Have to admit, its a hell of a title for a movie. These days I suspect people come up with titles like that and only then do they go about writing a script for it. But I dare say the story or idea came first in this case, followed by the title later. I mean, this is Hammer, they shot these horror films almost by routine. Even for Hammer, though, Vampire Circus is a thoroughly nasty film. You can tell it was made at a time when audiences had had enough of implied horror and instead wanted it graphic and sensational. Its funny, as when I was a kid the Hammer films seemed pretty graphic but watching them again decades later they are really quite tame, which actually affords them some longevity. They work as horror films by holding back, the viewers imagination doing the rest. By the time Hammer’s later output came around, people didn’t want to ‘work’ at their horror films any more, no longer wanted to use their imagination to fill in the grisly gaps. This was a new decade, the ‘seventies, and horror films were going to get gorier and nastier, eventually leaving Hammer behind. Vampire Circus, like other Hammer films of the time (Twins of Evil, The Vampire Lovers etc) was Hammer trying to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak, and unfortunately it means losing some of the gothic charm and atmosphere that makes the earlier Hammer films so great. The rich gothic ‘look’ of the Draculas and Frankensteins was out, as was the gravitas of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, instead replaced by lots of gore and nudity- no longer was the horror and sex implied, instead its fairly graphic (for the time anyway). The funny thing is, these days (younger) horror fans find much to enjoy in Vampire Circus– they might find the older ‘classic’ Hammers old-fashioned and tame, and instead Vampire Circus more to their tastes- indeed, Vampire Circus seems to be widely appreciated these days. Each to their own I guess.
The weird thing is,I can imagine a remake of Vampire Circus being a huge success. The story isn’t too bad at all, the problem with the film is really in its execution- the film is a little clumsy, a case of Hammer not really succeeding at making a non-Hammer movie. The production is too small; the shooting schedule obviously too ambitious and the cast not always right for their roles. In earlier Hammer films, some of these faults could be forgiven by the class acting of, say, Peter Cushing, the smart character-driven direction of Terence Fisher and the rich gothic visual charms of the films. But Cushing is gone, Fisher isn’t directing and the gothic look has been dropped in favour of being more ‘modern’ and graphic.
The film begins with a child abduction, in which the horror is quite palpable as the father searches the woods for his daughter who has been led away by Anna (Domini Blythe), one of the women of his village who, it turns out, is having an adulterous affair with a vampire Count. Anna has been taking children to evil Count Mitterhaus ((Robert Tayman) so he can feed on them. This whole pre-titles sequence is very effective and horrific; Vampires feeding on children is a pretty bad low, and a wife and mother willing to facilitate this for her own misguided love affair is pretty monstrous. But its undermined in execution- Tayman is a pretty uncharismatic Vampire, lacking any kind of sex appeal. Blythe is great as his lover/servant, though once the sequence is over we don’t see her again, her part being taken by Adrienne Corri as Anna eventually returns in some kind of magical disguise. This being a mistake to me, as though Corri is fine enough she suffers in comparison to Blythe, and it breaks any continuity with Anna’s character. More on this in a moment.
The villagers rise up at this latest child abduction/murder and attack the Count, eventually killing him and burning down the castle. Prior to his death though the Count dispatches Anna to find his cousin so that he can be returned to undead life again. Again, this sequence is staged rather awkwardly- we’ve seen it before in Hammer films and indeed done better than this. The problem might be that this is all still in the pre-title sequence, and you could likely make an entire movie out of this material. We have no involvement regards the villagers or the evil Count or indeed the motivations that drive Anna to such a despicable act. Better for this whole sequence to have formed the first half of the film- indeed, I think that would have made the second half more effective and involving. As it is, the majority of the film concerns events fifteen years later, when a circus arrives in the village. It is of course the Counts cousin, Emil, setting up a chain of events with the magically-disguised Anna, a tale of revenge that involves killing more children in order to bring the Count back from the dead.
With the overall story in mind its clear that the most interesting character in the film is Anna. Here is a woman cheating on her husband by having an affair with a vampire, actually feeding her lover children from her village. A woman/mother actually doing something like that, its an horrific but fascinating situation ripe for investigation. When her vampire lover is slain she embarks on a quest to bring him back, enlisting other vampires and returning to the village years later to wreak bloody revenge upon them. Its a hell of a storyline, and had Blythe played her throughout, and the film given her the central role the character deserved (was she hypnotised by the Count, wildly in love with him, or just plain crazy?) then it might have been a great film. I’d have preferred a film with forty minutes showing how Anna has fallen for the Count, betrayed her husband and fellow villagers, shown her arranging the deaths of a number of children from the village and only then had the village uprising. That would have left forty-plus minutes to show the vampire circus arriving and the vengeance against the villagers, finally thwarted with Anna’s death .A different movie I suppose, but one I would love to see.
As it is, the film has its moments, including a strange and surreal dance between Emil and a naked woman in tiger-paint. There is also a double-act of two Vampires that look like reject Elves from LOTR who leap about transforming into bats in mid-air or something. You get the sense that the film-makers were trying to stretch the traditional Hammer format and style, but it doesn’t quite work. And while it may be foolish to criticise a Hammer film for not making sense, some things bothered me nonetheless- Emil is a Vampire, but also has the ability to transform into a panther. A big bloody black panther. The transformation is done quite effectively really, but it rather confused me that this didn’t seem to concern the villagers- if I saw a panther suddenly change into a man I think I’d be screaming for the hills myself. The villagers just applaud; I guess they are supposed to think its all an illusion or something, I don’t know. But its certainly one of those WTF moments that break the movie. Considering that they were terrorised by a vampire years before, I think the villagers would be a bit more jumpy about any odd goings on. Besides, since when did vampires turn into jungle cats?