Thirty years before it became a stage musical with a spanking scene, Dance of the Vampires was a movie with a spanking scene; so to understand the musical, it’s as well to begin with the movie.
And to understand what happened to the movie, it’s as well to pay attention during the opening credits.
Don’t give all your attention to the entertaining little droplet of blood that drips its animated way down the credits roller, eventually turning into a vampire bat. Read the credits as they scroll by and they will tell you a basic fact about the bind the movie found itself in. Almost everyone on the list, on both sides of the camera, came from the European (mainly the British) film industry; but then the executive producer credit rolls up and it’s an American name – Martin Ransohoff.
Dance of the Vampires was a movie made by European talent, but controlled by American money. That was its tragedy.
For an illustration of that, look no further than the title on the poster above. The film’s originator, Roman Polanski – who co-wrote it, directed it and played one of the leading characters – always intended it to be called Dance of the Vampires. It’s an odd, eerie mixture of comedy and horror, and Polanski’s preferred title captures something of its delicate sense of poise and its strange tone. But that distinctively European tone didn’t appeal to the American sensibilities of Martin Ransohoff. For him, it had to be one thing or the other: straight horror or spoof horror, not both at the same time. To signal which of the two it was, he imposed his own mock-heroic title, The Fearless Vampire Killers. In case that wasn’t enough, he added a ludicrously goofy subtitle, Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck, which makes you think that he’d have preferred, were money no object, to have reshot the picture with Polanski’s part played by Jerry Lewis. As it was, he made do with a radical re-edit, slashing nearly 20 minutes from the running time. And so the film bombed.
In the mid-1960s, Polanski had a burgeoning reputation as a director of art movies dealing with difficult forms of repressed sexuality, most notably Repulsion (1965), starring Catherine Deneuve, for which he co-wrote the screenplay with the French author Gérard Brach (1927-2006). They continued to work together on Polanski’s next two projects. The first of these was Cul de Sac, shot on Holy Island in July 1965, in which a couple of criminals on the run take an enforced refuge in the isolated home of an unconventional couple, played by Donald Pleasence and Francoise Dorleac (who happened to be Catherine Deneuve’s older sister). Here she is under Polanski’s direction:
At one point she plays a practical joke on one of the hoods (Lionel Stander). His response is…
Or, as the script puts it, ‘He drags her across the terrace on her back, turns her over onto her front, sits on her shoulders, puts the belt between his teeth, lifts up her dress, grabs the belt again, and beats her with zeal.’
And the year after Cul de Sac, Polanski and Brach collaborated on Dance of the Vampires, which features a more conventional, less brutal spanking scene.
It happens in the first ten minutes, soon after the noted vampire scholar Professor Abronsius has arrived at a remote, snowbound Transylvanian inn, accompanied only by his assistant, Alfred, Polanski’s own role, which he plays with a sweet kind of naive, nerdy romanticism. The innkeeper Shagal, played by Jewish character actor Alfie Bass, shows them to ‘the best room in the house – with its own bathroom’. But that bathroom is going to be a sore point for him, and the cause of some soreness in his daughter, Sarah.
To play Sarah (and be spanked), Polanski cast Jill St John:
She had played the daughter who doesn’t get spanked in Holiday for Lovers (1959), and was later threatened with a spanking by Doug McClure in The King’s Pirate (1967). But she is best known as Bond girl Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever (1971), who gets a direct and explicit compliment from the villain on the attractiveness of her bottom.
But Martin Ransohoff had a different idea. And just for once, it wasn’t a bad idea, for it involved Sharon Tate:
Here’s how she makes her entrance in a later (and her penultimate) film, the mostly witless 1969 spy spoof The Wrecking Crew:
The film goes on to capitalize on her assets in a number of ways:
(The Chinese girl in the fight sequence, by the way, is Nancy Kwan, who is best known for a role in which she was not spanked, but might have been: she made her name in the 1960 film version of The World of Suzie Wong – which unfortunately omitted a certain scene from Richard Mason’s original 1957 novel, in which the key sentence is ‘He spanked her long and hard.’)
But I digress. In 1963, Martin Ransohoff was so struck by Sharon Tate’s beauty that he signed her up for a seven-year contract. He then began to foster her career with progressively more visible roles, notably in the TV sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, of which he was the executive producer. Putting her into Dance of the Vampires was the next stage. And, though that meant no spanking for Jill St John, this was one intervention from on high that turned out to be good news for Polanski. Sharon Tate became his girlfriend and then, in 1968, his wife.
Here’s Sharon in costume for her role as Sarah Shagal.
But in fact, when we first see her she’s in the bath, naked save for some strategic soap suds.
Unfortunately the only bathroom at the inn is attached to ‘the best room in the house’, which Shagal is showing off to his new guests. So she gets a surprise when he opens the door and they get to see her bathing!
And though there’s a shadow on her hip raising just a suspicion that Sharon Tate might have been wearing panties when shooting the scene, this on-set picture taken by Polanski reveals the truth:
Shagal excuses himself in embarrassment, assures his guests that the bathroom will be free tomorrow, tells them where to find alternative communal conveniences and leaves. Professor Abronsius then goes off to use the usual offices, leaving Alfred in the room. His attention is attracted by the sound of an argument coming from the room on the other side of the bathroom – which happens to be Sarah’s bedroom. Sarah is getting a stern telling-off from her father. And there follows the rhythmical sound of something else. Alfred looks through the keyhole to see…
‘I’ve told you to stay in your room!’ reproves Shagal. ‘You always take a bath!’ And, as he spanks her, he repeats, ‘No bath! No bath! No bath!’
Sarah later explains that at school she got into the habit of bathing, and indeed it’s relevant that she’s the one clean thing in a dingy, dirty inn otherwise peopled by grotesques: it’s the main reason why Alfred falls in love with her, quite apart from the peeping-tom eroticism of the keyhole sequence and, something Polanski evidently understands very well, the way a girl is always more attractive when you see her being spanked.
But cleanliness isn’t primarily why Sarah gets spanked. The first thing her father says to her is that she must stay in her room. And the significance of that is something you will understand better if for a moment you stop looking at the spanking and notice instead what’s in the background.
It later emerges that Shagal’s main objective is to keep his daughter safe from a kind of vampiric droit de seigneur exercised by the local undead baron, Count von Krolock. To that end he has hung a liberal amount of garlic in her room – which is one reason why she always feels dirty and needs to bathe so much. Shagal attempts to curb these tendencies by boarding up the connecting door to the bathroom, but she sweet-talks the smitten Alfred into letting her go in from his side. And since this bathroom is completely unadorned with cloves, that leaves her unprotected from the unwanted attentions of the Count. By the time Alfred and the Professor can get into the bathroom, she has already been bitten and abducted. And so the focus of the story moves to the castle, and our detailed analysis comes to an end.
But it would be wrong to leave the film without noting that another member of the cast was Fiona Lewis, playing Magda, the maid at the inn who is lusted after by Shagal (and when you see his wife Rebecca, you can understand why).
Why is she of interest to us? Well partly at least because of her previous (and first) big-screen role, in the 1965 French movie Dis-Moi Qui Tuer (Tell Me Whom to Kill), in which…
The shooting for Dance of the Vampires took place in 1966, but the picture wasn’t released until mid-November the following year (and in Britain it had to wait until June 1969). Much of the delay is attributable to the post-production interference of Martin Ransohoff, which continued through the summer of 1967. As it happened, a journalist was present when he had to explain to his protégé that his planned trims to the film included one of her scenes. Here’s what was said:
RANSOHOFF: Listen, sweetie, I’m going to have to cut some stuff out of The Vampire Killers. Your spanking scene has got to go.
TATE: Oh, don’t do that. Why would you do that?
RANSOHOFF: Because it doesn’t move the story. The story has got to move. Bang, bang, bang. No American audience is going to sit still while Polanski indulges himself.
TATE: But Europeans make movies differently from Americans. Blow-Up moved slowly. But wasn’t it a great film?
The interest of that exchange lies partly in the way it shows Sharon Tate caught between her friend in high places, Ransohoff, and her boyfriend, Polanski (whom she was now living with), whilst also trying to stand up for herself. She wasn’t necessarily arguing for the vital importance of the spanking scene as such, or even its potential popularity. But she was resisting a move to reduce her allotted screen time in a movie that is already much more about Alfred, the Professor and the Count than it is about her character.
Both of them obviously knew that spanking was a subject of especial sexual interest to Polanski: in all likelihood Sharon had not only been spanked at his directorial behest on set but also by him in the bedroom, though that’s not something that can really be said to be any of our business. That shared knowledge of the director’s private tastes explains why Ransohoff was able to identify the scene as self-indulgence and target it for cutting. And since, by this stage of the 1960s, spanking scenes were moving over from mainstream Hollywood product into sleazy, low-budget exploitation films like The Defilers (1965), Ransohoff might have had a point in his own eyes. Though, since he didn’t agree with Sharon that Blow-Up is a great film, maybe it’s better just to write him off as the vulgarian who put a stake through the heart of Dance of the Vampires!
But the film didn’t stay dead. The version that’s now generally available is Polanski’s full-length cut, though it’s still saddled with Ransohoff’s abomination of a title. And thirty years after it flopped in the cinema, Dance of the Vampires rose again – on stage!
But to find out about that, you’ll have to come back next week…