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.
See! The Circus of Nights!
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.
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.
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.