Vampire Circus (1972)
Directed by Robert Young
Written by Judson Kinberg, George Baxt, and Wilbur Stark
Starring Adrienne Corri, Thorley Walters, Anthony Higgins, Laurence Payne, John Moulder-Brown, Lalla Ward, Robert Tayman, and David Prowse
With their 1958 release of Horror of Dracula Hammer Film Productions brought new life to vampire movies. By the 1970s the market had shifted, and the studio tried various ways to repackage the monsters to suit the modern audience. One result was the Karnstein Trilogy, which featured female nudity and lesbian sexuality. Dracula A.D. 1972 brought Christopher Lee’s Dracula to swinging London, which went about as usual but with different clothes and embarrassment all around. Then there’s the truly original Vampire Circus, which failed to make money but gained a following.
The film’s opening act presents the ending of a standard Hammer vampire film. Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) is the vampire here, and he’s finally gone too far by snacking on a young girl from the town of Stetl. The men of Stetl assault Mitterhaus’ castle, but only a handful go in to confront the Count. They manage to stake him and capture his accomplice and lover Anna (Domini Blythe), but her husband Albert Mueller (Laurence Payne) lets her escape. As the townsmen blow up the castle, Anna escapes through a tunnel to tell Mitterhaus’ cousin Emil his plan for returning. It’s a great ending for a film, leaving an opening for a sequel. Not only does it serve to set up the remainder of Vampire Circus but it reminds the audience of the sort of story it will not be.
This is not a movie where an aristocratic vampire preys on the citizenry until a man of reason saves the day. Instead, a traveling circus arrives in the middle of a plague quarantine. They bring relief from the grief and fear, but only for a price. To restore Count Mitterhaus they need the blood of his killers’ children. If you’re thinking that it’s to pour down his throat, you’re wrong. These are more mystic vampires, so nothing’s as straightforward as that. As Emil and his children feed on the children blood droplets appear on the Count’s chest, from where they are quickly absorbed. It’s a ritual or spell, not just the normal splash of blood. The demands of the process inform Emil and Anna’s approach of luring the victims with delights.
Emil’s twins are themselves magical. Helga (Lalla Ward) and Heinrich feel each other’s pain. That’s not quite right; they suffer each other’s injuries. This isn’t a problem, since nothing can hurt a vampire, right? Fortunately, the troupe has human members to intervene when things get a little too holy. One of them is known only as the strongman. Played by David Prowse, the actor whose stature would make Darth Vader physically imposing, the strongman is fully in league with the vampires but is just hired muscle. Similarly, the clown Michael gleefully works for Emil’s ends while demonstrating no supernatural abilities at all. Certainly these assistants play into the centuries-old mistrust of carnival people, but it’s fascinating that they aren’t under the mental domination of the vampires. That makes them even more frightening than the traditional sniveling Renfield servants. The threat of losing your will to foul influences is scary, but how much more so is the thought of going along with evil for the money?
What I love about the film is the earnest attempt to create something new. Robert Young even insisted on using real bats rather than the usual silly props on strings. The more magical approach to vampires is novel, and some of the effects come off quite well — Emil’s transformation sequences are simple yet stunning. Vampire Circus may have done better if it had been finished. There were delays in filming, and while crew have different stories about what went wrong (including time lost to bat wrangling) the fact remains that production was stopped before Young was done filming. Maybe that footage would have made everything tie together a little better or created a memorable set piece. As much as I love the movie, it does seem to be missing something. Perhaps after a decade of Christopher Lee’s aristocratic Count, what it really lacked was a vampire with presence.