(1971) Directed by Robert Young; Written by Judson Kinberg; Starring: Adrienne Corri, Thorley Walters, Anthony Higgins, Robert Tayman, Laurence Payne and David Prowse; Available on Blu-Ray and DVD
“None of you will live. The town of Schtettel will die. Your children will die, to give me back my life.” – Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman)
Starting with Horror of Dracula in 1957, Hammer produced many notable examples of the vampire film, but by the end of the ‘60s, the ability to thrill or shock had diminished. Enter 1970’s The Vampire Lovers, which upped the ante for depictions of sex and nudity into the staid Hammer formula. The cash-strapped production company became more adventurous in the new decade, turning out some of their most distinctive horror titles (with the occasional clunker here and there). Their stand-alone vampire films adhered to many of the conventions of vampire lore, but were not necessarily confined to the constraints of Bram Stoker’s novel. Vampire Circus* is one such example, which simultaneously embraces and eschews the Hammer vampire flicks that preceded it.
* Fun Fact: George Baxt, who wrote the scripts for such genre classics as The City of the Dead and Circus of Horrors, was responsible for the film’s title.
If a town could wear a “kick me” sign, the Bavarian village of Schtettel would be a prime candidate. Throughout Vampire Circus, the little burg attracts one form of calamity after another. In the lengthy prologue, the dreaded vampire Count Mitterhaus (played by Robert Tayman, who must have single-handedly exceeded the budget for ruffles and sideburns) holds the town in a stranglehold. The schoolmaster’s (Laurence Payne) wife Anna (Domini Blythe) is seduced by Mitterhaus, and falls under his spell. She abducts a child as sacrificial offering to the count, which ends up as a sort of twisted foreplay. None of this unsavory activity goes over well with the village leaders, and Mitterhaus ends up staked, and his castle is set aflame. In some movies that would be the end of the story, but it’s only the beginning of the Schtettel residents’ misery, as the dying Mitterhaus vows revenge against the leaders and their heirs. The story jumps forward several years, but poor Schtettel isn’t any better off now, suffering from a scourge of a different kind – an unnamed plague that’s killing off the residents one by one. At this moment, a gypsy circus rolls into town to distract the villagers from their poor fortune, luring them into another trap.
The circus itself is a unique blend of darkly fanciful and perverse elements – think Something Wicked This Way Comes, by way of Carmilla. We witness a procession of bizarre acts to tempt the unsuspecting villagers, including acrobats who transform into bats,* a black panther that turns into a human, and one of the film’s highlights, a seductive tiger woman (don’t pay too much attention to her ill-fitting bald cap) performs a wriggling dance that wouldn’t have made it into a mainstream film a few years before. One of the side attractions, a hall of mirrors, leads circus patrons to their doom.
* Instead of opting for the usual fake bats on strings, the filmmakers used real bats throughout the film. Aside from a few dodgy optical shots, their inclusion adds a level of veracity to an otherwise surreal film.
If Vampire Circus seems a trifle rough around the edges, it’s largely due to the strict shooting schedule, which left some key scenes and shots unfinished. Director Robert Young’s appeal for time was rejected by Hammer head Michael Carreras, and as a result, the filmmakers were forced to work with what they had. Another quibble is that none of the leads possess the gravitas of a Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing or Ingrid Pitt, but atmosphere’s the thing in Vampire Circus. It’s not about the individual performances, as much as the ensemble work, particularly by Adrienne Corri as the ringmaster, Anthony Higgins* as the enigmatic panther man Emil, Hammer regular Thorley Walters as the absent-minded Burgermeister, Skip Martin as a diabolical clown, and hulking David Prowse as a strongman. And while we’re on the subject of minor beefs, one unresolved plot thread concerns the revival of Mitterhaus. Despite the infusion of blood from several victims, the circus folk hesitate to remove the stake from his chest. Perhaps it’s there like an oil dipstick, waiting until he’s been topped off with an optimal level of blood?
* Look for Higgins in a memorable performance as Professor Moriarty in Young Sherlock Holmes.
Film historians and their ilk are often fond of pointing out that vampire films reflect the times in which they’re made, and I can’t argue with this observation. Vampire Circus reflected a shifting social paradigm in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, depicting vampirism as an invitation to explore hedonistic pleasures. It also mirrored society’s increasing disenchantment with authority figures and government leaders. The town leaders in the film engage in endless squabbles about how best to deal with the vampires, the disease spreading through Schtettel, and the circus, but no one seems to reach a consensus. Of course, a more cynical interpretation is that Hammer saw an opportunity to ride the coattails of the Euro horror movement, aping its more lurid aspects and stylistic flourishes, yet retaining the Hammer feel. Thematically, Vampire Circus appeared to be a good fit for the era, but it wasn’t marketed well in the States, dying a quick death at the box office. Additionally, the American distributors made cuts to gain a PG rating, which diluted the impact of the film. Thankfully, the restored version is available for your enjoyment. Hurry, hurry, step right up. Come one, come all, for a vampire flick that’s not the same old thing.