Appellate Judge Tom Becker can't help but wonder: Is cotton candy supposed to look like this?
No sawdust can soak up the torrent of blood!
Look into the mirror of life!
Facts of the Case
In the 19th Century Austrian village of Stettel, children are mysteriously disappearing. The villagers realize that the villain is the local count. Summoning their courage—attacking a nobleman is punishable by death—they charge into his castle, where they discover the dead body of a little girl and the very much alive body of Anna (Domini Blythe, The Trotsky), a school teacher's wife who is now the count's lover.
The count is a vampire, so the villagers dispatch him with a stake through the heart. But with his undying breath, he swears vengeance: that the villagers and their children will all suffer and die so that he can return.
Fifteen years later, the village is quarantined due to a plague. No one can enter or leave, and there are guards at the perimeter. But somehow, a circus makes it through—a bizarre circus that both entertains and terrifies the villagers. But the Circus of Nights is no ordinary circus—it's a Vampire Circus, here in Stettel to avenge the evil count.
Vampire Circus is a Hammer vampire film that doesn't feature Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, or lesbians. It was produced in the beginning of the end stages of the Hammer horror reign, and while it might not achieve the level of greatness of the studio's best-remembered work, it's a fun, bloody, erotic little mini-classic in its own right.
The film opens with a great 12-minute prologue that's sexy and disturbing, and nicely sets up both the story and the tone. In these opening moments, we get a murdered child, a vampire tryst complete with copious nudity (thanks to the beautiful Domini Blythe), a fine sampling of violence (teeth in the neck, a throat slitting), a bit of S&M-ish action (thanks again, Domini!), and of course, the laying-out of the curse that will figure so prominently in the village's future.
After the credits, the film spends a bit of time noodling with the plague scenario and the efforts to get the doctor out of the village so he can get some assistance for the ailing villagers. Things pick up again when the Circus of Nights rolls into town, and while the Stettelians might be a little slow on the uptake, the rest of us figure out right away that the fanged performers, who turn into bats or panthers at will, are there to carry out the count's curse.
While it's clearly a low-budget offering, Robert Young (Fierce Creatures) directs with style and imagination, making the most of the obviously low-rent circus set (a couple of caravans and some bleachers). A tiger-taming act, in which the tiger is a nude woman painted with stripes, becomes a corrupting, hyper-sexual reverie, while a house of mirrors (four mirrors, to be exact) is an entry-way to horror and the location of some of the film's creepiest scenes.
The film features a number of erotic set pieces and plenty of gory demises, though a fair amount of the gore is off screen. It also offers a couple of things most horror films—most films, for that matter—shy away from: pedophilia and child murder. The former is suggested, though rather blatantly, in a number of scenes, particularly the opening; the latter is presented quite graphically. These elements make Vampire Circus a far darker viewing experience than the average fright film of its time.
Unfortunately, Vampire Circus pretty much falls apart in its final third. The whole business of resurrecting the count, which should have provided an exciting climax, just gets rushed through. A character is unmasked as being someone else, though there's no real reason or sense to this, and bits of information—like the ill-effects of crucifixes on vampires and the actual cause of the plague—are introduced like afterthoughts. The film's own brand of logic—the kind of logic that has circus performers turning into bats and the villagers not making the connection to the town's curse—go out the window in favor of a fairly pat vampire movie finish. Part of this was due to schedule and budget constraints, as we learn in one of the supplements, but part, I suspect, was also due to a script that had inherent structural problems.
Synapse has done a terrific job with this release. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent, crisp and clean, retaining a "film" look, with vivid colors. The mono audio track is clear, with no noticeable distortion or hiss.
The supplemental package is just great:
• "The Bloodiest Show on Earth: Making Vampire Circus": This is an excellent 32-minute retrospective featuring film historians Tim Lucas, Philip Nutman, and Ted Newsom, as well as director Joe Dante and Hammer actor David Prowse; we get some background on Hammer, as well as a pretty comprehensive story on the making of Vampire Circus, including the story of how the production went over budget and schedule, causing some small scenes not to be shot and the effects left looking a bit primitive.
• "Gallerie of Grotesqueries: A Brief History of Circus Horrors": Just like the title says, this 15-minute featurette takes a look at circus-themed horror films through the years, including Freaks, Circus of Horrors, and Berserk.
• "Visiting the House of Hammer: Britain's Legendary Horror Magazine": A 10-minute featurette with Nutman.
• "Vamipire Circus Motion Comic Book": A reproduction of Brian Bolland's comic based on the film.
In addition, there's a stills and poster gallery, an isolated music and effects track, plus the film's theatrical trailer. The set also comes with a fully loaded DVD on its own disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not really a rebuttal, but a question: how much did they cut to get this thing the PG rating it was awarded in the U.S.? IMDb lists the U.S. run time as 84 minutes (down from the 87 presented here), but just excising the nude scenes would have knocked it down farther than that. I'm trying to imagine this playing a mid-'70s double bill matinee with The House That Screamed, another lurid and well-made Euro import deemed safe for the kiddies with an inexplicable PG rating. No wonder we grew up so screwy…
(Trivia Note: John Moulder-Brown, who has a central role in Vampire Circus, was also featured in The House That Screamed. A little more trivia: His love interest in Vampire Circus is played by Lynne Frederick, whose controversial marriage to Peter Sellers made her a wealthy widow and one of the more despised celebrities of her time.)
A flawed late-entry Hammer, Vampire Circus still comes highly recommended, with Synapse's Blu-ray a must-own for fans.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2011 Tom Becker; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.