Vampire Circus (1972)

Vampire Circus (1971)

The Carnival comes to town!

In the 19th century, a circus breaks through a village’s quarantine zone in an attempt to take the locals’ minds off the deadly plague which is rife amongst them. But the villagers don’t know that the circus is home to a group of vampires. They are relatives of the late Count Mitterhaus, a vampire whom the villagers killed years earlier and who promised to resurrect himself using the blood of their children. The circus is here to seduce and abduct the children in the village and bring the Count back to life.

 

Having exhausted most of the possibilities for Count Dracula (and having finally bored the hell out of the public who were growing tired of the same Dracula flicks), Hammer turned their vampire attention to plenty of stand-alone films in an attempt to kick start their flagging fortunes. Thus in the 70s, the likes of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, Lust for a Vampire and The Vampire Lovers were all made featuring a variety of vampires in all manner of different scenarios from kung-fu fighting, female vampires and old fashioned swashbuckling. Disastrous attempts were even made to contemporise Dracula with the ridiculous Dracula A.D, 1972. These films all attempted to do something different with the vampire formula with varying levels of critical success. Vampire Circus falls into a middle category. It’s got an interesting set-up, the vampires feast quite a bit and there are some excellent set pieces but it’s all a bit muddled at times, especially towards the end.

Vampire Circus does a lot of things differently to the other Hammer vampire films. It abandons a lot of traditional vampire lore, such as allowing its monsters the chance to roam around in the sunlight so long as they assume other forms (which is why the circus contains plenty of ‘animals’). Disturbingly, the focus of the vampires is the young children of the village and the plot revolves around how Mitterhaus and his disciples plan revenge by taking them. Child killing and suggested, but obvious, sexual abuse is rife throughout the film as the vampires prey upon the youngsters. These aren’t well-endowed nubile women like usual but innocent children. It adds a nasty vibe to proceedings but the film doesn’t delve too far into these themes. Instead it plays upon the erotic elements of vampirism with the relatively young cast of vampires exhibiting alluring sexual traits – kind of like an early precursor to the Twilight films. Who needs Dracula’s lecherous old vampire when these vampires are far nastier and sinister than he ever was?

The film never once loses its traditional Gothic vibe and is more nightmarish and fantasist than Hammer have ever gone before. This tone is greatly assisted by the presence of the circus. Unsettling clowns. Bizarre acrobats. Strongmen who look like they want to rip you in half. Let’s face it, this circus looks like has trouble written all over it.

Lacking traditional Hammer star power in the cast (No Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee or even an up-and-comer like Ralph Bates), it was left to a talented group of British character actors and unknowns to carry the film and most of them work exceptionally well. Actors like Thorley Walters were the backbone of British films for years and it’s good to see the guy get a chance in a leading role. Other actors like David ‘Darth Vader’ Prowse pop up (albeit it as the mute strongman – but he still looks freakin’ massive) and hold their own, whilst newer stars manage to make good impressions. It’s rare to see a Hammer film without at least of their big hitters but the lesser known cast make them obsolete.

Vampire Circus was also lacking some major star names behind the scenes and it was down to first-time director Robert Young to bring this tale to life (no Terence Fisher, Roy Ward Baker or Freddie Francis in sight here). He creates some good tension from his scenes, especially during the finale inside Mitterhaus’ cavernous tomb. But as I’ve already touched upon, one of the real treats here is that the vampires are well fed. There is a lot of neck-biting going on and plenty of blood as a result. In fact this may be one of Hammer’s bloodiest films. Another key Hammer ingredient is here in abundance – breasts. The two go hand-in-hand and while the quota of gore and gratuitous nudity seem excessive compared to similar Hammer films, they both seem to come naturally here. It’s not forced upon the audience and seems to go with the flow of the constant eroticism and underlying nastiness that the film possesses.

 

Another quality Hammer film from the undisputed masters of the genre, Vampire Circus adds just that little bit of extra life to the flagging vampire story. It deserves a higher place in the Hammer pantheon than it has but no doubt over time more people will come to appreciate that it was one of their greatest vampire films, possibly one of their best films overall.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

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