Friday Flashback: Vampire Circus (1972)

Vampire CircusVampire Circus

1972
PG
87 min
Director: Robert Young
Cast: Adrienne Corri, Thorley Walters, Anthony Higgins, David Prose

Rating:

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.

The prototypical Hammer vampire: Exaggerated fangs and ruby-red blood.

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.

Beware Count Mitterhaus!

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. 

No cross? No problem. A trusty crossbow will do.

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.

Movie Review: Lo

LoLo

2009
NR
83 min
Director: Travis Betz
Cast: Ward Roberts, Jeremiah Birkett, Sarah Lassez

Rating:

One of my favorite things about the horror genre is that it’s so unrestrictive. Like Sci-Fi and Fantasy, there are so many themes to explore that it’s really difficult to pigeon-hole it into one type of film. Yes, most of the mainstream releases tend to fall into the “teenagers in peril” or “killer on the loose” motif but every once in a while a film comes along that stands everything we typically think of as horror right on its head.

Few and far between are these moments, but finding talented young filmmakers that seek to put a unique twist on the genre is what keeps me interested. That’s where a film like Lo comes in. Written and directed by Travis Betz, this film is a couple of years old, but it slipped under the radar and it is most certainly different.

In the safety of his pentagram, Justin summons the demon.

Justin (Ward Roberts) is having a tough time. He’s a geeky guy that has finally met the girl of his dreams in April (Sarah Lassez). Unfortunately, before their romance can truly blossom, Justin and April are attacked in their bedroom by a demon and in an act of self-sacrifice April allows the demon to take her to hell in exchange for Justin’s life. The only item she has left behind is a strange book which seems to be bound in flesh, has an ominous looking eye peering out of it and contains spells that summon demons from the underworld. Although Justin was instructed by April to never open the book and to in fact burn it, what’s a lovelorn guy to do? Draw a pentagram in his apartment, light up some candles and follow the instructions to summon the demon Lo (Jeremiah Birkett) to help him find April in the recesses of hell, of course!

Lo is a scary looking demon, but he’s a crack up. Spouting out insults and taunts and taking great pleasure watching Justin tremble in fear. Lo tells Justin that hell is a big place and it would be impossible to find April and bring her back. But demons are liars and Justin soon discovers that nothing Lo says can be trusted.

Do demons smoke? They do WHATEVER they want.

It’s here the movie shifts to some bizarre flashback scenes presented like a stage play with representations of Justin and April “acting” out their relationship in short vignettes. Justin is then introduced to the demon who took April, the flamboyant Jeez (Devin Barry). Jeez, with his lizard-shaped head and swastika attire is more personable than Lo, but just as shady. It’s through him that Justin discovers the horrifying truth about April and who (or what) she really is.

Lo is a hard movie to classify. This film is very quirky. And by quirky I mean characters spontaneously break into musical numbers, the theatrical comedy/tragedy masks show up as women with gold painted faces who react to the action, and our hero has multiple arguments with his inner thoughts through a knife wound in his hand. This wackiness will turn a lot of people off and truth be told, Lo isn’t for everyone. The entire film takes place in one room. In fact, Lo would make an excellent stage play.

Jeez offers Justin some sound advice.

The dialogue is at times clever and quite comical as when Lo chooses to call Justin “Dinner” throughout the film referencing what Lo plans to do to him should he make the mistake of stepping outside his protective pentagram.

Or when Justin is tricked into drinking poison and asks Jeez if there is anything that can be done to save him; Jeez’ response: “Get to a hospital….  Pump it out.”  The obviousness and absurdity of that line is an example of what makes the film shine. That Justin assumes supernatural intervention is the only thing that can save him and somehow, even in the demon world, poison can be extracted by a stomach pump.

If there is one flaw, I wish Betz did a better job of developing the relationship between Justin and April. In the few flashback sequences, the viewer never really gets a true sense of why Justin feels so strongly for April that he would risk his own soul for her. In that respect, the characters are somewhat under developed and one-dimensional.

Lo is not scary or action-packed, there aren’t any spectacular effects, the make-up is adequate at best and some of the performances are woefully cornball. What sets Lo apart is the unique style it exhibits, up to and including its surprisingly touching ending.

If you’re still curious about this oddity, check out the trailer, (which is cut slicker than the actual film), below:

Movie Review: Black Death

Black Death

2010
R
102 min
Director: Christopher Smith
Cast: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, John Lynch

Rating:

The year is 1348 and the Black Plague has ravaged the countryside, laying waste to thousands of men, women and children.  With no relief in sight, emaciated bodies are piled up along the streets and the infected are left to die alone, in isolation. The church, for its part, has decreed that God has sent the pestilence as atonement for the sins of man so it’s not surprising when word that the entire populace of a village beyond the forest appears immune to the plague, the religious order believes it due to a form of necromancy and witchcraft.

The group comes upon a witch lynching.

The bishop deploys a group of soldiers led by his envoy, Ulric (Sean Bean looking like he just stepped off the Game of Thrones set) to investigate claims that the dead are being returned to life and capture the heretic responsible.  To lead them through the forest, Ulric enlists the aid of a local monk, Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) who believes the timing of this quest is a sign from God that he should reunite with his secret lover, Averill (Kimberley Nixon), who has earlier fled the village, and now waits for him in the forest.

A large portion of the film takes place on the journey to the village, where along the way the men bond discussing the rules of mercy killing, get ambushed, stumble upon a witch burning and discover a starling secret of one of their own.  Many of these scenes are anchored by the performance of the film’s narrator and Ulrich’s right-hand man Wolfstan (the excellent John Lynch).

I have a hard time classifying this as a horror film. It’s not until the group arrives at the village and we are introduced to the mysterious Langiva (Carice van Houten), do elements of the genre creep in, and even then, it’s a stretch.

What dark powers does mysterious Langiva possess?

What it is, however, is a dark and pessimistic film, dripping in grayish cinematography and melancholy atmosphere.  It is very well done, the characters are surprisingly fully realized (even most of the supporting cast) and the performances are strong.  The story is slow to unfold, but I felt it compelling throughout and the film does a fine job of keeping you guessing whether the plague is truly being kept at bay through supernatural intervention.  Beyond that, and this is where the film hits its controversial tone, director Christopher Smith attempts to ask some serous questions about the virtues of Christianity.

What perhaps made this film for me, and undoubtedly will turn others off, is the last 10 minutes that serves to tie up the story.  Without giving anything away, I will say it definitely fits the tone of the film quite well and in its ambiguity, asks as many questions as it answers.  And that, in and of itself, is a notch above your average horror fare.

Introducing: ‘The Ludovico Files’ Page

OK. I admit it. I’m a horror junkie. I wear the scarlet letter. It’s always seemed like something you should be ashamed to admit, like eating Oreos with mayonnaise. Which is why a movie like Juno is such bullshit! Nobody who owns a Hershell Gordon Lewis collection (heck, no one who’s even heard of H.G. Lewis) is going to land a babe like Jennifer Garner and you’d be hard-pressed to find any 15-year-old impressed by it!

Horror has always been treated like the bastard child of cinema. I admit, no one is going to confuse Barn of the Naked Dead for high art and, let’s be honest, 90% of what’s readily available is of the amateur, borrowed daddy’s camcorder variety or the watered down dreck churned out and regurgitated by bean counters in Hollywood.

She's as shocked as you are that Barn of the Naked Dead is mentioned here!

So why do I keep going back to the well after reels and reels of disappointment? They’re out there… that 10%, the diamonds in the rough that restore my faith in the genre. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a film snob looking to bring legitimacy to the genre. I love me some trash! Grindhouse, splatter films, zombies, cannibals, giallos, exploitation, ghost stories, serial killers, aliens, gothic, creature features and more all hold a special place in my ruptured heart. And this special page on The Lantern was created to honor them all. You might very well read something and think, “How the hell can he like that piece of crap?” I can’t explain why a no-budget, schlock fest like Night Train to Terror is one of my sentimental favorites, but I’ll do my best to at least give some insight as to why that film, and others like it, strike a chord.

Finally, a disclaimer: Although the main focus of the Ludovico Files page is to highlight, comment and review horror, fantasy and sci-fi films, I plan to expand it into other topics as well including television, music, mainstream cinema, video games and general opinions and observations.

Thanks for joining me on my cyber-journey. I welcome all comments and healthy debate.

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