VAMPIRE CIRCUS – A Look Back at 1972
The St. Louis Globe-Democrat is a monthly newspaper run by Steve DeBellis, a well know St. Louis historian, and it’s the largest one-man newspaper in the world. The concept of The Globe is that there is an old historic headline, then all the articles in that issue are written as though it’s the year that the headline is from. It’s an unusual concept but the paper is now in its 25th successful year! Steve and I collaborated last year on an all-Vincent Price issue of The Globe and I’ve been writing a regular movie-related column since. Since there is no on-line version of The Globe, I post all of my articles here at We Are Movie Geeks as well. In honor of the 40th anniversary of Blueberry Hill, the landmark St. Louis restaurant and music club that’s filled with pop culture memorabilia, this month’s St. Louis Globe-Democrat is written as if it’s 1972.
The popularity of Hammer horror films has begun began to decline and the British studio, struggling to maintain its place in the market, has recently made some adjustments with their series of vampire films. The gore and nudity quotient has been ramped up, overt lesbianism has been introduced, and the Christopher Lee Dracula series has even moved to contemporary London, all attempts to bring new ideas to the vampire genre. The latest from Hammer films is the oddity VAMPIRE CIRCUS, an eccentric film that mixes a traveling circus sideshow story with vampire lore, resulting a bizarre but original fantasy.
VAMPIRE CIRCUS begins with an exciting 12-minute pre-credits prologue that plays like a short feature. The villagers of the Austrian town of Stettel, led by Professor Mueller, storm the castle of the vampire Count Mitterhouse. He has taken the local schoolteacher’s wife as his lover and, with her assistance, lured a young girl to her death. The villagers drive a stake through Mitterhouse’s heart but not before he has cursed them all (“None of you will live! Your children will die to give me back life”). After the credits finally roll we return to Stettel, 15 years later. The town is infected by plague and cordoned off from the rest of the country by armed guards from neighboring towns. The mysterious Circus of Nights, led by a Gypsy Woman and her dwarf sidekick, somehow break through the roadblock to perform in Stettel. The circus features clowns, a strongman, acrobats, exotic animal acts, and offers the townsfolk a welcome distraction from their affliction until the youth of Strettebegin to disappear. Professor Mueller’s daughter Dora has been studying in Vienna, but when she heard that her village is diseased, she returns to be with her father and her boyfriend. Together they combat the reawakened Count Mitterhouse and the evil sideshow that is the VAMPIRE CIRCUS.
VAMPIRE CIRCUS is traditional Hammer horror in some respects (19th century setting mostly in the town square of a European village) but it’s mostly a bizarre blend of new ideas, ignoring much of the conventional vampire mythology from Hammer’s better-known Dracula series. Since Peter Cushing is not around to explain the rules, the audience is never quite sure what is possible and what is not in VAMPIRE CIRCUS. The vampires don’t appear to be harmed by sunlight nor do their victims return as vampires. Not all of the troupe are vampires and some shape-shift into different animals. The circus performances are shot with an evocative fairy-tale quality; the black panther jumping into the audience before quickly transforming into a suave human and advancing hungrily towards a young girl; bats flying through the air and then transforming into brother-sister acrobats; the nude woman painted as a tiger gracefully performing a strikingly sexy dance. VAMPIRE CIRCUS is one of the goriest Hammer films yet with an abundance of impalings, moldy corpses, and decapitations. There are a lot of plot inconsistencies and weird logic in VAMPIRE CIRCUS but the end product is so colorful and the atmosphere so dreamlike that it makes for a delirious viewing experience.
Perhaps VAMPIRE CIRCUS seems so unusual because much of Hammer’s usual roster of star talent (Cushing and Lee) was not involved, instead involving new blood in front of and behind the camera. Thorley Walters (Cushing’s assistant in FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN) is the only Hammer regular here and he’s good as the town burgermeister. Robert Tayman is creepy as the pedophiliac Mitterhaus, who comes across as a far more repellent villain than Christopher Lee’s Dracula ever did. Adrienne Corri (who readers may remember as the rape/murder victim Mrs. Alexander in last year’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE ) is convincingly wicked as the mortal gypsy woman who leads the pack of vampires. The circus strongman is played silent and scary by David Prowse (who played the Frankenstein monster for Hammer in HORROR OF FRANKENKENSTEIN in 1970). In his directorial debut Robert Young has a lot of story to tell and gives VAMPIRE CIRCUS a crazy, breathless pace. But my favorite talent in VAMPIRE CIRCUS is the aforementioned tiger woman. Bald and sexy, she’s one of the great women of Hammer and I have no idea who plays her (probably a British nude dancer). Moviegoers looking for something unusual at theaters should check out VAMPIRE CIRCUS.
David Prowse would go on to play Darth Vader in STAR WARS and its sequels. VAMPIRE CIRCUS was for many years a difficult title for Hammer collectors to find in its uncut form but last year, Synapse films released it on a spectacular extras-filled Blu-ray disc.