August 5, 2011 Leave a comment
The 70’s were a very strange time for film – and for horror in particular. Prior to the late-1960’s most horror fell into a pretty standard motif. Most were period pieces with classic monsters and relatively tame violence (at least by today’s standards). But the 60’s saw radical changes in the horror film. With classics like Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead, the horror had not only moved into our modern times, but to the very house next door.
So it’s interesting and rare to see a period horror film in the 1970’s, especially one that’s not attempting tongue-in-cheek parody of the genre. I’ve always been a fan of Hammer Studios and their body of work. For those of you unfamiliar, Hammer is a UK-based studio known almost exclusively for its horror productions and in particular its reimagining of many of the famous Universal monster ensemble (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, etc.). Hammer saw its greatest output from the mid-50s to the mid-70s thanks in large part to the frequent casting of Christopher Lee (usually in the role of Dracula) and Peter Cushing (usually in the role of Dr. Frankenstein or Dracula’s nemesis Dr. Van Helsing). These greats embody the essence of Hammer and account for some of Hammer’s best performances, even when the material is not quite up to their legendary status.
Vampire Circus doesn’t feature Lee or Cushing. Count Mitterhaus is not nearly as frightening, in name or performance, as Dracula. And with the tagline: “The Greatest Blood-show on Earth” the movie pretty much sets itself up for potential that is nealry impossible to deliver.
The story goes something like this: The Count, living in the requisite creepy castle just outside of the village, seduces the local women into luring children to his lair in which to feed upon. After losing his daughter, Professor Albert Müller convinces the other townsfolk that the time has come to raid the count’s castle and get rid of the scourge. After an awkwardly staged battle, the Count ends up with a stake in the heart and his castle is burned to the ground… problem solved! But, not so fast! Fifteen years later, a plague is ravaging the village. The avengers assume it’s a curse bestowed upon them in the Count’s dying breath, but the local doctor isn’t buying it. He feels that if he can get to a city, he can procure some medical treatments for the ailing, but the town has been quarantined by the surrounding settlements and anyone attempting to flee is shot on-sight. The doctor, using his son as bait, manages to escape.
At the same time, a mysterious traveling circus comes through town. Even though their arrival is suspicious, the villagers initially welcome the distraction from their fears of the plague. The circus features a clown-faced dwarf, bizarre acrobatic performers, and panthers that seemingly morph into people. Amused at first, town leaders become horrified when young children start disappearing and turning up dead. Of course, this is the work of vampires led by shape-shifter Emil, who turns out to be the Count’s cousin. Their plan is to drain enough blood from the villagers’ children to revive the Count.
Does the scheme work? Will the villages be rid of their dreadful plague or will darkness consume them? Will Count Mitterhaus rise from the grave and avenge his death or will the townsfolk again be victorious against the evil circus clan? Although you probably have a good idea, if you really want to know, you’ll have to watch the film yourself.
Overall, it really isn’t that bad. Rated PG, it has a surprising amount of graphic violence and nudity for its time, though mostly harmless (and hokey) by today’s standards. The pacing and characterizations could be better and the presence of a heavy-weight performance by Lee or Cushing is missed. It’s definitely a curiosity and it’s only through curiosity (and Hammer completists) that I would recommended it over many of the other entries in Hammer’s long catalog.
As a final aside – it’s worth noting that the cast includes Lynne Frederick – future wife of Peter Sellers, and the circus strongman is played by David Prowse who would go on to portray the physical embodiment of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy.
Finally, for additional perspective on the film, check out this very clever post: What I Learned From Vampire Circus.