Vampire Circus (1971 United Kingdom)

This is the most impressive vampire flick Hammer Studios produced during the 70s. The pre-credits sequence comes across as a mini-movie in itself. It contains murderous pedophilia, so let any new viewer beware. The year is 1810. The place is Serbia (I think). When the vampire Count Mitterhaus is destroyed by the villagers of Schtettel, his mistress, Anna Mueller, apparently dies with him. Fifteen years later the village is riven with plague. The Circus of Nights, led by an enigmatic gypsy woman, arrives to fulfill the Count’s dying curse.

Let the carnage begin…

Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) looking like a malevolent, mascaraed member of T Rex, puts up quite a heroic battle against the angry villagers who invade his lair. He expires, with a vicious curse on his lips, while his erotic companion, Anna, is soundly thrashed by an enthusiastic group of male villagers who put their buckle belts to good use. This nasty scene gives the vibe that she is not beaten for being an accessory to child murder, but more so because she is young, beautiful and sexually active. This twelve minute preamble finally blasts a flaming beam towards the camera as the castle is dynamited. So we are going to have titles after all, muses the viewer, after being given the impression there won’t be any.

One problem, after such a slug fest of death and destruction in the opening scenes, is what else can the story throw at the audience to sustain interest for the remaining 75 minutes? Director Robert Young keeps things on the boil quite nicely for the next half hour, investing the Circus of Nights with a magical fairy-tale ambiance that is unique to this film. The stuffy and repressed villagers gasp in amazement at the stylized and sexually suggestive antics of the circus performers, complete with a Fellini-esque dwarf and a Cocteau-style ‘Mirror of Life.’ There’s also a nude, stripey tiger woman whose legs vibrate in mock orgasm while a real sleeping tiger quivers in sympathy in a nearby cage. I found this distastefully disturbing.

The strange allure of this circus is simultaneously vulgar and otherworldly. Though the performers change into bats and black panthers before their very eyes, these villagers take an age to catch on to their visitors’ true nature. One problem that befell Vampire Circus is that the funding was abruptly stopped six weeks into filming so the director had to paper over many cracks and decided to hasten toward a climax that exceeded the prologue for excessive bloodletting. But the visually arresting production design seduces the eye even when things spin wildly out of control, such as an ornate Ottoman chapel in which a pair of vampires meet their doom. Or the bat flitting from an empty eye socket of a grinning skull.

There are some classy performances by a cast headed by the earthy Adrienne Corri and the elegant Laurence Payne. Of the younger actors, Anthony Corlan is excellent as the feral and threatening Emil. Skip Martin is marvelously sinister as the evil dwarf. Only Thorley Walters as the burgomaster is truly off-putting. As for future Darth Vadar (David Prowse) as the strongman, he keeps his shirt off the entire time and doesn’t have one line of dialogue. So, despite time and money running out, Vampire Circus is a truly offbeat success and is a more worthy Hammer movie than many of their run-of-the-mill ones. No campy good- must- defeat evil formula here. The woozy decadence of the musical score, courtesy of David Whitaker, packs a punch to the erotic and violently disturbing images throughout.

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Comments

  1. This is certainly one of the most visually arresting Hammer films produced, couldn’t agree more! Excellent review!

    Liked by 1 person

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