By the time the 1970s rolled around, Hammer Studios was in decline. The beloved production company had churned out countless classics from the late 50s to late 60s, but after the departure of Anthony Hinds, who produced The Curse Of Frankenstein and Horror Of Dracula among others, the studio had taken a turn for the worse. Confused by current trends and an over saturated market (and no doubt affected by a new roster of studio heads), Hammer was in bad shape, turning out cheap films that looked cheap like Scars Of Dracula. Open to making one-off films that didn’t fit into any flagship franchises, they brought in an all new crew for Vampire Circus, a blood sucker film that has a unique place in the studio’s history.
After luring a child to his castle, the evil Count Mitterhaus’ (Robert Tayman) abode is stormed by an angry mob of Stetl townsmen, who bring the vampire to his demise, but not before he curses the town and the ancestors of those who have slain him. Years later, the town is overrun with a plague that is wiping out its inhabitants left and right. The citizens suspect the Count’s curse, but Dr. Kersh (Richard Owens) insists on visiting the capital city for the latest and greatest advice and cures. Shortly after departing and leaving his son Anton (John Moulder-Brown) in charge, the Circus Of Nights rolls into town, delighting the sick and otherwise depressed townsfolk. But a peak at the Gypsy’s (Adrienne Corri) Mirror of Life soon reveals the real intention of the big top workers: to lure sideshow attendees to the ruins of Count Mitterhaus’ castle and feed his dead body in order to completely resurrect the vanquished vampire.
While Vampire Circus is a fun and visually appealing undead romp, especially considering the horrendous output of the studio around the time of its release, the main reason it resonates so much with Hammer aficionados is simply because it doesn’t follow the studio’s traditional vampire formula. Up until the film’s release, most Hammer vampire flicks were gothic period pieces that took place in old, dark castles or manors with the same revolving cast of studio players. Aside from a fairly long epilogue sequence, there isn’t a European tapestry in sight for the duration of the film, let alone a cape or cloak. The circus and/or carnival is a setting that provides a fantastical and creepy atmosphere (look no further than Carnival Of Souls for concrete proof), and director Robert Young’s approach is the perfect match for it, giving the film a psychedelic aesthetic with use of hallucinations, silhouette shots, and distortions – all common place in 70s productions.
The cast, all fresh faces rather than the typical Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee collaboration, is more than adequate across the board, though Moulder-Brown’s Anton is a lame duck when compared to the villains, who steal the show. Corri and Skip Martin – who plays her dwarf clown sidekick – are positively menacing, but its Tayman who embodies Hammer’s trademark charm in a film that is one of the studio’s more overtly sexual projects (there’s a full frontal shot less than 10 minutes into the film, and one of the circus’ act features a nude woman painted like a tiger and a trainer with a whip practically having sex on stage, complete with climaxes).
Synapse pulled out all the stops for their 100th release, giving Vampire Circus a glorious stateside debut on Blu-Ray and DVD. The 1080p encode pops off the screen in all its phantasmagoric glory, giving way to deep, rich colors while preserving a nice amount of grain. No DNR or banding issues are evident, though the picture does look washed out in a few scenes. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is just as good, providing a healthy balance between dialogue and David Whitaker’s score; it’s not exactly great, but it’s good as it can be at 2.0. The real victory here, aside from actually being able to own the film, lies with the special features, and more specifically The Bloodiest Show On Earth retrospective doc, which provides viewers with a great group of commentators discussing the film at great lengths.
Vampire Circus is as unique and different as its approach to vampire mythology, which has the Count stuck in human form, while less powerful undead cohorts can transform into bats and panthers, and no mention of garlic and more traditional means of death. It’s varied, it certainly doesn’t play by the traditional Hammer rules, but despite it not being a ninety minute gothic castle chase scene, it still carries the classy and charming aura that made us fall in love with the studio in the first place.
The Bloodiest Show On Earth: Making Vampire Circus (32:39) – An incredibly in-depth documentary about the film and, in turn, an overview of the studio. Vampire Circus came out during a low point in Hammer’s oeuvre, and by changing it up a bit, they produced a vampire film different from anything they had made at the time – one that has stood the test of time. Writers Tim Lucas, Ted Newsom and Philip Nutman, director Joe Dante and co-star David Prowse discuss the film’s place in the studio’s filmography, as well as why it really works for them. Everyone is really enthusiastic about the film (and Hammer in general), so it’s a very lively montage of interview clips, and there’s a lot of information covered considering it’s not exactly one of Hammer’s flagship titles… yet, anyway.
Gallery Of Grotesque: A Brief History Of Circus Horrors (15:07) – A cinematic history of the circus sub-genre in horror, covering everything from Tod Browning’s classic Freaks to The Mutations, even touching on films that only have certain sequences that take place in the big top, including Karl Freund’s Mad Love. Although there were circus horror flicks that came after The Mutations (Santa Sangre, anyone?), the documentary doesn’t touch upon them, aside for flashing a poster for The Offpsring across the screen.
Visiting House Of Hammer: Britain’s Legendary Horror Magazine (9:47) – A look back at The House Of Hammer, a comic digest owned by the studio that ran adaptations of their films. Capitalizing on the fact that there was no home video or real way to rewatch films once they left the theatre, Hammer’s publication was initially a smash hit (Famous Monsters Of Filmland wasn’t available across the pond), but was sadly discontinued years later.
Vampire Circus: Motion Comic Book (3:15) – Although this is a well made motion comic, it only features the opening scenes from the film, and more importantly, NO CIRCUS.