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21st Century Horrors II

Friday October 31, 2014 in halloween | horror

Halloween time and so my top 5 horror television of the 21st century.

The Walking Dead (2010 -, currently in 5th season)

The Walking Dead has recently started its fifth season and is attracting groundbreaking viewing figures for cable television. The new series is already living up to the consistent high quality expected, especially with the strong lead performance of Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, now weary, grey-bearded, greasy and blood-splattered but ever determined to keep his band of survivors, comrades and family, safe.

Carl: Dad, you can’t keep me from it.
Rick: From what?
Carl: From what always happens.
Rick: Yeah. Maybe. But I think it’s my job to try.

But the most satisfying aspect of The Walking Dead is how it uses one of the most well trod genres in horror: zombies.

Essentially, zombies (from here on known as walkers) haven’t changed a great deal since Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies (1966), but now the advantage of a long running series such as The Walking Dead allows time for them to mature in the walker equivalent of a fine cheese and horribly waste away in front of us. Season 5 has noticeably ramped up the gore with walkers visibly decomposing as they lurch towards their victims. The best scene to illustrate this came in the second episode, with walkers trapped in a flooded basement where Rick and co find themselves fighting off rotting and waterlogged horrors.

Penny Dreadful (2014 -, 2nd season planned)

Watching Hammer’s 1958 Dracula recently, I sadly realised how unsatisfying the film is. It reworks Bram Stoker’s novel for the screen admirably enough but adds little – critically I think it fails to reinvent the Dracula story in an interesting way other than offer a dash of colour and cut-glass English accents. Although Dracula is now regarded as a film classic (being notched up to five stars by the Radio Times for its last terrestrial viewing), I think that Hammer became more inventive when they started to play around a bit more adventurously with the well known stories – Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), or find new things to do with tired genres, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974). Of course it didn’t always work so well – see Dracula AD 1972 (1972).

Forty years on, Penny Dreadful still manages to be creative with the same limited source material, mixing together both Dracula and Frankenstein with a dash of Dorian Gray and the Wolfman and a background setting of the Grand Guignol. What works so well is how Penny Dreadful both respects the originals and alters them to introduce unexpected surprises. The scene where Frankenstein’s Creature (Rory Kinnear) murders Van Helsing (David Warner) is one such audacious twist. Like the original 19th century penny dreadfuls, the series honours only the essence of the originals.

Most terrifying though is the presence of Eva Green as the possessed Vanessa Ives:

Hannibal (2013 – , 3rd season planned)

Hannibal recasts a more recent familiar character from horror, Hannibal Lecter, and upends the familiar image of him incarcerated in a dark, gothic dungeon ( The Silence of the Lambs (1991)). This time it is Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) who is usually the prisoner, with Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) free to follow his monstrous pursuits. In another alteration, journalist Freddie Lounds, first played by Stephen Lang in Manhunter (1986), is now a woman (Lara Jean Chorostecki).

Hannibal is a slow burner and at times very ponderous and overly talky:

Hannibal: I gave you a rare gift, and you didn’t want it. You would deny me my life.
Will: Not your life.
Hannibal: My freedom then, you would take that from me. Confine me to a prison cell. Did you believe you could change me the way I’ve changed you?
Will: I already did.

But Hannibal is also very, very frightening, particularly with the events that are not directly connected to Lecter, such as the activities of the insane acupuncturist played by Amanda Plummer. He isn’t the only monster on the loose.

The success of Hannibal has started a trend of remaking famous horror films as a tv franchise, for example the story of the young Norman Bates in Bates Motel (2013 – , 3rd season planned), which throws away the Psycho (1960) rulebook to introduce a modern day setting instead of the more logical 50s one. Although I’m not sure if this is down to design or just laziness.

American Horror Story (2011 – , currently in 4th season)

The genius of American Horror Story is how it reboots for each season, with a new theme and cast of characters played by the same repertory company of actors, notably Jessica Lange. The four seasons to date cover a modern day haunted house, a 60s mental asylum, a coven of witches bouncing between 1840 and the present day and a 50s freak show. The first series used music from classic cinema films, notably Bernard Herrmann’s score from Twisted Nerve (1968) and the second started a theme of using recognisable characters from films such as Pinhead from Freaks (1932). More subtly, Stevie Nicks features heavily as things progress.Of all my choices, American Horror Story makes best use of the 13 episode season structure, peppering it with surprises and red herrings.

American Horror Story has zombies too, in the season 3 Halloween episodes, and season 3 also delivers its own take on Frankenstein with Evan Peters as the frustrated creature. The best thing about American Horror Story is that it is at times totally, totally mad. See the Name Game Song from season 2:

If Penny Dreadful resembles the periodicals from the 19th century that it takes its name from, then American Horror Story is the modern day equivalent of the Victorian melodrama.

Game of Thrones (2011 – , 5th season planned)

Despite the White Walkers, dragons, giants and the like which give the appearance of an adult fantasy series, the real moments of horror in Game and Thrones stem from what the very real human characters do to each other. The beheading of Ned Stark (Sean Bean) starts this whole horrible sequence of events, leading to the multiple killings at the red wedding the poisoning of King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and the shocking death of Prince Oberyn (Pedro Pascal). And this only touches the surface. It’s not just the grisly murders. The fate of Theon Greyjoy, anyone?

If we’re talking horror in its purest sense, the The Walking Dead is probably the best of the bunch. For camp lunacy and inventiveness, American Horror Story wins hands down and is my choice for Halloween viewing this year. But ultimately Game of Thrones comes out tops for acting and overall quality. What’s interesting (although fingers crossed for Penny Dreadful) is that all of the above are long term series – television certainly has a thirst for horror.


The Fear Factor

Thursday October 31, 2013 in halloween | doctor who

Following months of speculation, the BBC have remastered rediscovered episodes of Doctor Who and released them on iTunes to outsell even Breaking Bad. So a Halloween treat to celebrate…

The programme being 50 years old this year, it’s sometimes worth adding context to the various eras of Doctor Who. In December 1967 the television schedules included the premiere of The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (who were also at number one with Hello Goodbye) and the first episode of the pre Python comedy Do Not Adjust Your Set. The Prisoner was about halfway through its run and Doctor Who was midway in its 1967/68 season. The Patrick Troughton era stories The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear were aired between 23rd December 1967 and 9th March 1968. Now we can enjoy them again.

Obviously there’s a lot of sentiment around these releases. Patrick Troughton’s era has suffered the most, with a horrifying 53 episodes still missing after being wiped by the BBC with the only hope of survival lying in the hands of private collectors or foreign sales. So any find is worth a celebration. The Web of Fear in particular is a legendary Who adventure, featuring the Yeti and the first appearance of The Brigadier. The Enemy of the World is also a welcome find, even if it isn’t exactly such classic Doctor Who. There are no aliens, monsters, robots or any combinations of the above present, although it is enjoyable camp 60s stuff in The Avengers or Bond mould. It also lacks the usual Who cliffhangers that you might expect, and set in Australia in 2018, much of the budget for the season appears to be blown in the first few scenes with the inclusion of a helicopter and a futuristic hovercraft. Of course we must bear the production values of the day, although they are still way, way below The Prisoner and The Avengers which had the foresight of digging deep into the production pockets and shooting in colour. Still, this restoration does a fine job in polishing up the monochrome.

The Enemy of the WorldKey to The Enemy of the World is Patrick Troughton having a free pass to indulge in a spot of outrageous overacting. He’s cast as both the Doctor and his exact double, the evil Salamander. Yes, we’re in evil double territory. What starts as a possibly interesting idea begins to smart quite quickly, especially as Troughton’s wicked accent sounds too much like Papa Lazarou from The League of Gentleman, although much less sinister. Doctor Who explored evil doubles again a few years later when Nicholas Courtenay played an alternative Brigadier in Inferno, complete with an eye patch to help distinguish the good from the bad. It’s a plot device that tv never likes to ignore for too long, and around the same time Star Trek indulged in their own version of the evil double at least once. It’s something the viewer just has to endure from time to time.

Sadly, much of the plot of The Enemy of the World is nonsensical, involving poisonings, shootings, underground imprisoning and the Doctor hiding in a caravan. The episodes follow a pattern of people entering a scene and asking “where is Salamander?” The Doctor also muses once too often “well, I suppose I do look a bit like him”. And this version of 2018 is less futuristic than you might expect, and at one point a character is directed to the nearest public telephone box to make a call. To help things along, companions for both of these stories are Jamie and Victoria, played by Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling. As the longest serving companion, Jamie is synonymous with Troughton’s incarnation of The Doctor, where Victoria is less memorable, coming just before the more interesting Zoe who served to see out the rest of the Troughton era. Victoria is an interesting idea for a character, and plucked from 1867 she may originally served to provide a link to the late 60s Victoriana obsession, although ultimately she does little more than look confused and sound whiny. Other supporting actors include the evergreen Anglophile from the period Bill Kerr, and the great British character actor Milton Johns.

The Web of Fear makes better use of the strict budget of the day, and the London Underground settings are very convincing, creating an oppressive atmosphere where the Yeti can be frightening enough a presence by remaining often unseen as various members of the cast run into each other in grim and claustrophobic tunnels. As an over keen viewer, I tried perhaps too hard to spot tell tale glimpses of 60s London in the sets. There’s not much to see. The one identifiable poster on the Underground platforms is for a Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier film, no doubt In the Heat of the Night although the title is Block-Busters. In the only exterior scene, the army lose a battle with advancing Yeti in deserted streets. Yes, 60s London!

It’s also interesting to note that both stories literally run into one another, with the nasty Salamander being sucked out of the Tardis at the end of The Enemy of the World, we pick up The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria desperately shutting the doors to escape the same fate at the beginning of The Web of Fear. Straight into the next adventure without a pause, although The Doctor finds a moment to make himself a sandwich. Episode three of The Web of Fear is still missing, but as an audio survives this accompanies a montage of images. For one episode it works rather well, in fact less grating than the animations used for the missing parts of 1968’s Cyberman London adventure The Invasion.

The Web of FearNicholas Courtenay also makes his debut as Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, later to be promoted to Brigadier when the whole UNIT concept took shape. The Web of Fear starts to form the blueprint for the Doctor Who format in the first part of the 70s, with the dominant military presence and Earth bound stories (Indeed, Troughton’s Doctor remarks knowingly to Jamie and Victoria that they have an increasing habit of landing the Tardis back on Earth). Lethbridge-Stewart is noticeably odd in his first appearance, a more ambiguous character than I remember him being; at first his fellow troops don’t know who he is, and he adds something of a mad-eyed stare and the most unusual of military hats. Perhaps the later promotion made him more relaxed and ironed out, but it’s interesting that he’s portrayed here as very much an outsider as the Doctor. Maybe this is what formed their bond.

Supporting actors include Jack Watling reprising his role from The Abominable Snowmen as Professor Travers, more than 30 years later for him but only several weeks for the time travellers. It’s a timey-wimey thing, although 60s Who wasn’t so dragged down with such trivialities. Tina Packer is quite good as Anne Travers, and a recent Companions magazine adds her to a small list of one-time assistants. Apart from the obvious title music, there’s little additional in the background apart from the eerie use of Music for strings, percussion and Celesta by Béla Bartók. If you recognise this it’s probably because it’s also featured in The Shining.

The Web of Fear was followed by Fury From the Deep in March 1968. Sadly, this story is still completely missing.


21st Century Horrors

Wednesday October 31, 2012 in halloween | horror

Halloween time and so my top 5 horror films of the 21st century.

House of the Devil (2009)

Theatrical poster for House of the DevilOne of the most promising directors around is Ti West. He filmed House of the Devil in a faux early 1980s cinematic style and the delivery is entirely plausible, down to the opening titles, music and overall feel of the film. West manages to overcome any sense of self awareness that might have befallen a lesser director. The theme is also reminiscent of the era – When a Stranger Calls springs to mind – with its central character accepting a bizarre babysitting job and consequently becoming trapped in a rather unwholesome household.

House of the Devil is an impressive horror with an unsettling ending reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby. It’s also worth mentioning Tom Noonan as the weird Mr Ulman, outstanding in an unashamedly creepy role as the head of the demonic household. Ti West has recently followed with the slightly more sober but no less interesting The Innkeepers. Next up, he appears to be working on a couple of portmanteau horrors with other directors: V/H/S and The ABCs of Death.

The Mist (2007)

Theatrical poster for The MistAdapted from a Stephen King story by Frank Darabont, the director who was also responsible for The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. This is firmly back in the usual King territory, and the setting is both familiar and horribly terrifying. A group of people take refuge from a sudden and oppressive mist inside a supermarket; some resorting to religious mania, other braving the unseen monsters outside and other fighting off the giant insects that get in.

The cast are very good and feature the excellent Marcia Gay Harden and the British actor Toby Jones. The Mist reminds of the later Monsters with its apocalyptic air, although this a much more impressive feature. The painfully ironic ending is one of the best and most shocking in modern cinema.

[Rec] (2007)

Theatrical poster for [REC]The best of the found footage genre, the Spanish film [REC] is the first of our top three 21st century horrors which are all interestingly foreign language films. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza deliver one of the most claustrophobic films ever made, set inside a dark and labyrinthine apartment block where an emergency team investigate some unusual, dark and violent goings on. Add to that a film crew, lock the doors and light the blue touch paper.

[REC] has now spread into a trilogy, with the second film being released in 2010 – also excellent – picking up exactly where the first left off. It introduces some fresh ideas into the tired found footage theme (look out for two cameras on the go here) and attempts to explain what is exactly going on without laboring the point too much. The third film, [REC] Genesis, spins off in another direction entirely with a wedding setting and, whilst bizarre indeed, received some very unkind reviews when it was released in 2012. The whole trilogy is essential viewing and the fourth, [Rec] Apocalypse, will be most welcome.

Switchblade Romance a.k.a Haute Tension (2003)

Theatrical poster for Switchblade RomanceAs we get to the top of the list the films now do get decidedly weirder. Strangely, with these last two I do think that the less you know about them will actually enhance your viewing. Switchblade Romance is a French horror directed by Alexandre Aja and the film has received some criticism for its audacious ending. Indeed it is difficult to digest, and apart from Michael Haneke’s Funny Games perhaps, I can think of no other film that is such a challenge to the viewers notion of cinematic rules.

However, I found Switchblade Romance engrossing, and the unexpected twist makes perfect sense if you watch closely and notice the clues. Aja is quite a master of pace, and the films edges quite comfortably into full on mayhem, and is essentially a story of obsession that focuses on the two lead female characters. The last scene is very effective, which plays a final subtle trick on the now exhausted viewer.

Martyrs (2008)

Theatrical poster for MartyrsFinishing with another French horror, which was incidentally found too shocking in its native country and banned, Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs is an uncompromising masterpiece. Where my jaw hit the floor for the last two thirds or Switchblade Romance, it was there for the duration of Martyrs. The film is a series of unexpected twists and awful detours, and for this reason I would dissuade anyone from reading a synopsis of the film or finding out any more than the merest details before viewing. Believe me, it’s better that way.

The greatness of Martyrs is how it leads the viewer into totally unusual territory, and it is almost incomprehensible how anyone could actually think of such a nightmare series of scenarios. There’s also some similarity to Switchblade Romance in the dual female leads. Laugier has recently been snapped up by more conventional producers to revive the Hellraiser franchise. Perhaps he’ll do something interesting with it.


Vault of Horror

Monday October 31, 2011 in halloween | 70s cinema

Strange situation … almost like a dream.

Hallowe’en treat time: welcome to the Vault of Horror. Released in 1973, this is possibly the best known of the Amicus portmanteau films. Usually comprising of several short twist-in-the-tail segments which starred an array of familiar faced actors, such titles as Dr Terrors House of Horrors (1964) and Torture Garden (1967) stitched the stories together using an overarching theme. A train journey, an eerie funfair, a hospital, an antique shop. Often, as in Dr Terrors House of Horrors and Tales from the Crypt (1972), the impending fate of individuals was revealed by supernatural means. For some in came in the persona of a tarot card reading Peter Cushing. Others were subject to the fortune telling of a subterranean monk played by Ralph Richardson.

The Amicus films were produced by the wonderfully named Max Rosenburg and Milton Subotsky. Like its predecessor Asylum, Vault of Horror was directed by the great Roy Ward Baker and gathers the inspired cast of Tom Baker, Michael Craig, Terry-Thomas, Curd Jürgens and Daniel Massey. Together, they assemble inside a lift in a modern day London office block and are plunged into a menacing basement. The prospect of return appears uncertain, so the five settle down to recount their own individual stories – and reveal their own fates – inspired by their own particularly vivid dreams.

  • Tom Baker, Michael Craig, Terry-Thomas, Curd Jürgens and Daniel Massey in Vault of Horror
  • Daniel Massey in Vault of Horror
  • Daniel Massey in Vault of Horror
  • Anna Massey in Vault of Horror
  • Terry-Thomas in Vault of Horror
  • Terry-Thomas in Vault of Horror
  • Curd Jürgens in Vault of Horror
  • Edward Judd in Vault of Horror
  • Michael Craig in Vault of Horror
  • Geoffrey Davies and Robin Nedwell in Vault of Horror
  • Arthur Mullard in Vault of Horror
  • Tom Baker in Vault of Horror
  • Denholm Elliott in Vault of Horror
  • Tom Baker in Vault of Horror
  • Graveyard scene in Vault of Horror

Like the earlier Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror is inspired by the American EC horror comics from the 1950s that share the same titles (all of the stories are derived from EC although not actually from the original “The Vault of Horror”). Despite this connection, the Amicus films have a particular British 1970s flavour to them as all of them have a “modern” setting in contrast to the period flavour Hammers of the same era. The Vault of Horror casting also helps, in particular a pre Doctor Who Baker and Terry-Thomas in a rare horror role (although he more than made up for the lack of horror on his CV with the two Dr Phibes films around the same time). In general, Amicus provided a feast of screen stars in the portmanteau films. Joan Collins, Edward Judd, Denholm Elliott, Jack Palance and Burgess Meredith – decide for yourself if they were facing up to the end of their careers or were merely going through a fallow spell. Or maybe just having fun.

Anyway, time to go through each story in turn as I know that’s what you’re here for.

Midnight Mess

A man murders his sister for an inheritance and ends up providing a meal for vampires – including his sister. Real life siblings Daniel and Anna Massey appear in this segment, along with scruffy private eye Mike Pratt (from Randall and Hopkirk, Deceased). Midnight Mess is nicely atmospheric – especially the eerily empty town where events are set – and Daniel Massey plays it wonderfully straight, although the story has an ultimate comic element to it. If you happen to eat in the same town, I heartily recommend the clots.

The Neat Job

A woman is driven to distraction by the fussiness of her new husband and murders him, cuts him to pieces and stores him neatly in jars. Terry-Thomas is perfectly cast as the fastidious bachelor, heard to utter such phrases as “How can one live in chaos?” Glynis Johns is equally pleasing as his wife. If you happen to eat with Mr T-T, I recommend that you don’t forget the spaghetti sauce.

This Trick’ll Kill You

A magician and his wife kill to get hold of a genuine Indian rope trick which leads to their unpleasant deaths. Curd Jürgens and Dawn Addams play the very very foolish couple. Probably the weakest segment in the film, and I didn’t feel sorry for either of them.

Bargain in Death

A man’s scheme to give himself the appearance of death and then to collect his life insurance goes horribly wrong. There’s some more comic elements with this one, featuring Arthur Mullard, Edward Judd, Robin Nedwell and Geoffrey Davies (popular in the day in the tv Doctor sitcoms). Bargain in Death is perhaps the most keeping with the EC Comics type of tale, where cunning plotters never get what they’ve bargained for. In fact nobody really comes out on top, except perhaps Mullard as the bemused gravedigger.

Drawn and Quartered

An artist in Haiti is given the power to make whatever he paints come true and uses it to revenge himself on the men who have been living off his work. Tom Baker plays the artist whose victims include Terence Alexander and Denholm Elliott. It’s a credit to Baker that he can deliver a series of absurd lines – including a gem such as “I want to buy voodoo” – without smiling. This is probably the best of the segments, with the revenge being particularly sweet. Look out for a terrifying sequence involving an office guillotine. But most chilling for me is Baker’s beard and Elliott’s peculiar fringe – both disturbing in equal measures.

After passing the time by recounting their dreams, the men discover that they are all dead and must recount their stories, night after night, forever. No real twist there, I’m sure you would agree. Vault of Horror comfortably sits in the genre of oft repeated late night tv horrors. Steve Coogan unwisely chose to spoof it in his Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible series – I say unwise because I don’t think it’s possible to parody something so camp as an Amicus portmanteau horror. Vault of horror has also found itself onto YouTube to delight new fans, and the Amicus films defy the usual inevitability of the US remake because of their charm; stuck in the 70s just like our stars in the office basement.


  • The Vault of Horror sits beneath Millbank Tower in London.
  • In Bargain in Death, Michael Craig is seen reading a copy of Tales From the Crypt.
  • There is a rumoured deleted scene from the end of film, showing the characters with skeletal faces as they walk off into the night…

The IMDB entry comes with a health warning for this film: “Several creepy and gruesome moments occur throughout”. I couldn’t agree more, but don’t forget the laughs too.

The Amicus Portmanteau Series

  • Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1964). Passengers on a train.
  • Torture Garden (1967). Visitors to a funfair.
  • The House That Dripped Blood (1970). Owners of a house.
  • Asylum (1972). Inmates of a hospital.
  • Tales From the Crypt (1972). Tourists in a set of underground caves.
  • Vault of Horror (1973).
  • From Beyond the Grave (1973). Customers of an antique shop.
  • The Monster Club (1980). Stories told at a peculiar nightclub – the final Amicus film.

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Dance of the Vampires

Sunday October 31, 2010 in halloween | 60s cinema

Theatrical poster for Dance of the VampiresA cinematic treat for Hallowe’en. Dance of the Vampires.

Dance of the Vampires is a film that often graces the Christmas tv schedules, its elements of fairy tale, horror and offbeat comedy making particularly welcome viewing at that time of year. But it’s also a film that’s recently slipped into obscurity, being unfairly called a horror spoof where it is a far superior piece of cinema compared to the Hammer output of the time, outranking them in sheer quality of acting, costume and set design, script and music.

Perhaps it isn’t so odd that the film has failed to find a secure footing in the horror canon. When it was first released in 1967 director, co-screenwriter and star Roman Polanski disowned the film. The original title was changed to The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, Your Teeth are in my Neck for the US release and this version was rather brutally cut. To make matters worse the original trailers for the film market it along similar lines to Carry on Screaming from the same era. Movie posters from around the world also sell the film as anything from soft porn vampirism (pictured, and Sharon Tate went a little way to embellish this with her on set Playboy shots) to something quite cartoonish (unfortunately the most recent DVD release plumps for the latter). So sadly Dance of the Vampires has hung around as a somewhat doomed affair, misfiled in the annals of film and unjustly ignored.

Dance of the Vampires was filmed in 1966 at the height of Hammer’s success. The same year saw the release of Frankenstein Created Woman and Dracula Prince of Darkness, arguably two of the studio’s finest films. Although however much I admire these films I still think that Dance of the Vampires towers above them. Firstly it’s the breathtaking quality of the film. Polanski is a gifted director and it is well paced, thoughtful and technically faultless. The set design is outstanding, in particular the interior of the vampire castle where the slightly claustrophobic feeling invites a comparison with how the director captured the inside of the Dakota in New York for Rosemary’s Baby which followed a year later.

The wonderful soundtrack is by Krzysztof Komeda, who composed the music for Rosemary’s Baby and Polanski’s earlier film Cul-de-Sac. Sadly Komeda was to die in 1969 and Roman’s subsequent films all miss his added value. Dance of the Vampires has one of the all time great movie soundtracks, entirely fitting for the subject matter. The opening theme places the viewer directly into the fairy tale landscape of the film and continues to haunt throughout.

  • Jack MacGowran and Roman Polanski in Dance of the Vampires
  • Jack MacGowran, Ferdy Mayne and Roman Polanski in Dance of the Vampires
  • Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski in Dance of the Vampires
  • Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski and Ferdy Mayne in Dance of the Vampires

And it’s the haunting nature of the fairy tale that works so well in its favour, superbly written by Polanski and his usual collaborator at the time Gerald Brach. The film opens with Jack MacGowran and Polanski as two inefficient vampire hunters. MacGowran is superb as the elderly Professor Abronsius, bringing a new level to eccentricity to the sphere of vampirism. He’s a rather endearing character, his eyes lighting up when he asks the locals “is there a castle in the district?” He’s even more delighted by the news that, when visiting the said castle, he discovers an extensive library – and dances with delight. Polanski is Alfred, his assistant. He’s a rather shy young man who attempts to woo the object of his affection Sarah (Sharon Tate) by building snowmen. When given the opportunity to kill the sleeping Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) in his crypt he chickens out, hinting that events may lead to a particularly downbeat conclusion.

Snow features prominently in the film. The Professor and Alfred embark on a Beatlesque ski ride and later clamber over the snow covered castle battlements. In a memorable scene, Sarah is perplexed when the bubbles in her bath turn to snow. She looks up to find von Krolock descending from above to abduct her. There are many such touches resulting from Polanski’s imagination and the luxury of a large budget (indeed, this was his first colour film and he chose to make it in anamorphic format, filming on location in The Alps). The set design is finely detailed, right down to the coachwork on the castle doors and the decaying cobwebs. The vampire dance itself, which comes at the end of the film, is a brilliant work of choreography. Even Leslie Halliwell, normally dismissive of this kind of picture from this era, had to admit it was impressive.

Polanski makes a rare appearance in one of his own films. His other substantial role being the Tenant (1976) . He is a great and little used actor, although Jack MacGowran undoubtedly gives the best performance in Dance of the Vampires. MacGowran was something of a Polanski regular in the late 60s. He’d appeared as the ill-fated Albie in Cul-de-Sac and was later to feature in arguably the most obscure entry into the Polanski canon, A Day at the Beach (1970), a film produced and scripted by Polanski which subsequently vanished for several decades. He also starred in the Gerald Brach scripted and George Harrison scored Wonderwall (1968), his only proper starring role. MacGowran, an interpreter of Samuel Beckett – there’s a splendid tv version of Eh, Joe? – is now sadly forgotten.

Alfie Bass adds some knockabout comedy as Sarah’s father, Shagal the innkeeper. Becoming a vampire himself, he laughs off attempts to repel him with a crucifix – “you’ve got the wrong vampire” – as he is of the Jewish persuasion. Although he doesn’t have a great deal to do Ferdy Mayne is an impressive count, whilst Iain Quarrier plays his homosexual son. Perhaps this is one of the first gay vampires in cinema. The boxer Terry Downes appears as the silent and grotesque hunchback Koukol and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t make this character too absurd. And we mustn’t forget Sharon Tate. It’s well documented that Polanski fell in love with her during the making of this film (there’s a tiny clue in the opening credits). Although Tate’s appearances are really only fleeting, she radiates a rare and captivating beauty. It would have been a lesser piece of work without her.

Seeing the film again I was impressed by how stunning it looks in widescreen. It’s infinitely superior to the various tv versions and I can understand the director’s fury over its initial treatment. Apart from the look and charm of the film the other satisfying element of Dance of the Vampires is that the bad guys win. By travelling into the heart of Transylvania to stamp out vampirism, the inept Alfred and the Professor instead fail and succeed in ferrying it back with them to the modern world. In the comfortable world of Hammer that would never happen.

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