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Popcorn Fall

Popcorn Pictures

Reviewing the best (and worst) of horror, sci-fi and fantasy since 2000

  • Andrew Smith

Vampire Circus (1972)

"The greatest blood-show on Earth!"


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.


Hammer were beginning to flag in the 1970s. The old guard who had served the studio faithfully for the past decade were being replaced by fresh talent both in front of and behind the camera to try and entice a younger generation of horror fans, who were not engaging with the productions as their parents generation had. 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 good-natured but laughable 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 and it could easily, for all intents and purposes, just been Dracula pulling the strings rather than some other vampire.

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 younger, sexier, nastier and sinister than he ever was?

Vampire Circus never once loses its traditional Gothic vibe though - it is still a classic period piece - and is more nightmarish and fantasist than Hammer have ever gone before. There is the trademark Eastern European setting which grounds it in vampiric lore but it has a more unusual, almost fairytale-like tone than some of the later Dracula films. 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 and the camera quite nicely makes this look one eerie setup. But despite the traditional approach with the period setting and costumes, Vampire Circus does have that undercurrent of teenage rebellion that had seeped into society. It may not be as evident as in some non-genre films, but it's one of the few Hammer films I can recall that at least tried to tap in to social trends.

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. Character 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 meatier 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 one of their big hitters but the lesser known cast make them obsolete here. It is a bit of a shame that Hammer's fortunes were dwindling so badly because this mix of talent would have been a good core group to move forward with.

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. Sadly, by the time this was released in 1972, Hammer's brand of horror was out of fashion and despite efforts like Vampire Circus to breathe new life into the Anglo-horror cycle, it just looks too old fashioned in comparison with shockers from the States which were starting to hit the screens here.


Final Verdict

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 without really reinventing the wheel too much. 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.


Vampire Circus

Director(s): Robert Young

Writer(s): Jud Kinberg (screenplay), George Baxt (story), Wilbur Stark (story)

Actor(s): Adrienne Corri, Thorley Walters, Anthony Higgins, John Moulder-Brown, Laurence Payne, Richard Owens

Duration: 87 mins


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