Synapse's Blu-ray release eclipses any version put out before. The transfer comes courtesy of a solid AVC encode that brings the film's original 1.66:1 image to darkly lustrous life. Earlier editions had been cropped top and bottom, or reformatted into full-frame versions. The print here has no obtrusive edge enhancement, no overt noise reduction and retains its grain. Compression defects are kept at bay, but I did spot a modicum of aliasing during the odd moment of fast action. Nor is there much in the way of wear and tear, the picture stable – okay it does some very slight shimmying during one stretch that I noticed – and clean.
I said dark, there, didn't I? Well, every version that I've seen before of Vampire Circus has contained a couple of intensely shadow-draped and almost pitch-black scenes … and this new hi-def makeover is no exception. There are the same very dark sequences in place here, too – but you cannot put the blame for this at the feet of the transfer process. This was obviously how the film has always been, and can be seen in far more Stygian depth over the new DVD version that accompanies this Blu-ray. Nevertheless, there are a couple of occasions when the, otherwise, atmospherically strong and reliable black levels seem to engulf the image. Certain shots of the Count's crypt, for instance, and the moment when the villagers formulate their plan of attack, in which the soldier in the background is barely visible, seem to have swamped with the black stuff. But these are brief, and do not detract from what is, on the whole, a very definitely worthy visual evolution for the film.
I'm not going to say that colours have been boosted, but rather that they have been corrected to how they should look – bright, garish and boasting of thick, full-on primaries that ooze and drip from the screen. The Kensington Gore is obviously unnatural in appearance – it never looked real. But then nor did Tom Savini's blood on Martin or Dawn Of The Dead. This does look suitably vivid and splashy though. Flesh tones are actually very good, considering the makeup, lighting and photography of the period. There is a lot of bare flesh on show, and hues and subtleties – moles and birthmarks, nipples etc – are all revealed with a basically very natural look. The greens of the foliage and the forest have a nice depth, the colours of costumes – particularly Emil's shirt and the body-paint on Serena which, by the way, now exhibits that the blue/turquoise cast that previous incarnations botched – now possess a shine and a radiance. Flames are bold, though not exactly detailed with much inner variety. The stylised moments when a vampire is confronted by a cross are also beautifully colourful, as are the freeze-frames that become blood-red. Whites are terrific. You only have to look at the clown-dwarf to see how clean and bright the greasepaint on his face is – and this is majestically showcased when the crafty little bugger peels off his own face to reveal yet another white-painted visage beneath. Contrast, then, is more than acceptable, except for those dark throttled scenes I mentioned earlier.
So the image looks bright and well-saturated with lurid Hammer colour.
And you aren't going to complain about the level of detail either. Now, okay, it isn't finite by any stretch of the imagination. But this is far a soft presentation. Background delineation is reliable and keen. Like many Hammer films, events are primarily front and centre, but the exterior location work reveals a great sense of depth and an unexpected clarity of distant figures and objects. But the close-up detail is where the big improvements are to be found. Eyes, teeth – well, fangs – wounds and naughty bits are all showcased better and more vividly than you will have seen them before. The little shiny modesty-patch that Serena wears is clearly visible … and the more determined amongst you will be happy to spot some other things of interest during the tiger-dance too. The ghastly remains of the trio, chewed-up in the woods, is brilliantly rendered. The texture on skulls and skeletons is also plainly visible.
So Synapse's debut Hammer disc gets a thumbs-up from me! I am awarding Vampire Circus 8 out of 10.
Synapse render Vampire Circus without any bogus surround mix, opting to present the film with its original lossless mono mix, coming via the two front speakers, in DTS-HD MA. The resulting audio experience is hardly going to set your system alight with activity, but it is one that sounds faithful and dynamic and clearly offers the best sound that we can expect from the transfer.
Dialogue, dramatically dubbed in some cases (step forward, Count Mitterhaus), comes over well enough, although there are still times when different voices come out at you from different levels in the mix. Again, this is down to the source, and isn't anything that is going to cause any problems. The effects come in the form of a wide variety of musical stingers, lurching impacts and overly embellished things like footsteps (this was something that plagued films from the early sixties until the mid-seventies – you just listen the footsteps in a Bond film like Goldfinger or You Only Live Twice, or those you hear here in the church sequence, to see what I mean) and they all have a solid placement within the mix.
Quiet moments still tend to drop down a bit too much, leading you to suspect, especially early on, that something may have gone wrong with the volume, but this is merely part and parcel of the quaint sound design. Hammer liked things volatile and bombastic when need be, so to accentuate this effect, they would have pregnant lulls before the storm – provided, of course, these lulls didn't feature someone walking across a tiled floor or James Bernard's orchestra imploring you to be scared in the musical equivalent of going 0 to 100 mph in five seconds flat! The track does contain some meaty stakes … if you know what I mean. And there's a couple of interesting gunshots and animal roars offered up too, that the mix adds some life to. Oh, and the severe crack of Adrienne Corri's whip sounds great and clearly carries some heft and detail within the design.
The music provides a dense and solid presence on the track, with fine balance and instrumental detail. Once the ecclesiastical organ strikes up during the confrontation in the church (which seems to be attached to Mueller's house for some reason), it gradually rises to prominence from deep within the mix. It is a wonderful touch – there's no surround, of course, and yet this element of the soundtrack actually had me peering around, for a second, to find the source … and I knew that it was coming, too!
There is another audio track on offer with this release too. Synapse have incorporated a music and FX track in DTS-HD MA 2.0 that is surprisingly interesting to listen to. David Whitaker's score for Vampire Circus, as I have already mentioned, is impressively orchestrated and highly effective, and this track allows you to gain a new appreciation for what he came up with. The FX, by the way, incorporate thuds, stabs, slashes, footsteps, doors and whatever else is happening on-screen that isn't a voice. It is a cool addition.
All in all, this is a fine presentation that has no lunatic bells and whistles in the form of unnecessary extra channels to cloud what must surely be a faithful reproduction of the original audio mix.
It would have been great just to get Vampire Circus on Blu-ray, let alone to see it receive such interesting extra features as well.
Thus, we find that Synapse provide fans with a few things that they never thought they would see. Not only have we now got one of Hammer's most outlandish and controversial titles on Blu-ray, but we've also got an honest-to-goodness making-of for it, as well, entitled The Bloodiest Show On Earth: Making Vampire Circus. Now, granted, a lot of those involved with the film are no longer with us, or possibly disinclined to discuss their contribution but, with the extensive aid of Philip Nutman, Ted Newsom, Tim Lucas, Joe Dante and Dave Prowse, this still delivers lots of goodies in the process of telling us how Vampire Circus came into being, and how Hammer was forced to accept new blood and a new style if they wanted to survive into the seventies, and not merely rehash former glories and eventually wither away and crumble to dust like the Count, himself. Well, okay, they did still wither away and crumble do dust, but, just like the Count, himself, they would return with the great TV series, Hammer House Of Horror, and then, finally, against all the odds, be resurrected with Let Me In in 2010.
This half-hour piece offers lots of background stills, footage, insight, opinion and, above all, a loving sense of humour and respect for what Robert Young achieved with Vampire Circus. Prowse recites how he got involved with Hammer, the rest discuss the genesis and writing of the film, the cast and the unusual approach to such taboo material, the production itself, and the effects of censorship (Japanese “fogging” of pubic areas) and the poor distribution that it received outside of the UK. We even get to hear about, and have a look at the gorgeous British quad-poster. And if you haven't got a copy of these for Vampire Circus, which offered possibly the most sumptuous artwork for a Hammer release, then you aren't “fan enough”! Actually, The Mummy and The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires are pretty awesome too.
Real Hammer-fans will also have a stock of those fantastic Hammer House Of Horror magazines from the seventies to hand. After just checking my collection, I've found that I'm still missing two issues, much to my chagrin. So they will appreciate the ten-minute featurette, Visiting The House Of Horror, that takes a great little look at the phenomenon that sought to go hand-in-hand with the movies and take appreciation for the films to what was then a completely new idea, and now all-too commonplace. Philip Nutman describes how the publication – which was innovative in that it contained movie reviews of the classics and then-current releases, as well comic-strip adaptations of Hammer offerings, direct from the original screenplays and depicted in highly detailed black-and-white artwork. Nutman tells the history of the magazine, how it evolved with the times and how its illustrious and inspired creator, Dez Skinn, moved on to establish himself as the head of Marvel UK, and the man behind Doctor Who Magazine, Starburst and other fantastic publications. This featurette is provided with a neat voiceover from Randal Turnbull. Another top notch supplement.
Gallery Of Grotesqueries: A Brief History Of Circus Horrors is a whistle-stop fifteen minute run-through of the classic genre films that have featured or been set in a circus or a carnival or at a sideshow. The genuine classics are all here – from The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, The Unholy Three and Freaks (both of which were made by former circus barker and clown, and the director of Lugosi's Dracula, Tod Browning) to The 7 Faces Of Dr. Lao, Horrors Of The Black Museum and the great Circus Of Horrors with Anton Diffring. Philip Nutman is on-hand to discuss these titles and we have the wonderful voice of Randal Turnbull providing the gravitas of a narration once again. The feature is wonderful, though I really wish it went on for a lot longer and was able to be more comprehensive. We get as far as Hammer's Vampire Circus and the chronicle seems to stop there, forgetting the barnstorming Funhouse from Tobe Hooper and the Disney adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes and, of course, the haunting TV show, Carnivale.
A great fan-pleaser is the feature that allows us to read the comic-strip adaptation of the film from the Hammer magazine. In crisp black and white and animated with the film's score over the top, this looks a lot cleaner and more vivid than the yellowed and creased pages of my old copy of the magazine. But, to tell you the truth, as good as this is, it is no substitute for the real thing.
We also get a selection of stills and posters and promo material from the film in a montage set to the score, as well as the original theatrical trailer.
The DVD disc that accompanies the BD has all of these extras too.
It is a wonderfully put-together package that is sure to please. I would have loved a commentary track ... but you can't have everything.
An absolute classic, folks. Vampire Circus is a real gem. Of course, we all cherish the earlier productions – the initial Frankensteins and Draculas, The Mummy, The Curse Of The Werewolf, The Abominable Snowman and the Quatermass outings – but this groundbreaking 1971 offering was possibly the most disturbing and controversial of the lot. It was a cause celebre at the flicks upon its initial release, and it remained a hush-hush, wink-wink taboo delight after its airing on late-night television for horror-hungry friends and fiends in the school yard. Hammer had always wanted to challenge the sensibilities, but even good old Kensington Gore had become tired and run-on-the-mill. The seventies would see the studio briefly flirt with the very things that had made their name such an icon before their fire would be extinguished and consigned to the nostalgic vault of yesteryear. With this and Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, The Hands Of The Ripper and The Karnstein Trilogy, they would bravely re-map their own boundaries … although it would inevitably prove to be a tactic too late.
But Vampire Circus remains a high-water mark for the latter days of the Studio That Dripped Blood. It is wonderful to see the film again, and in such quality as this. Fine extras make this an easily cherished addition to any fan's collection. So those murky and ill-framed old versions can now be justifiably flung out and proudly replaced with Synapse's excellent Blu-ray edition. We get some genuinely interesting and knowledgeable facts and trivia brought to us in the terrific making-of. There's fun to be had with the motion comic-book version. We can get a potted history of horror's garish sub-genre of carnival terrors, and then there's that great look at the celebrated Hammer Horror magazine. All well worth the effort. If they can supply such material for this, just imagine what could come our way when titles from the studio's Golden Age burst on to Blu-ray!
It is has been simply awesome to revisit Hammer's most avant-garde, fantastical and disturbing vampire film, and I'm certain that old admirers and new fans will enjoy discovering it on Blu-ray, where that over-the-top visual sensibility can be showcased at its best for the home video market.
Decadent. Absurd. Wonderful.
Vampire Circus is back in town. Go and sample its dark and demented delights.
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