Originally reviewed 05/16/08
As this Hammer horror melodrama from 1972 opens, schoolteacher Albert Mueller (Laurence Payne) catches his wife (Domini Blythe) and one of the young village girls making their way through the countryside in what’s apparently a quite unwholesome direction. He follows, but is unable to prevent their entry to the castle of Count Mitterhaus, a notoriously sexy vampire who holds the whole village under his sway. As the cuckold tries to marshal the shiftless men of the village for a rescue mission — experience with the Count seems to have whipped everybody here into a sense of meek helplessness — his wife offers up the young blond virgin to the vampire, who rips the girl’s throat out. The woman tears her own clothes off and Mitterhaus makes love to her. When the villagers are finally coerced to make their way to the castle with torches and grim looks, they carry away the dead girl and do battle with Mitterhaus himself, who ends up impaled through the chest on a pointed wooden stick while cursing the village in a stage whisper. Albert’s wife is brought outside and whipped as punishment for her betrayal, but finally runs back into the castle, which is set afire and burns into ruins. And then the opening credits roll.
Bad ass, right? Nothing else in Vampire Circus matches that 12-minute opening salvo of sex and violence, although it’s not for lack of trying. There are a few more vampire attacks; a pair of creepy siblings; a strongman played by the musclebound David Prowse (who would wear Darth Vader’s costume just a few years later); a dwarf in whiteface; a chimp, a tiger, and a polymorphous panther; a nude, tiger-striped erotic dancer; several more dead children; and one last, lovely maiden whose life is in danger of being snuffed out by the Mitterhaus curse if her boyfriend Anton (John Moulder-Brown), son of the village doctor, can’t save her.
But it never recovers the concentrated erotic-violent high ground of that delirious overture, which stands as a wildly entertaining example of over-the-top horror filmmaking. The film quickly slips into more banal territory with scenes of deadly exposition among the four villagers who survived the siege, now 15 years older and not a lot wiser or bolder. (I badly wanted to see the cast of Monty Python playing this scene to the deserved accompaniment of a roaring laugh track just to tweak the tedium.) Their community is ravaged by plague, and they’re cut off from the rest of the world by neighboring villages who man roadblocks on all paths of egress and take shots at anyone who tries to leave. But one day a little traveling circus rolls into town, run by gypsies (or are they?) who won’t say why they’ve come or how they got into town. Let’s just say that the villagers aren’t the only ones who have long memories.
Vampire Circus was released in what’s generally considered a downhill period for the legendary Hammer Studios, which was packing films with higher breast-to-blood ratios in an attempt to compete with the racy and gory genre entertainment being produced elsewhere on the continent. And it’s true, I guess, that there’s quite a distance between the old-school Hammer vampire popularized by Christopher Lee and this new breed of bloodsucker, played by Robert Tayman in a clean white shirt and diamond-studded collar, who looks like he’s ready to go out clubbing.
It’s difficult for any but the most willing viewer to take this seriously – unless you creep out more easily than me, the thrills Vampire Circus gives off are pure spectacle. It doesn’t get under the skin. But what it lacks in creeps and pizazz, it almost makes up for in sheer imagination. Sometimes this feels more like a dark fantasy film than a horror story. The circus concept gives the filmmakers room to dodge many gothic-horror cliches, and although it does get a little tiresome seeing Emil (Anthony Corlan), cousin of Mitterhaus, just sink his teeth into victim after victim without much foreplay, there are some surprises along the way. It all builds to a climax involving the fortuitous appearance of lots of crosses (hisssssss!), the revivification of the old count, and an innovative use for a crossbow. But Vampire Circus suffers from a second half that isn’t nearly as potent as the first. B-
Note: Images have been brightened for display. Click on each image to see a full-resolution JPG that has not been adjusted.
Vampire Circus was an unknown title to me when I caught it on the MGM HD movie channel back in 2008, but it certainly made an impression. It’s not an especially good film, but that first 12-minute pre-credits sequence is astonishing enough to make it a must-watch for anyone with a more-than-passing interest in British horror film. I was happy to stumble across a nice print of this not-on-DVD film (well, not in the U.S., anyway) on cable television, and I was astonished to discover, late last year, that not only was it scheduled for its first North American DVD release, but it was coming out on Blu-ray!
As it turns out, Vampire Circus is the first Blu-ray title from Don May Jr.’s Synapse Films, which has a lot to live up to now that Blue Underground, a rival in the high-definition cult-film space, has been spoiling fans with gorgeous transfers of trashy classics like The New York Ripper and Django. (How have we gone so long without Synapse titles in high-def? I want Singapore Sling next!) Well, this is a fairly impressive opening move. The movie itself is a bold selection, and Synapse has generated some engaging extra features, every last bit in high-definition, that make it a pleasure to revisit the film.
The image is pillarboxed to the correct aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and is reasonably generous in detail and rich with color. The sharpness of the picture is somewhat variable, as is to be expected from a low-budget film of the period, especially from a multi-generational source. The provenance of this transfer isn’t specified, but I assume it was made from a low-contrast print or maybe an internegative. Light and dark specks are visible in some frames, as rare instances of minor damage to the print. Grain is visible throughout, though generally muted, and the film’s opening shots, especially, had a hard-to-describe but almost plastic quality that made me think the noise reduction may be just a wee bit too aggressive for my taste. (Many shots, even those beginning exteriors, also looked surprisingly dark to my eyes.) But it’s hard to say what’s correct without knowing what the source material looked like, and how theatrical prints were meant to be timed. It’s a solid transfer, for sure.
The audio, a monaural affair encoded in 2.0 DTS-HD MA, is fine and not necessarily worth special comment, but I was delighted to have access to a music-and-effects track, also in DTS-HD. Don’t ask me why I enjoy alternate audio mixes so much, but dialogue-free and music-only tracks can keep me very entertained. (I still miss the alternate production audio mix on the original Alien DVD, which was reportedly left off the recent Blu-ray for reasons of bandwidth.)
“The Bloodiest Show on Earth” is just a talking-heads featurette about the making of the film, but it’s full of relevant info, including anecdotes about the genesis and (somewhat incomplete) making of the film as well as a funny story from Tim Lucas about the indignities forced on American horror fans who tried to track down the uncensored version of Vampire Circus on a Japanese VHS tape. (Think optical fogging.) There’s a short that provides a brief history of circus-themed horror movies, starting with Caligari, using promotional artwork and stills. Another covers the vintage The House of Hammer magazine. The Vampire Circus “motion comic book” is nothing fancy, but I was happy to realize it consists of Brian Bolland artwork reproduced at HD resolution. Unfortunately, only the first four pages of the adaptation, originally published in House of Hammer, are included.
(At this writing, the rest of it can be viewed at The Uranium Cafe.)
Finally, there’s a theatrical trailer and the “Still and Poster Gallery,” which does what it says on the tin and includes a couple of topless shots of the very beautiful Domini Blythe — sadly, she died of lung cancer on December 15 at the age of 63. The Toronto Star called her “one of the great actresses of Canadian theatre.” I didn’t know about that part of her career, but I hope it’s not too vulgar of me to consider this disc in part a valediction. The first 12 minutes of this film are hell on wheels, and she’s tremendous in them.