Hammer Films was a premier company when it came to making horror films in the 1950’s and 1960’s. But as times were changing, the company started faltering and were putting out watered down stories and sexually exploitative cinema. It seemed as if there were no more gems in their collection and that they’d just crank out the same old Dracula films with Christopher Lee starring in them. But then came a title that just sounds so interesting, you can’t believe it’s a real film. Vampire Circus is a bright spot of the later Hammer Films and thankfully Synapse Films has put it out on Blu-ray.
Vampire Circus begins with a prologue, showing a little girl frolicking in the forest. She is being led by a beautiful woman, Anna (Domini Blythe) to the castle of Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman), a sadistic and handsome vampire. He feeds on the little girl and as Anna watches, becomes aroused and they make passionate love. As this is going on, Anna’s husband Albert (Laurence Payne), gets the townsfolk together and they come to the castle, torches in hand and ready to break down the door to stop the Count. Getting inside, Albert drives a stake into the heart of the Count and as he’s dying, he places a curse on the town. All their children will die so he shall live again. Anna drags the Count down to the catacombs while the castle is being burnt down.
The film then takes place fifteen years later, where their town has been enclosed from the rest of the world because a plague has befallen them. Most blame the Count’s curse while the town’s physician, Dr. Kersch (Richard Owens), is determined to escape the town in order to bring home medicine. As he leaves, a traveling circus comes into town. At first the mayor (Thorley Walters) asks the sensible question, “How did you get through the blockade?” No answer is given, but the circus is a welcome distraction from their current problems and it’s a huge hit.
Led by a dwarf (Skip Martin) in clown makeup and a gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri), they have a eclectic group of performers, such as a strongman (David Prowse), brother and sister acrobats (Lalla Ward and Robin Sachs) and a panther who becomes a man, Emil (Anthony Higgins). As the townspeople become involved with the show, we see the gypsy woman and Emil speaking about the children and if they have to all die. Emil is in fact Count Mitterhaus’ cousin, and he’s vowed to bring him back to life. The blood of the children must flow in order for the Count to rise again.
Vampire Circus is a peculiar horror film in this era of film making. Robert Young was an artistic director who had a different vision than most other Hammer directors, which gives the film a flourish the genre much-needed. This film has this sexual nature to it, never hiding it, but isn’t as in your face as other Hammer Films were at the time, such as Lust For a Vampire and The Vampire Lovers. Instead it has this underlying dread of pedophilia through the film, from the very beginning with the little girl being killed and, in some eyes, sexually assaulted by Count Mitterhaus and during the film when the children of the townsfolk who killed the Count must die. One scene in particular that is uneasy to watch is when Hauser’s (Robin Hunter) two boys are lured by the twin acrobats through the Hall of Mirrors, and are caressed up until the point that they bite them, releasing them of life and perhaps more.
This is why Vampire Circus has prevailed and become such a cult favorite. A circus consisting of vampires and other evil beings is a sub-genre all its own, with the whole evil idea of the carnival that still creeps out the audience. From the dwarf who just lurks behind every corner and always giving that slight grin, clown face and all, makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up on end. And the idea of a Hall of Mirrors that is a fun little excursion until you get to the last mirror, which shows the evil partaking in your life is as creepy an image a film can have.
Synapse Films has put out a stellar edition and we as horror fans are the better for it. To have the chance to see a film that I wasn’t as aware of in the Hammer lexicon as their earlier classics is a treat. It comes packaged with a great making of documentary, The Bloodiest Show On Earth, a brief history of circus horror films (Gallery of Grotesqueries), a fun and revealing featurette on the magazine House of Hammer, a motion comic book, a still and poster gallery and the amazing theatrical trailer.
If the current barrage of vampire films is a bit too much for you, please give Vampire Circus a chance. Not only is it a better vampire film by far but it’s also a daring and beautifully shot horror film as well. A film that is ripe for rediscovery, there is no excuse to pick this one up. Plus if you’re a Doctor Who fan, three of the actors reunited 8 years later in the episode The Leisure Hive.