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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