Sunday, October 14, 2018

Halloween Watch: Vampire Circus (1972)

Watched:  10/12/2018
Format:  Amazon Prime Streaming in my hotel room
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1970's

Not long ago our own JAL pointed me to Amazon Prime, where Vampire Circus (1972) is now streaming.  He'd suggested the movie a couple of years back, but at the time, the only copy I could find was a VHS rented at a local video store, and I just didn't do it.  So, I'm glad he saw fit to make sure I was aware of it for this Halloween season.

I have mixed feelings about Hammer's output - despite the uneven quality, I still find something to like in many of the films.  Further - despite our many cultural similarities, British horror of the 1950's - 1980 or so feels like it's own beast, and it's not taking cues from the Germans nor the Americans.  Many Hammer films are more horrific in fact of what occurs than how the material is presented to these American eyes.

But...  don't be dissuaded by some of the tamer Hammer films you might think this may emulate, nor let the goofy name give you the wrong idea - Vampire Circus makes for an outstanding gothic horror, full of great themes, character concepts, visuals and genuinely chilling scenes.

And plenty of that Hammer pink-red blood.

As JAL said via DM when I told him I'd finished the film - the movie's themes would play exceedingly well today, and a remake would make for an interesting prospect.  As SimonUK and I like to ponder "what would be a good thematic double-bill?" - I'd pair it with Something Wicked This Way Comes as a flipside of the nightmare circus come to town.

Vampire Circus plays more on the fears of old-school oligarchies and wealth abusing the plebes, rather than twisting their personal dreams - but at least the surface similarities of dark carnivals (minus juggaloes) luring in the unsuspecting and being more than they appear - it's an interesting reflection.

The film opens on a young schoolmaster watching a girl play in the woods near their village.  While the schoolmaster reads, a woman comes along, luring the girl away to a castle.  The schoolmaster summons the child's father as well as other villagers, most of which lack fear of the castle and the Count who dwells within.  The schoolmaster and others break in, confronting the Count - only to learn he has drained the girl of blood and the woman in question is the missing wife of the schoolmaster, who has become the vampire count's mortal concubine.

In destroying the Count, he curses the men and sends the woman - believed dead inside the wreckage of the castle, to find his cousin who will restore him to life.

Fifteen years later, as the village is plagued with an unknown disease, blockaded in so as not to spread the infection (the curse seemingly beginning its fulfillment), a circus rolls into town.  Bit by bit, things begin to go all the more wrong, and the players from the circus reveal themselves as far more than entertainers.  Old fears are stoked, new ones uncovered, and the rationalization of what occurred fifteen years ago must now be re-considered.

I was delighted to learn I recognized only one actor in this movie by name: David Prowse, Darth Vader himself, who plays a circus strongman.  There are a few faces that turn up in other films, but no one I know outright.  Robert Tayman's Count Mitterhouse is an undeniable presence in the film - a glam-rock-era take on a Dracula stand in, and genuinely mixing sex and vampirism in a way that's both obvious and rarely seen despite the insistence that vampires are sexy as hell (thanks, Bela).  And while there are a handful of vampires in the film, there are hangers-on - a cursed mute strongman (Prowse), a gypsy woman, a little person clown and diabolical being, and a pair of what I assume were local London performance artists who get some odd billing and then perform a curious, kinky modern dance in the film's first third or so.

Heads up - this film is a product on the 1970's British horror scene when Hammer went from kid-friendly but ample decolletage to embracing nudity as part of the package.  The eroticism, gore, straight up horror of the quarantine mixed with the supernatural happenings and nihilistic ending make it an interesting bridge between other 1972-era British horror movies I happened to have watched this year.  The look still feels Hammer, but the content feels of another era, just as the treatment of the vampires has a foot in the past as well as where vampires would go in cinema straight through today.

And, yeah, it's got a few actually spooky or thrilling scenes.

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