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Posts Tagged ‘Thorley Walters’

The pre-titles sequence of Robert Young’s 1971 film Vampire Circus has a lot of heavy lifting to do, exposition-wise, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it doesn’t completely hang together. We find ourselves in the usual Hammer evocation of an 18th or early 19th century Osten-Europ (resembling, as ever, woodland a short drive from Pinewood Studios), where a young girl is playing under the kindly eye of local schoolteacher and upstanding citizen Muller (Laurence Payne). But wait! A young woman (Domini Blythe) appears and entices the girl away with her, luring her off to the local castle. Muller is sent into an awful tizzy by this.

All very well, I suppose, until it becomes apparent that the woman is actually Muller’s surprisingly young wife. At this point the characters’ behaviour and reactions, and thus the whole sequence, more or less stops making sense. Oh well. It turns out that Mrs Muller has been having a fling with the local nobleman, Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman, who has a bit of a look of a young Timothy Dalton). Mitterhaus is, unsurprisingly, a vampire, albeit one with a uniquely non-frightening name (in English he’d be Count Middlehouse). The count polishes off the little girl (initial gore quotient met), which Mrs Muller enjoys watching rather too much. ‘One lust brings on the other,’ smirks the count as she slips off her costume (initial nudity quotient met) and the two of them get down to it.

Well, not entirely surprisingly, Muller has been organising an angry mob with flaming torches and a cartful of barrels of gunpowder, and they all turn up at this point. Not having bothered to bring any crosses or garlic, however, the count carves a bit of a swathe through them before he is finally staked and the castle blown up – but not before he can whisper a few dying commands to Mrs Muller (who flees into the forest) or promise a terrible revenge on his assailants and their children.

Yes, this is another of those vengeance-of-the-vampire movies that Hammer had a few goes at in the early 1970s. At least one of these, Taste the Blood of Dracula, is from near the top of the Hammer Horror stack, so perhaps it’s understandable that they should keep going back to it. This is from a lower bracket, though. Fifteen years later, the town of Stitl (home to Muller and the rest) is suffering from an outbreak of a mysterious plague, and the place has been encircled by armed men who shoot anyone trying to get out.

The local doctor, who’s new in town and has the thankless role of being the guy who says ‘Don’t be absurd! Vampires don’t exist!’ at the start of Hammer vampire movies, thinks this is normal plague-type plague, but the Burgomeister (Thorley Walters), Muller the teacher, and everyone else who was there when Count Middlehouse was disposed of have other ideas.

Spirits are briefly lifted with the arrival of the enigmatic and glamorous Circus of Night rolls into town, having somehow got past the circle of armed soldiers. Running the enterprise is a gypsy woman credited as Gypsy Woman (she is played, with considerable oomph, by Adrienne Corri). Everyone rocks up to the circus and enjoys looking at a few caged animals, some slightly tacky exotic dancing, and some more peculiar acts.

Now, here’s the thing that basically turns Vampire Circus into a melodrama you have to indulge rather than a film you can take completely seriously. Senior figures in the community are worrying that the plague is the result of a curse laid on them by Middlehouse the vampire. You would think that all things vampirical would be playing on their minds a bit. And yet no-one seems to find the fact that the circus acts include a man turning into a black panther and acrobats turning into actual bats remotely suggestive. Furthermore, the fact the gypsy woman is credited as Gypsy Woman is presumably to conceal the revelation that she is actually Mrs Muller, come back to exact revenge. It’s not really clear why no-one recognises her – or, alternatively, why her appearance has changed so much. Nor is it quite clear why it has taken her and the count’s cousin Emil (Anthony Higgins, credited as Anthony Corlan) a decade and a half to get round to avenging him.

Then again, all of these films are somewhat melodramatic. Some of the narrative shortfall in Vampire Circus may be down to the fact that it was Robert Young’s first film as director, and his inexperience meant the production overran to the point where the producers shut it down and simply told the editor to do the best he could with the available footage. This may be another reason why the storytelling occasionally feels a bit strained; it’s probably also the best explanation for a sequence in which a group of minor characters are savaged to death by a panther which seems to be realised in the form of an astonishingly manky-looking hand puppet.

Once you get past the obviousness of the title and plot (George Baxt, credited for ‘story’, claims he was paid £1000 just for coming up with the title and had no other involvement with the film), this is a reasonably solid horror fantasy with an agreeably dreamlike atmosphere and impressive visual sense – it’s lurid and garish and a bit surreal in places, but engagingly so.

On the other hand, the main villain is woefully weak, even by late-period-Hammer standards, and none of the performances are particularly strong. You kind of come into these films expecting the juvenile leads to be wet and forgettable, but Vampire Circus is lacking the strong character performances so many Hammer movies benefit from – Thorley Walters is okay, but not in it enough; Adrienne Corri has presence and charisma to spare, but is hampered by the fact she’s playing the sidekick of other characters.

One thing about this movie is that for what feels like a production-line exploitation movie, it has an unusually interesting cast, even by Hammer standards. Quite apart from Walters, Corri, Payne, Higgins and the rest, lurking around the circus are Dave Prowse (one of many pre-Darth Vader fantasy and horror roles), Robin Sachs (another prolific fantasy and horror actor), and the Honourable Lalla Ward in pretty much her first professional acting engagement. It’s not entirely surprising the movie has become something of a cult favourite.

Vampire Circus is a bit of an oddity in the classic Hammer canon, as it’s a standalone vampire film with no particular connection to its series about Dracula and the Karnstein family – if you discount Countess Dracula (which this was released in a double-bill with, and is really a Dracula film in name only), the only other example is Kiss of the Vampire from 1963. I suppose the central notion and its execution is strong enough to justify the film’s existence, but it would have been interesting to see that double-bill fifty years ago: two very different films, one vibrant, lurid and almost impressionistic, the other chilly and measured and rather more thoughtful. Vampire Circus is a flawed movie and not even the best film about bloodsuckers Hammer Films made that year, but it has enough novelty value to be worth watching even so.

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You can’t do a Peter Cushing celebration without including a proper Hammer horror movie, and if you’re only going to do one then it should really be a Frankenstein film, the series which – in every sense worth considering – he led for the studio. I have to confess that, much as I love Cushing’s performances, I’m not a particular fan of these films – though I do like Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell – but obviously other opinions are available. For example, let us consider the words of Martin Scorsese, talking ahead of a season of his favourite films in 1987: ‘If I single this one out it’s because here they actually isolate the soul… The implied metaphysics are close to something sublime.’ Yowser.

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Scorsese is referring to 1967’s Frankenstein Created Woman (the title spoofs Roger Vadim’s 1958 movie And God Created Woman), which opens, sublimely, with a low-angle shot of a guillotine. There follows a jolly sequence in which Duncan Lamont plays a nutter who’s being beheaded for murder, something which doesn’t seem to bother him much until his young son Hans turns up. Nevertheless, the sentence is carried out, the father being guillotined in front of the boy. This is really only tangentially connected to the plot, but it’s still a great opening.

One title sequence later (Lamont gets fifth billing, despite already having had his head chopped off), we have skipped forward many years and Hans is now a strapping young man (Robert Webb), which is good, and working as a lab assistant for Baron Frankenstein (Cushing), which is probably more questionable. With the help of Hans and bumbling local doctor Hertz (Thorley Walters), the Baron is taking his peculiar researches in a new direction: rather than creating new life, he is now intent on preserving existing forms of it. To this end he has been putting himself into suspended animation to see what happens to his soul, and Cushing gets a great ‘entrance’ where Webb and Walters have to drag him out of a fridge and defibrillate him back to life.

Inter-film continuity was never really a priority with Hammer, and this film doesn’t really attempt to dovetail with the previous film in the series, The Evil of Frankenstein. Frankenstein is operating under his real name, although he seems short of resources, and he’s not quite the criminal outcast he is in most of the Hammer sequels. He has lost some of the use of his hands, though it’s never specified how (a plot detail which is picked up again in Monster from Hell). He still has a reputation as a sorcerer amongst the local yokels, but he doesn’t have a castle for them to burn down.

Anyway, having been defrosted, the Baron packs Hans off to the local pub to buy some champagne. It turns out that Hans is in love with the landlord’s daughter, Christina (Susan Denberg): one of the slightly difficult aspects of this film is the presentation of Christina as suffering from an unspecified disability, with a scarred face and partial paralysis. This doesn’t bother Hans, though. What does bother him is cruel treatment of his girl by three nasty young rakes, and there are some fisticuffs before the evening is out.

Having run out of cash, the upper-class twits try to rob the pub, but they are discovered by Christina’s dad, so they beat him to death. Unfortunately, all the circumstantial evidence is pointing to Hans and after seeing Christina off on a trip to see a medical specialist (her absence is a plot point), he is hauled in and put on trial. Surprisingly, it turns out that having the notorious Baron Frankenstein and his idiot assistant appear as character witnesses is not an advantage in a court case, and Hans is sentenced to be guillotined too.

Up to this point, Frankenstein has been depicted as a brilliant, obsessive scientist (he’s even invented the nuclear reactor a century early), rather than a bad guy, but his response to learning his assistant is going to be executed is basically to start rubbing his hands and planning what he can do with the body. He has figured out a way to isolate the soul of someone recently deceased (that guy Scorsese knows what he’s on about) and is just looking for a test subject. There is even more good news, for the Baron at least, when an unwitting Christina comes across her boyfriend being beheaded for the murder of her father. This comes as a bit of a shock and she promptly flings herself into the nearest river, her body being delivered to Frankenstein’s lab as well (presumably he has some sort of first-refusal arrangement in place).

I know geniuses see the world differently to the rest of us, but just how detached from reality do you have to be to think that transplanting the soul of your wrongfully-executed assistant into the body of his own lover, after she commits suicide, is in any way a good idea? Nevertheless, that’s what Frankenstein does, taking the opportunity to fix Christina’s various disabilities and blemishes along the way – he also turns her into a blonde (oh, good grief). Little does he suspect that, though seemingly a total amnesiac, the Hans/Christina amalgam retains the young man’s memories of the three real murderers and is intent on exacting a bloody revenge…

(Well… there is the minor issue of it never being explained how Hans knows who the real murderers are. Maybe he’s just killing them because he doesn’t like them.)

Easy, tiger.

Easy, tiger.

Hammer advertised this movie with a series of quite well-known publicity shots featuring Cushing and Denberg in some, er, interesting poses, but to be perfectly honest the film itself is a lot less fun than the photos imply. As I hope I’ve managed to suggest, the plot is a strange mixture of metaphysical science fantasy and brutal revenge melodrama, not really like any of the other Hammer Frankensteins. This wouldn’t necessarily be an issue, but definitely problematic is the fact that the revenge melodrama is definitely what the script seems most interested in. While Frankenstein himself is essential to the plot, he’s never really central to it. Cushing walks off with the movie, as usual, but he feels like a character turn rather than the genuine star. It’s hard to imagine how this could be fixed without totally rethinking the premise of the film, but it’s still a problem, and it may explain why this script apparently hung around for years prior to being made (apparently it was written before the Evil of Frankenstein script, then put on hold when Hammer negotiated the rights to the classic Frankenstein’s Monster makeup from Universal, allowing them to make that film).

Nevertheless, this is a classic golden-age Hammer horror film: possibly formulaic, but it is for the most part a bloody good formula. James Bernard contributes another wonderful score, the character actors get their teeth into their material, the younger members of the cast aren’t too embarrassing, and the production values are relatively lavish. Hammer afficionados will recognise most of the locations from the studio’s other films, but that’s part of their charm and identity.

Still – one really could wish for more Peter Cushing in a Hammer Frankenstein movie, and more of a sense of hubristic transgression in the central premise (the Baron’s experiment does seem weird, but that’s mainly because of the relationship of the two people involved in it). Failing that, even a slightly deeper exploration of the metaphysical foundation of the film might have made for a more satisfying production. As it is, Frankenstein Created Woman yomps along briskly and logically to its conclusion, and Cushing himself is exemplary, but one can never quite shake off the vague sense that this is a movie hobbled by an underpowered script.

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