Hammer Film Productions, 1972
Starring: Robert Tayman, Adrienne Corri, David Prowse, and Thorley Walters
Directed by: Robert Young
The plot: Handsome vampire Count Mitterhaus (Tayman) is corrupting the women and killing the children in the Austrian village of Stetl in the early 19th century. The villagers have had enough and put a stake through his heart. He, in turn, puts a curse on the village. Fifteen years later, Stetl is ravaged by plague, but somehow the creepy traveling “Circus of Night” manages to enter the village for an extended stay. A dwarf, a strongman, a tiger-woman, and shape-shifting acrobats are among the colorful players. Soon, the village children begin to disappear, and the people of Stetl fear the count’s curse has come home to roost.
Why it’s good: Hammer went through various phases in its 30-year run as a box-office money-machine, but by any measurement, “Vampire Circus” ranks in the studio’s top 10. All the predictable ingredients of the formula — sumptuous if cartoonish art design, heaving bosoms in diaphanous gowns, waterfalls of stage blood, and a grim determination to treat asinine plots with damned serious Britishness — collided in this one with fresh innovation and risky decisions, even as the company was in its decline. Young’s direction is a fine mix of control and inspired sloppiness, not surprising in a documentarian helming his first feature. The screenplay by Judson Kinberg is a novel departure, using a malevolent circus troupe as its linchpin. The production values, aided by the ever-reliable Pinewood Studios, are superb. The acting runs the gamut from dependable warhorses like Walters as the village burgomeister to Tayman’s wincingly hammy work. Adrienne Corri and David Prowse (both of “A Clockwork Orange”) perform admirably with tongues in cheek. David Whitaker’s score has a hurdy-gurdy motif that is creepy and effective.
The legacy: Hammer occasionally rose above its own modest aims — “Twins of Evil” and “Demons of the Mind” are two examples — and this film pulled it all together beautifully. Not that it’s free of problems — by the time this film went into production, several of the old guard Hammer producers, writers, and directors had moved up and on. The Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing days were over. CEO Michael Carreras — a first-rate entrepreneur who admitted he didn’t know shit about movies — briefly allowed some innovation. When Young went over budget and schedule, Carreras pulled the plug and shut the uncompleted production down. Luckily, there are no noticeable gaps left by the lack of pick-up and insert shots that probably would have been nice to include. Young and Kinberg brought touches of Bergman, Fellini, and even ’30s Universal horror films to bear on a dying genre. Throw in the unwholesome predilection the film has for vampirizing children and you’ve got quite the whopper. The opening pre-credits sequence — 12 minutes long! — is one disquieting curtain-raiser. It wouldn’t stand a chance today. The Synapse Blu Ray/DVD combo includes a long and excellent documentary on the making of this inspired, unsettling gem.