1972 was a year in which Hammer Films brought in new talent – younger directors like Roger Young, producer Wilbur Stark – and attempted to bring life to the horror genre while trying to remain tied to the key shock figures that brought the company such success during the fifties and sixties.
Vampire Circus has vampires, but the studio’s historians in Synapse’s making-of featurette are correct in sizing up the film as a peculiar art house production in which newbie director & former documentarian Young was trying to pay homage to Ingmar Bergman and Frederico Felllini through striking visuals, and an atmosphere of a strange travelling circus.
Where the film succeeds is in its weird atmosphere and undercurrent of unspeakable, bloodless horrors – luring and killing children – not to mention the innately colourful aspect of a circus troupe making its way into a township shuttered by fears of a plague. A sense of isolation is furthered by the military locking off all access to and from the town, leaving people to rot, as well as the plague’s origins being tied to the curse of the town’s long-dead land baron, Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman).
The Count’s demise was the result of pure payback: fed up with losing their kids to his vampirical ways, the townsfolk kill their arrogant monster, but not before the Count utters a curse, dooming the perpetrators’ children and whole families to ruin.
There are several passing similarities to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes - Judson Kinberg’s script also deals with children corrupted by a mysterious carnival troupe – but apparently the story was designed around the film’s sellable title.
Young’s approach was goosing up the strangeness, most evident in the shape-shifting members of the circus capable of transforming between human and bat, tiger, or cougar forms. Not unlike Bradbury’s story, some of the creatures have been snagged by the circus ringleader, trapped and forced to perform as escapist entertainment for the similarly trapped townsfolk.
Being a Hammer film, however, if not British, the tone is far more sexual: the tigress in human form has the virtually naked actress body-painted with stripes and writhing in one particularly orgasmic moment; the cougar is Mitterhaus’ horny cousin Emil (Anthony Corlan), who seduces the mayor’s slutty daughter; and two bats are a pair of pseudo-teens that coax a pair of boys through a magic mirror into the cave where they’re doom has been carefully choreographed.
Kinberg performed a minor miracle in crafting a story based on a catchy title, but according to the Hammer historians in the featurette, studio exec Michael Carreras wasn’t pleased with Young’s pacing, and when the budget reached its max limit, production was deemed done – a decision that left the film noticeably hindered by a wonky structure, oddly edited scenes, and unfinished effects.
Vampire Circus feels incomplete because scene transitions are sometimes abrupt: one senses the loss of short bridge and dialogue scenes, as well as insets that would’ve flourished montages and added some visual stimulation.
For example, a lengthy scene in which the mayor and members who killed the Count debate a solution to the plague is covered in banal wide shots and spastic, discontinuous medium shots that scream amateur, and yet the circus performers’ transformation scenes are beautifully conceived and edited – perhaps the clearest indication Young’s version was never fully realized due to Carreras’ hatchet-approach (which later mucked up Shatter, a kung fu dud made two years later, in which original director Monte Hellman was junked, and the film’s coherence was at the mercy of Carreras).
Vampire Circus was trimmed down for its American release by original distributor Fox, losing a lot of the grisly violence that pushed most of the Count Mitterhaus scenes out of the picture, and rendered the finale incoherent.
Synapse’s HD transfer is made from an uncut print, restoring all of the gore and sexual impropriety, including the icky pedophilia undercurrent in the Mitterhaus prologue, where the townspeople interrupt what would’ve been a ménage a trios between the Count, his latest concubine Anna Mueller (the late Domini Blythe, quite comfy in her full birthday suit), and a local kiddie.
Even in its uncut state, Young’s film remains an uneven film whose moments of genuine eeriness are mucked up by some truly awful acting.
Robert Tayman’s fanged expressions before the Count digs into his victims are hammy, and his dialogue delivery lacks the edge which made Christopher Lee so convincing as a bloodsucker.
Anthony Corlan (Taste the Blood of Dracula) is fine as long as he too doesn’t speak or put on his ‘I’m going to bite you now’ visage, which resembles the kind of grimace made by a stage actor unaware of the camera’s power for unflattering magnification.
Those hypnotized by the film’s odd mix of artiness, camp, and risqué material will be pleased with this affectionate release, whereas more jaded (or rather cynical) Hammer fans might be disappointed by the hype.
The Blu-ray transfer is quite clean and free from unwanted compression, and although the picture brightness is less radiant than Hammer’s sixties productions, the greens and amber hues are surprising rich, as are the striking lighting effects for the carnival sequences.
The mono sound has been given a bit of extra oomph, making David Whitaker’s bass hits quite profound. A suite of score cues was previously released in a Hammer compilation CD, but the BR and DVD includes a mono music & effects mix, showcasing the score and a truly weird folk theme, performed on a hurdy-gurdy by the circus’ muscleman (played by David Prowse, who provides some great anecdotes of his entry into Hammer Films in the featurette).
The hurdy-gurdy tune is liberally applied in the making-of featurette, "The Bloodiest Show on Earth," which provides an excellent overview of the efforts by production chief Michael Carreras to reinvigorate the Hammer brand by bringing in new talent interested in giving old monsters new twists. Joe Dante is one of the film's fans opining on the weird mood, and why some of the fans feel it's one of the studio's better productions in spite of its incomplete feel and occasionally rough special effects.
Historian Philip Nutman also appears in "Grotesqueries," which provides a breezy chronology of circuses being used by filmmakers as menacing environs, and fertile grounds for evil forces, such as Tod Browning's Freaks (1932).
Nutman also appears in an intriguing tribute to House of Hammer, a tie-in magazine created by comic book impresario Dez Skinn that was part movie mag, part comic book, with adaptations of Hammer's prior films, including the R-rated titles which kids could finally see, via the compact graphic versions. (The magazine lasted 30 issues before folding, changing its name to Hammer’s House of Horror near the end.)
The only qualms with the featurettes are the sometimes hasty pacing, which mandated slicing away natural pauses in the narration, making the fact-filled track run far too fast.
This is a great launch for Synapse’s Hammer Horror Collection, with this release including a DVD replicating the same special features content as the BR, and the film’s striking poster art.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan