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Vampire Circus Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 2, 2011 at 11:14 PM

    Vampire Circus Review

    Roll up! Roll up! For the bloodiest show on Earth!

    Now, at long last, we're getting to the good stuff on Blu-ray when it comes to the type of horror movie that many of us were smitten by as gore-hungry kids staying up late to watch taboo films on parent-goading weekend double-bills. The vintage Universals and RKO's were a couple of styles and standards that I still cherish – and long to see arrive on BD - and Hammer was the next step in my genre education and the studio, even at its tackiest and most derivative, always offered value for money and something to either titillate or stimulate the senses. It is easy to love and respect their bonafide classics, but whilst many love to deride the sometimes rash developments that they made in the last decade of their initial existence (because they really are back again, folks, in case you hadn't noticed!), I have long championed their latter productions, with the exception of only To The Devil A Daughter which is, unavoidably and regrettably, terrible. There is a great deal to enjoy and admire in the likes of The Hands Of The Ripper, Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell, The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires, Dr. Jekyll And Sister Hyde and, my favourite of the lot, the awesome and inspired Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (which is apparently up for a remake), so this end-of-the-line period still has a lot of bite.

    But we cannot overlook this grisly oddity from 1971, Robert Young's incredible Vampire Circus, which comes to us courtesy of Synapse's tremendous region A-coded US release.

    Pitched on its title alone, which presented enough possibilities for the enterprising team of producer Wilbur Stark (father of Koo Stark) and screenplay writer Judson Kinberg to use their imaginations and set to work on a production that would test the mettle of the censors, the tastes of the audience – both “in-house” and new – and challenge the very standards that the infamous studio had already set for itself.

    With Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing off battling an aggressive alien force passing from defrosted ape-man host to human victim (in a plot that actually has a spiritual connection to The Thing) on the Trans-Siberian Horror Express (directed by Eugenio Martin), some of the conventions of the cult vampire-flick were already going to be subverted. Thus, one of the most immediate impressions of Vampire Circus is that we are in the midst of new blood – on both sides of the camera. Gone is the noble, aristocratic charm of Lee's hissing, red-eyed bloodsucker. Gone, too, is the redoubtable heroism of Cushing's determined Van Helsing. In fact, the structure of Vampire Circus is something of a wild-card in the history of the studio's eternal battle between good and evil. Here, we don't have just one villain and one champion, with numerous hangers-on either side of the moral divide, we have a legion of highly individual aggressors preying upon a ramshackle, downtrodden and basically deserving gaggle of victims. The bad guys, as we shall discuss, are an extremely unusual and dangerous bunch who are all infinitely more interesting than the mere mortals who, in comparison, are dumb yokels easily mesmerised and led, like lambs, to their own slaughter.

    Coming fresh to the genre was writer Kinberg, and his refusal to adhere to the pretty rigid stipulations of the established form of Hammer's vampings since 1958 meant his undead were truly fantastical creatures who could shape-shift and use all manner of black magic to go about their business. He was even clever enough to concoct, though possibly more by chance than by actual design, a brand new mythology for his evil tribe of avengers from beyond the grave. Vampire Circus, when you look past its more familiar tropes, is actually highly original and very unusual. Kinberg, by the way, would never work for Hammer again.

    There's nasty (and naughty) things afoot in the local castle. Timothy Dalton lookalike Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) is up to no good with both a yummy-mummy, Anna (the ravishing Domini Blythe) and the alarmingly young girl that she has purloined for their mutual pleasure. But, having spied the mesmerised minx traipsing off to her evil bit-on-the-side, Anna's husband, Professor Mueller (Laurence Payne), has managed to rustle up some villagers left over from the last peasant uprising to oust a vampire infestation and, amassed and ready for action, they storm the castle, catching Mitterhaus and his oh-so-willing victim in the act of well … fang and phallic penetration. Blood is shed, revenge is wrought and the Count, in the fashion of a long line of vampiric nobility, is despatched with a stake through the heart … but not before hissing a dreadful curse upon the village that he promises will strike down the children of his executioners as well as they, themselves. And so ends one of Hammer's most protracted and stunningly directed set-piece prologues. Like a mini-movie in the best Bondian tradition, this has magnificently set the tone for what is to come. Blood, bare breasts, children in dire peril and that timeless battle between deliciously resolute evil and typically bland and gullible do-goodness.

    Fifteen years after that hellish night, we find that the isolated town of Schtettel in the forests of Serbia, has been stricken by a flesh-poxing plague and has even been quarantined. Armed men patrol the woods and wait at roadblocks to shoot on-sight anyone attempting the flee. But this is to be the least of the good folks' worries. Whether Mitterhaus' curse has been anything to do with this outbreak or not, we will never know … but there's definitely something strange and sinister about the travelling circus that has come to town, with its malevolent dwarf-clown (played by Skip Martin, who had been the similar jester, Hop Toad, in Roger Corman's excellent adaptation of Poe's The Masque Of The Red Death), death-defying twin acrobats who can materialise into bats in mid-somersault (one of them later Doctor Who companion and temporary Mrs. Tom Baker, Lalla Ward), risqué dancing-cum-tiger-taming act, Serena and Milovan (more on this memorable duo later), the silent strongman, played by Dave Prowse, and the enigmatic Romany soul-seducer, Emil (Anthony Corlan), who has the not-unimpressive ability to be able to transform into a panther when the mood takes him. All of these wacky and wild individuals are commanded by Adrienne Corri's spectacularly sultry Gypsy Woman … who may or may not have a connection to the town and especially to the murderous Mueller, himself.

    To distract themselves from the ravages of the plague, the townsfolk enjoy nightly performances at the ringside, as Corri cracks the whip and all manner of tantalising and quite provocative displays are put before them. Each night, however, someone is lured behind the canvas, where seduction and death await them, starting with the offspring of the Count's murderers and then working up to the perpetrators of the deed, themselves. And down in the bone-encrusted crypt beneath the ruins of his burned-out castle, the staked body of Count Mitterhaus is stirring more with each drop of blood spilled. And there is plenty to be spilled in Schtettel.

    Dr. Kersh (Richard Owens) and his valiant son Anton (John Moulder-Brown) attempt a little escape-and-evasion in the woods, the good doctor managing to get beyond the guards in the hope that he can reach the capital and return with medical aid and a force of soldiers. Anton, who provided diversionary tactics, implores his father to find his one true love, Dora (Lynne Frederick, who would go on to marry Peter Sellers) and tell her to stay away until the danger has passed. But, as events get increasingly grim and the vampires turn up their campaign of terror and retribution, Dora, who is also the daughter of Prof. Mueller, makes her own foolhardy way through the woods in the hope of coming home. There will be savage massacres, a phantasmagoria of supernatural mirror-traps to delight and ensnare the unwary, and the most dysfunctional of family reunions awaiting her.

    The Circus in is town with a few days to kill … so step right up, chumps!

    Despite being set in Hammer's typical hodgepodge period of the quasi-19th Century milieu, this time Serbia (although the disc packaging erroneously cites it as being Austria), and even though its cast run rampant through the exact same threadbare forests as seen in a dozen previous outings, Vampire Circus was, in many ways, the most modern picture that the studio ever produced. With outlandish themes of child molestation, sexual perversity and even bestiality, some overtly fantastical elements vying with the more standardised vampirism of stakes, crucifixes and primal, fangs-bared snarling, boundary pushing gore and nudity, and plentiful visual trickery to bolster some wild and dangerous concepts, Vampire Circus set new standards in a format, and a tradition that had become stale and formulaic over years of budgetary scrimping, a lack of imagination and flair in the screenwriting, and a (possibly understandable by this stage) lethargy from some of the prime movers and shakers in front of the cameras as well as behind them.

    The production values were, in fact, very good. Most of the Count's castle is slyly obscured by the forest, leaving only the main road leading up to his front door and part of the looming wall above visible, but despite this knowing conceit – I mean there is no castle there at all – there is still the impression of a large and imposing edifice squatting arrogantly upon the land. Likewise the circus camp, itself, is only a cluster of around five wagons arced in a semi-circle with a paltry half dozen benches arrayed in the front for the spectators to sit on. Universal's 1941 The Wolf Man was able to bring more travellers and frivolity to town than this. But it is lit and coloured with enough atmosphere for us not to care. And the cages and tents, especially that for the Mirror Of Life (which, of course, will prove to be anything but), are afforded variety and sweep by strategically deployed camerawork. The underground crypt is a fabulous set, especially when we see it strewn with around a dozen freshly slain corpses – the influence of the Italian horror scene, Mario Bava primarily, as well as a nice nod to the more grotesque and tragic climaxes of the Bard's classical works, was surely at work here. Be sure to admire, for a second, that wall of skulls and bones in the background that we only fleetingly see!

    The look of the town of Schtettel is actually quite a departure for Hammer's typical rural hamlet. Using some of the sets held over from Twins Of Evil and with DOP Moray Grant filming from more unusual vantage points – looking out over the town square from an upstairs window, or up at characters from slightly lower angles – that emphasise a greater scale than is really there, this is one of the few occurrences when Hammer were actually able to generate the feeling that we are, indeed, in some Eastern European enclave and not merely languishing back at Bray Studios or at Pinewood, where Circus was filmed. The buildings and the layout are more realistic and, if you notice, there are lots of elements of natural lighting and, in a complete rarity for England, the sun is even shining for a couple of scenes. All of this lends Vampire Circus a visual frisson that moves quite instinctively away from their own trademarked, stage-bound aesthetic. Young even puts in some elaborate and very seventies optical effects, such as freeze-frames (usually of hideously wide mouths ringed with fangs), colour tinting of pivotal shots, and snap-edits of transformations, as well as upping the ante on gore and nudity. Grant had plenty of experience lensing the gothique, with The Vampire Lovers, The Horror Of Frankenstein (which also featured Dave Prowse) and the brutal The Scars Of Dracula for Hammer, as well as the Christopher Lee chiller, I Monster, for Amicus, so it is clear that he knew how to get the best out of meagre resources and locations.

    Les Bowie, a veteran of Hammer's bloody makeup, provides the plentiful claret, and there is far more here than we usually ever see in one of their pictures. Now we get arteries opened-up and spraying gore – a blade drawn across one vigilante's neck and a victim's throat liberally spurting the grue down upon the Count's rejuvenating body – and a cleverly constructed close-up decapitation via very unusual means. In one celebrated sequence, a family seeking to escape the murder and mayhem get more than they bargained for when Emil, in panther form, catches up with them and literally redecorates the forest with them. A subsequent scene of Dora stumbling onto the remains really pushes the limits for Hammer, and stands as one of the great Finding Of Mutilated Bodies In A Genre Film moments. I'm a connoisseur of such things, folks, and this example is right up there with William Girdler's awesome Grizzly (see DVD review) in this regard. Though none can beat Matt Hooper suddenly coming face to face with poor Ben Gardner's chewed-up noggin in Jaws, or Irene Miracle meeting the decomposing denizens of a flooded ballroom in Inferno. The fangs themselves are wonderful in that old school Daz-white brightness, but they do look viciously formidable. Those shredded human remains in the woods are wonderfully imaginative too. Bowie clearly relished the use of maggots and copious eyeball damage. There is even a great shotgun blast that blows a gaping hole through someone's chest actually in-shot – we see it tearing a huge chunk out of his back in a nice early spot of exit-wound coverage. Times and techniques had changed since Christopher Lee's creature, in the lurid masterpiece, The Curse Of Frankenstein, took a similar blast to the head and merely clapped a hand to the bag of Kensington Gore that hid the wound. As good as these effects were, Bowie still applied those ancient looking wound patches for the aftermath of neck-nibblings and some rather joke-store quality stick-on poxes for the plague victims!

    All of which brings us to the sort of spectacle of violence and sex that makes Vampire Circus so memorable and unique.

    Hammer had just come off the back of their notorious Karnstein Trilogy – The Vampire Lovers (Ingrid Pitt), Lust For A Vampire (Yutte Stensgard) and Twins Of Evil (the Collinson twins) – which had been groundbreaking for the thematic inclusion of lesbianism (and, Hammer, we bow down before you for that one) and the censor-baiting image of blood on breasts. And in Dr. Jekyll And Sister Hyde, only the year before, they had even broached the topic of gender-bending. Now the studio, in a move that rattled the nerves and the patience of head honchos Sir James Carreras and his son, Michael, brought in extended scenes of lovemaking and some brief full frontal nudity (for Anna during the legendary prologue and for, well, we'll get to that in a minute … I promise) as well as the incredibly bold use of minors in dire jeopardy and sexualised situations. The seduction and slaying of the young girl at the start - “Anna, one lust feeds the other ...” says Mitterhaus as Domini Blythe moans in ecstasy at the sight of the child's murder. Now, I've got no doubt that this was a troubling scene back in those days, the Moors Murders were still horrendously fresh in peoples' minds, but it has an even more disturbing quality to it today, when we are all so much more aware of the sordid and terrible things that can, and do, happen in real life. But, in defence of Young and Kinburg, this is also precisely the type of grave warning that all those medieval fairy tales strove to impart upon innocent minds – Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, etc. – and the sequence, as well as the later one in which the two Hauser Boys are lured into the fantastical mirror and murdered by leering vampires who first dreamily caress them, is perfectly in-keeping with the film's fiery and exotic tone of horror and folk fable entwined. It is also worth pointing out that the villagers' rage at Anna for her part in the introductory atrocity takes the form of the barely clad vampire-acolyte being forced to run the gauntlet of two lines of whipping and beating hostility. Remarkably, considering how much we also despise her for what she has done, we can't help but wince and recoil at this savage retribution. As uncomfortable and troubling as these scenes are, they add a bravura jolt to all those who thought they knew the Hammer style inside-out and back-to-front.

    That other notorious sequence that I have been teasingly hinting at is, possibly, the most audacious that the studio ever mounted in terms of visual and metaphorical eyebrow-raising. Early on, we witness the erotic dance act between the infeasibly desirable Serena (stage name on and off camera), who is nude and painted head-to-toe with tiger stripes, and her lover/partner Milovan (the two also went under the performing name of The Webers) who has to tame her in front of an agog crowd. Wearing only a very thin strip to conceal her privates, that actually seems to vanish for a quick shot or two, Serena was something of an education for boys of a certain age when this was first televised. When Milovan catches hold of her, spinning her around above his head and then gripping her shuddering body tightly to his own, she is clearly having something of an earth-shattering orgasm … at exactly the same time as the real tiger lying in its cage, fully aroused by its human counterpart. This was really “out there” for any studio, let alone the British institution that was Hammer. In fact, it is still “out there”. The unavoidable connection made by all this is that the troupe regularly indulge in bestiality, as the seductive stroking of the tiger by one of the vamps seems to reveal. This element can't have gone un-jotted-down by Hammer-fan and cult filmmaker Joe Dante, who would mastermind the splendid man-and-woman-into-wolves sex scene, doggy-style, in his awesome werewolf flick, The Howling, almost ten years later.

    Ironically, it was usually the nudity that was trimmed for the UK release of a Hammer film, whilst the gore was more usually retained. In the US, the exact opposite was the case. Hammer's ongoing ordeal with both the BBFC and the MPAA has been extensively chronicled, and some of the letters from each camp debating the elements that are causing the problems make for fascinating reading, should you ever get a chance to study any of them. Vampire Circus, potentially a powder-keg with the moral guardians, was released theatrically uncut in the UK, which was a miracle in itself. American audiences, who only got a very patchy, box office doomed distribution of the film have never had the chance to see Young's full version until now. So you'll be pleased to note that this release is completely intact and uncut. This said, though, the final act of the movie is actually quite choppy and brusque, although this abruptness does nothing to halt the excitement and violence of the climactic confrontation. But you can blame this entirely upon the production running out of shooting time and it has nothing to do with the censors. When Carreras pulled the plug, Young, whom we should recall wasn't fully versed in the trials of filmmaking, Hammer-style (six weeks, and that's your lot, sonny!), was unable to complete pick-ups and inserts, and had to abandon a couple of scenes entirely, and several narrative abbreviations towards the end do seem to have been created from this last-minute haste as a result.

    Corri and Corlan (real name Higgins) are both excellent in their evil zeal. A famous still from the film has the two of them looking down upon a freshly throat-bitten victim – Corlan open-mouthed for a second bite, and Corri grinning with that horrible leering quality that nasty onlookers at a brutal street-beating have – and this is a truly blood-chilling image of callous depravity. In the movie, however, this is seen from a different angle and is not nearly as shuddersome. Yet, as the matriarch of the ensemble, Corri's vibrant gypsy is possibly still the most wicked and debauched of the lot, eagerly leading young victims astray. Her command over the other members of the circus troupe is unchallenged, the half vampire, half human accomplice set-up of the pack forming a unique family that is probably more loyal and content than any normal equivalent that they encounter in their bloodthirsty travels. Corri and Dave Prowse both appeared in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange right around the same time, with Corri as the famous rape victim of Alex's Droogs. Corlan plays Emil with hypnotic intensity, putting the moves and, inevitably, the bite on Rosa (Christine Paul-Podlasky) with unobstructed power and sadistic trickery. It is also clear that, like Count Mitterhaus, Emil is able to indulge in full sexual debauchery, which is a massive departure for male vampires in a Hammer film who, fronted by Lee's Dracula, were seductive rogues to a one, but used their charm to win damsels over merely to suck their blood, their cursed lust satiated in defiance of their own undead impotence. Emil and Mitterhaus obviously aren't aware of these rules and seem to enjoy the best of both worlds. I've seen detracting comments made about both Corlan and Tayman and their performances as the lead vampires, but I simply cannot agree. Both convey a real air of otherworldly superiority and animalistic ferocity. Tayman's chisel-cut features and Ronnie Wood hairdo go well with his flouncy, billow-sleeved shirt, and Corlan, happily decked-out in natty scarlet and a thick mop of gypsy curls, pouts and preens but still utters dark depredations with alarming inhumanity. Both harbour a wicked kill 'em all policy, too. Corlan had played a heroic part in Hammer's Taste The Blood Of Dracula, and he would go on to court several roles in various Sherlock Holmes outings, including that of the lead detective and even his greatest nemesis at different times. Both he and Tayman, who would also appear in Pete Walker's terrific Brit-exploitationer, House Of The Whipcord, provide fine screen presence as far as I am concerned.

    Even Lalla Ward and Robin Sachs playing her sibling, who feel the same sensations, even pain, as the transmogrifying acrobats, Helga and Heinrich, elicit fine shivers of coy dread and cruel intent when seducing or hunting down their victims. Beautific smiles hide despicable desires. It is also made quite apparent that they are incestuous too. So there is much rich depravity pulsing at the heart of Vampire Circus.

    In contrast to such colourful rogues, the good guys don't fare anywhere near so well. When not even the inestimable Michael Ripper (possibly the most familiar face from the studio after Messrs Cushing and Lee) could be spotted in the local tavern, studio continuity fell to the ever-bumbling Thorley Walters, who had appeared marvellously in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, opposite Cushing, and in the great Dracula Prince Of Darkness and Hammer's own take on The Phantom Of The Opera before that. Here, however, as the buffoonish town burgermeister, he attempts to bring some light relief to the sadistic scenario but, really, no-one could ever find their reflection in a set of trick mirrors that hilarious! There is quite a roster of other rural meat for the immortals, but none of them register at all, despite being given some quality material to work with and a heady dose of primal motivation to spur them along. John Moulder-Brown tries his best as the headstrong Anton, but he tends to come across merely as a slightly more assured incarnation of Alfred, the clumsy undead-vanquishing assistant played by Roman Polanski from his own Dance Of The Vampires. Hammer still had problems with their adherence to maintaining the purity of heroic lovers, as opposed to the wanton desires of their enemies – and, as revolutionary as Young and Kinberg were in their treatment, we still have to endure some simpering platitudes and hand-in-hand soothing between Anton and Dora that just demand to be ferociously snuffed-out.

    The score from David Whitaker is excellent. It may not be of the typically shrill, churning and ever-rising crescendo-nirvana of studio-stalwart James Bernard, but it is splendidly evocative and macabre. Whitaker had scored horror films before, Scream And Scream Again for Amicus and, most notably, the lush Victorian waltz and menace of Hammer's own Dr. Jekyll And Sister Hyde. Much use is made of the carnival hand-organ that Dave Prowse carries around and cranks with a mighty Sith Lord's vigour, and it becomes an eerie signature theme for the film. Whitaker even enlisted the aid of a full church organ and did a lot of recording in the church itself to attain that distinctive spatiality and echo for some elements of his music. The creepy sound of the cimbalom, mingled with acoustic guitar and exotic European strings, a combination which would be heard with similar atmospheric zeal in the BBC's excellent TV dramatisation of the Louis Jourdan Dracula, as well as Joseph LoDuca's epic score for Brotherhood Of The Wolf, also makes a skin-crawling impression. David Whitaker went on to compose the rousing and eclectic score for Albert Pyun's fabulous guilty pleasure of The Sword And The Sorcerer in 1982. He must have had a thing about occult crypts with skull and bone encased walls and tombs, as well as the resurrection of resolutely evil villains, as his best cues come when both films conspire to trap us in the dark realms of such spooky subterranean lairs as something monstrous is awoken from its unholy slumber.

    Robert Young, not really a director that the studio could ever mould into its own desired style, would go on to helm the acclaimed Jeeves and Wooster, as well as Alan Bleasdale's classic and gripping social and political drama GBH. But he would also get to direct the eerie and suspenseful Charlie Boy episode from the Hammer House Of Horror TV series, depicting the antics of the nasty voodoo doll of the title. He showed versatility and verve with this horror feature, though, and I've no doubt he could have unleashed more controversial and seductive terrors our way, given the opportunity.

    Vampire Circus is as hard and aggressive as Hammer ever became. It was an emotive, visceral and occasionally uncomfortable trigger-response to the nastier, darker and more disturbing horror films that were being made in America and elsewhere at the time. Films that threatened to knock the studio off its once proud pedestal. George Romero's Night Of The Living Dead had shown audiences a new vision of what the genre could do, and even if Hammer never had any intention of going quite as far down that entrails-strewn road, with Vampire Circus they clearly set out to regain some of that grim and audacious panache that they once had in spades. The fact that this was a revenge piece, and as grotesque and as nihilistic as they come, was something completely new for Hammer, as well. We all know that the studio could not possibly compete with the excess of sensationalist horror that was clawing its way into the market – The Exorcist, Jaws, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Omen were just around the corner – but with titles and ideas like the ones abounding within this cruel carnival, they were able to prove that there was still life in the old dog, yet.

    Personally, I adore this film – I actually adore most of Hammer's output, to be honest – and I have been sitting here writing this in my Vampire Circus tee-shirt and supping tea out of my Vampire Circus mug (you'll have to excuse me … I rarely drink … wine). So this has been a release that subconsciously I have probably been longing for, but realistically never thought would happen. With Eureka's excellent Blu-ray edition of Paranoiac (see my separate review) and the promise of Synapse bringing out Twins Of Evil, Hands Of The Ripper and Hammer's House Of Horror TV show, things could well be looking nice 'n' bloody on Blu-ray! Plus, with the success of Matt Reeves' remake of Let Me In, the first genuine Hammer Film since the wretched To The Devil A Daughter way back in 1975, we could even be seeing more of the Studio That Dripped Blood on the big screen.

    Vampire Circus is one of the best of Hammer's seventies output and comes enormously well recommended.

    Hammer lives again!