission than people, just wants to locate and kill the vampire. Unfortunately, they’re discovered by the Count’s hunchback servant, Koukol (Terry Downes), who takes them to meet his boss, who invites them to stay at his castle. But after this, things kind of get out of hand for the two vampire killers.
I don’t think it’ll come as any big surprise to you that I love this movie, and have done so since I first watched it. I have, in fact, come to love it more and more with each viewing and that comes down to several different factors. One is the story itself, which is actually pretty straightforward. Two, not very adept, vampire killers meet a vampire and the story unfolds from there!
But the story wouldn’t work without a great cast. In the role of the professor, we get Jack MacGowran, who’s also been in The Exorcist and another Roman Polanski movie called Cul-De-Sac. And Ferdy Mayne, as the Count, has more than 250 film and television credits to his name.
Apart from the main cast there are also some fairly recognizable names in smaller roles. Fiona Lewis (The Fury, Innerspace) plays Magda the maid, and Terry Downes (a former world middleweight boxing champion) plays Koukol the hunchback.
In a minor role as the village idiot is Ronald Lacey, who played the German SS Major Arnold Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The sleigh-driver who takes Alfred and professor Abronsius to the inn at the start of the movie was also someone I thought I recognized. I was wondering where the hell I’d heard his voice before, and then it dawned on me… He was Hodge, the magician’s servant in Dragonslayer. He’s done lots of other stuff too, but that’s where I knew him from!
Another element I’ve come to appreciate about The Fearless Vampire Killers are the incredible sets. The amount of work that went into every detail is amazing. Everything looks dirty and worn. The castle, especially, has an ancient look, with cobwebs and dust everywhere. Despite its appearance, however, you still get the feeling that when the castle was “new” it would have been a beautiful place to stay.
The musical score was done by Krzysztof Komeda, who’s worked with Roman Polanski on several of his other movies, including Rosemary’s Baby, Cul-De-Sac, and Knife in the Water. His score for The Fearless Vampire Killers is a great one. Very eerie!
On a final note, I just want to mention the artwork on the movie-poster I’ve chosen to feature with this post. It’s done by the great artist Frank Frazetta. And if you’re not familiar with his work, you can check him out HERE.
And there you have it, my friends, my second movie pick for October. I hope you like it!
Please leave any thoughts you have about it in the comment section below. Next week we’re going to New Zealand and I hope you’ll join me!
Until next time…Share