Stars: Jack MacGowran, Sharon Tate and Alfie Bass
It’s especially odd to me because, to my mind, this fails as a straight comedy or a straight horror movie, but succeeds magnificently as a fairy tale. Watch it the wrong way and you’re going to think something is missing. Everything here is fairy tale in its truest sense: a story full of folklore, myth and hand-me-down knowledge, all phrased as a cautionary tale. You can see Roman Polanski, director and co-writer, start in on this immediately, with the arrival of Professor Abronsius and his assistant, Alfred, in the snowy wastes of Transylvania. It’s easy to see the Brothers Grimm in the opening shot of their sleigh beset by wild dogs, which Alfred beats away with an umbrella while his master sits motionless because, as we soon discover, he’s been frozen stiff. It’s obvious when they arrive at an inn that everyone has their own remedy for his condition, whether that be hot beer and cinnamon or just putting his feet into a hot bath. Some disagree; one wants to rub snow on his nose, while another says to leave it alone.
Before they reach it, though, there’s more ritual and folklore, always introduced lightheartedly. We watch Alfred place heated bulbs onto his master’s back in the old Chinese technique of cupping. The innkeeper, Yoine Shagall, has a daughter, who likes taking baths; her father spanks her because of it. ‘No baths!’ he repeats like a mantra and even sneaks through the bedroom of our intrepid heroes at night to board up the bathroom door with a hammer, then tiptoes right back out again. The next day, the inn’s maid hides under Alfred’s table when a hunchback with club feet and buck teeth walks in and a patron spits on the floor after he leaves. Everything has rules in a fairy tale because that’s what it’s for: follow the rules and you’ll be safe, but break the rules and outrageously awful things will happen to you. Amidst all this, it’s easy to read hidden meaning into everything. Suddenly, the snowman that Alfred builds in front of the inn seems like a guardian for Sarah Shagall, who watches him from an upstairs window.
Slocombe was a legendary British cinematographer, having shot many of the great Ealing comedies like The Man in the White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob and Kind Hearts and Coronets, the latter of which had that amazing shot which assembled eight different characters, all played by Alec Guinness. Today, he’s surely best known for shooting the Indiana Jones trilogy, the first of which landed him his third Academy Award nomination. He never won an Oscar, even though his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark could easily be regarded as a textbook on cinematography. By that point, though, he’d already won three BAFTAs out of nine nominations, his wins for films as diverse as The Servant, The Great Gatsby and Julia. The British Society of Cinematographers honoured him with five awards, the other two being for The Lion in Winter and Jesus Christ Superstar, and, in 1995, with a Lifetime Achievement Award. I’d highlight other titles of his too, such as Circus of Horrors, The Italian Job and Rollerball.
That’s not to say that his performance is merely a combination of influences. He adds details to the role, not just the grey hair that neither Lee nor Lugosi would countenance. Most obviously, he adds a timeless patience that’s different to what either previous star brought to the role. Lugosi endowed Count Dracula with the politeness inherent in a noble upbringing, but Mayne adds ennui to that. He’s lived a lot of lives and has settled into a routine that bores him and the arrival of the Professor, whose works he’s read, is a welcome distraction from what could well be centuries of repetition. He seizes this opportunity with what Abronsius describes, in a neatly clever double conversation, as ‘the mechanical need to fight against the torpor of hibernation’. He’s talking about a bat, but his entire spiel applies to von Krolock as well. Among the Count’s more blatant lines, like ‘I’m a nightbird. I am not much good in the daytime,’ it’s easy to miss clever details like Abronsius’s monologue, but they’re still there nonetheless.
Again, this is the sort of thing that we read about in fairy tales. There’s so much of this, more overtly with the progression of the film, that it’s hard to read it any other way, but then perhaps some don’t have any background in that sort of literature, imbibing their fairy tales at the bar of Disney rather than the library of Anderson and Grimm. There are some glorious scenes that run on fairy tale logic towards the end. One has Alfred being chased around a colonnade by the Count’s effeminate son, Herbert, only for the vampire to stop and Alfred to run all the way round and end up right next to his pursuer. Another has the pair talk to Sarah in snippets during the grand vampire ball that provided the film’s original title, as if none of the vampires with their enhanced hearing could hear them. Best of all is their escape from the dance, with a bevy of vampires following them in procession towards a mirror, in which a mere three figures are visible: Abronsius, Alfred and Sarah, the girl they’re attempting to rescue.
At the end of the day though, it’s Sharon Tate who shines brightest. This wasn’t her first lead role, but I’m much more fond of her work here than anywhere else. To my mind, she was perfectly cast, even though Polanski was set on Jill St John. Tate is so desirable that it’s believable that Count von Krolock wants her and Polanski got her, the two marrying a year later. Their marriage lasted just over a year and a half until Tate, along with their baby which was almost due, was murdered by the Manson Family at their house in Los Angeles. She left behind only nine films and a few TV appearances, including a run on The Beverly Hillbillies. Sadly, she’s remembered mostly for her murder, but we can see her talent grow through three major films: Eye of the Devil, The Fearless Vampire Killers and Valley of the Dolls. Polanski would go from strength to strength, of course, and Mayne would continue to be prolific, even playing Count Dracula in a German TV show called Teta. He would have been a hundred years old today, on 11th March.