Vampire Circus (1972)

Fangs anf blood
Fangs and blood…
Emil bears his fangs
Emil opens wide

Local villagers fight and kill Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman): a vampire who has been preying on the village’s children. As he ‘dies’, the Count curses the village, saying that the surviving children of those who attacked him will all die.

Count Mitterhaus
Count Mitterhaus

Fifteen years later the village is suffering from an outbreak of a plague-like illness, resulting in the place being quarantined from the surrounding area – if anyone tries to leave they are likely to be shot. But this doesn’t prevent a travelling circus from visiting the village, where it sets up camp to entertain the locals for the next few nights.

The dwarf removes his makeup
Beneath the makeup… is more makeup

Emil (Anthony Higgins), one of the circus performers, is actually the cousin of Count Mitterhaus, and it soon becomes apparent that the circus folk are out to kill those who were cursed by the Count and intend to resurrect his still-preserved body…

UK poster
UK poster

The actors playing the vampires in this Hammer production, directed by Robert Young, seem to all really overact when doing their fangs-out, neck-biting scenes and, amongst the various townsfolk, it is hard to see who actually is meant to be the film’s main protagonist.

Helga (Lalla Ward) shows her fangs
Helga (Lalla Ward) shows her fangs

Robert Tayman, as the Count, lacks the forbidding presence of Christopher Lee and certain plot points aren’t explained: how, for instance, is the female acolyte Anna Müller able to appear in the form of the circus gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri)?

Having said all that, there’s a lot to enjoy…

Dave Prowse flexes his muscles
Dave Prowse flexes his guns

Typical of Hammer films from this period, VAMPIRE CIRCUS mixes classic elements like a gothic castle, a Bürgermeister (played by Thorley Walters) and a bat-filled crypt with 1970s elements like nudity and some extra gore, such as the scene with the mangled corpses of the Schilt family (ripped up by a vampire panther) that Dora (Lynne Frederick) stumbles upon.

Panther attack!
Panther victim
One of the victims…

The circus setting is what gives this film its own distinctive feel. We get acrobats, a strongman (Dave Prowse), a dwarf who acts as the master of ceremonies, big cats, a gypsy woman and dancers.

The dwarf smiles scarily
Just because he’s smiling doesn’t mean that he’s nice…

Some of the circus acts involve Emil transforming into a black panther, acrobatic twins seemingly switching from bats to human form, and a sensuous dance routine involving a woman in tiger-stripe body paint. The transformations are conveyed by simply cutting between the actor and the panther (or bats), but the effect is fine, adding a ‘circus trick’ feel of the scenes.

Tiger lady dancer!

Another interesting element is the small hall of mirrors that houses a ‘Mirror of Life’, which shows people visions of a leering Count Mitterhaus or other vampiric tableaus. At one point the vampire acrobat twins are able to pass through this mirror, taking Dora with them.

There are two entertaining villagers-against-the-vampire fights (one at the start, one at the end), a death-by-falling-giant-crucifix scene, plus a novel end to the newly-revived Count: the vampire’s neck is jammed between a crossbow’s bow and stock and then the trigger is pulled, causing the bowstring to cut off the Counts head!

Brother and sister vampires die
The vampire brother dies from the same wound when his twin sister is skewered by the cross
The crossbow is used as a cross
The crossbow is used as a cross (before it then becomes a handy decapitation device)
A father discovers his dead sons
Children are often victims in the movie, giving it a nastier edge compared to other Hammer films

Oh yeah: the bats are generally handled well in this movie. Whereas earlier Hammer films featured puppet bats on wires, VAMPIRE CIRCUS uses real bats effectively, only using models for shots like a bat on fire (and there’s an animated cartoon bat used for the shot of the final bat flying away at the end).

The staked Count
The Count is staked… for now

Despite plot shortcomings and some fuzzy vampire lore, I think this is a watchable, colourful 70s slice of eccentric, quite gory Hammer horror fun.

US poster
US poster
Belgian poster
Belgian poster
French poster
French poster
Australian poster
Australian poster

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