This time of year many peoples attentions are turned to the event of Halloween, the supermarkets stock up with sweets and pumpkins and numerous costumes for the children to go around dressed up in when it gets dark on all hallows eve and knock on doors and demand candy and anything that is edible with menaces from the inhabitants of houses that are silly enough to display a pumpkin or anything vaguely linked to witches, ghosts and monsters, one can hear them plotting sometimes, “I know number 13 has a black cat, therefore she must be a witch, and she also I am told voted to remain in Europe. Get the eggs and flour ready guys”. (and that’s the parents). You know we follow the same pattern year in year out in the UK. We all know that Halloween is the pre cursor to Guy Fawkes night, where we in England burn things, to commemorate some bloke trying to blow up Parliament, well we burn everything that’s not nailed down actually and some things that are nailed down but that does not stop us, and what we don’t burn we blow up. So, Guy Fawkes or gunpowder and plot or Bonfire Night as we call it is the event directly before Christmas and Christmas is of course the event that heralds the appearance of Easter eggs in the stores, and holiday ads on the TV, right?
The Hammer studios were as we are all aware famous for the production of Gothic horrors such as DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, with occasional dips into the stories involving MUMMYS and WEREWOLVES. In fact, just one Werewolf movie was produced by the studio which is the now classic motion picture and iconic example entitled THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. A film which propelled Oliver Reed into the spotlight. Why the studio did not embark on more lupine themed horrors is a bit of a mystery, but maybe they were content with the success they had with other horrors. The Dracula cycle was probably Hammer’s most successful foray into Gothic Horror until it sadly descended into farce when they attempted to up-date the Dracula story to a contemporary setting in modern day London. But it is the spin offs from the Dracula movies or films that had Vampires in their storylines that were not the infamous Count that I for one enjoyed. These came in the form of a more traditional storyline as in KISS OF THE VAMPIRE or the rather innovative re-telling of the story of the undead in CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER, and the more sexually slanted TWINS OF EVIL, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and LUST FOR A VAMPIRE.
LUST was a little too much for me to bare because of its hammy acting by certain cast members and the thin and somewhat uninteresting plot if you can call it a plot that is. The movie relied upon the ample attributes of the female members of the cast to keep audiences occupied rather than focusing upon creating a stronger storyline. One film which Hammer produced which involved vampires but not Dracula was VAMPIRE CIRCUS. This is in my opinion one of Hammers finest non-Dracula vampire yarns, the story was inventive and original plus it also contained traditional aspects of the vampire legend and the blood and sex came in the bucket load. It was a gripping movie with many familiar faces from Hammer history and British films.
The cast included Adrienne Corri, Anthony Higgins, John Moulder Brown, Lalla Ward, Robin Sachs, Thorley Walters, David Prowse (pre-Darth Vader) and a fresh-faced actress Lynne Frederick. Set in Serbia in the 19th Century, the movie had one of the most impressive and exciting pre-credit sequences, for a Hammer production, which is saying something as most of the pre-credit sequences created by the studio were excellent. The folk from a small village called Stetl arm themselves with their trusty pitchforks and other assorted weapons that can inflict horrendous wounds and injuries and attack the castle near their village where the vampire Count resides, they are prompted to do this because a young girl has been taken there and they have had enough of the vampire and his evil ways. Watching this sequence and also thinking about other vampire movies, one often ponders the question why do these villagers wait so long to launch an attack on a vampire lord in his castle, after all they all seem to know he is living there and also are well aware of what he is up to, and obviously they are also all well versed in how to kill him off. So, that’s all they have to do is go to the castle early in the morning and then they have eight hours of daylight to do the dispatching of the fiend as it sleeps, but no they always wait till dusk or near dusk have a meeting about it with lots of shouting and deliberating then set off making as much noise as they can carrying flaming torches that manage to stay lit even after the long trek to the castle, they arrive at their destination just as the sun sinks into the darkness and bingo the vampire is awake and ready for a fight. But even knowing this they still smash down the gates enter the castle fight off with any of the vampires cohorts that are hanging around and eventually find the vampire and after some amount of tussle, blood-letting and of course horrendous fatalities amongst the villagers, they finally strike the fatal blow and the vampire turns to dust in most cases, but not always.
Mind you I suppose if they did it the sensible way it would not make a good movie would it. It would be boring I suppose, if it the sensible or more practical way. Sun comes up villagers saunter along to the castle quietly and in an orderly fashion kick the door in but only after knocking first, go to the crypt, open the coffin stake the vampire and then fire the castle after which they have a nice slow leisurely walk back to the village discussing the events of the morning and deciding what they will have for tiffin. See! doesn’t have quite the same dramatic impact does it?
Anyway in VAMPIRE CIRCUS the villagers led by the officials of the village and the school teacher Muller head up to the castle and find the Vampire Count Mitterhaus who is with one of the village women (Anna) who was the school teachers wife, She has gone over to the dark side and aids the Count in his everyday needs as in sex and luring children and adult victims to his lair to satisfy his blood lust. A kind of darker version of the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang I suppose but without lollipops. She has this day gone too far and lured another girl child from the village to the castle, who the evil Vampire soon drains of blood throwing her lifeless body to one side like a rag doll. The Count and Anna then embark on a rather saucy sex scene, which is stopped midway through by the entrance of the angry villagers. Of course, the Vampire is not happy having his goings on disturbed by the inhabitants of Stetl, who are to him unworthy individuals and a bunch of peasants, and they did not even wipe their feet on entering. He is enraged how dare they (not about them not wiping their feet but about entering his domain and also for interrupting his afternoon sex scene). There is a fair amount of fang flashing and hissing as the villagers led by Muller enter the Counts bedroom and he even shows off his bare chest and a rather fetching neck collar, as he plays with a sword, then a few threats are exchanged before all hell breaks loose, but the Vampire is not going down without a fight, he dispatches a few villagers by running them through and then bites several others before he is staked through the back and into his heart by Muller, which he is not that best pleased about, so in his dying breath he curses the village and all of the villagers that are there on the day, but not content with that he issues a curse upon the children of the village even the unborn ones, “Your children will die to give me back my life” he spits at the assembled crowd (that is harsh I think, after all he started it). But seriously, I know I make light of this but it is an impressive opening sequence and one that has stuck with me for many years, as the Vampire takes his last breath the villagers force Anna to run half naked between two lines of men all armed with clubs and chains etc, she does this and is being beaten but the school teacher rushes to her aid and shields her from more punishment.
She runs off back into the castle and manages to get to the Count and as blood from her wounds drips onto his lifeless body he comes to life briefly and gives her instructions, he tells her to seek out the Circus of Nights and his cousin Emile, she makes her escape just as the villagers set fire to the castle and then blow it up, yes they have explosives probably from Hans Fawkes the firework makers shop, (and I bet they never paid him for them). The castle is destroyed, and the opening credits roll accompanied by the composer David Whittaker’s imposing and commanding soundtrack, which has also been punctuating and supporting the action within the opening sequence.
Fast forward now fifteen years and once again we find ourselves back in Stetl. The castle has laid in ruins and been overtaken by vegetation and wildlife, but there are rumours that strange noises have been heard from below the ruins. (probably the old plumbing). The village is in quarantine there is disease and plague everywhere the villagers blame the decaying castle for this and also the Count’s curse. The central government and authorities from other villages set up a blockade manned by soldiers and armed civilians given instructions to shoot anyone that attempts to enter or more importantly leave the village. But to the surprise of many of the inhabitants of Stetl a mysterious and beautiful Gypsy woman manages to get past the blockade and brings with her a convoy of carts and wagons which make up the Circus of Nights, complete with wild animals and acrobats, whilst the village is initially suspicious of these new comers, the village council decide that it will be good for the village and maybe will raise spirits to have the circus there.
The circus performers prepare to entertain the village folk and their children, but no one notices that the Gypsy woman who is Anna in another form, who helped the Vampire lord at the beginning of the movie. She has in the past decade and a half, given birth to twins who are we assume the children of Mitterhaus. She slips away and goes to the castle whilst the villagers are distracted by the circus, where she uncovers the crypt and sets about bringing the Mitterhaus curse to fruition.
This is in the first 35 minutes of the movie, so you see what I mean about this being one of Hammer’s better forays into non-Dracula Vampire territory. Less than an hour in and we have had, an abduction, a sex scene, an assault on a castle, a murder by staking, a rather camp vampire slaughtering a handful of peasants and also a deadly curse issued, plus the arrival of a freakish circus and pestilence and plague thrown in for good measure, and it gets better. Directed by Robert Young, and produced by Wilbur Stark and Michael Carreras (uncredited). VAMPIRE CIRCUS was filmed at Pinewood studios and hit cinema screens in the UK in 1972. This was a stylish and thought-provoking movie that kept one’s attention focused throughout, it had an ingenious and strangely alluring and believable plot, which for some reason I felt was a better storyline than any of the Dracula movies I had seen.
The music too was stylish and vibrant, the composer David Whittaker providing a score that was fully symphonic and although it was grandiose and foreboding like many of the scores Hammer had commissioned previously, it had to it an essentially romantic feel which shone through the more dramatic and atonal material.
Whittaker made effective use of sweeping strings and fashioned a waltz like theme which played over part of the pre-credit sequence, it was wonderfully supporting throughout and incorporated a somewhat creepy and off kilter circus theme played on a barrel organ effect or accordion which managed to unnerve the watching audience as it played out its enticing yet sinister sound. Whittaker also utilised cymbalom and fused this with strings, rumbling percussion and fearsome brass, it is without a doubt one of Hammer’s best scores and stands alongside soundtracks such as THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF and the 1958 DRACULA as being outstanding, inventive and filled to overflowing with luscious, luxurious and commanding themes, which are attractive and darkly compelling. There are many impressive scenes and scenarios within the movie and VAMPIRE CIRCUS was and still is a must-see motion picture. If you are a fan of Hammer films then you will love this one. To relate to you the full story would I think be wrong, because I really want you to discover it for yourself but let us just say it is an exciting and tense movie.
There are two great sequences that I think are effective, the scene in the church where the wonderfully evil vampire twins attempt to convert Lynne Frederick’s character into one of the undead, but their plans are are halted by the power of the crucifix which falls from the ceiling and stakes one vampire twin but also kills the other, and a real cliff hanger of an ending, which is more like a battle than the normal final scene where the vampires all get staked and more.
We see the Count resurrected inadvertently when the stake that is through his heart is taken out and used to stake the Counts cousin Emil, who is played by actor Anthony Higgins who gives a more than malevolent performance. Just as we think that’s it its over, the Count rises and makes a B line for Lynne Frederick, but John Moulder Browns character is there to protect her and retrieves a crossbow which has been used in the chaotic fight from the floor and uses it as a crucifix which holds the Count at bay, the young man then uses the same weapon to dispatch the vampire once and for all by crashing the weapon over the vampires head and firing it, thus decapitating the Count. The scene is filled with action and in the edge of the seat melee we also see a number of the principal characters sent to their maker, including Anna who is accidently bitten by Emil and the schoolteacher who falls a victim also of Emil and lays next to Anna their hands touching re-united in death.
There is also before this cacophony of blood lust a frenzied and desperate surprise attack from a devilish midget clown, who is desperately trying to protect his vampiric masters, nut is despatched by John Moulder Brown. If you have not seen this Hammer classic yet, I employ you to find it as soon as you can.