‘I don’t look in at the horrors,’ was something my long-departed granny used to say about the regular broadcast of Hammer movies that used to be a staple of 80’s tv; there’s enough horror in everyday life without seeking it out. But yesterday’s cutting edge is today’s nostalgia, and films like 1970’s Vampire Circus, while breaking taboos in terms of nudity and violence, are quaint by today’s standards. That’s not to say they aren’t a good watch; reliant still on dialogue, character and story, Hammer’s output circa AD 1972 is fun to revisit.
Vampire Circus has a lot going on; an unfamiliar setting helps. We’re in the Serbia village of Stetl, back in the early 19th century, and a plague has fallen on the region. Locals fear the influence of vampires, specifically Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) who, as he was staked, predicated that the village’s children would die so that he could be brought back to life. Peter, the town’s mayor, is played by Thorley Walters, and his vigilance for vampire activity is rewarded when a vampire circus arrives in town with some odd entertainment. When Dave Prowse arrives, playing a musical organ in his shorts and accompanied by a dancing dwarf, we know that this is no ordinary circus, and Emir (Anthony Higgins) seems to know what their sinister purpose is.
Many horror films of the time are formulaic, but Vampire Circus plays by an original set of rules. It’s made clear that the vampires are preying on young boys and girls, and they also seem able to transform themselves into circus animals or wild beasts; the transformations are achieved with minimal effects. The circus also has a half of mirrors, with one particular mirror, The Mirror of Life functioning as some kind of portal. The effect is dream-like, like an adult fairy-tale, and there’s a smattering of surreal moments achieved on a minimal budget.
Vampire Circus is a one-off, separate from the Dracula, Frankenstein or even the Karnstein franchises that the studio peddled with some success. It’s directed and acted with gusto, and features genre favourites like Adrienne Corri, Dr Who’s Lalla Ward and Lynne Frederick. With a unique mythology, this is prime real estate for a remake; so many horror ideas are spent, but this is one horror that, like the Count who serves as the central villain, deserves a little exhumation.