As the Hammer Age of Horror came crashing down, the studio became more inventive, bloody, and sexual, leaving a notorious but at least interesting body of work that captures the low-rent occult sensibilities peculiar to the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Perhaps the most interesting artifact is this bizarre but compelling cult film.
The cast includes David Prowse, who would gain fame as Darth Vader, Lalla Ward, who later accompanied the Fourth Doctor on and off-screen, Robin Sachs, accomplished actor who acquired numerous genre credits from Buffy the Vampire Slayer1 to Galaxy Quest, Adrienne Corri, probably best-remembered for a minor role in A Clockwork Orange, and Skip Martin, who haunted the era's low-budget horrors.
The plot begins memorably, takes some original twists, and then ends as a fairly typical traditional vampire tale. A town somewhere in nineteenth century Europe dispenses with an evil count (of course he's a count) who has a local woman in thrall and a thirst for children's blood. Fifteen years later during an outbreak of plague, the Count's associates descend upon the town, disguised as a traveling circus. Their plan? Prey on the town (children especially) and revive their staked patriarch. Meanwhile, a wise, rationalist doctor (Richard Owens) makes a run through the quarantine to get medicines that will help heal the plague.
The opening sets the tone, with period trappings, fairly blatant and decidedly twisted erotica involving the Count's thrall, and child endangerment. We're on uncomfortable emotional and thematic territory, even if the physical setting seems familiar. We're in the mittel-Europe of Universal and Hammer Studios, with diverse historic and cultural elements blended into a recognizable but unreal place where supernatural horrors walk the earth.2 And where, apparently, exotic dancers qualify as family entertainment. The film maintains a dream-like quality, especially once the Circus of Nights arrives.
The wicked circus that this way comes gives the vampires and their associates a reason to be in town and about after sunset, when performances occur. The artists, including some real-life circus folk, are spellbinding, and offer some new twists on vampire magic. In addition to bats, it seems some of the undead can transform into tigers and panthers.
The quality of the effects varies quite a bit. Vampire Circus features some impressive visuals, but most of the effects are low-budget and fairly obvious. At one point, a disturbing and suspenseful child abduction gets interrupted and undermined by a really bad jump-cut.
Hammer regularly employed stage-trained actors who often acquit themselves well, despite rushed shooting schedules and overwrought dialogue. Domini Blythe's Anna has presence, at least, while Skip Martin gives one of his most memorable performances, as a clown weirdly reminiscent of Cabaret's MC. It's 70s Hammer, of course, so, just as surely as blood will flow, scenery will be manducated.
The plot features some gaps, but the whole holds together as a piece.3 We definitely have a film that manages to be greater than its parts. Despite unevenness and a low budget, the blend of traditional horror, dreamlike elements, and softcore erotica works. If you want to understand the studio's appeal in its latter days, watch the original Wicker Man— and this movie.4 Despite numerous flaws and problematic editing, Vampire Circus proves greater than the sum of its low-budget, exploitative parts, a compelling if imperfect piece deserving of its cult status.
Director: Robert Young
Writers: Jud Kinberg, George Baxt, and Wilbur Stark
Editor: Peter Musgrave
Adrienne Corri as Gypsy Woman
Thorley Walters as Bürgermeister of Stitl
Anthony Higgins as Emil
John Moulder-Brown as Anton Kersh
Laurence Payne as Albert Müeller
Richard Owens as Dr. Kersh
Lynne Frederick as Dora Müeller
Domini Blythe as Anna Müeller
Robert Tayman as Count Mitterhaus
Lalla Ward as Helga
Skip Martin as Michael
Elizabeth Seal as Gerta Hauser
Robin Hunter as Albert Hauser
John Bown as Schilt
Mary Wimbush as Elvira
Christine Paul as Rosa
Robin Sachs as Heinrich
David Prowse as Strongman
Roderick Shaw as Jon Hauser
Barnaby Shaw as Gustav Hauser
Milovan Vesnitch as male exotic dancer
Serena as female exotic dancer
Jane Derby as Jenny Schilt
Sibylla Kay as Mrs. Schilt
Dorothy Frere as Grandma Schilt
1. Sachs, twenty when he made this film, played Ethan Rayne, a character from Rupert Giles's dark past. The show's flashbacks to the early 70s strike me as echoing the style of period Hammer.
2. Several sources state the film takes place in nineteenth-century Serbia. If the film indicates this is the case, I missed it. The costume and set elements are stock Hammer, which borrowed liberally from Universal's old monster movies.
3. Some of the story's oddities resulted from production being shut down before they could film all planned scenes. The studio instructed the editor to make a finished product out of what they had. A discussion of the film and its production problems appears in Gary A. Smith's Vampire Films of the 1970s: Dracula to Blacula and Every Fang Between (2017).
4. The Vampire Lovers, the first, best, and least-exploitative of Hammer's Karnstein Trilogy, makes a reasonable third.