A formative part of my horror movie watching experience was growing up with movies from England’s Hammer Studios playing on the late show. Watching Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and others do their stuff in dark castles and creepy laboratories helped make me what I am today. Unfortunately, due to the statute of limitations, I am unable to sue them over it. Hammer’s blend of blood (a bright red so striking it came to be known as “Hammer Red”), monsters and generally good English acting struck a strongly favorable note with the horror film watch. Oh, yes, you can throw “breasts” into the mix, as by the early 1970s, Hammer pictures featured quite a series of topless actresses, which I, uh, may have noticed. The general opinion is the sex was amped up due to a decline in favor of Hammer’s historical Gothic films in favor of more realistic modern films such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist.
Though Hammer has been gone for over thirty years (there are periodic rumors of a revival, but it hasn’t happened yet), my love for their films has not diminished with time. Despite this, there are a few movies that are difficult to come by, and that I have only seen for the first time recently. One such film is Vampire Circus, a movie I had looked for since seeing stills from it in the equally missed Famous Monsters of Filmland.
Vampire Circus is set in Hammer’s stock MittelEuropa, a location in the indeterminate past where everyone speaks English with a British accent, but everyone uses German titles and names. In a typical small village, the local count is preying on the children of the village, but he isn’t your run of the mill pedophile. Rather, Count Mitterhaus is a vampire, feeding off the children while carrying on a very human affair with the wife of the local school teacher. Eventually, he goes a Child Too Far, and the mostly cowardly townsfolk rise up and stake him.
Fifteen years later, the town is quarantined due to a plague, when a traveling circus rolls into town. The circus itself is pretty lame, but this is before television was invented, so the diseased villagers turn out to watch the show. Bad idea. It seems the main attraction, a guy who can turn back and forth into a panther, and two acrobats are also vampires. In fact, the main guy is the cousin of the late Count Mitterhaus, and has come to get revenge on the townsfolk and to raise his kinsman from the dead, which seems pretty easy to do if said dead person is a vampire.
Finally, the townspeople get hip to the fiendish plan and battle the undead carnies and the risen count. There is one of the more obvious identity twists in the history of film. Oh, and the plague subplot is quickly resolved when the doctor returns from the big city to tell them don’t worry, it’s just an unknown, extra-powerful form of rabies. That would worry me big time, but hell, they only had 84 minutes for the story, they had to wrap things up.
So how does Vampire Circus compare with Hammer’s better known efforts? Not that well, I’m afraid. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s missing many of the touches that elevated others from the studio. The art direction and visual style, usually a Hammer strong point, is dull and generic here. Most of the cast is quite competent, but the movie misses the star quality of Lee or Cushing. The most recognizable faces/names in the cast are David Prowse as the strongman, who was the guy inside Darth Vader’s suit, and Robin Sachs as one of the acrobats, who is best known for playing lovable villain Ethan Rayne on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I don’t mean to come down too hard on Robert Tayman, who played Count Mitterhaus, but when he was in vamp mode, he looked more ridiculous than menacing:
See what I mean?
At the end of the day, the blood is still bright red and the bosoms are still heaving (don’t bosoms always heave?). This is a decent enough flick, but it is a far cry from Hammer’s best.