CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: CLASSIC EDITION
VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: A crypt located beneath an old castle. L.L. SOARES lies stretched out on a slab, as MICHAEL ARRUDA stands above him, raising a wooden stake and preparing to plunge it into LS’s heart)
LS: Wait, wait. What are you doing? I was only sleeping!
MA: How do I know you’re only sleeping? How do I know you haven’t been turned into— a vampire!
LS: How about handing me that bag of circus peanuts over there?
MA: Sure. (Hands LS bag of circus peanuts).
LS: I’ve been sleeping so long I’ve built up an appetite. (opens bag and starts eating). Vampires, as you know, don’t eat food.
MA: Good point. Lucky for you, too. I was about to drive a stake through your heart.
LS: I know we disagree a lot, but that’s not reason to get violent!
MA: Sorry. All this vampire circus stuff has made me nervous. Speaking of which, how about we review this week’s movie?
LS: Okay, Since nothing of interest came out in the theaters this week, we ended up reviewing a “classic” of sorts – a vampire film from the legendary Hammer Studios called VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972). By the time this one came out, Hammer had already put out most of its best films, from CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and THE HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) to THE SCARS OF DRACULA (1970) to TWINS OF EVIL (1971).
Since this was later on in Hammer’s history, there’s more blood and nudity by this time. But, sadly, no big stars. Perhaps the biggest star in VAMPIRE CIRCUS is David Prowse, who plays the mute circus strongman. You might know him better as Darth Vader in the first three STAR WARS films. He was the man behind the black mask (with voice provided by James Earl Jones).
MA: He also played the Frankenstein monster in two Hammer Frankenstein movies, THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970), the only Hammer Frankenstein movie NOT to star Peter Cushing, and FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974), the final film in the Hammer FRANKENSTEIN series.
LS: And he was the muscleman who carried Patrick Magee around in the last half of Stanley Kubrick’s classic A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), my favorite Kubrick film. And, it just so happens, Adrienne Corri, who plays Magee’s wife in that movie, Mrs. Alexander (who is raped early on to the tune of “Singing in the Rain”), also played the gypsy woman in VAMPIRE CIRCUS! It’s a small world.
MA: And while you’re right to say there weren’t any big stars in this one, there were two familiar faces for Hammer Films aficionados. Hammer favorite Thorley Walters played the Burgermeister.
LS: The Burgermeister Meisterburger?
MA: No, not him. Anyway, Walters was in lots of Hammer Films, including DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966), in which he played a Renfield-type character named Ludwig, and FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967) where he played Baron Frankenstein’s faithful, but absent-minded assistant, Doctor Hertz.
Also, Anthony Corlan (now known as Anthony Higgins) played the vampire Emil, and he played the young hero in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970). Corlan’s actually very good in both movies, and I thought his vampire in VAMPIRE CIRCUS was one of the better parts of the movie.
So what did you think of VAMPIRE CIRCUS? Did it stand the test of time?
LS: I’d seen it as a kid, but I barely remembered any of it. The only scene that still stood out for me was one where a naked woman covered in stripes, like a tiger, fights a man in front of an audience (who happens to be Emil, the panther man).
MA: Yep. That’s the scene I remember, too.
LS: One thing I did notice about VAMPIRE CIRCUS though, is how weird it is. There’s a lot that makes absolutely no sense.
MA: Like what?
LS: Well, let’s start at the beginning. The movie starts out well enough.
MA: The movie starts out great! I think the pre-credit sequences might be the best part of the entire movie.
LS: A young girl is playing when she is approached by Anna Mueller (Domini Blythe) who leads the girl back to the castle of Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman), a vampire. It seems Anna does this pretty often and while she is not a vampire herself, she is the count’s lover (which leads to some nice nude scenes), and thus wants to provide him with nourishment. Anna’s husband, Albert (Laurence Payne), a school teacher, leads an uprising of villagers who break into the castle and stake the vampire. The villagers also punish Anna by whipping her with belts, but she gets away.
When the count is staked, he swears that the children of his attackers will die to bring him back to life.
MA: Now, all of this happens before we even see the title VAMPIRE CIRCUS. Like I said, it’s a pretty strong opening!
LS: Fifteen years later, the town is stricken with a plague that is slowly killing off its citizens. People from nearby villages establish road blocks to keep anyone from getting in and or out, and a doctor, Dr. Kersh (Richard Owens), risks his life to get out and seek medical supplies in the big city.
Some people believe the plague is the result of Count Mitterhau’s curse, although the more intelligent citizens deny any connection. It is about this time that a circus comes to town, The Circus of Nights, featuring a gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri), a dwarf in clown make-up, a strong man (David Prowse), dancers (Milovan and Serena Weber), and brother and sister twins who do an aerial act where they appear to turn into bats, named Helga (Lalla Ward) and Heinrich (Robin Sachs), and some exotic animals, including a tiger, a panther, and a chimpanzee.
It appears that the big cats are shape shifters of some kind and can turn into humans. The panther becomes Emil (Anthony Corlan), who seduces the local Burgermeister’s daughter. Emil, aside from sometimes being a panther, is also a vampire and the cousin of Count Mitterhaus, come back to resurrect his relative and exact revenge on the villagers who staked him.
Up until here, the movie appears to make sense, but as it goes on it just gets weirder and weirder.
For example, are the tiger and the panther shapeshifters or vampires? Emil certainly appears to be some kind of were-panther. The tiger just has one scene as that naked, striped girl (who is quite alluring), who does an erotic dance/battle with Emil as part of the show, and then is never seen again.
The new edition of VAMPIRE CIRCUS by Synapse Films offers the movie in both DVD and Blu-Ray format.
The gypsy woman, the dwarf and the strongman appear to be human (there’s even a moment where it is suggested that the gypsy woman is Albert’s former wife, Anna), and yet they help the vampires exact their revenge. And what about the Mirror of Life – a strange funhouse mirror that allows the vampires to lure in victims (they seem to emerge on the other side in the crypt where Count Mitterhaus lies staked and awaiting his resuscitation.
Albert Mueller’s daughter Dora (Lynne Frederick) returns home from the city (just barely avoiding getting killed by road block gunmen on her way through the woods), and she seems to be a big part of the Count’s revenge.
Then there is the scene where the villagers realize the circus is dangerous and plan to destroy it, yet right after that a full audience is watching the circus acts. Wouldn’t they have been warned to stay away?
MA: Yup, you’d think so. I felt the same way, and I think it’s because the script by Judson Kinberg isn’t very sharp at all. It’s as if the filmmakers came up with the concept— a circus full of vampires— and a central premise— they’ll be in a village to seek revenge upon the villagers for killing one of their own years before— but didn’t have a clue when it came to filling in the blanks. As you’ve pointed out, there are loose ends all over the place.
I read once that this one suffered from cuts which made it confusing when initially released, but I thought that the DVD/streaming versions available now were supposed to be the uncut versions. I think it’s just a bad script.
LS: Emil clearly transforms into a panther several times (and tears his victims apart), even though by the end it is clear that he is a vampire. So which is he? A vampire or a shape-shifter?
MA: This movie doesn’t differentiate between the two. In VAMPIRE CIRCUS, vampires can turn into other animals— not just bats. Which is kind of a neat when you think about it.
LS: Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I agree that it’s an interesting take on vampires. Also Emil and the twins are constantly dripping blood from their victims onto the body of the Count, which is supposed to revive him, but it seems to take forever.
MA: It’s also extremely fake-looking. The drops of blood look like cartoons.
LS: As the movie continues, less and less of it makes sense. And why didn’t they just pull the stake out of the Count instead of letting it stay there?
MA: I thought the same thing. If they have access to the Count’s body, why not just pull the stake out? It would have saved them a lot of trouble.
LS: And the way characters suddenly find crosses (or cross-shaped objects) at the last minute to ward off a vampire in any given scene gets kind of ludicrous after a while.
MA: Only Peter Cushing can get away with doing this. (laughs).
LS: The cast includes some Hammer regulars, like you said, and a couple of ladies who were more famous in England for who they married. The very pretty Lynne Frederick who plays Dora Mueller later gave up acting to marry Peter Sellers when he was much older, and after that, David Frost. Lalla Ward who plays the vampire “twin” Helga was also the second Romana on DR. WHO where she met Tom Baker (who was The Doctor at the time) and they were married for a brief time. She later married famous biologist (and controversial author) Richard Dawkins!
I didn’t think this was one of Hammer’s better films, but it is interesting at least.
What did you think of it, Michael?
MA: Yeah, I’m with you. Not one of Hammer’s best, but certainly interesting.
I absolutely love the opening to this movie and thought it was the best part of the entire film. It’s a really cool way to open the film. Sadly, the rest of the movie isn’t as good.
The dance sequence with the striped woman is certainly memorable, but that’s about it.
There’s plenty of blood and gore on hand, but it’s dated blood and gore. The blood looks like bright red paint and none of the gore sequences look all that convincing. The film’s heart is in the right place, but its effects are simply dated.
I did enjoy Anthony Corlan as the vampire Emil a lot. I thought he made for a very effective vampire. I also liked the way the movie looked. Hammer Films always looked like they were made on a huge budget, which they weren’t, but they never look cheap. VAMPIRE CIRCUS is no exception.
However, there were lots of things I didn’t like about this movie. I’ll start with the direction by Robert Young. I thought this film was dreadfully slow-paced, and during many of the action sequences, the players seemed to be moving in slow motion.
There really weren’t any scary scenes in this one either, and in many of the scenes that were supposed to be scary, the camera would settle on a reaction shot for far too long, which tells me a more graphic shot was cut out and replaced with a reaction shot.
Most of the actors in VAMPIRE CIRCUS overact here, which surprised me, because Hammer Films usually contain strong acting. Not so here, as I thought the acting was a definite weak link in this movie. I liked Corlan as Emil, and that’s about it. Even veteran Thorely Walters hams it up painfully as the Burgermeister.
VAMPIRE CIRCUS could have certainly used the talents of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, director Terence Fisher, and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster. It was not Hammer’s “A” Team working on this one.
And while the circus angle is different, the main story here, of the village preyed upon by a vampire, is nothing new. VAMPIRE CIRCUS suffered from having too many traditional elements— frightened villagers, vampires in castles, buxom maidens.
LS: What’s wrong with buxom maidens?
MA: Nothing. I just threw that in there to see if you were paying attention.
Also of note, VAMPIRE CIRCUS is rated PG, yet it contains nudity, bloodshed, and— while its dated-looking—considerable gore. It contains more horrific elements than many of today’s PG-13 movies. How times have changed!
LS: I didn’t know it was PG here. You’re right, that’s wild, since there’s lots of nudity. But I think in England it was rated X, as were most of the Hammer films, to keep anyone under 18 out of the theaters. What a weird contrast!
MA: Yup. It was rated PG upon its initial American release, and it’s still listed as PG today.
LS: By the way, there are also some cool extras on the Synapse Films version of the DVD/Blu-Ray, including a “Making Of Vampire Circus” short, the theatrical trailer (of course), and a reminiscence of the magazine HOUSE OF HAMMER, featuring lots of screen time by horror author and horror film historian, Phillip Nutman—a friend of our site here.
MA: Cool. So, all in all, I found VAMPIRE CIRCUS mildly amusing. It’s not as good as I remember it, but it’s not bad and deserves credit for trying to put a new spin on the vampire legend—a circus full of vampires—even though it doesn’t quite succeed at what it sets out to do.
I give VAMPIRE CIRCUS, two knives.
LS: I wasn’t sure if we’d be giving ratings to this one, since it’s an oldie, but since you rated it, I’ll I give VAMPIRE CIRCUS, two and a half knives. I think we’re in agreement in how we felt about this one, but I think I enjoyed it a little bit more than you did.
Like I said, I was a little disappointed with this one, especially with the second half which is a bit out of whack, but overall I enjoyed it. It was nice to watch a Hammer film again—I haven’t watched one in a while, and they did put out a quality product— even when it’s flawed, like this one.
I wish there was more of the tiger girl, though! She was hot! And I wonder why the chimpanzee didn’t transform into a human if the other animals did! Poor chimp! And I’m still not sure what that “Mirror of Life” thing was all about— but I guess it adds a surreal element to it all.
The Tiger Lady from VAMPIRE CIRCUS - one of the film's most memorable characters, despite only appearing in one scene.
MA: Well, that wraps things up here. Let’s get out of this crypt and get some real food.
LS: Sounds good to me. I could go for a nice juicy steak.
MA: Speaking of which, (lifts hammer and stake) I hate to waste a perfectly good pair of vampire hunting weapons. Hmm, I wonder what would happen if I could track down a certain pair of vampire teens, and if a certain wooden stake found its way into a certain pair of hearts—.
LS: I’m certain we’d still have to review the last TWILIGHT movie.
MA: Damn! I’d rather join the circus!
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives VAMPIRE CIRCUS ~ two knives!
LL Soares gives VAMPIRE CIRCUS~two and a half knives.