February 8, 2019

There's a Blood-sucker Born Every Minute

Poster - Vampire Circus (1972)
Now Playing: Vampire Circus (1972)

Pros: Adds youthful vitality and a mod visual style to Hammer's standard vampire treatment.
Cons: Too ambitious for its short run time; Some characters and plot lines are not adequately developed.

Living in southern Nevada, I’ve been lucky to see several magnificent Cirque du Soleil shows based in Las Vegas, including Cirque’s first permanently-located show Mystere, established on the Strip in 1993. From rather humble beginnings as a troupe of street performers hailing from Quebec, Canada, Cirque du Soleil has become a worldwide phenomenon, staging daring visual feasts of sophisticated sets, inventive costumes and awe-inspiring talent.

Cirque du Soleil showcases some of the most extraordinary, gifted acrobats in the world. Their agility, power and grace seem beyond human. You could be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to another world as they perform amidst Cirque’s wild, surrealistic sets.

In simpler times, more conventional circuses elicited a similar sense of awe and wonder from audiences. Before screens and digital effects completely captured our imaginations, we could still be enthralled by a real, solid, living, breathing fantasy world plopped down in the middle of our dull, prosaic lives.

Since wonder and awe are occasionally companions to fear, writers and filmmakers have occasionally pulled back the circus tent flap to explore its dark side. Ray Bradbury’s classic 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, about a carnival headed by the sinister Mr. Dark, was originally written up as a movie treatment that failed to gain studio backing. (It would later be made into a 1983 movie starring Jonathan Pryce.)

The 1960s saw a number of films featuring circuses as a backdrop to murder and mayhem, including Circus of Horrors (1960; with Anton Diffring), Circus of Fear (1966; with Christopher Lee), and Berserk (1966; with Joan Crawford).

And then, early in the 1970s, Hammer’s Vampire Circus came to town. While neither Cushing or Lee appear in the film, it makes up for its lack of star power with a copious amount of action and blood crammed into an 87 minute run time.

Robert Tayman as Count Mitterhaus in Vampire Circus (1972)
It's curtains for the Count.
Even before the titles roll, the film gets right to it. A little girl is lured by a woman into a castle and killed by the resident vampire Count (Robert Tayman). In celebration, the Count makes love to his new best friend Anna (Domini Blythe), wife of the village schoolmaster. Finally at their wits’ end, the villagers, led by the cuckolded schoolmaster (Laurence Payne), work up the courage to storm the castle, stake the Count, and set fire to everything. With his dying breath, the Count manages to curse the impudent villagers and their children, vowing that their blood will bring him renewed life. Acolyte Anna manages to drag the Count’s staked corpse to the safety of a crypt below the castle as the rest of it burns. After all that, the titles finally roll.

Fast forward 15 years, and the village is the grip of a mysterious plague, with a multitude of corpses being hauled off in handcarts. The village elders -- the Burgermeister, the schoolmaster and the local doctor among them -- debate whether the plague is supernatural or merely natural in origin. The Count’s curse is definitely in the back of their minds despite the passage of time. Supernatural in origin or not, the state authorities have decided to quarantine the village by force of arms to prevent the contagion from spreading.

Cue the “Circus of Nights,” which rolls into town in spite of the quarantine. The villagers wonder how the circus got through, but are eager for the distraction from their grim problems. An enigmatic gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri) heads up the troupe consisting of a sinister dwarf in clown makeup (Skip Martin), a mute strongman (David Prowse), acrobats, dancers, and an assortment of wild animals including a chimpanzee, a tiger, and a black leopard.

The Circus of Nights stages its first performance for the village in Vampire Circus (1972)
Cirque du Soleil it's not, but the villagers don't seem to mind
At first the townspeople are entranced by the circus, especially a young acrobat couple who seem able to magically transform themselves into bats as they effortlessly leap into the air. But as bad things start to happen to the townspeople and their children, the Count’s dying curse hovers over the town like a funeral shroud.

For a film with such a limited budget and minimal sets, there’s more going on than in most three-ring circuses. It’s hard to keep track of everyone and everything without a scorecard: There’s the demonic Count who prefers the blood of young children; his main squeeze, the schoolmaster’s wife; the schoolmaster who leads the rebellion; the grieving father who’s lost his daughter to the vampire; the foppish Burgermeister (Thorley Walters) who welcomes the sinister circus to his village; his daughter, who has a thing for a handsome circus performer who seems to be mysteriously linked to the fearsome panther; the devilish dwarf, who is able to lead all the villagers around by the nose; the mysterious gypsy woman and her silent strongman; the seemingly innocent acrobat couple with amazing shapeshifting powers; the village doctor, who runs off mid-film to evade the quarantine and seek help in the capital city; the doctor’s son Anton (John Moulder-Brown), who is enamored of the schoolmaster’s daughter Dora (Lynne Frederick) , and who together become the prime targets of the Count’s revenge… Got all that?

Skip Martin as Michael in Vampire Circus (1972)
"Abra-abra-cadabra. I want to reach out and grab ya!"
And then there are the inevitable instances of peculiar horror movie logic (or should I say gaps in logic), the foremost being, why in the world would a village with a history of vampire attacks on its children, and in the throes of a mysterious plague, welcome an unknown, sketchy band of circus performers with open arms? Suspension of disbelief is tested mightily when the villagers and their children assemble to watch the circus’ first performance, consisting of a nude woman in body paint, made up to look animalistic, being “tamed” by her human master in a very erotic dance. Instead of being outraged and getting the children the heck out of there, the adults (we’re talking a nineteenth century setting here) look only vaguely disturbed and even applaud, if somewhat half-heartedly.

Even stranger, when the burgermeister’s daughter Rosa (Christine Paul) becomes infatuated with a handsome young circus member Emil (Anthony Higgins), the mother, after some feeble protests, cheerfully gives her blessing for the young woman to run away with the stranger. While this could be seen as another instance of the mysterious power the circus has over the town, in the context of the scene it just seems ridiculous.

Lala Ward as a vampire acrobat in Vampire Circus (1972)
"Tell me, does this blood clash with my lipstick?"
Another nagging question is why it takes 15 years for the Count’s curse to be fulfilled. Was it to allow the children of the rebellious villagers enough time to grow up to be attractive young adults, suitable for a Hammer film? And was the plague also part of the curse, or just a coincidence? Despite seeming to be a big deal at the beginning, the plague is hastily written off and isn’t much of a factor for the rest of the film.

On the upside, Vampire Circus takes some long standing Hammer conventions -- the 19th century central European setting, the depraved vampire Count, the bevy of beautiful vampire victims and accomplices -- and adds a good deal of vitality to them. The “Circus of Nights” is a nice touch, becoming a sort of surreal play within a play. Its resident vampires are some of the most physical of the Hammer repertoire, adding acrobatic leaps and shapeshifting powers to the usual evil licentiousness.

The Circus’ sideshow attraction, the Mirror of Life, is another interesting addition to all the weirdness. At first it appears to be nothing more than the standard set of funhouse mirrors. But the last and biggest mirror turns out to be a portal through which the vampires can lure victims to their doom.

Thorley Walters and Robert Tayman in Vampire Circus (1972)
"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the most evil of them all?"
By the time Vampire Circus was released in 1972, Hammer’s patented mix of Gothic castles, technicolor blood and heaving bosoms was looking increasingly quaint next to all the LSD trips, biker gangs and swinging stewardesses that were filling up drive-in screens at the time.

While the studio went down fighting with their tried-and-true style for such films as Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974) and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1974), they also tried staying relevant by updating their most precious commodity, Dracula. The results were Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973; both with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing), and the highly weird horror/martial arts mash-up The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974; with Peter Cushing but minus Lee).

Adrienne Corri and Anthony Higgins in Vampire Circus (1972)
"Now this won't hurt a bit..."
In spite of the Gothic setting, Vampire Circus was another valiant attempt to keep up with the times. Underneath the period costumes and sets was a classic youth rebellion flick, with the (mostly) youthful and sensual circus vampires riding into town, upsetting good order and the authorities and luring the even younger town residents into depravity and death.

Ironically, Sir James Carreras, co-founder and then chairman of Hammer Films (and father of the film’s producer, Michael Carreras) reacted to the project with a good deal of skepticism, predicting that “If shot as scripted, 50 percent will end up on the cutting room floor,” and adding, “What’s happened to the great vampire/Dracula subjects we used to make without all the unnecessary gore and sick-making material?” (as related in The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films, Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, Titan Books, 2007). He’d no doubt forgotten that many critics had leveled almost identical protests against Hammer’s game changing technicolor horrors, The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, years before.

Now, many years later, Vampire Circus stacks up as an eccentric curiosity next to today’s horror output, except perhaps for the fixation on children as victims -- few genre filmmakers of any era have wanted to go down that path. Still, for all its faults and lack of real scares, it’s nonetheless an interesting, stylish film bordering on the surreal.

Where to find it: As of the date of this post, Vampire Circus is available through Amazon Prime.