BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - Vampire Circus / Blu-ray Review

Hammer Films. Oooh. They're as much a part of my youth as trying to see mucky French films on BBC2 on a dodgy black and white portable, watching Monty Python with your baffled parents or reading James Herbert's The Fog during a maths lesson.

I caught the Hammer bug in my teens, in the mid 1970s, just as Dez Skinn unleashed The House of Hammer magazine and the titular film company sputtered on through regurgitated versions of television sit-coms and Dennis Wheatley adaptations.

Thankfully, those BBC horror double bills kept me up to speed and I knew my Bernard Robinson from my Roy Ashton, my Terence Fisher from my Roy Ward Baker. And thank God for Alan Frank's Horror Films published by Octopus Books in 1974. I voraciously devoured their back catalogue at every opportunity.

And now, with Hammer Time, I will be delving into the production company's archive and regularly reviewing a wide variety of their output - not just the horror films but also the thrillers, prehistoric epics, science fiction and war dramas that are all part of the Hammer legacy.

I see the Hammer 'late' period as a rather fertile one
The rule of thumb was that Hammer's output in the 1970s was pretty awful and that the company had lost its way (mind you I was a sucker for the On the Buses films as a kid) and that their incredible vitality and creativity had dried up come 1970. The view was that the market for horror films had undergone a dramatic change and Gothic was out while the American new wave of horror in Rosemary's Baby (1968), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Exorcist (1974) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was hot to trot.

Personally, I see the Hammer 'late' period as a rather fertile one. The venerable old guard of Anthony Hinds, Freddie Francis and Terence Fisher made way for younger directing bloods and seasoned writers from television with new ideas and producing partners.

These would include the rather dubious team of Michael Style and Harry Fine, who attempted to usher in the European eroticism of Jean Rollin with The Karnstein Trilogy of The Vampire Lovers (1970), Twins of Evil (1971) and Lust for a Vampire (1971), Brian Clemens who brought a stylish wit and sense of adventure to his work with the studio in Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (1974) or Peter Sasdy who injected a Freudian sub-text into Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Countess Dracula (1971) and Hands of the Ripper (1971).
...the fairy tale imagery of Cocteau and the naive visual trickery of Méliès
It was a very productive period in which Hammer boldly tried to reinvent itself, producing striking films that just couldn't find an audience at the time. One of this cadre was Vampire Circus. Directed by Robert Young and released in 1972, it is a film charged with eroticism and refreshes Hammer's own take on vampire mythology by fusing it with the sub-genre of the circus or carnival thriller, something that Synapse's new BD release of the film covers in one of the featurettes on the disc, noting how the film follows in the tradition of Freaks (1932) and Circus of Horrors (1960).

Young, whose background was in documentary and commercials, injected a Fellini-esque quality to the proceedings, a very European sensibility that made passing nods to the fairy tale imagery of Cocteau and the naive visual trickery of Méliès.

The idea for Vampire Circus came from Wilbur Stark (father of Koo) and George Baxt. Baxt, ironically, was the screenwriter for Circus of Horrors and had made some uncredited contributions to Hammer's The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958). Stark sold the idea to Hammer exec Michael Carreras and Baxt duly produced a treatment of the tale of the village of Schtettel, its children cursed in the dying words of vampire Count Mitterhaus 15 years previously, cut off by plague and suddenly visited by the strange 'Circus of Nights'. Gradually, the children of the village elders are murdered one by one, their blood used to revive the dormant Mitterhaus.

The scripting duties were handed over to Judson Kinberg, who already had production credits for The Magus (1968) The Collector (1965) and Reach for Glory (1962) to his credit. Nadja Regin, Carreras's script associate, looked over Kinberg's drafts and commented that the story had a "pathological obsession with children victims."

Even Hammer MD James Carreras indicated that if the script was shot as it was then half of it would likely end up on the cutting room floor and he pined for the subtleties of Hammer's earlier output. This perhaps also indicates the difficulty Hammer had in adjusting to the 'permissive' times in which it found itself. None of this was helped by Hammer's constant capitulation to the then stringent censoriousness of the BBFC.
...a slightly incoherent film full of startling visuals and attractive themes
The way Young tells his story perhaps also betrays his lack of feature directing experience. It is acknowledged that after starting the shoot on 9th August 1971 he simply ran out of time and couldn't complete the film within Hammer's fast turnaround of six weeks, leaving many key shots un-filmed. What we get is a slightly incoherent film full of startling visuals and attractive themes but one that also, despite a languid pace throughout the majority of the story, then rushes rather unsatisfactorily to its conclusion.

A long prologue, set in Schtettel some years before the events of the main story, describes the bloody reign of Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman but here dubbed with the silken tones of David de Keyser) and the film's theme of corruption of the innocent has its foundations here in a very unsettling sequence where the schoolmaster Müller (Laurence Payne as a late replacement for Anton Rodgers) observes his wife Anna 'procure' a young girl in the forest whom she then presents to Mitterhaus.

As Mitterhaus preys upon the girl, Young depicts Anna in the throes of sexual ecstasy, conflating the murder with paedophilia (heightened by the intercutting of scenes showing Mueller rounding up his neighbours on the same pre-text that Mitterhaus has been murdering many of their children), and this touches upon necrophilia too as Anna, clearly pent up by the death of the girl, then makes love to Mitterhaus (after he has emphasised this theme with his "one lust feeds the other" line) in the obligatory nude scene that Hammer felt it necessary to include. It's ripe stuff even to this day and the mood is elevated by the full blooded (pardon the pun) romantic scoring from composer David Whitaker as Anna and Mitterhaus cavort in a series of slow motion dissolves.

Cue the angry mob storming the castle to interrupt this corrupted perversion (there is a very silly moment where Müller discovers the little girl's body, screams "she's been killed by a vampire" and about half a dozen extras simultaneously make the sign of the cross) and Mitterhaus fending off various attacks until Müller stakes him through the heart. He curses the villagers as he dies and Anna becomes the symbol upon which they then must inflict their anger where, as Jonathan Rigby observes in English Gothic, 'she is beaten not [just] because she's an accessory to child murder but merely because she's young, beautiful and sexually active'.
...seduced by the sexually ambivalent performers
Again, it's verging on the nasty and demonstrates how this particular film is both preposterously high-camp Hammer (Tayman overplays it madly) and censor defying cruelty, sex and violence. The BBFC's Stephen Murphy concurred and requested that much of the love-making, blood and the flagellation be cut or removed entirely. After Anna escapes, the castle is dynamited but not before the dying Mitterhaus instructs Anna to contact his cousin Emil and the 'Circus of Nights'. A powerful opening, perhaps containing some of the strongest material in a Hammer film to that date.

After the opening titles, the story then shifts a generation and we see the aforementioned circus arrive at Schtettel, now cut off from the surrounding villages and the city by plague. Here, director Young is in his element as the circus, led by a gutsy gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri) and populated by various artistes and animals, sets up camp, its baroque visuals accompanied by Whitaker's off-kilter barrel organ music cues. Young revels in the story's use of the circus and its occupants to fulfill Mitterhaus's curse as each night, the mayor (a suitably eccentric Thorley Walters), Müller and their 'innocent' children are corrupted and murdered by shape-changing vampires/animals and, trapped by their own guilt and repression, are seduced by the sexually ambivalent performers.

Müller's daughter Dora (Lynne Frederick - later to marry Peter Sellers) falls under the spell of Emil (Anthony Corlan, and by 1982 better known as the Anthony Higgins of Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract) a vampire who can shape change into a panther, despite her affection for the film's nominal young hero, Anton (the ineffectual male eye-candy John Moulder-Brown best known for Jerzy Skolimowski's superb Deep End) while various midgets, acrobats, muscle men (Dave Prowse) all do their bit to prevent anyone from escaping. something out of Papa Lazarou's own carnival in The League of Gentlemen
There are some remarkable touches here. Aerial artists are seen to instantly transform into bats (real ones, apparently) with simple but effective editing. A panther leaps through the air and becomes Mitterhaus's cousin, Emil, in order to seduce the mayor's daughter, Rosa. A painted exotic dancer, Serena thrills the audience and seems to go into orgasmic shudders as her partner literally whips her into a frenzy and then man-handles her. Young cuts away from her orgasm to show one of the caged tigers as it similarly thrashes in ecstasy and thus creates a link between the animal and the human forms in the film, filling them with feverish threat and sensuality. And bizarrely, like something out of Papa Lazarou's own carnival in The League of Gentlemen, the midget clown tears off his own painted face.

The sexual undertones are mixed liberally with a dark fairy tale motif and explore primal fears and desires through the vampire seductions, blood spattered forests and plague ridden villagers. The disintegration of the family and the anxieties of the generation gap are common themes in much of the Hammer oeuvre and it is not surprising that many commentators view the films as adult fairytales.

The symbolism achieves its most intense expression in the Mirror of Life scenes where initially the aged mayor peers into the hall of mirrors only to be confronted by a vision of Mitterhaus strangling and then biting him, his curse heard whispering over the soundtrack. Later, the hall of mirrors becomes a scene of sexual predation as the two acrobats Helga and Heinrich (a pre-Doctor Who Lalla Ward and the rather beautiful, androgynous Robin Sachs) appear before Gustav and Jon, the sons of village elder Hauser. They pull both boys through one of the mirrors, seducing and then murdering them. Again, it is a disturbing conflation of paedophilia and vampirism. This imagery is repeated when the two circus entertainers attempt to seduce and kill Anton and Dora.

The final battle sees Helga impaled by a giant crucifix and Heinrich, by dint of being her twin, suffering with her in sympatico. Adrienne Corri crawling across the floor, rasping " chiiiilllllldrennn! My chiiiilllllldrennn!" at the sight of her dead progeny, is both hilarious as camp value and rather poignant.What that poor woman must have been through. Her final reward is to be sacrificed by Emil and he also provides another moment of hilarity when Müller stakes him through the heart and Anthony Corlan displays a range of facial expressions that would put Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd to shame.

The body count piles up and eventually Müller and his remaining village elders realise that the gypsy woman is in fact the long forgotten Anna and that Mitterhaus is slaughtering their kin in order to rejuvenate himself. The film rushes to a rather ineffective climax, essentially a repetition of the opening prologue of torch bearing villagers tracking Mitterhaus to his lair before he can fully take his revenge. Mind you, I don't know why Mitterhaus bothers because as soon as he revives, looking for all the world like a vampire glam-rocker, his head's taken clean off by a crossbow.

A rather hurried conclusion despite the gory pile of bodies heaped up before the end titles roll and clearly bereft of the original visual and symbolic touches that Young brings to the earlier sections of the film. Still, the film has a feverish, edgy quality to it even if some of the performances are inept or pure ham and its potent visuals and ideas make it very much a standalone film in the Hammer canon.

Synapse present the film in a new, high definition transfer and this looks miles better than Carlton's previous Region 2 release. Note though that this is definitely locked for Region A and you'll need a multi-region Blu-ray player to play it back. Besides, you also get the whole package on DVD too so you can upgrade to HD later. When you do, you'll see that colour is vibrant and full and the picture is sharp. The transfer has some slight dirt and sparkles here and there but is overall very clean and crisp.

It is, however, a very dark picture and while the blacks are nice and inky and the contrast is excellent it is perhaps too dark for smaller monitors. The final shot of the bat flying above Mitterhaus's lair is lost simply because the contrast on the image is too heavy. That said, it's marvellous to see Hammer's back catalogue looking this good on Blu-ray. Synapse produce a very good package here and it is great to note that they have Twins of Evil and Hands of the Ripper lined up for Blu-ray in 2011.

Special Features

- The Bloodiest Show on Earth - Making 'Vampire Circus'
A half hour documentary that delves into the production of the film and featuring a wealth of anecdotes and insights from Tim Lucas, Ted Newsom and Philip Nutman, director Joe Dante and co-star David Prowse. 
- Gallery of Grotesques
An informative fifteen minute exploration of the circus horror sub-genre
- Isolated music and effects track
Not entirely sure I see the point of a soundtrack that has all the sound effects on it, none of the dialogue, mixed with David Whitaker's wonderful score. Give us the score on its own please.
- Visiting House Of Hammer: Britain’s Legendary Horror Magazine 
A ten minute homage to Dez Skinn's brilliant The House Of Hammer magazine. Lasting only 23 issues this was an essential purchase for the teenage Hammer fan in the 1970s. A lovely wallow in nostalgia.
- Vampire Circus: Motion Comic Book 
Naughty! The impression is that we get to see the whole of the comic adaptation of Vampire Circus by the legendary Brian Bolland from the pages of HoH. You don't. Well done in the way it mixes the comic book frames with Whitaker's score but it only covers the film's opening and therefore does not feature the circus at all! I demand to see the rest of it.

There is also a still and poster gallery and the original trailer.

Vampire Circus
Hammer / Rank 1972
Synapse BD SFD0100 / Blu-ray and DVD combo / Released 14 December 2010 / Region A -Locked
1.66:1 Anamorphic / 1080p / Running time: 87 mins / Not Rated / Colour
Audio: DTS-HD MA English 2.0 Mono / DTS-HD MA Music & Effects Track

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2 Responses to “BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - Vampire Circus / Blu-ray Review”
  1. Dez Skinn says:

    Blame me for the truncated comic strip. They had only a small budget for the extras and couldn't run to buying the rights to the whole thing. Brilliant overview of the film BTW. Best I've ever seen. Wish you'd been around and writing when I edited the magazine! And now the shameless plug: If you'd like background on House of Hammer, there's 23,000 words of it on my shiney new website...

  2. Dez! How fantastic you've seen the review and thank you for your kind comments too.

    I was around when you were editing the magazine but only as a spotty faced teenager. With little writing ability. If you ever want someone to write for you these days then get back to me!

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