Back in 1972, Hammer Studios found itself in a good and bad place as far as vampire movies go. On the one hand, they were pretty close to having squeezing every drop they could out of both “Dracula” and “Carmilla.” Yet audience demand remained. One solution they hit upon was a series of original films about the undead, but made in the same manner.
“Vampire Circus” may be the best example of this. It story certainly mined well-known resources used by Hammer until then. The handsome, decadent aristocrat with fangs. Many a lovely young lady with plenty of cleavage to heave in terror (or lust). Long, bestial fangs and plenty of (too) bright and (too) thick blood. A fire. Makeshift crosses and other anti-vampire weapons (decades before Buffy). A story of revenge, first by villagers against the monster preying upon them, then by the vampire himself on his enemies for daring to defend themselves. An Eastern European village filled with English stereotypes, albeit having German names, all set in a vaguely mid-nineteenth century era somewhere inside the Austrian Empire.
But this one proved different as well. What had been eroticism and sexuality now crossed the line into raw perversion. Count Mitterhaus, the initial villain of the piece, prefers to devour not buxom young ladies as did Dracula but pretty little girls. As in, children. That he and his human lover, aroused by the child’s murder, then engage in fierce lovemaking in the same room with her corpse–wow. If the intention was to shock, the filmmakers succeeded! Later, two more children are killed–with pretty clear overtones of molestation. The vampires responsible, a brother and sister, give off an aura of implied incest, not least when they later try to hunt their human half-sister–playing a sadistic cat-and-mouse game.
Even today, this would be intense stuff. On the other hand, the film approaches most of its daring subject matter with the aim of shock, of thrills and scares. We never really sympathize with any of the evil characters (save one) nor see their point of view. The moral confusion we feel derives from sympathy for those innocents led astray from ignorance. The Burgomeister’s daughter, who falls so totally in love with Emil, the handsome star of the visiting circus–it feels so very much like a local rock star taking advantage of an impressionable teen anytime from the 1950s onward. We regret her ignorance, understand but disapprove of her mother’s permissiveness, judge harshly her father’s reaction to the circus folk because he doesn’t see the real danger. More, the film suffers from the same flaws most Hammer horror movies. The two leads lack anything like a personality. Although in love, the reason for such remains a total mystery. How could it not? Neither one is anything other than cookie-cutter character, ultimately indistinguishable from any other pretty young couple in any other film of the period. Meanwhile, the villains remain only slightly above average. Their cruelty rises a step above many other Hammer villains–they seem to really enjoy even the pain they inflict upon each other–but nothing else.
More, the movie suffers from cast bloat. Just a quick breakdown reveals at least ten major characters in film only eighty-seven minutes long! The attempts at making the circus itself dreamlike or surreal ultimately do not work. On the other hand, many of the actors do excellent jobs with relatively small parts. Lalla Ward, who went on to play Romana on “Doctor Who,” has hardly a line and yet makes an impact in every frame in which she appears. Robin Sachs plays her brother, and later became Ethan Rayne, probably the most underused character in Joss Whedon’s Buffyverse. The circus strong man is none other than David Prowse, aka the body of Darth Vader.
Now that Hammer Studios is looking to resurrect itself, again producing horror movies after decades of corporate limbo, a remake of “Vampire Circus” might be an idea worthy of considering. Flawed and still formulaic, the story did break new ground, creating a genuinely original tale of disturbing horror. Perhaps this time the focus could be squarely on the most interesting characters inherent to the plot–the village school teacher and his unfaithful wife. He could have had a role in the story rather like Van Helsing–the person who can never, ever forget the darkness of the past yet not be overwhelmed by fear of it. After all, he saw a personal nightmare unfold, and survived. His wife abandoned his bed for that of a vampire, even helping lure prepubescent girls to the castle–there to be devoured before her lustful eyes. What might that do to a man? Likewise, one has to wonder what his wife’s position has been among Emile and his people all these years. She after all is only human, although the mother of vampires. How did she really feel about seeing her first-born again? Methinks there was a lot more meat in this tale than the film explored. Still, it is a gloriously fun piece of vampiric cinema, one not to be missed!