Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Robert Young, 1972
Starring: Adrienne Corri, Anthony Higgins, John Moulder-Brown, Lalla Ward

In an Austrian village, a woman leads a little girl to the castle of Count Mitterhaus, a vampire, who kills the girl. In revenge, a group of villagers attack the castle and kill the Count, putting a stake in his heart. Before dying, Mitterhaus curses the village, vowing that their children will die and restore him to life. Anna, his human lover, is whipped by the villagers, but runs back into the castle to be with Mitterhaus, who tells her to find his cousin Emil. The villagers make sure the castle burns to the ground. Fifteen years later, the village is quarantined due to plague, but they receive a visit from a small, traveling circus. It turns out the circus is full of vampires, including Emil, who vows to get revenge on the villagers by killing their children and resurrecting the Count.

This stylish, imaginative film eschews typical vampires tropes -- for instance, vampires are unharmed by sunlight, their victims don’t return from the grave, and many of them shape shift into animals. This is also one of the sexiest productions with plenty of nudity, particularly the circus’s erotic tiger woman, who dances while only wearing body paint. The eroticism is intertwined with more gore and violence than any of the Dracula series: decapitations and impalements abound and the majority of characters are killed, villagers and circus performers alike. The tremendous opening scene with Mitterhaus is a perfect example of this powerful blend of sex and violence. In fact, the opening scene is so successful it almost detracts from the rest of the film, which is unable to fully reach this robust level of spectacle again. 

Though there aren’t many familiar faces from Hammer, there are some solid performances. Robert Tayman (House of Whipcord) steals the film as Count Mitterhaus, the best lead vampire in a Hammer production since Christopher Lee. It’s a shame his Count Mitterhaus was never reused, though this makes a fun double feature with Pete Walker's House of Whipcord, where he plays a seductive sleaze ball named Mark E. De Sade (yes, they went there). The normally charming and film-stealing Anthony Higgins (The Draughtsman's Contract) does his best as Emil, but is unfortunately fighting an uphill battle against a flimsy script and weak role. There are some great supporting roles from Skip Martin as the circus dwarf (Masque of the Red Death), David Prowse (who would go on to play Darth Vader) as the strongman, Lalla Ward (Doctor Who), and the lovely Adrienne Corri (A Clockwork Orange).

Vampire Circus suffers from a few flaws, most of which are overshadowed by the imaginative visuals. The set is cheap, but director Robert Young makes the most of it, leaving behind a brooding, bloody, and sometimes grotesque atmosphere. The plot inconsistencies and early abundance of exposition is drowned out by the fairy-tale like tone, which puts as much emphasis as possible on the circus characters and their magical, strange performances that spell doom for the isolated village. 

Vampire Circus is one of my favorite Hammer productions and is surely the most bizarre and colorful of their vampire films -- or any of their films in general -- and it comes highly recommended. Once upon a time, all I was able to get ahold of was a grainy bootleg VHS tape, as this film sadly languished in obscurity for several decades. Synapse recently rescued the film with a lovely 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo from Synapse Films. This was Synapse’s first Blu-ray release and the first Hammer horror film available on Blu-ray (which is a little baffling if you think about it). I applaud Synapse for rescuing such an obscure, wonderful film and for the excellent treatment. There’s a solid visual transfer and a slew of extras, including a making-of, “The Bloodiest Show on Earth,” a short about circus-themed horror films, another about The House of Hammer magazine, an interactive comic book, a trailer, and an image gallery. 

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