As the Hammer Age of Horror came crashing down, the studio became more inventive, bloody, and sexual, leaving a notorious but at least interesting body of work that captures the low-rent occult sensibilities peculiar to the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Perhaps the most interesting artifact is this bizarre but compelling cult film.
The cast includes David Prowse, who would gain fame as Darth Vader, Lalla Ward, who later accompanied the Fourth Doctor on and off-screen, Robin Sachs, accomplished actor who acquired numerous genre credits from Buffy1 to Galaxy Quest, Adrienne Corri, probably best-remembered for a minor role in A Clockwork Orange, and Skip Martin, who haunted the era’s low-budget horrors.
Cast and Crew
Director: Robert Young
Writers: Jud Kinberg, George Baxt, and Wilbur Stark
Editor: Peter Musgrave
Adrienne Corri as Gypsy Woman
Thorley Walters as Bürgermeister of Stitl
Anthony Higgins as Emil
John Moulder-Brown as Anton Kersh
Laurence Payne as Albert Müeller
Richard Owens as Dr. Kersh
Lynne Frederick as Dora Müeller
Domini Blythe as Anna Müeller
Robert Tayman as Count Mitterhaus
Lalla Ward as Helga
Skip Martin as Michael
Elizabeth Seal as Gerta Hauser
Robin Hunter as Albert Hauser
John Bown as Schilt
Mary Wimbush as Elvira
Christine Paul as Rosa
Robin Sachs as Heinrich
David Prowse as Strongman
Roderick Shaw as Jon Hauser
Barnaby Shaw as Gustav Hauser
Milovan Vesnitch as male exotic dancer
Serena as female exotic dancer
Jane Derby as Jenny Schilt
Sibylla Kay as Mrs. Schilt
Dorothy Frere as Grandma Schilt
A town somewhere in nineteenth century Europe dispenses with a vampire who has a local woman in thrall and a thirst for children’s blood. Fifteen years later during an outbreak of plague, the Count’s (of course he was a Count) associates descend upon the town, disguised as a traveling circus.
We definitely have a film that manages to be greater than its parts. Despite unevenness and a low budget, the period blend of traditional horror, dreamlike elements, and softcore erotica works, probably better here than in any other Hammer vampire film of the era. If you want to understand the studio’s appeal in its latter days (the latter days of its first incarnation, at least), watch the original Wicker Man— and this movie.
The film’s uneven nature presents some problems, including a disturbing and suspenseful child abduction interrupted and undermined by a really bad jump-cut effect.
Originality: 3/6 While the film begins and ends in familiar genre territory and displays the standard late-Hammer tropes, it features a number of original developments in-between, including the handling of the circus itself, and vampires who shape-shift into big cats.
Effects: 3/6 The quality of the effects varies quite a bit. Vampire Circus features some impressive visuals, but most of the effects are low-budget and fairly obvious.
Production: 4/6 The production is serviceable, certainly, and the film maintains a dream-like quality, especially once the Circus of Nights arrives.
Several sources state the film takes place in Serbia. If the film indicates this is the case, I missed it. We’re in the mittel-Europe of Universal and Hammer Studios, with diverse historic and cultural elements blended into a strangely familiar but unreal place where supernatural horrors walk the earth. And, apparently, exotic dancers qualify as family entertainment.
Acting: 4/6 Hammer often employed stage-trained actors who acquit themselves quite well, despite rushed shooting schedules and overwrought dialogue. Domini Blythe’s Anna has presence, at least, while Skip Martin gives one of his most memorable performances as a clown weirdly reminiscent of Cabaret‘s MC. It’s 70s Hammer, of course, so necks will be bitten, blood will flow, and scenery will be manducated.
Story: 4/6 It holds together. Some of the story’s oddities resulted from production being shut down before they could film all planned scenes. The studio instructed the editor to make a finished product out of what they had. A discussion of the film and its production problems appears in Gary A. Smith’s Vampire Films of the 1970s: Dracula to Blacula and Every Fang Between (2017).
Emotional Response: 4/6
Overall: 5/6 The overall score may strike some people as a little high, but Vampire Circus, as I’ve noted already, proves greater than the sum of its low-budget, exploitative parts, a compelling if imperfect piece deserving of its cult status.
In total, Vampire Circus receives 27/42
1. Sachs, twenty when he made this film, played Ethan Rayne, a character from Rupert Giles’s dark past. The show’s flashbacks to his life in the early 70s strike me as echoing the style of period Hammer.
Our October Countdown continues throughout this month:
Tales from the Crypt (1972)
Vampire Circus (1972)
23: Dune (2021)
30: Body Bags (1993)
31. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)