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In 1970 Hammer Films changed with the times in a bid to bolster interest in their horror fare. As British children were never allowed to see the movies, the company decided to go for more explicit sexuality. The resulting nudie vampire films were certainly different, but didn't represent a promising new direction for horror: the big-breasted bloodsuckers of The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire looked so ... healthy. With director Terence Fisher all but retired and Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing no longer dominating the product, a new crop of directors took the company in artsy and trendy directions, mostly with negative results. One of the more interesting of these pictures was produced and directed by relative outsiders to the studio. 1972's Vampire Circus can be credited with an intriguing, promising concept that pays off in some genuinely macabre set pieces. Among Hammerphiles, it's a noted favorite.
Synapse has made Vampire Circus the first Hammer film to be released on Blu-ray, in a package that also contains a parallel DVD pressing.
The isolated middle-European town of Schtettel is quarantined with the plague. To obtain needed medicines, the local doctor Kersh (Richard Owens) must run an armed roadblock, leaving his son Anton (John Moulder-Brown) behind to carry on. A mysterious traveling circus slips through the quarantine and pitches its tents at the center of town. The unusual gypsy performers entertain the villagers with dazzling feats of dance and magic -- especially illusions that make it appear that wild jungle cats can take human form. But vampiric attacks on local young women lead schoolteacher Albert Mueller (Laurence Payne of The Crawling Eye) to connect the circus with a horrible incident fifteen years before. The village staked the vampire Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) but only after he made Mueller's wife Anna (Domini Blythe) one of his disciples. The circus vampires are killing the local children to fulfill the vampire's curse. Albert and Anna's grown daughter Dora (Lynne Frederick) is now a prime target, as the monsters prepare to revive the corpse of the undead Mitterhaus.
The core imagery of Vampire Circus is truly interesting. The caged circus panther leaps in the air, and becomes a swarthy acrobat, Emil (Anthony Corlan). The troupe's tiger transforms into an exotic nude dancer (Serena). The simple tricks and erotic theatrics of these presentations are too unusual to ignore: the circus is a bit like a Cirque du Soleil -- of the damned. 1
Vampire Circus depicts a surfeit of toothy vampire action, perhaps too much. The disturbing prologue sees the vile Count Mitterhaus -- actor Robert Tayman looks like John Philip Law's evil twin -- victimizing a sweet young child. The vampires in the circus use the same modus operandi for their attacks, brandishing unusually large fangs before rearing their heads back and striking like snakes. Fulfilling Count Mitterhaus's dying curse against the men that burned down his castle, the circus vampires seek out and seduce/vampirize the town's next generation. The fiends murder several local children in addition to the expected nubile teen daughters.
The writers of Vampire Circus have weighted the story down with altogether too many characters and side issues. Hammer fans can't complain that not enough is going on: there's the plague, the vampire's curse, the young doctor stepping into his father's shoes, his romance with the girl who sneaks back into town, the leader of the vampire troupe (Adrienne Corri) with a secret identity, the family that asks the dwarf (Skip Martin of The Masque of the Red Death) to help them escape, and the weird incestuous "twin" performers, just to name a few. If the vampires' mission is to revive Count Mitterhaus, why do they draw so much attention to themselves? We're told that the budget plug was pulled before all of the script could be filmed, which leaves some rather blatant loose ends. Some "students upstairs" are repeatedly referenced, yet never shown.
The movie's large (too large) ensemble cast spreads some good actors too thinly, but we enjoy seeing Thorley Walters snort and puff as the jolly Burgomeister. The menacing Adrienne Corri (of A Clockwork Orange) makes an impact without doing much of anything. Cult actress Lynne Frederick (No Blade of Grass) is unusually fetching. Vampire bride Domini Blythe is likewise a rare beauty with an intelligent manner. Here she's more likely to be remembered for a flash of full frontal nudity.
The movie's "vampire magic" is its strongest asset, and more of it would have been better. A tented magic mirror attraction is initially rather scary, until we learn that the vampires use it only to trap young victims. One of the best moments has a performer (actually a vampire) confuse a potential victim by allowing the caged tiger (actually another shape-shifting vampire) to bite her arm. The film's most successful shots are done with simple "effects". When the vampire acrobat Emil dashes up a set of stairs, the camera flash-reveals a glimpse of his already present panther tail.
Although lacking the art direction and impressive compositions of earlier Hammer classics, Vampire Circus has some very effective elements. The graceful beauty of the dancer Serena makes the "nude tiger vampire" sequence into a genuine sensual highlight. We're told that live bats were used in the filming. The only real bats I detected were shown in crawling mode, but the show makes excellent use of mechanical bats, something Hammer rarely got right before. A few of the opticals are ragged and a couple of fake bat flubs should have been trimmed, but others are very convincing.
Vampire Circus resolves by littering a crypt with at least seven corpses in just a couple of minutes, a record body count even for Hammer. This finish looks as though it were hastily rewritten to tie up loose ends and get the shoot over with. Just the same, Vampire Circus has a number of fresh ideas, and is more interesting than the majority of Hammer's output of the early 1970s.
Synapse's DVD & Blu-ray of Vampire Circus is the kind of loving disc presentation we wish could be granted all of our favorites. The crisp and colorful HD transfer is from elements in excellent condition; all we noticed were a smattering of speckles on the opening shots. David Whitaker's moody music score works well in context, particularly the eerie tones in the tent of mirrors scenes.
The extra featurettes are directed by Daniel Griffith for his company Ballyhoo. The main docu The Bloodiest Show on Earth (33 min.) features facts and opinions from authorities Ted Newsom, Tim Lucas and Philip Nutman; Joe Dante offers a couple of observations as well. The show's production story is by and large more interesting than the attempts to liken it to European film classics with superficial similarities. The docu includes a few words about acting and characterization from David Prowse: "Finding the right walk is the key to character." Prowse plays a mute strongman in the film and is best known as Darth Vader in the Star Wars franchise.
A second piece on the history of circus horrors in the movies is fairly thorough but might have been better handled as a text item. What really sets the Ballyhoo extras apart is their art direction. The circus theme is expressed in handsome background and transition artwork, and the color for some of the interviews has also been tweaked to interesting effect -- Hammer expert Newsom's shots look hand-tinted.
A third extra examines a UK magazine from the 1970s. House of Horrors catered to under-18 English fans barred from Certificate "X" movies by offering Manga-like comic versions of Hammer films. It's accompanied by a motion comic book of the Vampire Circus comic art. A stills and poster gallery round out the deluxe Synapse package. 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Vampire Circus Blu-ray rates:
1. I remember back at UCLA that vampire authority James Ursini was especially impressed by Vampire Circus. He was intrigued by its linking of a vampire theme with so many unusual magical ideas. At the time the only version he could see was the censored American Fox release that removed three minutes of (presumed) nudity. It was rated "PG".
2. The news that English kids of the '50s and '60s couldn't see any Hammer films is almost sad. We Yankee brats ate them up, especially the earlier ones. We were shocked, and then thrilled to see all that bright red blood splattered across our movie screens. The films certainly didn't make me anti-social or maladjusted. Just keep in mind that I don't like anybody digging around in my back yard.
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T'was Ever Thus.