Watch enough Hammer horror movies, especially the vampire movies, and certain formulas and tropes become apparent. For example, many of the vampire movies begin in an idyllic, pastoral setting--a place intrinsic to the British cultural consciousness--that is then disrupted by the appearance of supernatural violence.
This is definitely the case in Vampire Circus (1972), directed by Robert Young. The film opens with a man out in nature, reading near the woods, while a young girl plays nearby. A woman begins to talk and play with the girl, and soon they disappear into the woods, while the man is distracted by his reading. He chases after them, but they go inside an old castle before he can catch up.
The castle is owned by Count Mittenhaus, a vampire who has beset the local village for years. The young girl is still in a state of happiness, unaware of the danger she is in until too late, when the Count bites her neck and drains her blood. Announcing, "One lust feeds the other," the Count then begins making out with the woman.
This opening scene is decadent and effectively chilling, and it sets up the rest of the movie well. It sets the stakes high by killing a kid within the first few minutes, and the unsettling mood created by this scene builds throughout the rest of the film. What I like most about Vampire Circus is that it comes very close to being the exact movie that I would want a film called "Vampire Circus" to be.
The man who witnessed the girl's kidnapping turns out to be the local schoolteacher, as well as the husband of the woman shacked up with the Count, and he gathers the village men to storm the castle. Many of these men have also lost their daughters to the Count, so emotions are running high.
When they get in, they are too late to save the girl, but after some grappling with the Count, they are able to bring down the vampire with a handy stake to the chest. Before he dies, the Count vows vengeance on the village that brought him down. The men then prepare to blow up the castle, but the schoolteacher's wife runs back in to take the Count's body deep into the catacombs and preserves his body.
The film then jumps ahead 15 years, when the village is beset by a plague and quarantined by the military. Some believe the plague is the manifestation of the Count's curse, while the local doctor and others seek a medical cure. In the midst of this, a mysterious circus arrives in town, somehow making their way past the roadblocks around town.
Circuses are inherently creepy, but this circus in particular has a series of bizarre acts that do not make it seem family friendly. The first act we see involves a naked woman painted like a snake, who fights a dude with a whip. At another point, a panther turns into a guy, and this does not set off signals that this might be a, you know, vampire circus. Even the weird twin acrobats who turn into actual bats don't set off any signals in the villagers. These villagers are basically the definition of easy marks.
There is also a little clown who is scary as hell.
Seriously, this guy
makes this guy
look like this guy:
The other performers in the troupe are creepy across the board. The panther man turns out to be Emil, the Count's cousin who is in the village for revenge. The acrobat twins clearly have some kind of incestuous relationship, plus they have some kind of Corsican Brothers deal where they feel each other's pain. Also, the female twin is played by Lalla Ward, who would later go on to be Mrs. Tom Baker and is currently Mrs. Richard Dawkins.
The cast is, in fact, filled with other performers who would go on to some notoriety. The mute circus strongman is played by David Prowse, who later played Darth Vader. And the primary female victim, Dora, went on to marry Peter Sellers and inherit his estate.
Vampire Circus is genuinely unsettling, with a real subversive quality. Tension builds through the effect that constant isolation and threat has on the village. The movie also paces the deaths well throughout, without any lapse in dramatic tension that many other Hammer films often get in the middle.
But it does have its flaws. A nice, suspenseful scene where a family tries to escape the village with the aid of the little clown is partially undermined when they are attacked by a very fake panther. Still, the fake panther kills the hell out of these people. Also, according to behind-the-scenes information on the making of this film, several key scenes weren't shot when budget problems arised, and there is a sense that some crucial information is missing.
The finale is also a mixed bag. A vampire is weakened when a crossbow is held up as a cross, which is just cheating. However, the moment is redeemed when the vampire is cleverly killed with said crossbow. Also, the villagers, with all their experience fighting vampires in the past, don't come to the final fight very well equipped. For one, you don't bring a gun to a vampire fight, and only one person seemed to think to bring a stake.
Still, the movie succeeds more than it fails, and even after almost 40 years, there is something truly unsettling about this movie. For one, children are constantly at risk in the film, and the opening shows the filmmakers' willingness to see that risk through to the gruesome end. Also, the circus itself is decadent and mysterious, and for most of the film, it seems as if the villagers can do nothing to stop it. And like The Vampire Lovers from two years earlier, Hammer continued to push the boundaries of sex and violence in this movie, but here it doesn't yet seem excessive, as it feeds the feeling of unrestrained evil that the circus presents.
Here's a look at the film's trailer:
Before I go, I'd want to comment on some sad news relevant to the films I've been discussing this week. Director Roy Ward Baker passed away today at the age of 93. Baker is probably best known for directing A Night to Remember, but I'm particularly fond of the many great films he did for Hammer studios, including Quatermass and the Pit, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Dracula Meets the 7 Golden Vampires, and the aforementioned The Vampire Lovers. Baker's audio-commentary on the Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde DVD is especially enlightening and gives a good sense of how Hammer films got made. RIP