If one erases the centuries long horrible treatment of animals, circuses were a lot of fun; a place for families to go and see acrobats and feats of derring-do and munch really stale boxed popcorn. Now we’re left with Cirque De Soleil, in which only the humans die trying to entertain us. You could skip all that though and just head to the Vampire Circus (1972), where the performers will gladly strip you of your coin and your life. It’s a Hammer event, and those are always worth a peek behind the tent.
Released by Twentieth Century Fox (yes, I’m still calling them that, dammit) stateside in October, Vampire Circus received middling reviews at best; however, modern critics have cited it as one of Hammer’s better latter day efforts – an opinion I’m more than happy to share.
But first, a story. It’s the mid 1800’s, and a little village in Eastern Europe has themselves a bit of a bloodsucking problem: holed up in his castle is Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman – House of Whipcord), a vampire straight out of swinging London who’s been hoarding as many villagers as he can to fill his bloodlust. The villagers have had enough, and they storm the castle and drive a stake through his heart. While they burn the place down from the outside, his mistress drags his body to the basement in the hopes that one day he may be revived.
Cut to 15 years later: the village and those who remain have been quarantined due to the pesky plague making the rounds; nobody in or out, except the town doctor has plans to sneak out so he can get medicine and consultation to hopefully cure everyone – although he has no idea what it is (hasn’t stopped a doctor before, has it?). While he plans his getaway, a caravan shows up: a traveling carnival called The Circus of Nights has arrived to bring merriment to the desolate village; and with a name like that, one can count on decimation being added to the list.
The circus rolls out their various amusements for their captive audience, including a strongman played by Darth Vader (David Prowse), a clown dwarf, an acrobatic set of twins who have a habit of turning into bats, and a young man who shape shifts into a cougar; all are led by the mysterious and exotic Gypsy Woman (that’s what the credits say – anyway, it’s the lovely Adrienne Corri from A Clockwork Orange), who seems to know more about the village than she is letting on. Is it possible that The Circus of Nights is somehow linked to the evil events from 15 years ago? IS IT?
Hammer certainly was having a big old identity crisis at the turn of the ‘70s; old fashioned gothic was on the way out, and a grittier, more urbane approach was creeping in. Vampire Circus sticks to the time period so well trod by Hammer, but for the most part sets aside the cobwebbed and creaking door trappings associated with much of their work. What they do invest in is a solid dose of splatter and a good dollop of nudity to keep up with the viewers’ evolving appreciation of the genre (or more likely seeing the box office returns of exploitation fare).
They don’t venture too far from home, though; there are still plenty of fangs bared, cleavages hoisted, and vengeful villagers – certainly enough to check off the appropriate boxes for hardcore Hammer hounds. But the use of a different director and screenwriter injects the studio with some much needed quirky energy.
This was director Robert Young’s first feature; he would go on to helm efforts from Monty Python alum (Splitting Heirs, Fierce Creatures) and one can see the spirit they were attracted to: Vampire Circus is light on its toes and moves at a swift pace, and refuses to take itself too seriously. What Young doesn’t bring is Terence Fisher’s sense of style, which would only make a film like this with its arcane setting even better. Oh well, he definitely makes up for it with energy and a tongue in cheek, lurid touch.
Writer Jud Kinberg is harder to pin down, coming as he did from more straightforward dramas (Reach for Glory, Siege of the Saxons); he does manage to add a few kinks into the normally impervious armor of vampire lore by taking them from the castle and dropping them into the carnival (carnivore?) atmosphere. He also shakes it up by handing over Van Helsing duties to not any one person, but rather the collective of town folk who have no choice in the matter.
The performances all manage to ride that line between parody and sincerity, especially considering the setup; I’m particularly drawn to Corri’s work as the Gypsy Woman – never less than alluring, and she has a gleam in her eye so close to a wink it causes me to grin.
Vampire Circus holds an appeal for those in need of fresh thrills outside of the Hammer House; tear a ticket and step right up – stale popcorn is the least of your worries.
Vampire Circus is available on Blu-ray from Synapse Films.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs Double Feature: BLACK MAGIC (1975) and THE OILY MANIAC (1976)