This movie is arguably Hammer’s best vampire movie of the 1970s. The company had found it’s regular franchises of Dracula and Frankenstein relegated to abysmal copies of their former selves. Both Horror of Frankenstein and Scars of Dracula had finally reached a nadir and focused on gratuitous sex, bloodthirsty gore and schoolboy humour to sell their image. On the distaff side, Tudor Gates had inaugurated overt lesbian sex into the proceedings in screenplays based on JS Lefanu’s Carmilla. The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil introduced movie goers to a believable account of the unlife of Carmilla Karnstein. Ingrid pitt’s reputation would be cemented as the Queen of the Horror movie.
Vampire Circus came along seemingly to add a balance that was missing. The townspeople of Schettel finally brew up the courage to destroy Count Mitterhouse after the disappearance of a number of local children. Charging his castle with flaming torches and wooden stakes, the vampire is dispatched in a great opening featurette. Before dying, he places a curse on the town and it’s people, vowing that they and their families will be destroyed to return him to life. The castle burns to the ground and we follow the season changes – approximately fifteen years – beneath the unfolding titles, presided over by the ghost of Mitterhouse. When we see the town again, it is ravaged by plague and guarded by stormtroopers and roadblocks.
Impervious to these setbacks is the Circus of Nights as it enters the town and raises the spirits of the townsfolk. The acts perform incredible stunts and feats of magic that belie the senses. Twin acrobats literally transform into the leathery-winged mammals and a man morphs into a large Panther. A hunter captures a snake girl as his own in an imaginitive dance routine and the patrons are offered the chance to view their future in the mirror of life. The Burgomeister is the first to see the real reason for the appearance of the circus. They are vampires, led by the cousin of Count Mitterhouse, and they have come to drain the town dry.
At the time of release, Vampire Circus was derided because of its theme concerning the disappearance of local children. Many made parallels with the recent events of the Moors Murders in England and Sir James Carreras himself condemned the film as being ‘sick -making material!’ These are statements that do hold weight when watching the movie and Vampire Circus belies strong studio interference. Having no name stars in its cast list is to the movies credit. Hammer veteran Thorley Walters turns up as the dotty Burgomeister and Adrienne Corri as the Ringmistress gets all the best lines: “Why have you come?” she is asked.
“To steal the money from dead men’s eyes!”
But Anthony Corlan and Robert Tayman take the honours as the bad boy vampires. Tayman’s Count seduces the wives of the townsfolk and then boasts to the husbands openly confessing that he gave their bored spouse, “only what she wanted!” and leaving his naked conquests writhing on a four poster bed, begging him to come back. Anthony Corlan, the much-altered hero from Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969), preys on young schoolgirls with his tales of his travelling exploits to so many places before fanging them under his circus tent. Later, transformed into a large panther, he hunts down people who have paid the gypsies to cross through the roadblock, flinging them hither and thither while the psychotically-deranged dwarf giggles maniacally. At the end of the movie, the unmasked vampires are cornered by the townsfolk and Mitterhouse is destroyed again by the young hero John Moulder-Brown.
First time director Robert Young brought flresh blood into his script that, on closer inspection, could have been found in the vaults of Universal studios. The travelling Circus of Horrors had appeared in House of Frankenstein in 1944 and the rhubarbing villagers, complete with flaming torches and dotty Burgomaster were regular Universal staples. When I watch Vampire Circus I lament the waste of an underused talent. Had Hammer given Young full rein and let him elaborate on the ideas only hinted at in the movie they would have finished with a film that possibly would have ranked amongst the ten best vampire movies of all time. Perhaps an enterprising entrepreneur will refashion Young’s script for the remake treatment and give us back a vampire franchise with real bite?!