It may be something of a hot take, but when comparing Hammer’s unreasonably sizable catalogue of vampire movies side by side, you start to realise that pound for pound, titles that don’t feature Christopher Lee’s ludicrously iconic take of Count Dracula are often far more entertaining than ones that do. This is especially true as Hammer cracked the whip on its gothic-style horse and carriage and rumbled into the 70’s, a period that saw the fanged one appear in ever more ropey sequels such as the confoundingly groovy Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites Of Dracula that bizarrely chose to cast the Count as a cheapjack Bond villian. However, while the Count floundered in his own projects, a whole separate series of bloodsucker movies were being release that not only continued to take full advantage of a period setting, but were thrillingly unencumbered by not having to shoehorn in a tacked on Drac attack. The result was a clutch of exciting unpredictable films pumped full of weird, trippy energy and one of the most memorable is Vampire Circus.
It’s the 19th century and a small village in Serbia is under seige by the sinister nobleman Count Mitterhaus, whom rumours persist that he’s not only a vampire, but he’s also responsible for the rash of missing children that’s been plaguing the hapless townsfolk. However, schoolteacher Albert Müller gets horrifying proof when his wife, seemingly enthralled by the idea of becoming a fuck-buddy to the monstrous nobleman (fiends with benefits?), his wife delivers their young daughter into the Count’s bloodthirsty clutches and promptly hops into bed with him. This proves to be the child that breaks the vampire’s back and the townspeople unleash a terrible vengence that leaves the Count staked and his castle burned.
Wind the clock ahead fifteen years and the town is now under siege from a mysterious plague that many attribute as a curse inflicted by a dying Count who vowed to claim the children of the men who killed him and no one may enter or leave the area due to a rifle packing perimeter set up by the fearful surrounding towns.
However, somehow entering undetected comes the Circus Of Night, a travelling circus with a skeleton crew of a dwarf, two acrobats, a mute strongman, a gypsy woman and its mysterious leader, Emil, who turns out to be Count Mitterhaus’ cousin who has come to quench his thirst for vengence and blood (but mostly vengence) by fulfilling his relative’s murderous promise and killing the grown children left over from that first rampage. Worse yet, if Emil and his travelling band succeed in draining all their targets, they’ll be able to resurrect the Count who will no doubt resume his unholy passions anew. Only the plucky son of the local doctor has a chance to thwart the nefarious scheme as the Vampire Circus builds to its grisly final act.
Simply put, Vampire Circus is off the fucking chain with a squirrelly plot and a smacked out tone that aims to be as unequivocally cruel as humanly possible despite it’s luminous, colour photography making it camp as hell. The movie also shifts gears as furiously as a marauding motorist from a Mad Max movie as the story changes wildly as the threats gradually alter – we begin with prologue that starts the flick in a places where most vampire films end that sees it’s predatory Count be brought to wooden, pointy justice for his child murdering crimes.
So far, so simple, but even at this early stage the movie is positively pulsating with a kooky, hedonistic vibe and we haven’t been introduced to the freakin’ circus yet. The actor playing Count Mitterhaus, with his Bay City Rollers hair (complete with a window’s peak), giant fangs that look more of a hazard to himself as much as any prospective victim and an obvious aversion to buttoning up his shirt, looks certifiably off his rocker and his salacious tastes only add to this sense of the whole enterprise being entertainingly “off”.
However when the Circus Of Night rock up to town, things get even more barmy as logic clocks out early in order to get a jump on the evening rush hour traffic – firstly, only half of the troupe are vampires with the unnerving acrobat twins and Jerry Sadowitz lookalike Emil sporting fangs, hypnotic powers and – in the latter’s case – an inexplicable ability to transform into a snarling panther. The remaining members just seem to be random oddballs who seem to revel in chaos when they aren’t putting on mind bending shows where Emil will wrestle a naked snake lady while the unwitting punters (with their kids in tow) display a talent at clapping at pretty much anything that’s put in front of them.
Either through giant plot holes or filmmaker indifference, large parts of the movie simply don’t make any logical sense – why would an immortal, bloosucking creature want to piss about with a thread bare circus with only six people in it? Why don’t the townsfolk immediately smell a rat when people inevitably start going missing? Where do the circus find the room to transport an entire hall of mirrors with their handfull of carts? What’s up with David Prowse’s blank faced strong man? All of the above would be an issue if it wasn’t for the cloying feeling of dream logic that hangs about the flick like a cloud of inpenetrable bong smoke. People teleporting through mirrors? Vampire magic, innit? A whole subplot involving the
Bürgermeister’s weyward daughter falling for the bug-eyed Emil that ultimately goes nowhere? Adds to the drama, yeah? Someone getting spectacularly decapitated by the twanging string of a crossbow? Ok, that’s ridiculous – but it’s certainly fucking awesome.
Something else that adds to the prevalent fever dream feeling is the rather brow raising fact that the movie is gloriously sadistic as virtually everyone gets a horrific death scene and milks the living shit out of it too. People succumb to fatal neck bites with their mouths yawning open in silent screams, Emil’s panther form messily chows down on an entire family and the list of murdered children is as long as your arm – but rest assured that the villians get some appropriately brutal demises too with the creepy acrobats geting satisfyingly crushed by a giant cross during a third act barney and all coated in that glorious, cherry red blood that Hammer threw around with reckless abandon.
Completely absurd, mischievously mean spirited and utterly off its rocker, this camp riot may not hold common sense in high regard, but it’s all the more fun for it.
Step right up, to the mentalist show on earth.