Vampire Circus (1972) [31 Days of Hammer Horror Review]

Jules picks up where he left off in October by running through some of the choice horror offerings from the fantastic Hammer back catalogue.You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of Hammer” by CLICKING HERE.

Released: 1972
Starring: Adrienne Corri, Laurence Payne, Anthony Corlan, Thorley Walters
Director: Robert Young

The 1970s saw Hammer greet the new decade by upping their quotient of sex and violence. What had previously only been suggested or pulled away from was now being focused in on, enhanced and flat out exploited.

It was an understandable reaction to a changing film industry and audience expectations, but it was also a tactic that didn’t always meet with success.

Vampire Circus though, is where they got it absolutely spot on, pushing the boundaries of what they could get away with as far as the could, but always in service of the story. Sure, there’s some right gratuitous scenes here, but there’s a point to every one.

Just outside the small Serbian village of Stetl, early in the nineteenth century, schoolmaster Albert Müller (Laurence Payne) sees his wife Anna (Domini Blyth) taking a little girl, Jenny Schilt, into the castle of Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman). His wife has become a voluntary mistress to the nobleman, and has been bringing him the village children to feed on, for he is a vampire.

The locals rise up after this latest atrocity and destroy both the Count and his castle, only for Anna to escape with Mitterhaus’ body after he curses the village that their children will die so that he may be reborn.

Fifteen years later, Stetl is under quarantine for a plague that is wiping them out, when a mysterious circus comes to town. It’s no ordinary travelling show though, as death follows in its wake. Mitterhaus’ vampire cousin is in town for revenge and he’s brought some friends…

Oh, this is just spectacular. There was always a sexual undercurrent to Hammer’s vampire films, but here they really make it at the heart of the story and it really enhances the story. Right from the start, we’re in serious taboo territory with Anna standing becoming more and more aroused as she watches the Count feed on a small girl, before they throw themselves into a fairly explicit sex scene. It’s profoundly uncomfortable stuff and makes for a marvellous opening.

All the way through it, sexuality is used as a weapon, to entice, to lure, to rebel and to punish, but it never feels tacked on or beefed up for the sale of it. These vampires are decadent and cruel, their desires and passions making perfect sense for who they are.

The circus itself is brilliantly realised, with characters like the lead vampire Emil (Anthony Higgins) a feral, silent entity capable of transforming into a black panther, the Strongman (Dave Prowse) and the vampiric brother/sister acrobat duo of Helga (Lalla Ward) and Heinrich (Robin Sachs), who seem to have a much closer relationship than mere siblings. It’s a frightening place, but alluring at the same time. You can see why the villagers flock to it, even when what they are seeing is challenging to their concepts of morality.

Adrienne Corri is suitably seductive as the gypsy woman leading the circus too, while Hammer stalwart Thorley Walters is his usual charming self as Peter, the Burgomeister, but it’s Payne’s turn as the heroic, but broken schoolmaster that really shines here. His wife might have voluntarily went with the Count, but he still loved her and he’s never quite got over it.

The idea of the village being under quarantine adds a whole extra level of peril too. Anyone trying to leave will be shot (or ripped apart by a were-panther), so not only are the locals trapped in a village beset by plague and vampires, they can’t escape either.

Much like the increased application of sex and nudity, the violence in Vampire Circus is ramped right up. Throats are graphically torn out, exit wounds explode out of backs and entire families are shredded for the camera. Again though, none of it feels excessive. It’s a nasty tale and needs no punches pulled.

Vampire Circus is that rare thing in Hammer’s 1970s output- a stone cold classic where they just get it so, so right. Immense.

Rating: 5/5.

JULESAVThe Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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