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31

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Vampire Circus (1972) Review: Classic Hammer horror in the Gothic style

Vampire Circus (1972)

Vampire Circus (1972)

When a sinister travelling carnival called the Circus of Night comes to the weary and plague-stricken town of Schtettel, the townsfolk, haunted by memories of their former vampire lord, must once again take up arms against the creatures of the night and break the curse put on their hamlet.

It’ll take a man from the past — Albert Muller, who lost his wife to the vampire Count Mitterhaus —and a boy from the present — Anton Kersch — to stop the old evil from rising again.

Review

If the Universal monster movies defined the first golden age of horror cinema, it was Hammer Films that ushered in the second.

Hammer’s unmistakable style of period settings, classic monsters, and buxom babes epitomized the silver age of horror, which was was well into its winter years by the time Vampire Circus hit theatres. By 1972, a new generation of fans and filmmakers were already trading in old world classics drafted from literature and legend for masked killers or deamonic possessions.

Vampire Circus is a late holdout from that silver age, when lush gothic atmosphere, imposing actors, and a pair of  prosthetic fangs were what movie nightmares were made of.

The film starts off where any good Hammer flick should —in the past. A vague, medieval past, somewhere in Germanic Europe.

A long cinematic intro sets the Gothic scene, paints some back story, and introduces us to the evil Count Mitterhaus. Unlike its Universal ancestor Dracula (1931), there’s no slow-building mystery in Vampire Circus. No dark suggestions that the count may not be what he seems, no subtle hints at his true nature. They just hit you over the head with it: he’s a vampire who likes to drink children’s blood. Next question.

The villagers, led by schoolteacher Albert Muller, rise up and slay Mitterhaus. He curses their children, they burn his castle, yadda yadda yadda. It’s an enjoyable primer that really gets one in the horror state of mind.

Visually, Hammer displays an uncanny nack for nailing that vaguely historical setting, in a comic book kind of way.

The film watches like an ancient, blood-stained tapestry, lightly faded with the passing of years. Colours  are deep and rich, with costumes just a little too prim and perfect for your average dark age bourgeois village. The town of Schtettel is like something out of Balzac’s Droll Stories; distantly rooted in reality, but dripping with that idealized fairy tale quality.

Vampire Circus (1972)

Though Schtettel is ripe and rotting with contagious plague (so much so that the surrounding townships have set up an armed road block around it), it seems to have no shortage of beautiful young women with flawless skin and teeth, and of course, low cut dresses. Partial nudity was often just as much a part of the Hammer formula as a haunting atmosphere, or Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were. After all, boobs put butts in seats.

In Vampire Circus’ case, none of the racier scenes feel too tacked on, and all serve some plot purpose of another. There’s plenty of sexuality to the film, but only a few scenes depicting actual sex.

Then there’s the gore factor. First and foremost, this is a Gothic tale, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for a little of the red stuff.

Compared to horror movies of even just a few years later (Texas Chainsaw Massacre came out in ’74), Vampire Circus’ dainty neck wounds may seem quaint, but there remains something very powerful about watching a vampire’s elongated canines tearing into the flesh of an innocent. It’s an old visual that conjures up a primal human fear, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

But what’s a plunging neckline or a little blood on your collar without that Gothic Hammer atmosphere? With its crumbling castle, creepy village, deep dark woods, and sinister carnival, Vampire Circus is satisfyingly heavy on the old world eeriness.

Plot wise, the travelling carnival gimmick gives that old vampires vs. villagers  tale some new colour, but never does it stray too far form the basic pillars of the genre. If you’re worried this is one of those embarrassingly dated ’70s contemporized horror films with psychedelic music and hippies (I’m looking at you Dracula A.D. 1972), breathe easy, this one’s a classic.

Forty years on, some of the visual effects are forgivably dated, and the blood is that too-bright shade of red paint you see in a lot of earlier colour movies. But no film studio does men in frilly shirts with fangs better. And I mean that in (almost) all seriousness.

Vampire Circus (1972)

Perhaps the best-aged visual is the “glowing cross” effect. When a cross-shaped object nears a vampire in the film, it glows the kind of deep red of a sword in a forge, or an element on an old stove, to modernize it. It’s an almost magical effect.

The Circus of Night itself is made  up of a few creepy caravan tents, a handful of animals, and the performers. There’s a pair of vampirac twins, who are bound by ethereal forces to feel one another’s pain, the swarthy gypsy boy who transforms into a black panther, and the mystical caravan matriarch hiding a dark secret. Each night they perform bizarre, supernatural feasts to the delight and wonder of the townsfolk.

The carnival also features a silent strongman (played by Darth Vader himself, David Prowse), and perhaps the most horrifying of the bunch, a clown-makeup-ed dwarf who heralds the arrival of the circus.

Played by British actor Skip Martin, Michael the dwarf is small in stature, but big in presence. He is not a creature of the night, merely a man in league with evil. Without fang prosthetics or buckets of blood on his face, Martin manages to out-creep every vampire in the picture. There’s just something sinister about the knowing smile he gives the carnival’s unsuspecting patrons, or the way he plays with the town’s children, that conjures up dark tales from the Brothers Grimm.

Vampire Circus (1972)

John Moulder-Brown’s performance as Anton Kersch, the film’s boy-hero, is much less thrilling. His frail, boyish looks seem out of place in a hardened medieval town battling the supernatural, making him one of the least convincing vampire slayers to make it to the silver screen. It’s a bit of a stake in the heart for an otherwise fine horror flick.

Laurence Payne, on the other hand, fits right in as the level-headed but reluctant leader Albert Muller. He’s the only guy in town with enough sense to fight the plague with science, and enough courage to step up and take on the vampires with his bare hands. All stoic expressions and steeled will, he’s not quite a Cushing, nor a Lee, but Payne is undoubtedly still among the great commanding male Hammer leads.

Though most of the film is well paced, the finale feels a little rushed. Just when you’re at the point of salivating for that final showdown between the forces of good and evil, things are over before they begin, and the entire cast starts dropping likes flies. Including Count Mitterhaus. When a dark lord of the night goes into a supernatural sleep for 15 years, you just except him to have a little more fight in him when he awakens.

Even so, this is one of the best traditional vampire flicks out there that doesn’t directly involve the Dracula character. It does all the classic stuff right, dipping its toes into just enough new territory to avoid going stale. This film is horror at its most Hammer; a macabre period piece steeped in classic concepts, with a splash of boobs and butts, blood and guts.

What do you think — is Vampire Circus a cult classic?

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Dec
31

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Cyborg (1989) Review: A Van Damme good post-apocalyptic action flick on a budget

Cyborg (1989) Review

Cyborg (1989)

In a desolate future world of anarchy and violence, mercenary “slinger” Gibson Rickenbacker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) battles a post-apocalyptic gang of marauders lead by the vicious Fender Temolo (Vincent Klyn). Rickenbacker races to protect a human cyborg carrying the antidote to a deadly global plague, while Fender is out to capture the cure for himself and “become a god.”

Review

It had more advantages than most low-budget action flicks could hope for: A ready-made stock pile of props and costumes, a dark horse star whose performance would define the film, and Jean-Claude Van Damme..

But Cyborg , an all-or-nothing effort by fringe-film masters Cannon Films to stay in business, was not to be the celluloid savior they were hoping for.

Instead, after pulling in about $10 million at the U.S. box office, it dropped off into obscurity, only to re-surface years later in specialty movie shops and Method Man songs.

The film is laced with cinematic diamonds in the rough, but an obviously rushed script, disappointingly stagnant second half, and the kind of over-acting you’d expect from Cannon have earned it a “so bad it’s good” reputation.

In other words, it’s serious candidate for cult classic status.

Cyborg opens with an ominous monologue from the evil Fender (Vincent Klyn) about the collapse of civilization, the “plague of the living death”, and the anarchic hellhole that is the future American existence.

It’s been lifted and sampled in music by everyone from Method Man to death metal band Mortician, and it’s arguably the most important, or at least culturally relevant, thing to come out of this film.

Listen to it below:

As you can imagine from that post-apocalyptic discourse of doom, the film’s sets include ruined cities, wilderness roads, former industrial complexes reclaimed by nature — all the kinds of environments and stages you’d expect to find in a post-industrial anarchic hell hole, or modern-day Detroit.

The future Rustbelt backgrounds are interesting enough, but quickly eclipsed by Cyborg’s flamboyant medieval-style costuming. The film cannibalizes a wardrobe left over from the never-made sequel to the 1987 Masters of the Universe movie. This tragedy for He-Man fans turned out to be a real bonus for Cyborg, giving it much of its lost in time post-Judgement Day feel.

Pointy leather boots, chain mail vests, and open-chested shirts are apparently very on trend in the bleak medieval future of 1989.

Speaking of visuals, call me crazy here, but I think Cyborg’s special effects stand up pretty well today, even on Blu-ray.

There’s not much they could have fumbled anyway. This sci-fi flick features no lasers, no spaceships, no animatronic aliens. Just a few scenes involving the film’s eponymous cyborg, for which those old school Ray Harryhausen stop-motion techniques seem to be applied well enough.

Cyborg (1989) Review

But the watchability of any JCVD flick is always going to rest on the fight scenes — and Cyborg won’t disappoint. Rickenbacker’s kill count stands at a whopping 25 bodies all told. Throats are slashed, necks are broken, families are wrapped in barbed wire and drowned in wells (it’s not quite brutal as it sounds, trust me), and Van Damme himself actually gets crucified at one point.

In fact, the movie is really just one long, never ending brawl. And that’s the problem.

Once the novelty of the steampunk renaissance fair costumes and vintage special effects wear off, the cracks in the film’s script — or let’s call them gaping chasms — start to become obvious.

The initial screenplay was reportedly written in a weekend, and that’s not hard to believe. The basic story is classic sci-fi stuff: A ruined world, a Ronin warrior with a dark past, and an antagonist that’s really just the hero through a glass, darkly. The archetypal characters are sketched out just well enough to function for an hour and half.

The problems come at the half way mark. Any real plot development stops, and the film gets bogged in long series of mindless, if entertaining, fight scenes mercifully made watchable by Jean-Claude Van Damme’s physical skill.

Don’t get me wrong — there are few pleasures guiltier than watching JCVD find an excuse to rip his shirt off and beat a nameless thug to unconsciousness in slow motion, but isn’t that what Bloodspot and Kickboxer are for?

Cyborg (1989) Review

If we’re honest, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s ’90s stardom is probably the only the reason Cyborg is so widely available today. The Muscles from Brussels is in prime form: young, fit, fresh… and totally upstaged.

I’m talking of course, about Vincent Klyn.

A transplanted Hawaiian surfer-turned-model who landed his first movie gig with Cyborg, Klyn would go on to appear in Point Break, a handful of direct to DVD titles (many of them also directed by Cyborg’s Albert Pyun) and ’90s TV shows like Baywatch. But it was that first role of Fender Tremolo that would define his career in the eyes of audiences.

Opposite Van Damme, Klyn is a sinister bandit lord whose motives are simple: Keep the status quo. All we need to know about Fender comes from those first opening lines: “Restore it? Why. I like the death, I like the misery, I like this world!”

Maybe it’s the ice cold baritone voice, or the piercing pale eyes, or that nearly vampiric look to his face, but Klyn seems to channel an otherworldly chill that creeps through every scene he’s in.

It’s never explained why Fender’s blood runs so cold, or why he’s able to consistently beat the seemingly more powerful Rickenbacker so easily up until the very end. I’d like to pretend the filmmakers were using these unknowns in an attempt to deepen the charatcer’s mystery, but it probably just came down to sloppy writing.

Cyborg (1989) Review

The final scenes in Cyborg are frustrating. Up until now, you’re willing to go along with the film’s race for the cure storyline, and the maybe-kinda-he-will-he-won’t love story between Rickenbacker and his lady friend. After meandering through fight scene after fight scene after fight scene, you’re ready for a kickass finale, where the filmmakers finally reveal something they’ve been building up to the entire film — that Fender, or perhaps even Rickenbacker, is… a cyborg. Great twist right?

Well, this ain’t Blade Runner kids.

The end of the film is simply a classic no-shirts-allowed fight in the rain between Fender and Rickenbacker, followed by a light-speed epilogue that leaves out any and all loose ends (including the completely missed ‘Fender is a cyborg’ twist), and cuts off the movie so fast, you won’t know what hit you.

It’s a shockingly brief end to a film that just spent the last 82 minutes trying its best to get you invested in more than just well choreographed fight scenes. Maybe they didn’t have time to write an ending that made sense, maybe they ran out of cash to shoot it, but it’s hard to believe what we got was the fully realized finale.

But, decapitated ending or not, Cyborg is still a classic of the Van Damme library, and a jewel of Cannon Films’ Golan Globus era. It’s a should-watch, if not a must-watch, for all you steampunks out there who appreciate a good post-apocalyptic future of ruin. For the rest of us – isn’t seeing JCVD crucified by pirates reason enough?

Is Cyborg a cult classic?

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Oct
31

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Carnival of Souls (1962) Review: A classic kind of horror

Carnival of Souls (1962)

 

Carnival of Souls (1962)

After mysteriously emerging from a horrific car wreck that should have killed her, church organist Mary Henry is haunted by the ghoulish face of a man she’s never met, beckoning her to a lonely place she’s never been.  She becomes inexplicably and irresistibly drawn to a derelict hall outside of town – once a grand bathhouse and carnival ground in its day – now abandoned by the living, it’s empty bones rising out of the landscape like a mausoleum.

As she steadily loses  her grip on reality, Mary is pulled more and more to the old pavilion, and away from what little humanity remains around her.

Review

If you’re looking for masked murderers, buckets of  gore, or shaky-cam frights, let me stop you right here. This is a film for you disciples of dread and acolytes of atmosphere. It’s a film for those of us that like our scares slow, creeping, and lingering. It’s a film for lovers of eerie horror in the most classic cinematic style.

It’s Carnival of Souls - the B-movie that’s anything but “B”.

With a slow-burning plot that builds to a rip-cord finish, ‘Carnival watches like an 84-minute episode of the Twilight Zone.

Carnival of Souls (1962)

The film pulls you along  through a watery current of haunting images rendered in rich black and white, and backed by an unsettling and unconventional organ score. It roots itself in the classic horror tradition of the day (again, think Alfred Hitchcock, Rod Serling), being at all times mysterious, never rushing to a conclusion or awkward exposition.

At about $30,000, the film’s budget wasn’t just low, it was six feet under.  Director, producer, and actor Herk Harvey filmed ‘Carnival in just three weeks on location in Salt Lake City, with a small collection unknown actors, locals, and even Harvey himself, playing the parts.

He never made another movie. At least not this kind of movie. Herk Harvey’s real job was producing educational films, like this amusing little PSA about good posture. He made hundreds of them during his 33 year career.

While no one is winning any belated Oscars for their performances in ‘Carnival, the real star of the picture is the film’s haunted atmosphere, and the supporting role goes to its sense of impending dread.

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Much of ‘Carnival’s eerie visual power comes from the deserted pavilion where the key scenes take place. Shot on site at a real abandoned resort built in the 1920s, these scenes have a palpable air of  mystery and death. Like the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining, the pavilion itself becomes a central character – one more unsettling than any ghoul or ghost.

But what good is a breathtaking subject without someone to shoot it? Half of the credit for the haunting images of the deserted pavilion has to go to the film’s cinematographer Maurice Prather, who gives us some beautiful silhouette shots and unique, creepy angles, not to mention the film’s creative opening titles.

Even on 50-year-old 35 mm film, the decaying majesty of the pavilion transcends whatever device you’re watching it on. It must have really been something special on the drive-in screen in 1962.

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Perhaps the most overtly frightening image though, is Harvey himself as the main ghoul who torments Mary day and night. With some basic makeup and a genuinely creepy smile, Harvey manages to transform himself into something like a silent, black and white take on Heath Ledger’s Joker. A little eerie when you think about the thousands of children who must have watched him in his educational film reels.

The film builds to a finish involving dozens of similarly grotesque people running at full tilt through the pavilion – a terrifying image more than a little reminiscent of modern zombie classic 28 Days Later. And does that simplistic death makeup look familiar to you? No doubt George A. Romero was familiar with ‘Carnival before he created Night of the Living Dead.

Released in an an era of disposable drive-in entertainment, Carnival of Souls has since been pulled from the muck of obscurity to develop a deserved cult following, and should not go unwatched by any lover of foreboding atmosphere, unsettling images and a good twist.

Is Carnival of Souls a cult classic?

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