Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Vampire Circus - review

Director: Robert Young

Release Date: 1972

Contains Spoilers

A very unusual piece of vampire fare from Hammer this time, which whilst it had the occasional special effect problem and the odd little bit of story problem (causing the viewer to have to suspend disbelief that little too much, if you thought about the plot too hard), is actually one of the better movies from the company.

We begin with a little girl, Jenny Schilt (Jane Darby), playing. She is observed casually by the schoolteacher Albert Mueller (Laurence Payne). He sees his wife Anna (Domini Blythe) take the girl into the woods and chases after them, seeming quite frantic. Anna takes the girl through a doorway and he cries out, “Please God, no!”

Inside Jenny is taken to a bedroom, she sees a portrait of a man and suddenly he is before her. Scared she runs to Anna who tells her it is Count Mitterhouse (Robert Tayman) and so she approaches him. He plays with the girl’s hair and then vamps. We cut to Albert rallying a mob, trying to get them to storm the castle, though there is reticence to attack. Back in the castle the Count approaches Anna, informing her that one lust feeds the other.

This is an important line. Hammer really went for the jugular (if you pardon the pun) by having the vampire prey on children, firmly crossing into a taboo they had not really touched on previously, though they flirted with the concept in Horror of Dracula (1958) by having Lucy fulfil the bloofer-lady role. This vampire prefers to dine on children but, in this line, they established that they were foodstuff only. There were taboos they were, quite rightly, not prepared to approach. Tayman makes for a wonderfully arrogant, and particularly dangerous, vampire, though he is not in the film much.

The Burgermeister (Thorley Walters) spurs the mob towards the castle, but many including Jenny’s father Schilt (John Brown), loose heart. There is still quite a contingent who break into the Count’s room. Albert asks what he has done to his wife, and the vampire’s, not misplaced, arrogance shines through when he replies, “Only what she wanted.” The townsfolk attack and, by bite or by knife, the Count manages to despatch several of them. The Burgermeister is caught by the vampire but cries out to aim for the creature’s heart and Albert rams a stake through his back and out of his chest. Dying, the Count curses the town and his assailants and his assailant’s children.

Albert carries Jenny’s corpse out and hands her to her father who, in turn, tries to attack Anna. He is stopped but they decide, then and there, that she should be whipped and beaten. Eventually Albert steps in to stop her punishment and she spits in his face and runs back into the castle. Let her die in there, is the consensus, as the townsfolk start to bring barrels of explosives into the castle courtyard. Jenny, however, drags the body of the Count into the crypt and allows blood from her cut mouth to fall onto his chest (the blood is quite neatly absorbed through the skin). He grasps her and tells her to find his cousin, Emil (Anthony Higgins). The explosions block her exit so she leaves the crypt by route of a secret tunnel. It is a fantastic opening, filled with murder, explosions, nudity and rather large fangs and we know we are in for a treat as the film continues.

Fifteen years have passed and the town is in the grip of a plague. The town elders meet and many blame the Count’s curse. The Doctor (Richard Owens), who wasn’t in the town fifteen years before, is dismissive. Though he doesn’t know the cause of the plague, he suggests it might be caused by vermin from the crumbling shell of the castle and he feels certain that he can find medicine’s to cure the dying if only he can get to the capital city. The problem is that nearby towns have blocked all the routes from the town and are guarding it with guns, to stop the plague spreading. Albert is now convinced that they killed a man those years before and not a vampire. Their talk is interupted by music and, looking out of the window, they see that the circus is in town – though how they passed the blockades is a mystery. They shout down to the gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri) who seems to be the leader of the troop and ask what they want. “To steal the money from dead men’s eyes.” She replies. Meanwhile a young boy sneaks a look behind the cover of one of the wagons, in a cage is a panther who, for a second, seems to be a man.

Anton (John Moulder-Brown) is to be left in charge of the sick whilst his father is away. He rides before the roadblock, drawing fire and giving his father chance to escape. Before they part he tells his father to find Dora (Lynne Frederick), Albert and Anna’s daughter, in the capital and tell her to remain there.

That night the circus plays, with ringmaster duties apparently split between the dwarf Michael (Skip Martin) and the gypsy. It seems to begin with an exotic dance theatre performed by Milovan and Serena, in which they act out a beast taming piece, with the female dancer wearing little but body paint. We also see the Black Panther leap and transform into a man. This is where the disbelief begins to crack slightly, and have to assume that the audience in the film believe it to be stagecraft. The Panther, as a man, is Emil and gives Rosa (Christina Paul), the Burgermeister’s daughter, a look. This is an interesting addition to vampire lore, though normally Hammer never really used animal transformation in their films, as the common creatures for transformation are bat or wolf. A Panther is really quite an exotic addition to the lore, but in the context of a circus really works. Once the circus is over there is a cry from Gerta Hauser (Elizabeth Seal) as her son Gustav (Barnaby Shaw) is missing and she blames the circus. Emil walks in with the boy who explains that he had sneaked into the panther wagon and Emil had brought him back. Far from being blamed, the circus folk are now thanked, Gerta giving Emil a rather friendly thank you kiss (much to the disgust of her husband, Hauser (Robin Hunter)).

Once the crowds have cleared the gypsy notices that Rosa is still there and tells her that Emil will walk her home, though instead he takes her to the Panther wagon and has his way with her. During this he vamps (the gypsy outside tells him not to, he must wait) and bites the girl it seems. He does not kill her, however, and we see her hand reach to his mouth and feel his, now human again, teeth. Once back home Rosa is distraught, she wants to be with Emil, her mother, Elvira (Mary Wimbrush), accedes to her wishes. Later the circus strongman (David Prowse) is digging down to the crypt. Must they all die, asks the gypsy and Emil confirms they must.

The next night the circus performs again. Two bats fly (and it has to be said that the bats in this film are probably the best Hammer managed) and seem to transform into acrobats, Heinrich (Robin Sachs, who would go on to be a none-vampiric nemesis – Ethan Rayne – to a certain vampire slayer) and Helga (Lalla Ward), and back into bats again. Here the suspension of disbelief crumbles a little again, whilst the use of a Panther and stagecraft to fake transformation might fool the circus’ audience, they would surely realise that bats are not that trainable and, remember, they had a bit of a vampire problem a few years earlier. Never mind. Emil does his transformation bit again and then the audience are offered opportunity, for one Gilda, to enter a tent containing the Mirror of Life. The Burgermeister is offered first look, for free. In the tent it is a simple hall or mirrors until the final mirror. The Burgermeister looks in it and sees nothing but his reflection, at first, then he sees himself being bitten by Count Mitterhouse. He cries and collapses, muttering about the curse and the fact that the Count is here.

The Schilts see this and Schilt informs his family that he has paid the circus to get them past the roadblocks. The next day we see Michael leading them through the woods, frolicking. In the undergrowth, however, we see a black shape. Michael informs them that they have passed the roadblock, takes his payment and scarpers. The Panther attacks the family, tearing them to pieces as Michael, away from the carnage, laughs. The gypsy seems to have the ability to converse with the staked Count and says that their deaths will prevent others from trying to leave. The Count says that they will begin with the children that night. It is interesting that Emil, in panther form at least, could daywalk. Whether he is restricted to that form during the day is not explained.

Anton looks in on the Burgermeister and tells Hauser that the man will die. He leaves the house as a plague victim is taken, dead, from another domicile. An old woman gives Anton a bible and says that he should pass it to Dora when she returns. We then see a young girl running through the woods, pursued by the roadblock guards, and given the previous scene it is obvious she is Dora. She finds the bodies of the Schilt family, torn apart and portrayed by some of the worst looking dummies seen in a horror movie – bad effects, especially the severed head. Later, before the circus starts, Albert steps into the ring area and asks the question, why the circus scares the people? “Fear drives out fear as death drives out death,” is the cryptic and disembodied response. Albert is then told to go home and care for his daughter when he responds that she is not there, Dora stumbles into the ring.

We have a continuity error here as it seemed dark when that took place, but in the next scene it is daylight. The townsmen are discussing the death of the Schilt family. One suggests it was the circus animals that killed her but Anton believes it was the roadblock guards and perhaps the bodies were mauled by wild animals such as wolves. Outside the meeting Albert asks why he defends the circus and he says it is because they keep people’s minds off the plague. Anton promises to take Dora to the circus to prove the animals are safe. When they are by the tiger cage Helga approaches. She puts her hand in the cage and it seems that the tiger bites it, when she removes her arm there is no mark. Interestingly, however, her brother felt the pain of the bite as it happened. The Hauser children, Gustav and Jon (Roderick Shaw), sneak into the circus and the gypsy allows them to enter the Mirror of Life tent. At the mirror they see the acrobats but, looking round they are not there. Suddenly they are in the tent with them, casting no reflection, and they draw the boys into the mirror, ending up in the crypt. The acrobats bite the boys and drop blood onto the Count’s body. The question is posed, who is next Rosa or Dora, at the suggestion of Dora the gypsy says no.

Trouble kicks off at the circus with Hauser attacking Michael as his son’s are missing. A voice cries that they are found and, rushing to them, we see their corpses, their necks ripped. It is a disturbing scene and Hauser realises that the Count has come back from Hell to exact his revenge. The Burgermeister has pulled himself from his death bed and takes Hauser, with guns, to kill the circus animals. They kill the chimp and tiger and the Burgermeister shoots the Panther which vanishes and suddenly Emil is stood behind him. Rosa runs between the two but the Burgermeister shoots over her, hitting Emil who does not fall. The Burgermeister collapses dead, his heart failed, and Rosa runs off with Emil. Albert arrives and finally recognises the gypsy, she is Anna. Rosa is taken into the crypt and killed by Emil.

Despite the death of two boys, the Burgermeister and all the animals, the circus goes on. The Count, in a mysterious communication, tells the gypsy that her twins will kill Dora. Anton and Dora are drawn into the Mirror of Life tent and, whilst Anton looks in one mirror, Dora vanishes through *the* mirror. The twins try to kill her but she wears a cross, the girl collapses and is suddenly back in the tent. Emil tells the twins that they must kill her that very night and her own mother will remove her cross.

The Doctor has returned with a cure. The plague, he has discovered, is a virulent strain of rabies that is transmitted by bats. He has a couple of imperial soldiers with him, who helped him safely past the roadblocks, and has been shown irrefutable evidence that vampires are real. He informs the town that vampire attacks have occurred wherever the circus has been and that Emil is a kinsman to the Count.

Anton has taken Dora home and barred the door. Dora is desperately trying to remember what happened to her but cannot. A noise upstairs makes Anton jump, but it is the school’s boarding students. Emil appears in the house and goes upstairs in Panther form. Anton runs up to investigate the screams and the twins, and gypsy, enter the house. Gypsy rips the cross from Dora who runs, pursued by the vampires. She runs into the chapel and I hit another problem. Given their fear of the cross, how could they stand being in there? However in there they are and they tease their victim, rather than catching her immediately. Dora manages to get to a stairway that leads to a beam across the chapel. She walks the beam to the cross and pushes it. The cross impales Helga and the wound also appears on Heinrich’s chest. They die together, with gypsy crying for her children. Emil tries to act but the cross deters him and Anton wisely rings the chapel bell, both paining Emil, who flees, and summoning the townsfolk. Dora is left with Gerta as the townsfolk get ready to search out the rest of the circus folk. However the strongman comes to the house and captures Gerta and Dora.

At the circus the dancers are dead, drained of blood. The strongman appears and is shot and Hauser ends up in the Mirror of Life tent. In the mirror he sees Gerta’s blood being poured onto the Count. The tent is on fire but he manages to get out, badly burnt, and tell everyone that they are in the crypt. The townsmen try to dig into the crypt, but Anton finds the passage and goes in alone, killing Michael as he goes in. Inside Emil goes to bite Dora but the gypsy pushes her away and he kills her instead, as she dies she becomes young again, like the Anna who left the village 15 years before. Anton tries to get Dora out but Emil blocks his path. The young man holds up a cross, which glows, but a bat bites his hand and he drops it. (Incidentally, just by accident, if you enlarge and look at the screenshot carefully, around the wrist, you can see what looks like the wire used to light the cross up!) The other townsmen burst in and one shoots Emil with a crossbow, but obviously missed the heart. As Anton swings a torch to keep a bat off Dora, the townsfolk attack Emil. He beats them all off and only Albert remains. Emil bites him but, as he does, Albert pulls the stake from out of the Count and thrusts it into Emil. They both fall as Anton manages to set the bat harassing Dora on fire. The camera pans and it seems they are the only survivors.

Unfortunately they are not safe yet. The wound in the Count’s chest heals, he takes a breath, his hand twitches, his eyes open and he rises from his coffin. Anton swings the torch at him but the Count simply grabs the burning brand and then swats Anton away. The vampire comes for Dora but Anton grabs the crossbow and holds it up the metal support glowing as a cross (in truth a scene I didn’t really like). The Count drops to his knees and Anton belts him with the crossbow, the bow string finishing around his neck. Anton fires and severs the vampire’s head from his body. The Doctor rouses himself and they leave the crypt – in a nice moment it appears that the corpses of Albert and Anna touch hands. The survivors throw torches into the crypt to burn the carnage (and we shouldn’t really ask how a crypt suddenly becomes combustible).

The film is great, other than the little quibbles. It has a high gore factor and nudity factor that has led to its 18 certificate in the UK (even now). Most of the acting is good, though I felt that Moulder-Brown is fairly poor as Anton, he seems all too young and moments that require a look of intensity often have a dopey look instead (check the screenshot with a glowing cross to see what I mean). It should be noted that Tayman, as the Count, was dubbed and yet it is his physical presence that relays all we know of the Count and, boy, can the man sneer. Yet the main strength of the film is the surrealism of the situation that almost has a feel of the films of Jean Rollin. Perhaps more answers would have been forthcoming in respect of the plot in scenes that, allegedly, where not filmed as the production schedule over-ran. As it is, the film, by not relying on other Hammer vampire stories, is allowed to be inventive and this is one of the great strengths of the movie

This is a film in which the vampires are truly vicious and, for the most part, those with the courage to fight back against their evil pay the ultimate price. The vampires are concerned only with their own pleasures. Mitterhouse takes his blood from a small child and then sates his lusts on a man’s wife and is dismissive of those who would stand up to his tyranny. Emil ignores the timing of their revenge to take a taste of Rosa. The human servants are no better. Anna betrays her husband for the Count and then betrays her own daughter, to the point of removing her defensive cross, to raise the evil again. The fact that she ultimately saves her daughter means little, she has not had a road to Damascus conversion, it is just that - after her twin vampire children died - Dora is her only child left. Michael laughs with far too much glee as the Panther ravages an entire family. At least Albert, who seems to suffer the most in the film, gets his reward even if it is in death, his hand touching that of the bride he lost.

This film deserves a good 8.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


The Red Pants of Justice said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Red Pants of Justice said...

A fine and exhaustive review of one of the better Hammer movies. I actually think that despite the creakiness around the edges, Vampire Circus is a genuinely interesting piece of work - perhaps because, rather than in spite of, the missing sequences and parts that were left unfilmed. It has an almost dreamlike quality in places that, while probably not fully intended, certainly make for more than your average Hammer vamp fest.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Thanks red pants... cool name btw... as you can probably tell I do like my Hammer vampire movies and this is a fine example, you've hit the nail on the head by mentioning the dreamlike quality

Erin O'Brien said...

Good lord, what a review!

Thanks for this, it is really extensive and a great reference document. I love this movie.

One good deed deserves another. I am a writer and columnist in Cleveland, Ohio (USA). I did a piece about House Kheperu--a group of energy vampires that congregate close to where I live. You might enjoy it.

Here is the link.

All best to you!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Eri, thanks for the link and for the comment, glad you enjoyed the review - the Hammer ones are moe referential than anything.

Had a quick look at your site, linked from the article, and looking forward to having an explore