***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras A-
starring Adrienne Corri, Laurence Payne, Thorley Walters, Anthony Corlan
screenplay by Judson Kinberg
directed by Robert Young
by Jefferson Robbins I'm risking all kinds of things here, not least the prospect of becoming That Guy At FFC Who Finds Too Much Depth In Hammer Horror Movies, but this is my take: Vampire Circus is about the plight of the Jews in Christian Europe. I rubbed my eyes and swabbed my ears at first, but attentive viewing didn't dispel this impression. And looking at Hammer's entire output in the fright genre, it seems like a logical consequence. The British studio always made shockers that grappled with subtext, but by 1972, Hammer was fighting for life. Its bread-and-butter franchises had been comedically pricked five years earlier by Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, which threatened to bleed gothic horror of its frights just as Blazing Saddles would soon gutshoot the Western. As Hammer's market power waned and it threw open the doors to more explicit sex and more visceral gore, some larger story ideas were bound to creep in.
The central European borough of Schtettel is beleaguered by the seductive Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman), who rules through fear from his castle at its outskirts and kidnaps local children for evening snacks. A young wife in thrall (Domini Blythe) is caught delivering schoolgirls to the nobleman, the serfs storm the castle, and there you have an opening sequence that, in any other movie, would be the entire plot. But the remainder of Vampire Circus finds the village, fifteen years later, coping with the aftershocks of its uprising. Besieged by plague, blockaded in by the fearful residents of nearby settlements, the burghers believe their ills stem from the curse Count Mitterhaus called down with a stake through his heart: that their children will die to give him life. Enter the touring Circus of Nights, featuring acrobat siblings (Robin Sachs and Lalla Ward), a malevolent dwarf (Skip Martin), and a strongman (David Prowse, natch). The town embraces the caravan as a distraction from its slow death. Of course, these carnies are all kinfolk or co-conspirators of the dead Count, here to carry out his posthumous will under the guise of thanato-erotic entertainment.
Where are the parallels to European Jewry? They're here--half reengineered anti-Semitic lore, half echoes of history. The villagers revile and murder a charismatic, supernaturally endowed leader to whom their children flock. In Magdalenian fashion, they beat and harrow the townswoman who fell into Mitterhaus's bed. They ask themselves forever after whether his origins were truly paranormal, or merely mundane. Mitterhaus's curse clicks with "His blood be on us and on our children" from Matthew 27:25 and the passion-play slander that verse engendered. The Schtettel-dwellers--their town's name so similar to shtetl, a rural Jewish enclave--become feared as carriers of plague and bad luck. Their neighbours shoot them on sight if they stray from their territory. Then comes the circus, devout army of the undead Count, to pull their future up by the root. It would be going too far to suggest the filmmakers truly saw Jews as the executioners of Jesus (they weren't), or Jesus as a child-killing vampire (he probably wasn't), or Christianity as a blood-drinking cult (it sort of is), but allegory is how we smuggle political or artistic expression past the censors and, sometimes, past the senses. Vampire Circus is a pulp pogrom, an emigrant's horror story recast as a "horror" story--the oldest method we have of exorcising the harms done to a culture.
The movie complicates this reading by making vampirism inordinately seductive, building on Christopher Lee's lady-ravishing bloodsucker from Horror of Dracula and its numerous sequels. Tayman is a worthy successor in this regard, all bedroom eyes, glam-rock clothes, and cheekbones that could cut Robert Pattinson to shreds. It's telling that these creatures are able to have sex as well as drink blood, rather than doing the one in lieu of the other. The murder of the child in Mitterhaus's castle is, in fact, foreplay to his lovemaking with Blythe's seduced goodwife, and all the child murders take on pedophiliac weight. One of the most potent scenes is the dance of the circus's Tiger Woman (half of the duo billed only as Milovan and Serena), completely nude or near enough, which likewise arouses the audience of villagers. The Count's cousin, the shape-shifting Emil (Anthony Corlan), entices the burgomeister's daughter into his bed. Vampire Circus takes pains to underline the sex/death intersection represented by its creatures, who still quail before a boldly-brandished crucifix. Another filter to obfuscate the metaphor: the villains are portrayed as gypsies, the only caste in Europe held lower than the Jews. Interestingly, nothing in the script by American screenwriter Judson Kinberg (from a concept by George Baxt) points to any kind of life-beyond-death through these vampires. They're an oversexed but murderous species all their own, and their victims don't get up to walk around again. The only resurrection to be won is that of Mitterhaus himself, in a fiendish satire of the blood libel--foreign butchers stealing children's blood to invoke a dark and blasphemous god.
It's tempting to point to Baxt, a daring American writer and child of Eastern European immigrants, as the source of any historical analogy. Yet he disavowed much contribution beyond the title, leaving us with Kinberg, whose online biography is scant. If I'm reading his intentions right, he acted bravely. For his part, director Robert Young manages to defy Hammer's penny-pinching house style of flat, eye-level shooting. He deploys low and overhead angles, intricate blocking and dolly shots, and surrealist imagery--with real bats! His trump card, however, is editor Peter Musgrave, a pro at the quick cut who turns Corlan into a big cat while in motion up a flight of stairs and further fetishizes the Tiger Woman's dance with parallel footage of the circus animals. The whole cast, including Hammer mainstays like Thorley Walters and Adrienne Corri, displays commitment up to their rolling eyeballs, aware that they're playing melodrama and that look and posture are seventy percent of their characters. I'd give a pint of plasma to know if any of them drew certain connections upon reading the script.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Hammer's distribution deals were all over the map, and their dealings with different markets submitted them to different levels of censorship. When Vampire Circus arrived in the U.S. via Twentieth Century Fox, it was whittled of numerous boobs (two of them the Tiger Woman's) to reach a PG rating. Synapse Films' Blu-ray edition revives the fleshy, bloody UK release for a level of presentation that Hammer's most elegant thrillers have been praying for--and haven't gotten from bigger vendors. There's filmic grain to be sure in the pillarboxed 1.66:1, 1080p transfer, and some scenes were simply lensed too darkly to pop in the HD format. But there's ruddiness in the cheeks of the town fathers, furious orange in the flames that destroy Mitterhaus's keep, and smooth ivory in Blythe's naked torso as she luxuriates all over Tayman. It's probably the best possible restoration of a budget scare spectacle from this era. The mono soundtrack has been remastered in 2.0 DTS-HD, thickening it enough so that Pro-Logic playback sounds natural and lively. (A second, isolated music-and-effects track lets David Whitaker's score sing for itself; it may be one of the most thoughtful and evocative suites composed for a Hammer joint.) There's no subtitle option and there's no commentary--things even the most coaster-worthy Hammer DVDs pimped by Warner Bros. usually offer--but I'll take the trade-off. The film itself gets proper respect, finally.
The Ballyhoo Motion Pictures production house steers the disc's special features, leading off with "The Bloodiest Show on Earth: Making Vampire Circus" (33 mins., HD). Filmmaker Joe Dante, Hammer scholar Ted Newsom, film historian Philip Nutman, and others voice insights into the film's creation, distribution, and legacy. It's a thorough and quick-paced talking-head piece that explains how the creatively slumping studio (Dante describes 1970's Scars of Dracula as "shockingly crummy") bought external producer Wilbur Stark's suggestion for Vampire Circus. Newsom identifies Judson Kinberg as Jud Kinberg, a film and TV veteran hired on to flesh out Baxt's quickie title despite being "very much a virgin to horror films." The technical and historical aspects of the shoot--like the fact that Hammer's horror-loving executive Anthony Hinds had departed, orphaning the studio's fright legacy; or that the studio denied Young any spare time for needed insert shots and pickups--are deftly explored, mostly by Newsom.
Nutman is expert-in-residence on most remaining featurettes, starting with the breathless and overstuffed "Gallery of Grotesqueries: A Brief History of Circus Horror" (15 mins., HD), which isolates the carnival's place in horror movies from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Freaks and beyond. I think it oversells its premise a bit (and the presentation is way too rat-tat-tat for its own good), though it might have convinced me to seek out Freddie Francis's Torture Garden (1967). "Revisiting the HOUSE OF HAMMER: Britain's Legendary Horror Magazine" (10 mins., HD) looks at the HOUSE OF HAMMER fanzine, created by editor-publisher Dez Skinn and an early home to comics artists like Brian Bolland and John Bolton. There's no interview with Skinn himself, who went on to found and edit the keystone UK comics mag WARRIOR, although he's credited with providing a number of stills. "Vampire Circus Motion Comic Adaptation" (3 mins., HD) takes one of Bolland's strip adaptations for HOUSE OF HAMMER and, essentially, moves a camera over it. No voiceover dialogue? I'm not sure they understand what "motion comic" means. It's noteworthy that in Bolland's artwork, the child victim brought to Mitterhaus for consumption is rendered as a grown woman. Whitaker's score is used as the soundtrack.
Rounding things off: a two-minute photo and poster gallery that slideshows 21 images, also with score; and a two-and-a-half minute theatrical trailer for Vampire Circus, remastered in HiDef. The complete Blu-ray content is duplicated on an enclosed DVD. Originally published: February 28, 2011.