The 1970s were really at the beginning of the GrindHouse Gothique explosion. Europe bounced between its desire to produce classic horror imagery such as castles, cobwebs, and bustiers, and the new open sexuality and dominating young adult presence. Hammer films itself had struggled to find its place in the new market. The problem is it faced, how to make vampires relevant again and shake the shadow of Dracula? Its solution? Bring the circus to town. Not just any circus, a vampire Circus…
Vampire Circus begins almost in an Indiana Jones fashion. What I mean by that is the film seems to come in at the tail end of a previous film, an explosive attack on the vampires Castle Lair. It’s grand, mysterious, and erotic and really sets the tone for things to come. This is the direction hammer films needed to go, and though it took them a while to get there, they found their new niche. It’s a shame that the old adage it’s never too late didn’t apply here because I truly believe the hammer was capable of great things in the 70s had they been able to hold on just a little bit longer.
The plot of this film is fairly straightforward. The small town has been besieged by a plague and has been quarantined. Anyone attempting to leave the town will be shot on sight, no trial no explanation. However, a circus comes to town, which is welcomed with open arms considering the people are desperate for something other than the mundane routine of their day-to-day existence. After all, they are effectively under town arrest. Let me tell you, I would lose my mind if I were stuck in a small town, unable to leave.
The circus features bizarre and amazing acts that of course entertained the villagers, or townsfolk, but also frighten them. Thinks don’t fare better in the evening, when it is revealed that the circus is actually a clan of vampires who have returned to resurrect their slain Master.
The vampires themselves are interesting lot. Count Mitterhaus is quite a departure from Christopher Lee. Young, arrogant, with an almost 60s British rock look to him, he’s more rock star than we’ve seen from hammer films. In fact, he works as an almost precursor to Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat. Taking a page out of the Twins play book, we have a vampire pair who actually shares each other’s pain. Not original in and of itself, but a nice addition though vampire story. The circus is male leader Emil, shape shifts into a panther, and of course there is the naked tiger girl, and who doesn’t love a naked tiger girl.
Hammer films broke a lot of new ground with this movie; hell even broke a couple of taboos. This film features child murder, which is always welcome, but also pedophilia, which is unheard of for pretty much any film. It appears in the form of an undercurrent and suggestion rather than an on screen asked, but unless you’re an idiot you do know it’s there.
The thing about this film which makes it good is it truly is in a class all by itself. The circus seems ripe for picking when it comes to horror but there are so few circus horror films. That being said, there are even fewer good circus horror films. I don’t think I could even fill one hand with the number of big top terrors that are worth watching.
The film was directed by Robert Young, who didn’t do much in the horror genre, but did go on to direct the excellent Robin of Sherwood television series In the UK.
Though the film strays away from the usual hammer pool of talent, it features many familiar genre faces including Adrienne Corri (madhouse, a clockwork Orange), David Prowse (Darth Vader of Star Wars), and Thorley Walters (Frankenstein must be destroyed, Frankenstein created woman). Of course there is no denying Hammer Glamor as this film introduces us to the gorgeous Domini Blythe.
As with any of the typical hammer fair, this film has its flaws but is far superior to most anything else of that time. It continues to surprise and amaze people who give it the chance, because of its daring and discontent story. There will never be another time like this are another hammer films for that matter. The Vampire Circus is the film for you to have in your collection, because the circus doesn’t come the town that often and rarely is it worth the price of admission.
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