Vampire Circus (1972)
Dir. Robert Young
Written by Judson Kinberg
Starring Adrienne Corri, Anthony Higgins, Laurence Payne, John Moulder-Brown, etc, and also David Prowse is in there.
As we painfully learned in DRACULA: A.D. 1972, by 1972 Hammer was not doing so hot. They had been a boundary-pushing hit machine back in the late 50s and through the 60s, firing up horror fans with then-shocking violence and lurid sexuality that shook the genre out of its corny 1950’s funk. But by 1972, times had changed. THE WILD BUNCH and BONNIE AND CLYDE had already pushed the boundaries of violence far beyond what the British censors would allow, to say nothing of the competition from indie schlockmeisters like Roger Corman and Herschell Gordon Lewis and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and like, literally the entire nation of Italy. Hammer’s gothic, stagey style seemed embarrassing and dated, and the studio was in financial trouble, desperate for a new audience. Soon, they would be cranking out awful tripe like SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA and the martial-arts head-scratcher THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES which would conclusively demonstrate that chasing newfangled trends leads to utter failure.
But, just before the slow, final disintegration really began, we got this, arguably the last Hammer film that really felt like classic Hammer.* It’s gonna check most of the boxes you’d want from a Hammer Horror classic: Period setting, slow build, mysterious atmosphere, baroque but stagy sets, sexual taboo, a bucket or two of red stuff, a British B-movie actor who would later be in STAR WARS. It has that uniquely Hammer feeling of being classy and a bit uptight while still being trashy and exploitive. How do they always pull that off? Leave it to the Brits to make bloody, button-pushing sexually deviant horror feel like it comes with a polite apology.
|You will never know happiness like this.|
Anyway, what we got here is the story of the shithole little town in 19th century Austria which is for some reason peopled entirely by townsfolk with aristocratic British accents. In a scenario ripped from today’s headlines, they’re having some problems with the local government, in this case an insane Vampiric Count who lives in an evil castle and steals people’s wives and children for his twisted sexual pleasure/blood fetish/food source. That’s not gonna fly with the local peasants, so they storm the castle, stake the bastard, kill everyone inside, and burn the ruins for good measure. Our somewhat-protagonist, local schoolteacher Everyman Q. Müller (Laurence Payne, in his last film role before he retired to become a crime novelist) is down with the regime change, but not so comfortable with all the murder, particularly since his wife was one of the Count’s sexual conquests recently and (even though she’s completely unrepentant) he’d prefer not to see her whipped to death by a mob. He negotiates her release, and she flees into the night.
And that’s that, right? I mean, it’s not like you can bring a Vampiric count back to life by sacrificing a certain number of the children of the people who killed him, right? And even if you could, it’s not like our recently departed villain had relatives and friends who would eventually return to town as part of a traveling circus of evil in order to do it. And even in the unlikely event that both those things were to somehow happen against all odds, you could always just leave town and escape. I mean, unless there were a plague or something and the town was quarantined by Austrian soldiers at gunpoint. Which would be so outrageously unlikely you might as well just dismiss the possibility, I don’t even know why I mentioned it in the first place.
The cool thing about this concept is the Circus itself, which is full of nifty stuff. Although this particular vampire circus is indeed on a rescue mission, if this is a cover they really sunk some time into making it seem legit. You got a crazy awesome dwarf carnival barker, David Prowse as a strongman, these acrobat twins who also do magic**, a guy who can turn into a black panther, a naked tiger woman dancer unrelated to the panther guy. Although I guess they’re out to revenge themselves on the townspeople and steal their children and/or blood, they also put on a pretty good show. If you’re going to steal their blood, always leave ‘em with a smile, I always say. Their show is smaller and less flashy than you might imagine, but that kind of fits with the dirt-farming, plague-stricken, superstitious desperation of the time. Even when your wives aren’t being penetrated by aristocratic Eurotrash vampires, it doesn’t look like 19th century Austria is a very fun place to live. You can genuinely see how even this small-time 3-cart circus would be the talk of the town, a window of a more promising outside world which they so rarely get a glimpse of.
|I don't know what you call this, but I'm obviously in favor of it.|
I think that’s the most interesting thing about the movie. Yes, the circus gimmick is fun, but you’ve seen that done more elaborately elsewhere so it’s not quite the hook it might have been. Moreover, I’m quite of the opinion that circus horror works better when it exaggerates the already surreal, vaguely grotesque qualities of this age-old institution, and here they play it (mostly) pretty literal and straight. These classic Hammer films tend to have a pretty restrained style, so even though it’d be fun to go full-on FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS on this evil circus, it ain’t gonna happen here. But the movie has something more interesting going on in its Hobbesian portrayal of this world of poverty, ignorance, and death. These are desperate, brutal times these people are living in, where brutality and mortality are the rule instead of the exception. Although we’re shown that the Count in question is pretty much an awful asshole, the lynch mob of villagers who show up to murder him and whip his lady friends to death don’t seem much better. So when the Vampire Circus shows up to settle the score, you can’t really get too mad at them for it. In fact, even though they’re a bunch of supernatural bloodsucking carnies, they are also shown to be intensely loyal to each other, and honestly come across about as sympathetically as the townsfolk. I almost wonder if setting this in 19th-century Austria is a way of telling us that this is not exactly a fight between good and evil, but more like an example of the kind of petulant tribalism that would eventually plunge Eastern Europe --and the whole world-- into so many senseless wars and conflicts over a bunch of meaningless nonsense.
Even if not, the film has an interesting kind of nihilism about its characters and their motives. Müller, for example, spares his wife from an awful death at the beginning, even after she’s spurned him. But it ends up not working out so good for everyone, and the purveyors of the Vampire Circus requires a somewhat more blunt approach. The movie doesn’t exactly condemn his act of mercy, it merely assures the audience that he will not be rewarded for it. This kind of bleakness is pretty unusual, even for a horror movie. It adds up to a startlingly gloomy and hopeless world, where we can little expect good deeds to be repaid in kind, nor villainous ones punished, but instead expect horrible and arbitrary misfortune at any moment with no warning or logic to it.
The village, incidentally, attributes its long string of bad luck to a curse by the vampiric Count, as a result of their having, you know, killed him before he got a chance to bone every last one of their women and a selection of the less hirsute men. And there seems to be every indication that this is a correct interpretation of the facts! Normally a curse in a horror movie is the result of having genuinely wronged someone, a gypsy probably, and having that particular wrongdoing continue to haunt you. Not this time though; you can either accept vampiric ravaging of women or you can deal with the curse, and also fuck you. Pretty harsh.
The only problem I really have with the movie is the Count who causes all these problems to begin with. First off, his name is Count Mitterhaus, which makes him sound like a Nazi CPA. Secondly, just look at him:
This is the guy who causes all this fuss? He looks like the brunette cousin of that creepy white hairdresser from GOOD HAIR. Let’s have some higher standards, women of 19th century Austria.
|Obviously, this would make a lot more sense.|
Anyway, nice to have one last waltz with Hammer before the final curtain. Of course --just like any vampire-- they refused to stay dead, and managed a minor comeback in the late 2000s. In retrospect, I’m still glad I sacrificed all those children to resurrect them, but even pretty decent horror movies like the Potter-enhanced WOMAN IN BLACK and the icky WICKER MAN take-off WAKE WOODS don’t quite capture that unique Hammer-ness the studio had back in its heyday. But hey, as Hammer itself learned in the 80’s, sometimes it’s better to not try to be something specific, but just to be what you are. Sometimes, if you get really lucky, what you are will synch up with where the world is. And sometimes you’re born in a 19th Century Austrian village ruled by a sex-crazed doofus vampire count. Hey, win some, lose some.
* FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL being the other possible contender for that title, though it's from 1974 and noticeably cheaper than this one, where some small modicum of Hammer's trademark faux-opulence is still on display.
**One of them, incidentally, is Lalla Ward, now married to Richard Dawkins. I wonder what he thinks of this movie?