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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Vampire Circus (1971) review


John Moulder-Brown (Anton), Lynne Frederick (Dora), Laurence Payne (Albert Mueller), Anthony Corlan (Emil), Richard Owen (Dr. Kersh), Thorley Walters (Burgermeister), Adrienne Corri (Gypsy; Anna), Domini Blythe (Anna Mueller), Robert Tayman (Count Mitterhaus), David Prowse (Strongman), Skip Martin (Michael)

Directed by Robert Young

After draining the blood from a number of the children in the European settlement of Schtettel, the despondent villagers gather together and march on the castle of the vile Count Mitterhaus. Losing a handful of men, the courageous group succeed in staking the cunning Count. Before he expires, he places a deadly curse on the people of Schtettel. A great plague shall engulf the village killing everyone in it with the ensuing resurrection of Count Mitterhaus being the final revenge. The castle is ultimately destroyed.

Years later a plague does indeed permeate the downtrodden village. Soon after, a traveling circus with the name 'The Circus of Nights' enters the diseased town to bring the people cheer and merriment. However, the circus is populated by kinsmen of Count Mitterhaus and his prophecy of the destruction of Schtettel and his ultimate revivification are about to come to pass.

By 1971, Hammer's style of horror was steadily being replaced by a more vicious approach. Once a company that could be counted on for prestigious entries in the horror genre, they eventually succumbed to more unpleasant depictions of violence in an effort to maintain a grip on there audience. This isn't to disparage the later films, as some of them are quite good in there own right, but the earlier horrors of Hammer were far more mannered in execution (although those earlier films were looked upon as nauseating in there time). The later films featured scenes of nudity and gore that had previously been implied or shown fleetingly.

Even with this more extreme depiction of violence and exploitation, Hammer couldn't regain there momentum from a decade earlier. However, Hammer would score there biggest hit ever in 1971 with the comedy ON THE BUSES, based on a famous British sitcom. Despite there even bigger successes outside the horror genre, those films will always be the ones Hammer will be most associated with.

Realizing there Dracula series was growing increasingly stale and the racy lesbian angle helping THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) to be a hit, Hammer decided to further this more risque approach and push the envelope about as far as they would be allowed. VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1971) ended up being one of the companies most ambitious and disturbing entries in the British horror canon. The only drawback is that the movie has far too many ideas for its meager 83 minute running time. This was a problem that extended to the shooting. When the film ran well over schedule, director Robert Young was ordered to cobble together his film with the footage he already had. With a six week time frame and an alloted amount of money for shooting, the picture was going into its seventh week when Carreras pulled the plug on VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1971).

Considering it was Young's first movie, and a highly ambitious one at that, he had problems with some of his crew. The producer, Wilber Stark shot some scenes to get the picture moving along and Young's assistant director claimed to have had words with the aspiring filmmaker. Young had apparently asked for just half a day more to finish the film but Carreras wouldn't relent.Young had done nothing but short films and commercials prior to his being hired for this Hammer production. He nonetheless delivered one of the most unusual and action packed entries in Hammer's horror series.

Watching the film, it becomes obvious that the picture could have used some additional shots. A few scenes either start, or end rather abruptly. Also, taking into consideration the elaborate nature of the script, the film itself is painfully under budgeted. Irregardless, Robert Young pulls off some seriously exciting and gruesome set pieces. One of the most startling is the opening 12 minutes. Almost a movie in itself, it has the male townsfolk finding the courage to attack the castle and rid themselves of the evil within it. Not only that, but the wife (Anna) of the man who riles the men together, Albert Mueller, is responsible for luring the children to Mitterhaus's domain. Before the mob arrives, Anna has brought the Count another victim. As he satiates his palate, Anna becomes sexually aroused and the two make love not far from where the child lays murdered!

The mob bursts in and finds the dead child. They confront the Count who fights back slashing and biting throats before Albert Mueller manages to impale him with a stake through his chest. After the dying Count announces his curse, the men drag Albert's wife outside and they all proceed to beat her mercilessly with belts. She runs back inside the castle and the others set fire to it blowing it up with gunpowder. Anna manages to drag the corpse of Mitterhaus into a cave below the castle where he lays in wait for his eventual resurrection. Then the credits begin! The most troublesome aspect of this sequence is the Count taking the life of a female child (not more than 10 years old) while Anna stands nearby in anticipatory ecstasy. Anna becomes increasingly aroused as her devilish lover enjoys the blood of this child (one could levy accusations of molestation in addition to murder).

Then, the Count utters, "One lust feeds the other." The two then partake in a love-making session prior to their subsequent interruption by the angry villagers. This plot point of child murder is a fixture of the script and is accentuated in Count Mitterhaus's curse stating "Your children will give me back my life." The murder of children wasn't seen very often in movies at the time so this was definitely pushing boundaries for a Hammer production. Even so, the dark fairy tale ambiance of the feature keeps the film from becoming a complete exercise in tastelessness.

Another scene of child murder occurs late in the film when two vampiric twins seduce two young boys into a magical mirror that acts as a portal leading under the remains of the castle. Once there, the brother and sister vampires pounce on their prey. Later on, there's a scene in which Emil transforms into his panther form and slaughters a room full of young girls. This scene occurs off screen but was written into the original script to have been shown.

The vampires of VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1971) are a livelier bunch than seen in any of the Christopher Lee Dracula movies. In those, Dracula would either choke out his enemies or toss rods or sticks of wood at them. Here, the vampires are far more kinetic and energetic preferring to savage their enemies. These enthusiastic creatures of the night enhance some exciting scenes of action. The aforementioned and action packed opener being one, the ending in the cave below the castle ruins is more or less a repeat of the opener; only this time with Emil fending off a handful of attackers.

The denouement sees the Count return briefly to life before quickly being sent back to hell by the young hero. What's particularly puzzling about the ending is when Albert is fighting with Emil. Albert reaches for the stake that juts out from Mitterhaus's chest. He stabs Emil with it just as the vampire pierces his neck. Then, the wound on Mitterhaus's chest heals and he comes back to life. Earlier in the movie, it was said that the blood of the children of Schtettel would provide the means for his resurrection. If all it took was simply removing the stake, what was the point of everything that previously happened? There would have been no movie and I suppose one could argue that Mitterhaus preferred his cousin and crew to enter the town and mete out their own form of undead vengeance whilst he "slept" awaiting the time of regeneration.

Another interesting set piece has the vampire twins cornering the hero (Anton) and heroine (Dora) inside a church. The girl climbs atop a beam near the ceiling. The sister vamp attempts to mesmerize Dora into coming down. She makes her way towards a giant cross which she pushes away sending the huge crucifix down conveniently stabbing into the vampire. Since the vampires are twins, the massive impalement affects the brother as well. Aside from all the added action and violence, another supplement to the script is the vampires that change into animals. Emil transforms into a panther and the twins can change into bats.

There are also a pair of dancers who perform with an incredible, sexually charged dance. The female is completely naked but painted to look like a tiger. The lustful pair utilize a real tiger in their performance. The dance involves the man, an animal trainer, and his subjugation of the female "tiger". During the dance finale, the man strangles the "tiger" with his whip in what is representative of a sexual act. When the "tiger" begins to tremble in ecstasy, the real tiger does likewise. Later, it is discovered that the two dancers are not vampires when their bodies are found after becoming victims of the bloodsuckers.

The level of violence seen in VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1971) exceeds anything seen in a Hammer film up to that time. TWINS OF EVIL (1971) also pushed the gore quotient but here, not only is there a lot of blood and gore, but the film has an unusually high body count. Nearly everyone is dead by the end credits. A number of cuts were made to the UK version of the film including a shot of a knife being stabbed into a man's face from the opening sequence. Some of the carnage and discovery of a group of people mauled by the panther, was also trimmed eliminating additional shots of mutilated bodies and viscera. The US version suffered a far worse fate losing some 3 minutes of sex and violence altogether. The sets were reused from COUNTESS DRACULA (1971) and TWINS OF EVIL (1971) refurbished for use here. To further cut some cost, during the castle destruction, brief snippets from SCARS OF DRACULA (1970) and LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (1971) can be seen just prior to the opening credits.

As already mentioned above, sexuality of one form or another plays a major part in this film. The already discussed scene at the beginning that mixes lust with child murder being the most questionable of taste. The promiscuity of the Burgermeister's daughter, Rosa, is even mentioned by her mother who, after discovering her sexual shenanigans with Emil, divulges that the circus performer is not the first. Also, the gypsy, whose form is a magical facade of Anna, Albert's wife, appears to share a very close relationship with her two vampiric twins. The twins themselves kiss each other as if they were of a more intimate relation. Bestiality as subtext is also inherent in the film if you consider the sexual advances on the cast by the creatures that can transform into animals.

The presence of the vampires is, like some of the prior entries, treated differently than in Hammer vampire films from the 60's. Here, when the creatures take the life of a victim, they simply die instead of returning to life as the undead. In TWINS OF EVIL (1971), released prior to this film, it is said that the bite doesn't always kill, but of someone who wishes, can return as a vampire to take new victims. Those that die are damned souls forever. A fascinating premise, I would assume these rules apply here even though the returning dead is never mentioned. Those that are bitten simply die in this film or are torn asunder by the panther man.

The cast is exceptional and is made up of seasoned veterans and young performers. Anthony Corlan, who had previously played the hero in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969), steals the show as Emil, the evil cousin to Count Mitterhaus. Interestingly, singer/composer David Essex originally read for the role of Emil before Corlan got the part. Essex had a hit song, 'Rock On', in 1974. Thorley Walters needs no introduction to British horror fans having had eccentric roles in FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967) and FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969).

Laurence Payne, an actor of some repute having starred in the popular British detective program, SEXTON BLAKE, replaced actor Anton Rogers after production had already began. Robert Tayman, whose screentime is relegated to the opening and the ending, is remembered by cult fans for his roles in MOON ZERO TWO (1969) and HOUSE OF WHIPCORD (1974). Tayman, who portrays Count Mitterhaus, had his voice dubbed by David De Keyser.

Bodybuilder David Prowse plays the circus strongman. Prowse had a brief career at Hammer playing monsters. He played Frankenstein's creation in both HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970) and the creature again in FRANKENSTEIN & THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1973). He will forever be famous for portraying Darth Vader in the original STAR WARS trilogy.

VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1971) is also aided immeasurably by a boisterous score by the underrated composer, David Whitaker. His Hammer soundtracks are as good as other distinguished horror composers like Harry Robinson and James Bernard. Whitaker did the score for DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE (1971) and also the memorable and popular music for the 1982 fantasy hit, THE SWORD & THE SORCERER. Whitaker's cues for VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1971) are rousing and bewitchingly morbid. A shame a complete score of the film has yet to have a release on CD. Portions of the score are available on compilation CD's.

Easily one of Hammer's best of there later efforts, the film goes by at a swift pace hampered mainly by the troubles inherent in the original shooting. Director Young still manages to turn in a satisfying and exciting, action filled dark fairy tale that may turn off some of the more old fashioned fans of Hammer not accustomed to the graphic depictions of violence and nudity. As good as the film is, it could only have been better had the additional scenes been shot as planned. This is one time I would welcome a remake to do the scope of the production justice.

This review is representative of the British Carlton DVD. The DVD can be purchased at

DVD Availability: Carlton (R2); Filmax (Spain R2)


Sean M said...

Excellent review.
I rewatched this on British tv recently and was unaware of it's troubled production.It is an admirable deviation from the usual Hammer vampire flick though i'm not sure that the rest of the film is quite up to the brilliance of the opening.Didn't know about the cuts so the Carlton dvd is tempting.
Personally i like that more graphic and sexual nature of the later Hammers as much as the earlier classics.The direction,photography and strength of the cast were as good as ever.Though i don't think the vampire leads in VAMPIRE CIRCUS are any way near as charismatic as Christopher Lee or Ingrid Pitt were in earlier Hammer films.
Looking forward tp your reviews of both CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMIRE KILLER and LEGEND OF 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRE.

venoms5 said...

Hi, Sean. I think Anthony Corlan definitely held his own in this movie and was very good as the main villain although Tayman was also good, he really didn't get much of a chance to shine. Still, Lee is, and always will be the most fondly remembered Count Dracula in my opinion. It was nice though to see a more energetic interpretation of the creatures of the night as featured in VAMPIRE CIRCUS as opposed to the more "mannered" vamp of the Lee films.

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