One has to wonder why Count Mitterhaus, a vampire, hasn’t fed upon or turned his willing concubine, Anna Mueller, into one of the undead yet; but turns out he needs her as a familiar to go out into the daylight and lure young girls into his castle so he may feed on their virgin blood. And as our film proper gets rolling, Anna (Blythe) is at it again for her illicit lover when she snares young Jenny Schilt (Derby) out from under the not so watchful eye of Anna’s husband, Albert (Payne), who also serves as schoolmaster for the small Slavic village of Schtettel, which lives under the draconian rule of Mitterhaus.
Rumors and whispers of the Count being responsible for the plague of missing children suffered by the people of Schtettel have long been circulating for years, and yet no action has ever been taken. And so, it’s not so much the Count might be a vampire that causes the villagers to hesitate as Mueller tries to rally them after he followed Anna and the girl to the castle gates, but the fact Mitterhaus is a nobleman and they fear reprisals from the crown if they take action against him -- let alone drive a stake through his heart. And while they are already too late to save poor Jenny, as the dandy Mitterhaus (Tayman) feeds while his bitch, Anna, watches with orgasmic relish as the little girl dies, Mueller manages to at last goad the Bürgermeister (Walters) into action, and then joins in with the rest of the men from the village as they, torches and pitchforks in hand, storm the castle.
But breaching the castle turned out to be the easy part as an enraged Mitterhaus, who was in the middle of a post-feeding bonking with Anna, kills several of these vigilantes before Mueller manages to run him through with a wooden stake, bringing his reign of terror to an end -- but not before the vampire curses them with his last breath, promising all their children will one day die to bring him back to life. For her part in these heinous crimes, Anna is forced to run a gauntlet of angry townsfolk. But before she can be rightfully beaten to death, her husband, ever the idiot, intervenes on behalf of their infant daughter, thinking her mother might’ve been the victim of mesmerism and therefore not responsible. Actions that couldn’t be any more stupid unless they were necessary to make the plot work. And, hey, lookatthat, Anna uses this reprieve not to repent and beg forgiveness but to escape back into the castle to be with her undead lover.
Here, Mueller officially gives up on her, and the men let her go as they saturate the castle with black powder and prepare to blow it up and burn it all down. And as the kegs start to detonate above, and the castle falls down around her, Anna drags the still staked corpse into the lowest dungeon, and there places him in his coffin, where the blood from her wounds temporarily revives Mitterhaus, who tells her to seek out her cousin, Emil, and the “Circus of the Night” because he’ll know what to do. With that, Anna flees through a secret tunnel and is assumed dead once the castle is rendered to a smoking ruin.
Cut to fifteen years later after the removal of Mitterhaus, but instead of thriving Schtettel has been all but devastated by a terrible plague -- a plague so deadly the village has been put under a strict quarantine with enforced roadblocks in every direction with standing orders to shoot anyone trying to flee to keep the sickness contained. Now, the more superstitious of the villagers, the Bürgermeister included, fear this is all the result of Mitterhaus’ curse, but the town physician, Dr. Kersh (Owens), who arrived some time after the incident, dismisses this as nonsense. And while he has failed to properly diagnose the sickness and find a cure, Kersh intends to break through the blockade and return to his university in the capital, where he will consult with experts and, hopefully, return with an antidote. He leaves his son and apprentice, Anton (Moulder-Brown), in charge of his practice during his absence.
And before they split up on the road so Anton may draw off the guards so his father can slip through, the boy asks him to check on his girlfriend, Dora Mueller, the daughter of Albert and Anna, who is away at school, and tell her to continue to stay away from Schtettel until it is deemed safe. With that, the Kershes make their move and Anton returns to the village under a hail of gunfire, unsure if his father made it through or not.
Meantime, back in Schtettel, the Circus of the Night has just rolled into town. Led by an older gypsy woman, who is very coy on how she and her menagerie of animals and sideshow acts slipped by the roadblock, they are soon made welcome as a much needed distraction by the townsfolk from the usual pestilence and squalor. And so, the grandstand is packed on the first night as the Gypsy promises 100 delights, which includes a dwarf jester (Martin), a strong man (Prowse), a couple of acrobatic magicians, who seem to be able to transform into bats in mid-air and then back again, and a couple of animal acts, including another changeling, who claims he can turn into a panther.
But the highlight of the inaugural performance is Serena, a nude female covered in a striped body paint, who erotically dances to the crack of the whip of her trainer, which mesmerizes the audience both in attendance and those watching from their couches at home. And once the floor show concludes, the Gypsy invites one and all to visit her sideshow, including a Hall of Mirrors where one may take a peek into the Mirror of Life and see what the future holds for those brave enough to look -- for a price.
Only the Bürgermeister has the rubles to gain him, his wife, and daughter, Rosa, entrance. And while they are at first delighted by the distorted images of themselves that greet them, when they reach the Mirror of Life, the Bürgermeister sees a resurrected Count Mitterhaus in his future, mocking him from the other side; a vision so horrid and overwhelming the man collapses and must be carried off to the hospital. And while he recovers and no one pays much attention to his nonsensical ravings about the vampire’s curse coming true, the children of Schtettel start disappearing again...
No one can deny the seismic impact Hammer Films made with the two-punch combo of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958), which caused a paradigm shift in how horror films were viewed and made around the world with their bright and engaging Technicolor, the free-flowing blood, the tensile cleavage, and perhaps most importantly, and often overlooked, the re-engagement of adult audiences after nearly two decades of monster movies aimed mostly at teenagers.
But by 1970, Hammer had kinda lost their magic touch in this new cinematic world of Peckinpah and Romero, becoming dangerously quaint as their Dracula and Frankenstein series grew old and went to seed. And as they struggled to stay both relevant and solvent after a string of huge box-office disappointments, which lost them many production deals with American studios, the flailing brass at Hammer pulled out all the stops by adding even more blood and gore and eschewed the usual cleavage for the full monte along with a metric ton of explicit sexual content.
And in this effort to stay relevant, with noted director Terence Fisher all but retired, and long time screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, having flown the coop for America, the studio started bringing in new producers, writers, and directors to establish new franchises, resurrect a few old ones -- Quatermass and the Pit (1967), as well as trying new approaches with their long running serials -- Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972). Most of these efforts failed miserably at the box office. But with the release of The Vampire Lovers (1970), based loosely on Sheridan Le Fanu’s erotic tale of the female vampire, Carmilla, Hammer seemed to have tapped into a fresh sapphic vein but quickly bled it dry with the waning box office of Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Countess Dracula (1971). And under these circumstances, this kinda makes Robert Young’s Vampire Circus (1972) both a lame duck and a kitchen sink production as Hammer started throwing everything at the wall, hoping something, anything, would stick as quickly and as cheaply as possible.
The original idea for Vampire Circus came from George Baxt and Wilbur Stark. Baxt was a screenwriter who had penned the likes of The Shadow of the Cat (1961) and Circus of Horrors (1960), while Stark was an expatriate American television producer currently living in England and eking out a living as an independent film producer. Stark was a bit notorious in the tabloids for having to pay off some English Lord to stop canoodling with his underage daughter. And so, he kinda needed some money, and he knew Michael Carreras, son of Hammer Studio boss, James Carreras, and gave him a 24-page treatment he and Baxt concocted. And while his father found it to be too bloody, he signed off on the film with Stark as a producer, who commissioned Judson Kinberg to expand his treatment into a screenplay.
Kinberg’s finished script was fairly nasty, highly misogynistic, with a “pathological obsession with underage victims,” said script editor, Nadja Regin, who felt the opening hewed a little too close to the true crime Moor Murders of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, and therefore, in very poor taste. James Carreras agreed, saying, “If shot as scripted, 50% will end up on the cutting room floor.” He would also later lament, “What’s happened to the great vampire/Dracula subjects we used to make without all this unnecessary gore and sick-making material?” I honestly don’t know if the irony of this statement was lost on him or not.
But Carreras would prove right as the British censor went berserk and gutted the film, including a scene of Anna and Mitterhaus rutting in the gore of the dead girl during the opening sequence. (American censors would hammer it even further, leaving in the gore but taking out all the sex and nudity.) But even beyond the gore and sex, Vampire Circus was full of ambitions and interesting concepts that it couldn't even come close to pulling off properly. For while the idea of vampires hiding out in a circus, using their shape-changing abilities to wow the peasantry seems sound, as these same superstitious folks watch as people turn into cats and bats without even attempting to show it’s all a parlor trick, surely someone would’ve become suspicious of the Black Aarts being involved and the circus burned to the ground by now. But, nope, in Schtettel, and don’t call me Shirley, the good folks just watch, slack-jawed, as the impossible happens before their very eyes.
And even as their children start disappearing at the exact same moment the Circus of the Night came to town, these people, who’ve already killed one vampire, can’t put two and two together. And this is just one of many spoonfuls of vinegar the movie keeps expecting you to swallow to make the plot work. Does it assume we are this dumb and gullible, too? Probably. Sure, there was a token attempt by the circus to throw off the scent by helping return two lost boys when they first arrived, but Emil (Higgins) and the Gypsy (Corri), who, to the surprise of no one, will turn out to be Anna all long, have already visited the crypt under the castle ruin, where the preserved corpse of Mitterhaus still rests, where they promise to fulfill his curse, kill all the children, and bring him back to life.
This begins, ironically enough, when those same two rescued boys, Jon and Gustav Hauser, are lured back into the Hall of Mirrors by the acrobat twins, Heinrich and Helga (Sachs, Ward), who use the magic mirror to transport the boys to the crypt, where they are summarily slaughtered and their blood given to Mitterhaus. But it’s not enough.
Meantime, Dora Mueller, despite the pleas to stay away, is currently trying to make her way back into Schtettel to reunite with her beloved Anton on foot. And as she avoids the roads and the sentries, she stumbles upon the grisly dismembered remains of the Schlit family, who had tried to escape earlier under the direction of the malevolent dwarf from the circus, who led them into a trap, where Emil, in panther mode, tore them to pieces.
And when she brings word of this, as well as the discovery of the remains of the Hauser children, their grieving father and the Bürgermeister, thinking an escaped circus animal was responsible for both incidents, go on a shooting rampage and gun down most of the caged animals, except for the panther, which manages to escape. But then the Bürgermeister drops dead of a heart attack after he blasts Emil and his direct hit has no effect. And with her father out of the way, Emil easily seduces Rosa with a promise of running away with him and the circus, only to wind up in the crypt, too, and tapped like some obscene keg. And with that, one more victim ought to finish up the resurrection ritual.
Obviously, these vampires are targeting the children of the men who killed Mitterhaus. Thus, that makes Dora the next viable target. And when she and Anton are invited into the Hall of Mirrors by the Gypsy, where Dora is pulled through the portal by the twins, the only thing that saves her from certain doom is the large crucifix she wears, which gets her expelled back through the mirror and into the waiting arms of a very stressed-out Anton. The couple then seeks refuge at the school. And while they hole up as the vampires lay siege, Emil kills all the boarding students rather noisily off-screen to draw Anton away from their true prey, leaving her to Heinrich and Helga after the Gypsy removes the crucifix from her neck. But Dora manages to flee into the chapel, where the twins are overwhelmed by the huge cross over the altar, which the girl manages to topple over on top of the vampire siblings, destroying them both.
With no longer any doubts that the Circus of the Night is infested with vampires, Albert and Anton leave Dora in the care of Gerta Hauser (Seal), while her husband joins them in rounding up a mob to burn the circus to the ground to avenge their sons. But after the men leave, the circus strong man breaks down the door at the behest of the Gypsy, crushes the useless crucifix vainly used to try and stop him, kidnaps both women, and deposits them in the crypt where the Gypsy and Emil are waiting.
Meanwhile, Dr. Kersh has successfully returned from the capital with an armed escort and an antidote. Seems he and his colleagues finally diagnosed the plague running rampant through Schtettel was a rare form of rabies spread by the bite of bats. But he is too late to apologize to the Burgomeister, having also found out that vampirism is fact and vampires are a real thing, having heard confirmed tales of their dastardly deeds in other surrounding communities, who also just happened to be visited by the Circus of the Night during these outbreaks.
And so, Dr. Kersh leaves it to the soldiers to distribute the medicine to the infected while he joins the others to finish off this vampire circus. And this purge begins with the strong man being brutally gunned down by an angry mob of villagers, who also finish off the rest of the animals and set fire to everything -- including Hauser, who is putting a torch to the Hall of Mirrors. But in the Mirror of Life he sees the Gypsy and Emil bleeding his dead wife into Mitterhaus’ coffin, and Dora appears to be next in line, and is so overwhelmed by this grotesque sight he literally sets himself on fire.
Luckily, Hauser survives long enough to clue the others in on what the Gypsy is up to. Meantime, as Emil prepares to tear Dora’s neck open, the Gypsy, bafflingly overcome with remorse, throws herself on top of the girl and gets her own neck savaged. And as the Gypsy dies, she *gasp* reverts back to Anna. (*pfffffft* Whatever. I don’t buy this motherly change of heart for a second, and it makes no sense at all given the character we’ve seen. More on this blatant stupidity in a sec.) Meanwhile, Anton has impatiently left the others, who were trying to tunnel into the crypt, and has managed to navigate his way through the ruin, killed the ambushing dwarf, and at last reaches the crypt in time to save Dora -- at least temporarily, as Emil prevents them from fleeing back the way he came.
But, the cavalry manages to break their way in. Emil proves very formidable, though, as he kills or incapacitates the entire mob -- but not before they manage to kill a rather large bat that I’m gonna assume was the main cause of the plague in a subplot that kinda got lost in the shuffle. (One of many. Man this film has got a lot of explaining to do.) And the vampire is about to kill Mueller, too, but Dora’s father manages to extract the stake from Mitterhaus as his neck is fatally pierced and plunges it into Emil, killing him, before he expires.
Alas, this is a bit of a tactical blunder as Mitterhaus absorbs all the spilled blood from the battle and, with the stake removed, is now back on his feet and nearly at full strength. And after he mops up what’s left of the rabble, he attacks Dora and Anton, the only two left standing, who uses Mueller’s crossbow as a makeshift crucifix to hold Mitterhaus at bay, and then manages to yoke the Count with the weapon and pulls the trigger, which causes the bowstring to (rather comically) decapitate Mitterhaus against the prod, ending the vampire threat for good,
Like with nearly all of Hammer’s films from this period Vampire Circus would be yet another in a long line of troubled productions. Filming began in early August, 1971, and things quickly went downhill from there. This would be Robert Young’s first crack at the director’s chair, and he struggled mightily from the get go to keep up with Hammer’s tight production schedule as he constantly got hung up on getting the animals to cooperate on camera to make the movie work. Producer Stark’s constant meddling didn’t help either. And when the production reached the end of its allotted six week shooting schedule, the film wasn’t finished with several key scenes yet to be shot. But there was just no money to continue, and the younger Carreras felt they had enough, turned the finished footage over to editor Peter Musgrave and told him to make a finished film out of what he had. And to Musgrave’s credit, he was able to pull something fairly cohesive out of this mess despite a lot of dangling plot threads left unresolved.
Young would later claim he needed just one more day of shooting to shore things up. To my eyes, though, it looks like it could’ve used at least another week if not more. Look, the general conceit of Vampire Circus is very intriguing; believe me, I get that. I understand why people dig this movie. And maybe if it was made during Hammer’s glory days, with a decent budget, and a more assured director, and a more polished script that eliminated at least half of the dozen or so subplots, then, Vampire Circus might’ve been something special instead of being something offbeat and different because, in my book, offbeat and different doesn’t automatically make it any good.
I don’t know, I tend to detest films like this that require characters to be THAT stupid to make the plot work. That’s just lazy script writing at its worst. And this is made doubly worse because a lot of problems could’ve easily been fixed in the script. In Wayne Kinsey’s invaluable book, Hammer Films: The Elstree Years, the author dug up and published all of editor Nadja Regin’s initial reactions and suggestions to shore up Kinberg’s salacious script. “After a good beginning it loses clarity, becomes repetitive and monotonous, [and] leads to a diluted fragmented finale which is almost a replica of the introduction … If this repetition is avoided, the screenplay will not be long enough for a full length film.” As for the characters, she liked some but felt most “remained an indifferent number of names.” Sentiments I echo wholeheartedly.
Regin also suggested the character of Anna not be a willing participant of Mitterhaus’ atrocities and instead be another unwitting victim. “Anna’s character would, in my opinion, be far more credible if she were possessed by the Count rather than obsessed with him. Her passionate hatred of the village and villagers can remain, but should not extend into perversion and the sacrifice of her own daughter.” This could’ve worked beautifully, especially if the villagers and her own husband failed to realize this and nearly kill the woman for her philandering collaboration in these child murders. Barely escaping death, she would be primed to seek revenge and ready to listen to the mostly dead Count’s offer of mutual retribution. This would also make the climax work a helluva lot better:
“[This] could become a rather dramatic conflict, the point where she cannot obey the Count in spite of Emil’s efforts to prevail his will over her … creating an agonizing dilemma in Anna which is finally resolved with the willing sacrifice of her own life to save her daughter” -- a sacrifice we could totally get behind instead of scoffing at the Oh, bullshit, moment we actually got. I honestly don’t mind that we never find out how Anna changed her appearance; that’s not really important and the character has far worse flaws to attend to first. Besides, without this contrivance we wouldn’t have gotten such a wonderful performance out of Adrienne Corri as the bitter Gypsy woman. She’s the boss, applesauce, and all of her vampire troupe fall readily in line behind her. Again, a willingly and pure evil character is fine, but, that kind of character does not work with the film’s scripted ending at all, making this all even more stupid.
Regin also addresses another major bone of contention where the script doesn’t jive with the villagers too easy acceptance of the Circus of the Night. “Additional touches of building up suspense by using more magic effects, more color, horror scenes which prove harmless in order to mask the real horror of Anna’s revenge.” Seriously. All the film needed was a brief scene to show the smoke and mirrors of how this low-rent Cirque du Soleil COULD’VE pulled these stunts off without, you know, actually turning into a panther to avoid any suspicion. The fact these vampires keep drawing so much attention to themselves and their preternatural abilities is an off-putting kind of arrogance matched only by the villagers willful ignorance. Again, this is all in service just to make the damned lazy plot work easier, and I might even let something like that slide if the film tried a little harder in other areas, which it simply did not do.
Of course, all of Regin’s suggestions were summarily ignored by Stark and Young. And on top of being complete idiots, all the protagonists and townsfolk are uninteresting drips. And the only one with any salt or potential, Richard Owens’ Dr. Kersh, disappears for most of the film, leaving us with Laurence Payne and John Moulder-Brown to carry the freight and, believe me, these two guys couldn’t hold Peter Cushing’s jock strap.
And then there’s the circus troupe and vampires. For all save one, whom we’ll be addressing in a second, acquit themselves just fine even if their fangs are comically out of proportion. I liked how they can turn into different animals -- and I assumed Serena was a were-tiger of sorts until the last second reveal that she and her partner were tagged as a quick bite before hitting the road. But honestly, the thing that absolutely sinks this movie for me is Robert Tayman’s take on Count Mitterhaus. For I have no idea what this blinged out glam rock mop-topped dandy was doing in 19th century Bulgaria. I’m sorry, when I look at this guy, all I see is Z-Man from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and all credibility as a horror movie is chucked right out the window. And his ultimate demise, while definitely unique, probably wasn’t intended to make me giggle.
And on top of all these tactical script and character missteps, the rest of the production looks very cheap, haphazard, and inconsistent as some sequences show more polish than others -- I’ll assume the squicky prologue was in the can first before all the money ran out. The film was shot at Pinewood studios, using leftover sets from Twins of Evil (1971) and Countess Dracula (1971) but just like everything else, they were kinda wasted by Young’s tepid direction and Moray Grant’s lackluster camerawork. Things heat up a bit when the boobs come out and the blood starts flowing, with a few cool stakings and murder set-pieces; but they just can’t carry the film and are kinda betrayed by the strict use of in-camera not-so-special effects, which consisted mostly of some clumsy edits and jump-cuts, where everything would freeze for a nanosecond, then cut, and suddenly, a vampire would appear on screen. BOO! All the animal transformations were done with these same rapid cutaways because anything else simply wasn’t in the budget.
Luckily not all of Hammer’s productions in the 1970s came out this turgid. I love Twins of Evil, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), Fear in the Night (1972), Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974) and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) for heaven's sake, which all faced the same low budgets, tight shooting schedules, and the latter day stigma of being awful and pale shadows of what the company used to produce. I’ve stated before that some of my favorite Hammer films have nothing to do with Fisher, Sangster, Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing -- The Reptile (1966) and Plague of the Zombies (1966) being two personal favorites. And if it wasn’t obvious already, Vampire Circus is not one of them. I don’t hate this film, I just don’t like it very much. And the fact that it had so much potential to be something extraordinary, and maybe keep the studio solvent for at least a little while longer before it pulled the plug in 1979, but was instead utterly wasted on what we got makes this film an even bigger disappointment.
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Vampire Circus (1972) Hammer Films :: The Rank Organization :: 20th Century Fox / EP: Michael Carreras / P: Wilbur Stark / D: Robert Young / W: Judson Kinberg / C: Moray Grant E: Peter Musgrave / M: David Whitaker / S: Adrienne Corri, Thorley Walters, Anthony Higgins, John Moulder-Brown, Laurence Payne