By the beginning of the 1970s, British horror house Hammer was in rapid decline. One of its most fervent genre supporters, William Hinds, had retired from the company, and with him went most of the desire to continue playing monsters and murderers. The ’50s and ’60s had been rife with hits and iconic fright efforts, but audience tastes were changing and the post-modern movement was altering the cinematic landscape. Hoping to pump new life into their product, the remaining partners sought outside inspiration. One suggestion was for a peculiar period piece called Vampire Circus. With a title that just screamed “schlock” and an en equally ripe premise, Hammer said “yes”. The result is one of the company’s last great classics.
A small village is in turmoil. The local children are dying off one by one, and many are blaming the evil Count Mitterhaus as the cause. Town officials fear the worst – that they have a demonic vampire in their midst. When they confront the blood thirsty noble, he attacks. They manage to drive a stake through his heart. As a dying threat, Mitterhaus curses the kinfolk of all involved in his death. Fast forward 15 years and the area is plagued by a sickness that is destroying the population, one by one. As a serious minded doctor heads out to find a cure, he leaves his son in charge of things. The city fathers from before are convinced it’s Mittenhaus that’s the cause. Others blame a gypsy circus that has just come to town. With its enigmatic collection of exotic animals and equally unusual performers, they are right to be concerned. When it turns out that the troupe consist of vampires desperate to resurrect Mitterhaus from the grave, their worst fears are indeed confirmed.
For a film made over forty years ago, Vampire Circus could definitely show attempted contemporary spook shows a thing or two. Erotic, grotesque, chilling, bloody, suspenseful, and loaded with doom and gloom atmosphere, this is the kind of experiment in terror that reinvigorates your love of the scary movie artform. Hammer made some amazing films during its run, but this evocative title is a revelation. It argues for a company still viable in an ever-changing marketplace, a business unafraid to mess with traditional formula to find new and novel ways to shock and horrify. The combination of violence and sex, married to a more recognizable costumed concept, works effortlessly. Just as we get used to the bumbling ways of the backwards populace, director Robert Young tosses in some striking set-pieces to completely thwart our expectations.
This is one bloody good bodice ripper, a free love minded macabre mash that has as many heaving bosoms as dripping neck wounds. There is a simmer sensuality underneath Vampire Circus‘ sometimes corny facade, a passion placed front and center for the otherwise unsuspecting viewer to sample over and over again. Bowing to both genders, we get lots of cheese and beefcake here – albeit the decidedly British dandy type of machismo – and Young finds interesting ways to accentuate the skin. One sequence in particular finds a pair of dancers mimicking an animal training act. As they cavort and collide, you notice that she is completely nude except for a carefully placed panty and body paint. As she rips his shirt to shreds, the he/she message is more than clear.
Similarly, the daughter of the Burgermeister is played as a slut, a liberated young lady who loves to spend her nights ‘away’ from home. She eventually takes up with the “panther man”, a Marc Bolin lookalike who’s constantly undressing everyone with his eyes. Their animal cage canoodling is memorable indeed. So is the prologue material, Mitterhaus seducing the schoolmaster’s wife in a series of softcore shots that announce the movie’s more mature intentions. Without this material – and the numerous proto-gore moments – we’d have a typical late ’60s shocker (all promise, not punch). Instead, Vampire Circus threatens to deliver the Devil’s goods – and then opens up Satan’s shopping bag and spills the craven contents all across the screen.
Modern viewers will indeed be amazed at the level of grue here. Throats are slashed, human beings torn limb from limb by ferocious beasts. Said vivisected bodies are discovered in horrific fashion, and gunshots blow holes in the back of hunky henchmen. This isn’t your pathetic piecemeal PG-13 shocker. From a crucifix to a cutlass, weapons draw gallons of blood here, and Young shows a real flare for fatalistic invention. Indeed, the director is Vampire Circus‘s certified wild card here. While sticking to the storytelling conventions rather well, he adds unique visual elements to the mix, including obvious homages to then arthouse cinema hits and moments of his own unique invention (a pair of aerialists are shot from below as they spin and contort in the air, giving their performance a surreal, hallucinogenic aura).
Of course, none of this would matter had Synapse Films not tracked down a definitive print and provided ample added content to increase our appreciation. The film looks fantastic, the 1080p high definition transfer giving the movie a sparkling, spirited update. While definitely dated, the techs specs are pure 2011. As for the bonus features, we are walked through all phases of the Vampire Circus production, from initial idea to final cut. We are also treated to information on Hammer itself, past films dealing with a big top setting, and an interesting “motion comic”. Toss in a trailer and an animated still and poster gallery and you get a good idea of the legacy Vampire Circus leaves behind.
Had Hammer never made another movie after its initial cinematic splash, it would still be the benchmark for all British horror – both then and now. With its lavish sets, Gothic sensibility, superb acting, and all around atmosphere of mood and menace, the company became a symbol of sophisticated yet still scary fare. If you’d like to see the business model blossom into something slightly more scandalous, and yet still sinister as Hell, Vampire Circus is your creative combination. It may pack more of a punch than other titles from the production house, but the results remains the same – cool, clever, and very creepy.