Vampire Circus (1971/1972) ****
There are a lot of people in the world who talk glowingly of the works of Hammer Film Productionsó for the most part, Iím one of them. But even the most rabid Hammerphiles tend to speak disparagingly of the studioís output from the early 1970ís. I swear, I canít understand why. Admittedly, Iíve never seen any of the 70ís-vintage Dracula flicks, and itís been so many years since I last saw Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell that I donít really trust my memories of it too much, but if you look past Hammerís flagship franchises, youíll see that many of the most stylish and inventive movies the company ever made came out at the very same time that it was sliding inexorably toward final fiscal disaster. Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde, Blood from the Mummyís Tomb, the lesbian vampire trilogyó all of them came out in the 70ís. And so did Vampire Circus, one of the best Hammer horror films of them all.
Vampire Circus begins conventionally enough, with the human familiar of the vampire Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman, from The House of Whipcord and Moon Zero Two) luring a prepubescent girl to her masterís castle. But Anna the familiar has an audience she doesnít know about. Her husband, Professor Mueller (Laurence Payne, from The Crawling Eye, and The Tell-Tale Heart), sees her, and runs back to the village of Stetl to raise a mob and put an end to the vampireís depredations once and for all. Most of the posse chickens out at the front door, but the burgermeister (Thorley Walters, of Frankenstein Created Woman and Hammerís version of The Phantom of the Opera), Dr. Hersh (Richard Owens), and several other men keep their nerve. When they break into the castle, they find the child already dead, and Anna Mueller in bed with Count Mitterhaus. The ensuing battle with the vampire ends with several of the villagers dead and a stake through the monsterís heart. Before Mitterhaus expires, though, he pronounces the usual curse upon his killers and their descendants, vowing that ďStetl will die! Your children will die!Ē The remaining vigilantes then set fire to the castle, and begin hauling Anna back to town, but rather than face the mobís brand of justice, the vampireís familiar breaks loose and flees back into the burning castle.
Fifteen years later, Stetl is plague-ridden, and all the roads leading in or out are blocked by armed rabble from the neighboring towns. Dr. Hersh is at a loss to determine the cause of the plague, but his fellow burghers have their own ideas. Word on the street is that Stetlís suffering is the result of the curse of Count Mitterhaus. Eventually, Hersh decides that the only thing to do is to try to escape from Stetl and go to the capital, where he can consult with the most learned medical minds in all the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He leaves his son, Anton (The Finishing Schoolís John Moulder-Brown), in charge of his affairs in town, and sets off.
Then one day, into this pit of misery rides the Circus of Nights, led by an unnamed Gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri, of Devil Girl from Mars and The Viking Queen) and her dwarf sidekick, Michael (Skip Martin, from The Masque of the Red Death and Psycho-Circus). Despite, or perhaps because of the dark clouds hanging over Stetl, the villagers are won over immediately by the carnivalís promise of ďa hundred delights,Ē and the Circus of Nights plays to packed bleachers on its first night in town. There are twin acrobats, animal acts, a strongman (David Prowse, best known in America as the man inside the Darth Vader costume in the Star Wars movies, though he also played the monsters in The Horror of Frankenstein and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell), a man who seems to be able to turn himself into a panther (Anthony Higgins, from Taste the Blood of Dracula and Flavia, the Heretic), and Michaelís somewhat tepid clowning, but the big attraction is a performance in which a male dancer with a whip squares off against a nude female dancer painted with tiger stripes. After a show like that, the Gypsy womanís invitations to peer into the Mirror of Life for a peek at what the future holds find few takers, although the burgermeister deigns to have a look. He should have followed the example of his citizens, for what he sees is the resurrection of Count Mitterhaus! The burgermeister goes into a faint, and has to be carried away from the circus.
Thatís when the youth of Stetl begin disappearing. First, Emil the panther-man seduces and kills Rosa, a teenage girl who has always fantasized about joining a circus. Then, a pair of young boys sneak into the Mirror of Life tent, and are killed by the acrobats. All the victims are brought to a cave beneath the ruins of the old castle, where Anna hid the countís body all those years ago. The victimsí blood is then poured onto Mitterhausís flesh, which absorbs it completely and instantaneously. Their spent bodies are then dumped in the woods for their elders to find and lament over. And you thought being a teenager in our society was rough!
Eventually, a pattern begins to show itself. Though the vampires of the Circus of Nights will kill any young person they can, they seem to prefer the children of those men who played a major role in the countís execution. In that light, it is an even worse idea than it seems on its face for Muellerís daughter, Dora (Lynne Frederick, from Phase IV and Schizo), to return to Stetl. Sheís been studying in Vienna, but when she heard that pestilence had come to her village, she felt she had to return to be with her father and her boyfriend, Anton Hersh. Of course, even if sheíd known that Stetl was just now full of vampires with a taste for teenage blood (particularly from those whose parents once decided to take up vampire-killing as a hobby), she probably would have come anyway. You know how impulsive kids can be.
Doraís arrival in Stetl attracts the vampiresí notice in a big way for two reasons. First, she is the daughter of Professor Mueller, the ringleader of the mob that killed Count Mitterhaus. Secondly, the Gypsy who leads the circus is really Anna Mueller, and thus Dora is her daughter as well. Panther guy Emil, the circusís chief vampire and a cousin of the count, thus thinks it would be especially appropriate if Dora were the one whose blood finally restored Mitterhaus to life. But as Anna and the vampires begin drawing the snare ever more tightly around Dora and Anton, Dr. Hersh returns from Vienna with two important insights into Stetlís troubles. His colleagues in the city have concluded that the Stetl pestilence is a rare form of rabies spread by bat bites, and they have given him a concoction that has proven an effective cure during other outbreaks of the same disease. But more importantly, Hersh has learned that one town after another has been attacked by vampires in the countryside surrounding Stetl, and that the one thing all those villages had in common was a visit from the Circus of Nights. Now that the townspeople know who is killing their children and why, the vampiresí job is about to get a whole lot harder. On the other hand, Count Mitterhaus needs only one or two more transfusions before he can return to unlife, and considering how much trouble he gave the people of Stetl the last time around, his resurrection could easily tip the balance back in the vampiresí favor.
To me, the most remarkable thing about Hammerís non-Dracula vampire flicks is their creatorsí willingness to disregard much of the conventional vampire lore that informs the better-known Dracula series. Outside of a Dracula film, a vampire may or may not be harmed by sunlight; may or may not be able to take the form of an animal, may or may not create new vampires from the exsanguinated bodies of its victims. The formulas for their destruction are allowed to vary from one movie to another, and in general, no effort was made to create a coherent, studio-wide vampire mythos. In Vampire Circus, mostó but not alló of the undead are changelings, but surprisingly, not all of them have the same transformative powers. Count Mitterhaus appears to be stuck permanently in human form. The twin acrobats, on the other hand, can turn into bats (a commonplace that most Hammer vampire movies were at pains to avoid), and the countís cousin Emil can take the form of a black panther, an ability I canít recall having seen in any other vampire film. As for their victims, not a single one returns to life as a new vampire, and it is never suggested where the undead come from in the absence of the usual means of reproducing themselves. The idea that vampires can be resurrected if they are given enough new blood is another interesting twist, especially in a stand-alone movie which (unlike, say, Dracula, Prince of Darkness) doesnít begin with the necessity of finding an excuse to bring back a vampire the heroes killed off in a previous film. And while weíre on the subject of vampire deaths, the method whereby this movieís master vampire is finally destroyed is one that, in its details at least, Iíve never, ever seen before.
Vampire Circus also benefits from its casting, which eschews the usual roster of Hammer stars (Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Barbara Shelley, Herbert Lom, etc.) in favor of relative unknowns, who are nevertheless a fairly talented lot. John Moulder-Brown makes for a rather bland and uninteresting hero, but the rest of the cast is much better. The actors playing the villains put in particularly compelling performances. Adrienne Corri is convincingly forceful, and it never seems odd that this human woman should be able to dominate so thoroughly an entire pack of vampires. Anthony Higginsís Emil is an interesting melding of traditional vampire and werewolf characteristics, and although he doesnít always pull the trick off, when it works, it works very well. But Robert Tayman, for what little time heís actually onscreen, steals the show. His Count Mitterhaus is strikingly decadent and debauched, a prescient portrayal of the vampire as sadistic sex fiend. My only major complaint with Vampire Circus concerns the tiger girl from the Circus of Nightsí first performance in Stetl. I was very disappointed that we donít see more of her (in terms of screen time, I meanó at least in the original English version, you get a good, long look at every square inch of her body, though I suspect that this is not the case in the U.S. edit, which is not only rated PG, but is shorter than the Brit version by almost exactly the length of the tiger girlís dance), and even more disappointed that she turns out to be a perfectly normal human who just happens to work for the vampires. I had her figured for Emilís mate, and I think the movie would have been even better if she had been.