I saw a cruddy bootleg copy the first time I saw Vampire Circus and it was the US theatrical version at that. One that was heavily censored to obtain a PG rating. Hard to imagine a PG rating considering some of the suggestive themes of bestiality, incest and infanticide pervasive throughout the film. How did the Brain Police do it?!?!
Vampire Circus was produced by Hammer Films in 1971, the beginning of the time period that would see the formidable horror studio’s eventual decline. It was directed by a relative newcomer named Robert Young (who later directed Fierce Creatures, the rather weak sequel to the classic comedy A Fish Called Wanda) from a screenplay by Judson Kinberg. These were not names known to fans of Hammer’s classic horror films and at least the director was undoubtedly influenced by the post-modern movement that had radically altered the cinematic landscape. Despite it’s gothic trappings, Vampire Circus is a Felliniesque, hallucinatory and erotically charged mind-melt that has more in common with the bolder, more sexually charged horror films coming out of continental Europe than the “traditional” Hammer horror film.
The film opens in an idyllic forest outside the town of Schtettel. Schoolmaster Albert Müeller (Laurence Payne) witnesses his wife Anna (Domini Blythe) taking a little girl to the castle of Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman), who is either the lead singer of Roxy Music or a vampire. Turns out he’s a vampire. Mitterhaus proceeds to murder the child and feast on it’s blood. This was not common in horror films of the day. In fact, children in this film are nothing but food for these vampires. It gets worse. Mitterhaus turns to Anna and says, “One lust feeds another” and before the corpse is even cold, the two of them are writhing around naked together on the bed. Hammer was known for it’s breasts and blood and this film features both in abundance!
Meanwhile, Müeller has convinced some of the townspeople that the local aristocrat is to blame for the town’s missing children and they grab torches and proceed to the castle where they manage to drive a stake through the Count’s heart. As he lays dying, Mitterhaus curses the villagers, vowing that their children will die to give him back his life. The angry townspeople grab Anna and proceed to give her a whuppin' until her distraught husband intervenes. She bolts into the castle as the villagers proceed to burn it down. She grabs the Count and drags him to the crypts where in his last dying breath he tells her to find his cousin Emil who will know what to do so he can exact his vengeance.
Flash forward 15 years. The village is ravaged by plague and blockaded by the authorities. The peasants think this is the Count’s curse come back to haunt them but the local doctor Kersh (Richard Owens) is not convinced. He doesn’t believe in vampires and even Müeller is in denial that the good Count was in fact a vampire. Kersh escapes past the blockade to try and find medicine to cure the plague.
Unfortunately, something else gets past the blockade. A traveling circus called The Circus of Nights arrives in town, led by a dwarf clown (Skip Martin) and a mysterious Gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri). Other members of the troupe include a strongman (David Prowse, who later played Darth Vader in some film called Star Wars) and brother and sister twin acrobats (Robin Sachs and Doctor Who’s Lalla Ward), whose fondness for each other enters the realm of oo-ee-oo creepy. Also part of the troupe is a pair of dancers (Serena and Milovan Vesnitch), one of whom is the naked Tiger Lady, painted head to toe in tiger stripes, and finally, the mysterious Emil (Anthony Higgins using the name Anthony Corlan), another refuge from Bowie’s Spiders From Mars who can shapeshift into a panther! Oh and he just happens to be the good Count’s cousin. The strange circus attractions bewitch the bourgeois townsfolk with provocative sights and lurid weirdness and none of them surprisingly suspect the truth!
Anyway, the Circus of Nights precedes to start murdering the children in the village and dripping their blood on the Count’s corpse, still buried in the crypts beneath the rubble of the Castle. Soon they set their eyes on Dr Kersh’s son Anton (John Moulder-Brown) and Müeller’s daughter Dora (the completely adorable Lynne Frederick who later married Peter Sellers for his money and inherited his estate and gave none of it to his actual children).
There’s a lot of gore in this film, more so than in your typical Hammer film and even though it is kinda cheesy compared to today and flashes onscreen so quickly if you blink you miss it, it still must have been kinda shocking back in the day.GASP! Gore! There’s also a lot of breasts. Christine Paul-Podlasky is one of the first victims but Emil makes sure to get her naked and roll around with her in an animal cage first. Remember he can turn into a panther!! A first date bonus!
So Vampire Circus is definitely not your typical vampire film. Honestly any film that shows the death of children is terribly disturbing as it is. Especially one which evokes such eroticism but replaces it with death. However I think the main theme of the film deals with class struggles. One thing the vampires don’t do is make any of their victims into vampires. Both of them are aristocrats of some sort (vaguely German even and victimizing a town whose name is very similar to the word shtetl which is Yiddish for “town” ) who exploit the peasants not just economically but physically as well. By not making any of them into vampires, not even in death can the peasants rise above their status. The heroes in this story are all in the professional classes, doctors and schoolteachers, who stand in-between the evil rich and the poor and needy. I think the fear of all things European that so haunted the movies after World War I and II is still in effect here as well. Eventually Americans would sort’ve abandon these concepts and turn vampires into what they are today. Sorta metrosexual, sparkly Justin Beiber looking things. I think I’ll stick with the old school.
This Blu Ray comes with a wealth of AWESOME bonus features including a making of the film documentary, a look at Circus themed horror films, theatrical trailers and more!!! Highly recommended! Psychedelic, creepy and exceptional! Easily Hammer's best film from the final years.