Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sunday Review: Vampire Circus (1972)

    Remember when vampires didn’t sparkle in the sunlight and stalk mumbly teenage girls?

    By the time the 1970’s rolled around, Hammer was in decline. Once the leader in boundary-pushing Gothic horror, the fall of the Hollywood studios and the elimination of the Hayes code made their films look quaint and dated by comparison, and it seemed audiences were growing tired of foggy Victorian locales and the coiffed, frilly-collared vampires who populated them. More importantly, they were becoming stale - sticking to a once-successful formula but having long milked it dry of what once made the early films so special. In a desperate attempt to save the fledgling studio, Hammer upped the sex and violent quotient, and began to stretch their horror output beyond the dwindling Frankenstein and Dracula sequels.

    Thus, we have Vampire Circus, a Gothic horror mishmash of vampires and carnies; not entirely successful, but still a whole lot of fun for longtime Hammer fans. The movie begins with a fifteen minute scene that could be expanded into a movie all its own. A small-town teacher witnesses his wife take a little girl into the castle of the vampire Count Miterhaus, whose evil has long plagued their small town. Shocked and horrified by his wife’s betrayal, the teacher leads a rabble of the town’s leaders, who proceed to burn down the Mitterhaus’ castle and drive a stake through his heart. Fifteen years later, and the town is beset by a vicious plague and under strict quarantine from the authorities, when a traveling circus makes their way through town, which may or may not be vampires who may or may not have a connection to Count Mitterhaus (spoilers: they are, and they do).

    I don’t know why exactly carnivals and circus’ have provided ideal settings for horror films throughout the years, but there is something undeniably creepy about the circus in general. Perhaps it’s due to a shared methodology with horror stories, in that both depend on the suffering of others for entertainment value. Animals are locked away in small cages, freaks are bandied about to show off their differing attributes; even clowns exist to be laughed at for their foolishness, whether put-upon or not. Whatever the case, Vampire Circus makes the most of its sideshow attractions, giving us vampire acrobats, a strong-man (played by Darth Vader himself, David Prowse), a mean little dwarf, and another vampire that can turn into a jaguar and charm young women at the same time.

    The atmosphere is nice, and the visuals are sumptuous, but the story ambles through one too many plot points that periodically disappear and reappear at random. The production went over-budget, and was stopped midway through, resulting in director Robert Young piecing together what he could from what he had. Considering this, the film is rather impressive in that it comes together to become mostly coherent, although with more than a few discrepancies - such as the subplot about the plague which ultimately goes nowhere. But the main attraction are the horror set-pieces, which are excellently handled here with a gore and nudity quotient that was heretofore unseen in  Hammer productions. The blood flows plentifully and the breasts are bared regularly - sometimes in utmost disturbing fashion. The main thrust of the plot revolves around the vampires taking the townspeople’s children, and several scenes involving children in peril are especially creepy and disturbing, even to this day. That atmosphere of dread hangs over the entire picture, further enhanced by some of the best kills of the Hammer oeuvre, such as when a crossbow is thrown over a vampire’s head and fired, resulting in a nifty decapitation by bow-string.

    The upped sex and gore breathed a brief amount of life into Hammer Films for a short while, but ultimately couldn’t save the studio from bankruptcy later in the decade. But at least we got gems such as Vampire Circus before they went off into the sunset (although fear not - Hammer is back nowadays and still putting out quality product).

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