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Posts Tagged ‘Vampire Circus’

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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