Vampire Circus (1972) has been unavailable for so long to most horror fans, it’s become an almost legendary title that might lead to disappointment, and it’s easily possible to overpraise it. Non-horror fans may well find in it the things they don’t like about horror movies: unpleasant and queasy and exploitive and rather ramshackle. To those who know Hammer Films, however, especially during its declining years of the ’70s, it’s a strange breath of fresh air.
It opens with a long pre-credits sequence that speeds in a whirl from the idyllic to the sinister to the outrageous. In a lovely forest, a nicely dressed lady (Domini Blythe) takes a little blonde girl by the hand and leads her away. An artist who witnesses the moment puts down his sketch pad and rises in alarm. He’s a bit slow to take action.
The lady takes the girl to a castle, where a decadent, slender, lavishly-haired man with an open shirt and big fangs appears in a brazenly cheap effect. The girl at first is afraid, but the woman introduces Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman). Well, peasants are taught to respect their betters, so the girl comes forward and the Count caresses the tyke prior to taking a bite. Looking on, the woman shivers and rolls her eyes orgasmically. She writhes on the floor and shimmies out of her garment. The Count says “Anna, one lusts feeds the other” and soon they are rolling decorously naked on the bed.
Meanwhile, the artist has roused the villagers and is trying to talk them into storming the castle. Most of them are afraid of being hanged for the crime, but a few of them break in and a bunch of people die violently and the dying count curses the village and says these men (at least those still alive) will die and their children will die to bring him back to life.
Fifteen years later, we have the opening credits over a town plagued by a mysterious…well, plague, and a Gypsy caravan comes to town promising a circus. They have mysteriously penetrated the blockade that cuts the plague town off from the rest of this anonymous country with an emperor and an Eastern Orthodox church, and which is evidently sometime in the 19th century.
The Gypsies aren’t real Gypsies, fortunately for political correctness. It’s a masquerade, for this whole circus is a series of masks under masks (an idea literalized at one point) designed to carry out the late undead Count’s threat. This allows the evil crew to let Gypsies take the blame, as always, while they work their dreadful magic on the town.
A word about those opening credits. The three most important will also be the most mystifying to veteran Hammer viewers. Producer Wilbur Stark, writer Judson Kinberg, and director Robert Young can only make said viewers go “Who?” They were, as the excellent half-hour making-of explains, virgins to Hammer and to horror, and this probably explains why this film does unusual things that don’t fit squarely into the mold of Victorian Gothics that Hammer had been churning out for two decades. This picture is something of a live wire, and where many other Hammers today seem efficient, and sometimes even good, but tame relative to their original reputation for excess, this one can still feels uncomfortable as well as unpredictable.
The discomfort factor has been alluded to: this film is all about preying on children in a manner that frankly evokes the sexual while displacing it with death. Today’s viewer may watch in disbelief, wondering if the body count is really going to include all the kids, like an insidious forerunner to Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. Fortunately, two of the offspring are really of adult age, but still. Beyond this, there’s the general sense of pervasive evil and corruption and hopelessness and terror that’s very effectively conveyed, especially when you consider how brutally the outside world is prepared to keep anyone from escaping the village.
Concurrently, there’s a mysterious air of fantasy and wonder that shouldn’t jibe with the horror vibe yet does. The Circus of Night does indeed distract the folk with dazzling shows, including a startlingly modern and sexual dance with a tiger woman that seems out of place in any old Mittel-European country. David Prowse (Darth Vader) is the burly strong man. As in The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao or Something Wicked This Way Comes, there’s a hall of mirrors with unpleasant side-effects. Commenters in the making-of, including Tim Lucas and Philip Nutman, point out the connections to the cinema of Jean Cocteau, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini that are evidently conscious on the part of director Young, whose background was in documentaries.
Apparently he didn’t quite have time to finish the picture, which explains a few curious lapses and omissions that contribute to the dreamlike unreality. And as with all Hammer vampire pics, this movie indulges in the miracle of five-minute days, with the action jumping to nightfall at the drop of an edit since the danger can only exist at night. This movie feels particularly protracted in this regard.
The vampires have most of the traditional qualities: night-time, fear of crosses, no reflection in mirrors, stake through heart, you know the drill. However, one important point is left out: those bitten don’t turn into vampires. They just die. The entire story only has two vampires: the Count and his cousin Emil (Anthony Corlan), who is also a shape-shifting panther. This underscores the exclusivity of the class element.
In all the Hammer vampire pictures (and also the Frankenstein pictures), the evil emanates from aristocrats who exploit the serfs bodily as well as economically. The heroes emerge from the petty bourgeois or professional class (doctors, professors, lawyers) and not from the illiterate peasants, though the latter’s superstitions always prove right. So even though it would seem an implicitly revolutionary concept to stake the landowners, one aspect of the vampire threat is the possibility of some folks rising above their station (through death) to equivalence with the decadent aristocrats, and it’s the middle classes that keep everyone in their place.
Vampire Circus doesn’t allow the victims to join the vampires. Rather, the vampires surround themselves with many human minions who do their bidding but are capable of becoming cannon fodder, and these minions in themselves can show special powers that aren’t fully clarified, like the ability of the anonymous Ringmistress (Adrienne Corri, her character billed as Gypsy Woman) to hide her true face. Notice too how unusual it is for the apparent leader of the troupe to be a woman, and one whose attitudes toward her abandoned husband and daugher, and her apparently vampire-born set of male and female twins, is a matter of endless speculation. All we know is, she’s one bad rebel.
There’s a lot going on here, more than the average bodice-ripping fang-dripper, and the fact that it doesn’t all quite add up only makes it all the more intriguing. If late Hammer had pulled off a few more of these oddities, perhaps it wouldn’t have been withering on the vine. Or perhaps it would. This did lousy business in the US, where it was all cut up. Now here it is, uncut and colorful, on a DVD and Blu-Ray combo pack with good extras that include a whirlwind overview of other horror films with a circus or carnival setting (including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Freaks) and a very informative look at a 1970s UK comics magazine called House of Hammer.
All this good work has been bestowed upon a grateful public by Synapse Films, one of those small companies of dedicated fans catering to the like-minded. We live in a paradoxical moment when, at the same time that HDTV and Blu-Ray are being pushed onto consumers, it looks like the vast majority of older titles may only become available through streaming downloads and made-on-demand services that don’t even have as high a bitrate as regular DVDs. We were almost getting spoiled for a while, but thoughtful releases of cult items like this may become rarer.
Along with this movie I have a new book by one of the Synapse people, Shade Rupe’s Dark Stars Rising: Conversations from the Outer Realms (Headpress). It’s 500 pages of double-columned interviews, conducter over a 20-year period, with artists in some way trangressive and usually related to horror. These include directors (Alejandro Jodorowsky, William Lustig, Gaspar Noé, Jim Vanbebber, and Buddy Giovanazzo of the “lost” masterpiece Combat Shock) and performers (Udo Kier, Divine, the recently deceased Tura Satana) as well as various writers, illustrators, musicians and performance artists.
As I look over all this work, laid out with millions of black and white photographs of a frequently graphic nature, I am reminded that certain genres considered hip and outré, like horror and film noir, have a natural audience that’s got their back. That’s good. However, it reminds me also that many other types of film–musicals, comedies, epics, melodramas, women’s films, “serious” dramas, Bulgarian silent cinema–deserve also to have such a following and to be before us, preserved and presented by the dedicated with the loving attention and quality control lavished upon Vampire Circus. Alas, it doesn’t happen.