I attribute this to the first time my parents took me the supposedly greatest show on Earth, and right before my toddler eyes, a trapeze artist experienced an “oops” moment and fell to his death.
Even if that hadn’t happened, there’s always the clowns.
So I’m down with the sinister vibe of “Vampire Circus,” a twisted, yet still uncharacteristic 1972 offering from the legendary Hammer Films. As a sign of the then-changing times, it’s more provocative than some of its predecessors — and right from the start, with credits that read in part, “and introducing Milovan and Serena,” which sounds nothing if not exotic.
In the opening sequence, the lair of vampire Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman, “House of Whipcord”) is infiltrated by torch-bearing members of the nearby village’s angry populace for seducing their women and murdering their kids, so they kill him, but not before he curses them and vows revenge.
Fifteen years later, he comes back to town under the guise of a traveling circus. The families are excited to attend this outdoor attraction of animals and acrobatics. Oh, and the tiger lady — a woman whose nude body is painted with stripes, and who dances provocatively in front of impressionable eyes, even shuddering at one point as if in the throes of one wild orgasm.
Needless to say, this circus isn’t about cotton candy. It’s about a face-peeling midget clown who laughs maniacally over the trickery in store for the village, as Mitterhaus and company swoop in for snacks. With a panther attack, a really good beheading, and a funhouse that’s anything but, “Vampire Circus” is a hot ticket — if not for the villagers, certainly for horror fans.
Robert Young’s film is full of dreamy atmospherics and a lush operatic score that combine to create a mood that hypnotizes nearly as effectively as its brigade of bloodsuckers. Suggesting more than it actually shows — although it does show plenty — the unrated flick nonetheless carries a streak of nastiness that spices up its 19th-century setting.
According to the documentary on its making, “Vampire Circus” was undertaken by some “horror film virgins,” which likely was to its benefit. It goes further than most Hammer releases, as if its creators went with an “all-in” approach, just in case they never got to make another. With no Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing in sight, it’s like the parents leaving for the weekend, and when the cat’s away …
The doc is interesting on several levels, including a brief bit on its censorship in Japan (if only to hear Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas utter the phrase “monstrous pubic bush”).
Synapse’s fine Blu-ray release is notable not just for a superb cut of the movie, but for the wealth of special features — some of the most entertaining and forward-thinking I’ve seen in a while. One 15-minute featurette branches out to cover the history of horror films incorporating carnival-esque aspects (including such nuggets as “Freaks,” “7 Faces of Dr. Lao” and “House of Frankenstein”), while a briefer bit looks at the long-dead House of Hammer magazine, a British publication with painted covers and comic adaptations. I would’ve loved to get my hands on some of those issues, and while this disc repurposes the mag’s “Vampire Circus” adaptation as a motion comic, it’s not quite the same experience. —Rod Lott