Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wendigo Meets VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972)

If there was ever a "lost" Hammer vampire film, it'd probably be Robert Young's effort, which stands apart from both the Dracula and Karnstein series. I can't recall it ever being on TV when I was a kid, but my friend Wendigo managed to see it about 30 years ago on one of the New York movie stations from the good old days of cable TV. As a vampire buff young Wendigo went out of his way to make sure he saw it after he saw it listed in the TV guide. He presumes that he knew about it from Famous Monsters of Filmland, which he was reading long before I ever bought a cult-movie mag. His sources told him that it was actually one of the better Hammer films, and definitely better than the studio's other Seventies vampire films. Thirty years on, before we sat down to watch it on Netflix, he remembered a woman being made to run a gauntlet; a vampire staked early and revived late; and not much else. He remembers being disappointed with a lack of "importance" due to Dracula's absence and confused by some apparent bending of the vampire rules. He recalls some ambivalence, neither liking it well nor hating it much, but now that he has a greater appreciation for the diversity of vampire lore he was ready to give Circus a fresh look.

Director Young sends us back to Hammerland, opening with a woman presenting a child as an offering to the local vampire, Count Mitterhaus. After drinking his fill, the Count declares, "One lust awakens another" and takes the woman to bed. Aroused in a different way by the girl's disappearance, the villagers, including the woman's schoolteacher husband, overcome their fear of aristocracy and storm the Mitterhaus castle with torches and barrels of gunpowder. After a struggle, they manage to stake Mitterhaus. Since he's not obliged to disintegrate or explode instantly, the aggrieved Count has time to curse his killers, vowing that their children would die to give him new life. Anna, the vampire's lover, is made to run the gauntlet as a presumed prelude to lynching, but her husband can't stand to see her suffer, despite everything. But he can't stop her from running into the castle as it burns, apparently to her death. Bleeding from her wounds, she manages to make Mitterhaus stir long enough to instruct her to seek out his cousin, who'll arrange for the vengeance.

Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) and a youthful victim.

Fifteen years pass. Given that our town is suffering from a plague and quarantine, you might not blame folks for thinking that Mitterhausen's prophecy was coming true. On the other hand, the circus is coming to town! Somehow the Circus of Nights ("A hundred delights!") has made it through the military cordon thrown around the community to provide the plagued villagers with the solace of wholesome family entertainment. It has all you can ask for: a dwarf, a strong man (David "Darth Vader" Prowse), a gypsy animal trainer, a naked dancing girl in reptile make-up (or is she supposed to be feline?), a panther that turns into a man, and twin acrobats (including Lalla "Romana" Ward) who turn into bats in broad daylight. You might think that superstitious villagers might tear a circus apart that sported bat-tropic performers, but it's a circus, so it must be some sort of carny magic, right? But you know better, don't you?...

See! The Circus of Nights!

See! The Ssssnaked Woman!

See! The Twins of Ev-- sorry, that's another picture.

Wendigo tells me that folklore often makes circuses out to be dangerous affairs, infested with faerie folk, vampires and other menaces. You see the gimmick in movies too, as recently as The Vampire's Apprentice. Vampires and circuses are a natural match somehow, since travelling players were always an object of suspicion as well as fascination and fantasy. Vampire Circus stresses the circus part of the equation, pausing the action to show off its specialty artists. While not all the performers are vampires, Wendigo claims that the circus as a whole has a mesmeric effect on audiences, breaking down their resistance and enticing them into traps. The problem with the film, however, is that the circus folk seem so sinister and suspicious from the beginning that it doesn't make sense for the villagers to let their guard down so easily. But I guess you can't have the Count's revenge otherwise. The circus gimmick also left Wendigo wondering what was in it for the non-vampire performers. The dwarf, strongman and snake-girl are human, but are they slaves or willing allies of Emil the were-panther vampire, the older and vengeful Anna, and her vampire twins? The fact that the vampires eventually drain the snake-girl and her partner really left us scratching our heads, but explaining their strange careers would probably require a different movie altogether.

Put all the circus stuff aside, of course, and you have a familiar Hammer vampire's-revenge storyline with an also-familiar generation-gap spin on it. Circus doesn't really do much new with these ideas, and its young romantic hero and heroine are pretty dull, but it's the sort of story that can be done over and over. If anything, this movie seems to vindicate intolerance, since the circus clearly shouldn't have been welcomed to town, and for that matter, everyone would have been better off had Anna's husband let her be lynched at the start of the picture. The only intolerance that gets refuted is the hero's initial refusal to recognize the supernatural at work. Circus can be seen as a reactionary picture if you interpret the circus itself as symbolic of the counterculture or alternate lifestyles. Sometimes, though, a vampire is just a vampire.

The power of Christ doesn't compel everybody.

In some ways, Vampire Circus is ahead of its time in its diversity of vampire powers. Cousin Emil may have been unique up to that time as a vampire who turns into a panther, while the Mitterhaus twins, as noted, can do their bat tricks during the day. If any of this seems "wrong" to a vampire buff, Wendigo says: too bad. Critics often go overboard classifying things and insisting that a thing can't be what it is if it doesn't fit their made-up categories. Folklore is more fluid, and if anything, the eccentric elements of Circus make it a more folkloric-feeling vampire film than many other Hammer films. But some things stay the same.

In Hammer films the cross is invincible -- except in the meaty paw of Dave Prowse -- even if it's just a light-reflecting crosspiece of a crossbow. Circus adds a more unusual but folklorically sound turning method when the vampires are repelled by the ringing of church bells. Being a late Hammer, Circus also sports more nudity and much more gore than earlier films. The snake-girl dances about quite nude, albeit in body paint, and the actress playing young Anna is ardently naked for her master vampire. The gore highlight, if you please, is a shot of the ripped-up, maggot-ridden remains of a panther attack on an entire family, while the highlight for pure cartoonish violence is the moment when the heroine drops a huge cross from a church ceiling to impale poor Lalla Ward. As for effects, both bats and fangs are usually adequate, though the teeth effects are erratic (especially when it comes to length) depending on the mouth employed.

Wendigo now feels that Vampire Circus is one of Hammer's good ones, and one of the best of its Seventies vampire films along with Twins of Evil. I'm not quite as impressed with it, since its pretty simple stuff apart from the novelty, but the novelty itself is enough to raise Circus a little above the Hammer average. Difference is its virtue compared to the anemic Dracula films, and for Wendigo the difference includes the film's look at a circus tradition far different from what he's used to from Ringling Bros. In any event, Wendigo doesn't propose to wait another thirty years before seeing it again, and now that it's finally been released on DVD in the U.S., Vampire Circus will most likely earn a spot in his permanent collection.

SynapseFilms released the DVD, and they've uploaded the trailer to YouTube.


dfordoom said...

Oddly enough Vampire Circus is one of the few Hammer movies that turns up regularly on Australian TV. It's definitely one of my favourite Hammer flicks.

Anonymous said...

I think the naked, body-painted dancer is supposed to be a tigress, hence the male part of the act "taming" her with a whip!

Samuel Wilson said...

Anon: Actually, Wendigo was trying to convince me of the same thing, also emphasizing her stripes. A tigress definitely makes sense, but the dancer's bald head and (to me) greenish tint just reads reptilian to me.

d: Wendigo tells me the TV showing he mentioned was the only one he can remember, and I had simply not heard of the movie until I began to read up on cult movies systematically in the 90s.

Sam Juliano said...

It's actually a blu-ray release now Samuel, and what a visual feast that one is. I can agree with you that it's not on the top level of Hammer (certainly not standing with the likes of HORROR OF DRACULA, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES and BRIDES OF DRACULA) but with TWINS OF EVIL it is solidly on the second wrung. You are right to note the pronounced gore and nudity in the film, which goes beyond just about anything else the studio has done. Any Hammer film that doesn't star Peter Cushing and/or Christopher Lee comes handicapped, a fact even more apparent here, as the performances aren't noteworthy, though hardly wooden as some of the film's detractors claim. This is an errie and atmospheric film that is far more visceral than other Hammers, which are far more attentive to plot.

Sam Juliano said...

Erich Kuersten said...

I've seeen chunks of this on Netflix streaming, but for some reason I can't make it through... must be the tired Hammer circus tropes, it's wearisome! But I found your review scintillating. Good show!

Anonymous said...

Re why non-vamps would be going along with the vampire circus folk, vampires always seem to have human familiars/guardians (or even as pets). That didn't bother as the main vampy plot is all about Emil resurrecting his cousin the Count and taking revenge on the town folk. Helpful humans = grist for the mill. Not really spelled out but as you say there's a lot in this particular vampire film that has to do with broader folk tale vampire tropes, so I just went with it (I actually kinda like the unexplained bits in it even if they were more about budget cuts than astute storytelling, lol - apparently the studio stopped funding for this one before Young had completed shooting it, not sure what's missing but I bet the unfilmed parts would mean less of the awkward padding in some scenes in the final cut). Also unique for Hammer (or any studio) is the danger to, and death of, so many children. Gotta go back to their 1960 film "Never Take Candy From A Stranger" for that sort of unsettling plotting.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam J: your comment got me wondering what would be considered Hammer's best horrors without Lee or Cushing. Curse of the Werewolf and Blood From the Mummy's Tomb immediately come to mind, but Vampire Circus probably belongs to the upper tier of this category, too.

Erich: Can't blame you for your diffidence. Wendigo himself admits that films like Circus didn't really shake a rep for stodginess that haunted Hammer in its years of decline.

J:I guess we were wondering whether the "animal" girl and her "trainer" even realized whom they were working for, since they proved the most expendable members of the troupe. Wendigo would probably say that the circus folk themselves could have carried a film that explored their motivations for traveling with the vampires. I agree about the children-in-peril side of the story; we've seen Never Take Candy too and were duly creeped out by it.

Alex DeLarge said...

Good review Wendigo! I recommend the blu-ray which looks fantastic for a low-budget horror flick fom the 70's. I just watched TWINS OF EVIL for the first time and agree that it's not as fun (maybe because no Peter Cushing) but remains perplexingly enjoyable.

Nigel Maskell said...

So this first time on Late Night TV back in the 70s, possibly as part of the BBC Horror Double Bill.

Anyhow, loved this film back in the day and still do! Watched it with my wife about 3 weeks ago.

Have a feeling it was an influence on the Papa Lazarou segment in League of Gentlemen.

venoms5 said...

Saw this the first time on the old Commander USA's Groovie Movies show back in the mid to late 80s. I got to see what I was missing on a bootleg of the Japanese LD a few years later.

Great movie for what they had to work with. Young did things with the material no one had really done before. His vamps were far more energetic than Lee or the others ever were. There's so many wonderful avenues traveled in this one even if those roads are a bit bumpy. This is one I'd love to see a remake for.

The only major problem I have with the movie is the Mitterhaus revenge plot. If all that was required to bring the Count back was to remove the stake, then why all the previous scenes of spilling the blood of the children over his corpse to give him life? Considering the problems the film had, I can overlook it.

Oh, and Famous Monsters did cover the film in a few issues back in the 70s, with the tiger girl getting a lot of attention. And I think that tiger taming/sex scene was cut from the US theatrical version if I remember right.