TITLE: Vampire Circus (1972)
YEAR RELEASED: 1972
DIRECTOR: Robert Young
CAST: Adrienne Corri, Anthony Higgins, John Moulder-Brown, Thorley Walters, Lalla Ward, Robin Sachs, Lynne Frederick
RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES reviews Hammer’s Vampire Circus (1972)
It’s interesting in retrospect that, despite approaching the end of their active life as a production company, the original incarnation of Hammer actually enjoyed a remarkably prolific period from 1970 to 73, as the company tried out several variations on existing themes with somewhat mixed results. This particular item pointed towards some tantalising directions which would sadly never get the chance of further exploration.
We open as a girl playing in the woods is approached by a lady who turns out to be her mother. She takes her child to the home of Count Mitterhaus. It seems the good lady (the wife of the local schoolteacher) has become an all too willing participant in some murderous activities, as the Count has been preying on the children in the town of Stetl. Realising that his wife has been complicit, the teacher (Laurence Payne) manages to rally together the menfolk to destroy the Count and end the evil which plagues them.
Incredibly, we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet, this elongated prologue almost acting as a supporting feature in its own right. It leaves the rest of the film with plenty to live up to, but director Robert Young manages it by changing the tempo once the movie proper gets going, and we see the townsfolk some years down the line: decimated by a deadly plague, cut off and isolated by the roadblocks of surrounding villages, they are amazed and somewhat relieved when a travelling circus arrives in the town square. After all, if this troupe have managed to get in, surely it is possible for them to get out?
This isn’t your common and garden bunch of performing acts, mind you. They have a sinister ulterior motive, not to mention a novel range of unusual talents at their disposal. Several members of the company can morph into animals. In what might be a nod to 1942’s Cat People, the enigmatic Emil (Anthony Corlan) is able to become a black panther. It becomes clear that the group are exacting revenge for the demise of Count Mitterhaus as they enchant the younger members of the community, abetted by a sinister Hall Of Mirrors attraction which can do more than just distort you view…
Whilst Vampire Circus isn’t a perfect film, and perhaps suffers slightly by trying to cover too many story strands in its slim running time, conversely it’s this very abundance of ideas which helps to make it so intriguing, its sheer exuberance and striking set pieces winning the day. The juxtaposition of the circus imagery with the by-then established Hammer vampire lore makes for a fascinating hybrid. Comfortably in the company’s house style, the fresher touches fit in nicely – a tracking shot where Emil changes form whilst running up a flight of stairs still stands up remarkably well.
With a distinguished cast, which also includes Hammer stalwart Thorley Walters as the bumbling town burgomeister, Vampire Circus stands as one of the most pleasing and enjoyable entries from Hammer’s early-70’s. Surely a film ripe for revisiting (or a “re-imagining” as they like to call it these days), there’s enough ideas here for a trilogy at least.
RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES lives with his wife close to the Dorset Coast. He spends far too much of his spare time watching horror films and listening to psychedelic music (sometimes simultaneously). He also writes on Movies, Music, TV and other matters for his blog, The Purple Patch. You can follow him on Twitter @PurplePatchBlog