Vampire Circus

Robert Young, UK 1971, 87 minutes

Vampire Circus is a Hammer film. It's got recycled sets, home counties woodland posing as mittel Europe, dodgy day-for-night shots, unconvincing gore and iffy vampire fangs (always with plenty of fillings showing) and dollops of nudity and sex which those in front of and behind the camera didn't seem very comfortable with. About the only thing its hasn't got are those Hammer stalwarts Cushing and Lee.

But, for all this, Vampire Circus is still a perfectly entertaining, watchable film. Indeed, part of its charm, like most Hammer films, comes from spotting the dodgy effects, etc. And, merit wise, it's got a dense, incident packed story, in which something is always going on; a rousing orchestral score; fine ensemble playing from many of the cast, character actors like Laurence Payne and Thorley Walters really grabbing the opportunity to play the leads, and some nice matchcut editing as circus acrobats transform into bats and panthers in mid-leap (go see it and all will be explained!)

In a long pre-credits sequence, almost a mini-film in itself, the men of Stettel finally summon up the courage to oppose Count MItterhouse. The vampire has gone too far this time, taking schoolteacher Mueller's wife as his lover and, with her help, luring little Jenny Shult to her death. The townsfolk storm Mitterhouse's castle and stake him. The Count swears revenge: "None of you will live. The town of Stettel will die. Your children will die to give me back my life."

Fifteen years later, Stettel is afflicted by plague and cordoned off from the rest of the world. The mysterious `Circus of Nights' arrives in town, come to "steal the pennies from dead men's eyes'. Having somehow got through the roadblocks, the circus (including among its number Dave `Darth Vader' Prowse as a mute strongman) seems to the townsfolk a welcome distraction from their plight. What they don't realize, of course, is that this is the Vampire Circus, come to avenge the Count...

Review by Keith H Brown
Taken from EUFS Programme 1997-98

A long pre-credits sequence, effectively a mini-film in itself, sets the scene: The people of Stettel finally summon up the courage to oppose the vampire Count Mitterhouse. They decide he's gone too far in taking the local schoolteacher's wife as his lover and, with her willing assistance, luring a little girl to her death. The townsfolk storm Mitterhaus's castle and stake him, but not before he has sworn revenge. The credits roll and we return to Stettel, 15 years later. The town is afflicted by plague and cordoned off from the rest of the world. Then the mysterious and somewhat sinister Circus of Nights arrives in town. Somehow it got through the roadblock. Nevertheless, the circus seems to offer the townsfolk a welcome distraction from their plight. What they don't realise, of course, is that this is the Vampire Circus of the film's title.

Vampire Circus is a typical Hammer film in some respects. It has got the ersatz middle Europe setting, complete with the usual burgomaster and other petty bourgeois stock characters. It has got the recycled sets, with the village square previously seeing service in Countess Dracula and Twins of Evil, and the church in Taste the Blood of Dracula, The Scars of Dracula and Horror of Frankenstein — the Hammer team certainly knew how to make the most of what they had! It has got that particularly British attitude to sex which has prevented so many of this country's horror films from reaching the levels of delirium (or depths of depravity, depending on your view) found in many of their European counterparts by the likes of Jean Rollin and Jesus Franco. And, before I put you off the "typical Hammer film" completely, it's also got a good orchestral score, though this one is courtesy of David Whitaker, not Philip Martell, than the name most commonly associated with Hammer film music.

But, in other ways, Vampire Circus is an atypical Hammer film. It avoids the "monster-savant" format — seen in most of the company's Dracula cycle, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Kiss of the Vampire, The Plague of the Zombies, The Devil Rides Out and others — going instead with a more ensemble based, polyphonic, approach instead. It is also more fantastique than the majority of the studio's output, adding a general aura of unease to the usual blood and guts horror. These two deviations are, I think, linked: As a Peter Cushing style savant is not on hand to reassuringly explain the rules of vampirism and to despatch a Christopher Lee style monster at the movie's climax, both the burghers within the film and the audience watching it are left uncomfortably to their own devices. Neither we nor they are sure, on this occasion, of what is possible and what is not. Thus there is the tantalising prospect that perhaps this time evil will actually triumph.

Serendipity may have played a part in adding to the film's atmosphere as well. First time director Robert Young fell behind schedule. Some planned scenes remained unshot and the material already shot was reworked into a completed movie. Maybe the Vampire Circus that was intended would have been stronger on exposition and coherence, but weaker on fantastical atmosphere.

The absence of Hammer's star players from Vampire Circus gives the character actors a chance to shine, and most of them make the most of it. Some, like Thorley Walters, who plays the burgomaster, and David Prowse, who plays the circus strongman, were Hammer regulars. (Q: can you name another film, besides Star Wars, where Peter Cushing and David Prowse appeared together? A: They were also teamed in Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, Cushing as Frankenstein, of course, and Prowse as the monster.) Others, like John Moulder Brown, Adrienne Corri, and our guest this evening, Laurence Payne, were not, but might well be familiar faces from elsewhere. Indeed, one of the pleasures of Hammer films, and others like them is seeing those faces that are familiar from elsewhere. In Vampire Circus, for instance, there is also Lalla Ward, later to be Romana in Dr Who — the sort of place you would expect to see a Hammer alumnus — but also Anthony Corlan, later to apear (if memory serves me correctly), under a different name, in Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract — the sort of place you wouldn't.

Programme note by K H Brown