Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) is travelling through the freezing land of Transylvania with his loyal assistant Alfred (Roman Polanski) and they are in search of vampires. The Professor has risked his reputation on believing that they exist and his expedition to not only prove this but hunt them down and destroy them as well. As the intrepid duo rush through the night, Alfred grows aware of the sound of barking, and soon their sled is being chased by a pack of large dogs. Luckily the local inn is up ahead and when they get inside, they manage to heat themselves up and start asking questions like, is there a large castle in the area?
As a director, Roman Polanski in some people's eyes would be better to stay away from comedy, especially judging by the levels of humour in the likes of Pirates and What?, but this film, which he co-wrote with Gérard Brach, has gained a cult following nevertheless. However, that might be less down to the volume of laughs that can be enjoyed, and more down to the fact that this is one of his horror movies, and those always secure attention. And it's not simply any old vampire movie, it's a spoof of the then-popular Hammer shockers, though few Hammers looked as good as this does.
Much of what makes Dance of the Vampires compelling can be attributed to Douglas Slocombe's wondrous photgraphy which really makes the most of the extravagant sets and landscapes the film features. Starting with an effects shot which commences on the surface of the Moon, pulls back through the sky and ends up in the snowbound Transylvanian hills and mountains (actually Italy), this is arrestingly filmed from the beginning, and it goes on in this fashion for the rest of the production so that you can almost feel the wintry chill in your marrow as the two bungling protagonists do their level best to track and stake the bloodsuckers.
Needless to say, they don't impale so much as one of them, as this is one of those stories where the villains are far more capable than the heroes. The Professor and Albert do not get anywhere by questioning the locals, as the head vampire is also the Count (Ferdy Mayne in fine form) around those parts, but when he visits after dark and vampirises some of the staff of the inn, it's clear something has to be done. It's difficult to watch the film without thinking, "Poor Sharon" because Sharon Tate plays the daughter of Alfie Bass's innkeeper, soon to be Polanski's wife and getting possibly her best role as the beautiful but naive Sara - she had a knack for this kind of comedy. Sara ends up with her neck bitten and effectively kidnapped, so our heroes have no choice but to pursue her.
This is especially imperative for Albert as he has fallen for the girl, but while they are away, the innkeeper has the film's most famous line as he bares his fangs towards cross-brandishing serving wench Fiona Lewis and tells her, "Oy vey! Have you got the wrong vampire!" It's a running joke that the Professor and Albert are out of their depth, and while it may not be the funniest one, it does give rise to a few well-timed chuckles, as when Albert sprints away from the Count's gay son (Ian Quarrier) around a courtyard balcony, only to end up right back where he started and facing the vampire who hasn't needed to budge. Even if the dialogue sounds muttered, and the characters exist in a strange and remote world of their own, Dance of the Vampires is so ravishing to look at - the mirror trick is performed twice and works like a dream each time - that you could just as easily sit back and drink in the atmosphere. Yet the apocalyptic ending implies that maybe it all wasn't so funny after all. Great music by Krzysztov Komeda is the icing on the cake.
French-born Polish director who has been no stranger to tragedy - his mother died in a concentration camp, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family - or controversy - he was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl in the late 1970s.
Polanski originally made an international impact with Knife in the Water, then left Poland to make Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion in Britain. More acclaim followed with Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown in Hollywood, but his work after escaping America has been inconsistent. At his best, he depicts the crueller side of humanity with a pitch black sense of humour. He also takes quirky acting roles occasionally.