Thursday, June 20, 2019

Vampire Circus (Great Britain, 1972)

Terse review: Passable Hammer film about, more or less, a vampire circus, that Hammer fans will probably like and others might find, more or less, cheesy.
Verbose Review: (Spoilers.) As Hammer points out at their website, despite the fact that only about a third of their films were traditional horror films, the name Hammer is nevertheless "synonymous with horror". Founded in 1934, the Hammer that most people "know" today was born in 1957, when it released its "first full colour creature feature" The Curse of Frankenstein. One of their best films and an undisputed classic, its massive success led the way to the almost as good Horror of Dracula (1958 / trailer) and the less than impressive The Mummy (1959), both of which were financially successful. Thanks to the subsequent regular release of lushly colored films of horror and terror and suspense that were to follow over the next 15 odd years, Hammer became forever associated with the concept of high quality, if perhaps sometimes extremely unsubtle, British horror.
Indeed, Hammer has long been a kind of Holy Cow: going by what many fans of Hammer horror films seem to believe, not only did Hammer never release a truly bad movie, but Hammer movies in general are beyond reproach. Dare we disagree? While we tend to find that it may be true that Hammer never released a movie that is completely un-enjoyable — after all, the color is always scrumptious, the acting normally convincing, the production design a visual delight, the visceral not lacking, and the babes and their cleavages (in the earlier movies) and/or naked breasts (in the later films) transcendentally droolable — we would say that not all their "classics" truly are perfect, and are often less than a "classic".
One of the biggest flaws behind this is often found in the scriptwriting department, where on occasion those writing often tended to play much too loosely or sloppily with plot developments that are, in the end, indefensible. (As in the mess that is the "classic" The Brides of Dracula [1960], for example, where the most unforgivably loose and sloppy narrative development is how Dr. Van Helsing [Peter Cushing], after being bitten by the vampire, prevents his own conversion by first burning the bite with a hot iron and then pouring a little holy water over it. Wonder if that would work with HIV.)
Vampire Circus, despite being one Hammer's less renown titles, is nevertheless often touted by Hammer-heads (is that a word?) as a latter-day classic. One of the firm's twilight releases, it hit the theaters around the same time as the far superior Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971) and the continually underrated Countess Dracula (1971 / trailer), the latter of which Vampire Circus often shared a double-bill. Though generally the second on the bill, the Ingrid Pitt horror is actually the better film.
Nevertheless, Vampire Circus is indeed a fun and entertaining movie, but much like the subsequent Hammer trash classic The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), it is actually enjoyable despite itself instead of for the sum of its whole. It in no way can seriously be called a good movie and in no way deserves being called a classic, but if the viewer remains in a forgiving mood, it can nonetheless remain an amusing viewing experience.* But to label it a classic does disservice to the true classics of Hammer's oeuvre (like the previously mentioned Curse of Frankenstein, for example, or Hammer's equally lush and effectively horrific Plague of the Zombies [1966 / trailer]), and thus should simply not be done. Vampire Circus, as fun as it is, is actually far more a prime example of a missed opportunity: a sloppy script, some questionable acting, and a possibly tight budget prevent it from coming anywhere close to being a truly effective (or affective) horror movie. (Some of the sets were supposedly recycled from the earlier and better vampire film, Twins of Evil [1971 / trailer] — but then, set recycling was always common in Hammer films.)
* We should perhaps say that with reserve. At the screening we saw, we were the only one of the five viewers in total for whom "Hammer Films" meant anything. Of the other four, all Hammer newbies, one enjoyed the movie for "its stupidity" while the other four dismissed it with "we've watched worse [movies]".
The basic plot involves a town which, at the instigation of the cuckolded schoolmaster Albert Muller (Laurence Payne [5 June 1919 – 23 Feb 2009], of The Crawling Eye [1958 / trailer] and The Tell-Tale Heart [1960 / trailer]), whose wife Anna (Domini Blythe [28 Aug 1947 – 15 Dec 2010]) has discovered she prefers the blood sausage of Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman, of House of Whipcord [1974 / trailer]), convinces the town that one too many child has gone missing and to destroy the Count. They do so, and though they seem to know the rule of the stake in the heart, they neither behead or burn him, and instead allow Anna to drag his body into a cellar crypt before, in what appears to be a somewhat budgetarily strained scene, they burn down the castle. Anna escapes in search of Mitterhaus's cousin Emil (Anthony Higgins, as Anthony Corlan, of Flavia, the Heretic [1974 / trailer], The Draughtsman's Contract [1982 / trailer] and Malice in Wonderland [2009 / trailer]), who "will know what to do".
A full 15 years later, when the town of Stetl* is being forcefully quarantined ("shoot to kill") due to a plague-like disease, she — now played by the MILFy Adrienne Corri (13 Nov 1930 – 13 March 2016, of Devil Girl from Mars [1954 / trailer], A Clockwork Orange [1971 / trailer], and Madhouse [1974 / trailer]) — finally rolls into town again as part of a gypsy circus called the Circus of the Night, the titular "vampire circus", to revenge and revive the Count. For the most part, however, the concentration is on revenge, for though the Count proves easy to revive in the end, she and Emil and the rest of the circus are far more interested, it seems, in playing with the intellectually challenged townspeople than un-staking the Count. (Indeed: one wonders, after the un-staking takes place and the Count rises, why she didn't simply pull out the stake 15 years earlier after she had dragged his body to the safety of the cellar crypt.)
* Interesting choice for a name: traditionally, "Shtetl" was the name often given in the 19th century to small, Eastern European towns populated primarily of Jews. As such, crosses should perhaps have been rarer in this film than they already are.
In terms of direction, it must be said that there have been stronger, more-assured directorial debuts than that of then-newbie Robert Young (whose later films include Blood Monkey [2007 / trailer] and Curse of the Phoenix [2014 / trailer]). Visually, his eye is strong enough, but he definitely let some odd characterization slip by, the most appalling being that of the almost comical Burgermeister (Thorley Walters [12 May 12 1913 – 6 July 1991, of Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace [1962], The Earth Dies Screaming [1964 / trailer], The Psychopath [1966 / trailer] and Trog [1970 / trailer], among other). And while the fangs of the various vampires look real and horrific enough, the width with which Young has the vampires open their mouths tends to draw giggles, especially when one can't help but notice the silver fillings on a back tooth or two. The big love scene between Anna and Count Mitterhaus is also rather anemic, hardly erotic or sensual at all unless you belong to the kind that has a kink for sniffing underarms — for that, however, the way Anna basically orgasms earlier at the sight of him sinking his teeth into the innocent child Jenny (Jane Derby) is indeed perversely sexual and somewhat unnerving.
More so than Young's inexperience as a director, the biggest failing to the film is undoubtedly the uneven, somewhat scattershot script credited to Jud Kinberg (7 July 1925 – 2 Nov 2016). Interestingly enough, Kinberg pulls is aspects of the vampire generally ignored by most vampire films — Emil, for example, is a shape-shifter and does much of his evil in the form of a black panther, often in daylight* — but, even as Kinberg allows some characters to have such knowledge as "put the stake in his heart", he denies them conscious knowledge of the need to behead and burn or that revival occurs when the stake is removed. Fellow vampire Emil, for example, who should "know what to do", doesn't even bother to pull out the stake from the Count's chest and, instead, simply concentrates on fulfilling the Count's curse by killing the townspeople and their children. An odd oversight, to say the least.
* As is generally ignored in modern lore but pointed out in Stoker's rather turgid novel Dracula, in which the titular vampire takes the form of an animal on occasion, vampires are merely weakened by daylight, not killed. Of course, one cannot help but question how much power is needed to maintain the form of a man-killing black panther, something Emil obviously has no problem doing at all in daylight, but the King of the Undead himself, Dracula, is unable to do so in the novel. Other noteworthy vampires of yesteryear — e.g., Lord Ruthven, Varney the Vampire and Camille — could also day walk, though shape-shifting was not among their talents. The concept that sunlight kills vampires first appeared in 1922 in the famous German silent film (and unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's novel), Nosferatu (film).
Equally odd is how the cross only seems to work when it is consciously perceived by the vampires. The film's nominal female heroine, the young and spunky Dora (Lynne Maria Frederick [25 July 1954 – 27 April 1994] of Saul Bass's Phase IV [1974 / trailer], Lucio Fulci's The Four of the Apocalypse... [1975 / German trailer] and Peter Walker's Schizo [1976 / shopping]), only survives the first kidnapping attempt of the acrobatic twin vampires Heinrich (Robin Sachs [5 Feb 1951 – 1 Feb 2013 of Ravager [1997 / German trailer]) and Helga (the enigmatic Lalla Ward) when the crucifix she is wearing is suddenly revealed. Believable — far more so, at least, than the fact mentioned in passing that the two young-adult vampires are the children of the non-vampire Gypsy Woman (nee Anna), who left the town only 15 years earlier. (One can only assume that the Woman/Anna was speaking metaphorically when she called them "My children".)
But to return to the Christian cross. What is less comprehensible is what transpires one of the film's later big scenes, the second attempt of the two vampires to get her, when she takes refuge in a school chapel, which the twins have no problem entering despite it being, in theory, hallowed ground. Not only that, they only react to the huge cross high in the chapel's arches after Dora stands directly next to it, a bit as if "out of sight, no power". And that the huge cross needs to puncture but one breast to kill two vampires is also an anomaly that causes some head-scratching. (Prior to this scene, however, the film positively induces guffaws of laughter by suddenly introducing a bunch of unseen-but-heard boarding students laughing and partying loudly upstairs — in a town that is being decimated by the plague!?!)
If all that were not flawed enough, the narrative promptly sees the core human "good guy" characters make yet another illogical and laughter-inducing action that can only lead to the assumption that the entire town is inhabited by sub-intelligent people: although the school has been proven an unsafe place of refuge — not only have the party-happy students been slaughtered, but seconds before both Dora and the movie's young male hero Anton (John Moulder-Brown of Deep End [1970 / trailer] and The House that Screamed [1970 / trailer]) just barely escaped certain death at the hands of invasive vampires — Dora and a nonary (perhaps duodenary) character named Gerta (Elizabeth Seal of Menahem Golan's Mack the Knife [1989 / trailer]) are left there again, weaponless, "for their safety" while all the men runs off to attack the circus. Needless to say, not only do they not stay safe very long, but Gerta is soon history…
The bodycount of Vampire Circus is high, and many of the deaths are both affective and brutal, if not bloody and/or violent (if perhaps not quite as bloody and violent as they would be in a film made today). Plus points must be given to the movie for being one that has absolutely no qualms about killing the kids — but then, the death of families was specified in Count Mitterhaus's dead-side curse. But amidst the bodies that fall, the deaths of two extremely negligible adult characters do stick out as truly what-the-fuck and senseless, if only because their demise is so illogical.
To explain: from its initial appearance, it is obvious that not all the members of the Circus of the Night, which we learn later from Dr. Kersch (Richard Owens [26 Sept 1931 – 3 Nov 2015]) has left a trail of vampiric deaths in its trail, are vampires. Aside from the Gypsy Woman (nee Anna), there are the loyal circus dwarf Michael (Skip Martin [28 March 1928 – 4 Nov 1984] of The Masque of the Red Death [1964] and the cult fav Horror Hospital [1973 / trailer]) and the equally loyal-till-death hot-bodied strongman (David Prowse of Russ Meyer's Blacksnake [1973 / trailer], and both The Horror of Frankenstein[1970 / trailer] and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell [1974 / trailer]). And, one assumes, the Webers (Milovan and Serena*), the circus's two dancers that perform an animal-and-whip-themed erotic dance that in real life would surely have seen them pilloried at that day and age (a dance scene cut from the original stateside release of the movie). One assumes that such decadent dancers were not simply picked up along the way by the circus, but were part of the team long enough to know their employers and, in all likelihood, be as loyal as the rest of the team. So where is the logic in the two-second scene close to the film's end that shows the dancers bitten, blood-drained and dead beneath a circus wagon? Looks and feels more like a scriptwriter was simply desperate to get rid of minor two characters…
* The NSFW blogspot Drink Me All, which once had the photos to the then couple's "steamy" layout in the May 1971 issue of the British men's rag, Men Only, says "Milovan and Serena were performers at the Raymond Revuebar in Soho that year [1971]. […] There is no clue as to their nationality, other than Milovan's Balkan name. It does say that they met when they were both working at the Folies Bergere in Paris. Milovan had another dance partner at this point but it wasn't long before they became a couple on and off the stage. 'The fact that we love each other obviously adds to the conviction of our erotic movements on stage,' says Milovan in the text. […] The article finishes by noting that the two had just signed a contract to appear in Hammer Film's The Vampire Circus. In fact the sequence involving Milovan and Serena's dance was filmed in early September 1971 at Pinewood Studios and the film premiered on 20th April 1972." In Howard Maxford's book Hammer Complete, Maxford correctly states that "[Vampire Circus] appears to be the only film appearance of Milovan (full name Milovan Vesnitch)", but then promptly proceeds to confuse Serena the Dancer with Serena (Robinson) the American porn star… But, NO: The Serena of Vampire Circus is not a.k.a. Serena Blacklord | Serena Blacquelord | Serena Blaquelord | Blaquelourde | Jenn Gillian | Jen Gillian | Zarina Guillian | Shanna Kramer or Sirena, and definitely did not go on to appear in soft- and hardcore movies like Black Lolita (1975), Fantasm (1976, with the Great Uschi), Dracula Sucks (1979), Small Town Girls (1979), Olympic Fever (1979), Insatiable (1980), Aunt Peg (1980) and Trashi (1981). (Sorry, Maxford.)
OK, after all the above, one might assume that we think that Vampire Circus sucks empty jugulars on flaccid penises. Not true, although (as we already mentioned) most of those with whom we screened the movie do think that, more or less. We ourselves, on the other hand, simply think it is a highly flawed movie — and dislike how no one ever seems to want to mention the flaws, choosing instead to simply echo the "It's a classic" mantra. The script is simply too imperfect, the low budget too obvious, and the direction occasionally too unsure for Vampire Circus to truly be a classic.
On the other hand, it is a highly idiosyncratic movie that does on occasion defy its blemishes with flashes of perverse or horrific or visual brilliance. If you are a forgiving person and capable of turning a blind eye to the more gregarious faults of the movie, it becomes an entertaining and surprising oddity, and an intriguing and enjoyable filmic experience. Vampire Circus is simply not a movie for everyone — whether or not the film might be your cup of tea, you probably already know.
P.S.: As mentioned at the start of this review, Hammer fans will probably like Vampire Circus more than the average Joe. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that the Hammer-centric magazine Little Shoppe of Horrors has even dedicated an entire issue, #30, to the movie. Quote/unquote: "In 1971, Hammer Films produced a film that was a Grimm's fairy tale for its time, with images straight out of Fellini and Bergman. Vampire Circus was the first film for director Robert Young and filled with young performers and other actors not normally associated with Hammer horror films. But it was a knockout and a huge cult favorite to this day. LSoH gives you the complete behind-the-scenes story with interviews with all the key people in front of and behind the camera, most never interviewed before, in-depth, about the film. (Note: There is nudity in this issue, as there was in the movie.)"

2 comments:

Michael Grant said...

ūüŹÜ This Hammer Film "VAMPIRE CIRCUS" (1972) is a superb classic vampire movie. Rated PG when it was released in theaters, today it would instantly be rated HARD R for Nudity, Graphic Violence, and various perversions. Regardless, of your review, compared to vampire movies made over the last 20 years in modern watered-diwn comic book vampire movies... This movie is THE REAL DEAL. It is atmospheric, exciting, and very brutal. Certainly no where near its PG given rating. I saw it recently for Free on TUBI and I was very impressed. Your review shows some excellent pics, but your review was way way off the mark for this excellent cult classic

Abraham said...

Hi Michael, I'll agree to disagree on most of what you wrote (and would also like to thank you for writing like a real person with a different opinion instead of an internet troll). I like the film – and would even recommend it (with reservation) to genre fans – but tend to think the film (like many Hammer films) is given more respect than it deserves: it is good, but narratively flawed and unevenly acted. People who don't know what a Hammer film is (and, yes, a lot of people out there don't) tend to see that more than the aspects you or I might like in the movie. As for being a "Hard R", maybe — but an R it would definitely be. What was allowed in the PG films of the '70s to the '80s would, for the most part, no longer be allowed in a PG-13 of today... Hell, are boobs still allowed in R-rated films nowadays? (But if you like VC, give Twins of Evil a try. That is the real deal...)

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