From the Archive – Vampire Circus (1971)

vampire_circus_poster_1

 

“Human fangs ripping throats – no sawdust can soak up the torrent of blood!”

Directed by Robert Young
Starring Adrienne Corri and Laurence Payne

In 19th-century Serbia, the vampire Count Mittenhaus preys on the children of his peasants, lured to him by the village schoolmaster’s wife, Anna. But the schoolmaster finds out, and after a brief debate on the feudal implications of marching on the count’s castle with pitchforks and torches, they do exactly that. After a nasty brawl in which the villagers roundly prove their incompetence (one going so far as to stake the Count in the groin – ouchy, but not good enough) he gets the traditional stake to the heart, his castle is set on fire, and his accomplice is beaten with sticks and thrown into the castle to burn. With his last breath, the Count promises that his killers and their children will all die, and he will rise again, instructing Anna to find his cousin Emil with the Circus of Nights, who will know what to do.

Fifteen years later, it seems as though the curse has struck, as a plague sweeps through the town. The doctor rides to the capital for help, running the roadblocks set up by paranoid neighbouring villages, just as a mysterious circus arrives in town.

So much for plot. There then follows a series of circus acts which should probably have sent any self-respecting, plague-stricken, superstitious 19th century villagers into a blood-crazed rampage of carnage and stake burning – including a sort of interpretative dance number, a panther that turns into a man, and two acrobats who turn into just pain bats. But no, not a hair on their heads is harmed until after the burgomaster’s daughter has been seduced, two small boys exsanguinated, and a family mutilated by the rampaging panther.

After that, the interpretative dancers show up dead, the schoolmaster’s daughter is kidnapped by the circus leader (Corri, playing the girl’s own long-absent mother, natch) and her father and rather effete boyfriend must race to the rescue before one of the vampires remembers to pull the stake out and the Count rises again.

What’s wrong with it?

This is another early 70s Hammer in the vein (drum roll; cymbal crash) of Lust for a Vampire, and suffers from most of the same problems (although not, thank god, from the Strange Love). The heroes and heroines are all such a bunch of drips that you’d root for the villains if only they were much better. As it is, Emil spends his whole time swanning around in a puffy red shirt and tight black pants that make him look like a waiter in a particularly naff tapas bar, and with a perpetually stoned look on his face. You can’t even hate him, because his victims are all so mind-numbingly stupid that its hard to really give a damn.

What’s right with it?

Well, it has more of a plot than many, although it gets a little lost in the later phases. As with most Hammer horrors, some of the victims and vampires are pretty to look at, if only you could get around how damned vapid they all are.

How bad is it really?

It’s certainly better than Lust or Zoltan, and watched with friends can be quite a laugh. Just don’t expect too much.

Best bit?

Without question, the dénouement, where the floppy-fringed hero wards off the revitalised Count by using a crossbow as a crucifix, then puts the bow over his head and fires it, decapitating the Count with the bow string. Adaptation; improvisation.

Better than killing Dracula by tricking him into crawling through a hawthorn bush anyway.

What’s up with?

  • The fact that – under her magical disguise – Anna hasn’t aged a day, despite not being a vampire (she clearly isn’t as she has to remove the daughter’s crucifix)?
  • Anna and Emil feeding the blood to the Count by pouring it on his chest, and without ever once thinking to pull out the stake? Plainly, Emil is something of the family idiot; hence the perpetual look of bemusement no doubt.
  • The twin-sympathetic-pain-I-die-as-you-stake-my-sister shtick?
  • The Count’s cousin being a bloody circus performer? Is he some bastard scion of the family? And are all this family vampires?
  • More weird camera shots? This time, victim cam.

Ratings

Production values – Well, the jump-cut man-into-panther and tumbler-into-badly superimposed bat are almost forgivable for the time, but they go and ruin it all with two things. Firstly, a very slickly done cut from Emil’s boots to the panther’s feet as he goes upstairs to maul a bunch of boarding students by way of a distraction, thus showing they could have done better; and secondly, the stuffed panther attack, as a family are mauled to death by an obvious stuffed toy. 14

Dialogue and performances – A fairly drippy ensemble, without a decent ham among them. The dialogue is largely forgettable, but not wincingly bad. 16

Plot and execution – Uneven to say the least. What starts off as a pretty sturdy revenge and resurrection deal becomes mired in the carnival of bizarreness, and ends in a stock bloodbath. 12

Randomness – The interpretative dance routine is pretty random, even if we aren’t supposed to accept it as a 19th century Serbian original. Other than that, it’s mostly strange, but valid. 8

Waste of Potential – Aside from the fraying of plot and atmosphere towards the end of the film, the material is pretty much given its due. 5

Overall 55%

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