Few film studios offered movie posters as consistently beautiful as Hammer's. (Most of which were captured in the recent coffee table retrospective The Art of Hammer.) Unfortunately, behind most of those lush and lurid phantasmagorias lurked Hammer's movies, which often times weren't nearly so opulent in splendor. That's not to say there aren't a bunch of really good Hammer horror films (and a few truly great ones). But it's hard to not to get a little jaded when faced with the likes of Vampire Circus. For despite it having one of the studio's classiest posters (and now its DVD cover art), and a few other intriguing elements, the film is lacking in certain key respects. What's particularly frustrating is that it's been graced with a first-rate Blu-ray and DVD.
Vampire Circus is one of the last significant Hammer films to hit DVD here in the States. Its relative unavailability has, over the years, caused it to rise in status from forgotten curiosity to cult favorite waiting to happen. Though Hammer ‘70s output was largely forgettable, the fact that Captain Kronos, another "independent" ‘70s Hammer vampire film (as opposed to Christopher Lee's Dracula series or the Karnstein Trilogy) – and one often mentioned in the same breath as Vampire Circus by Hammer historians – won a new generation of admirers upon its DVD release, boded well for the day the Circus came to town. Unlike Kronos, however, which was the brainchild of writer-director Brian Clemens, Vampire Circus appears to be more of a committee effort, with the whole falling short of the sum of its parts.
The film's opening sequence is arguably its best. In 19th century Austria, a comely young woman named Anna takes a little girl through the woods into a castle, where a vampire count named Mitterhaus feeds on the child. Anna is so aroused she makes love to the count (in a protracted scene that offers more than a little nudity). Moments later, angry villagers led by Anna's husband, the local schoolmaster, storm the castle and slay the Count. But before he dies, the Count swears revenge – "None of you will live. Your children will die to give me back life."
Fifteens years pass, and a plague envelops the village. Some argue it's the Count's curse. Then an odd travelling circus (dubbed "The Circus of Nights") appears, led by a gypsy woman and comprised of only a dwarf, a strong man, twin acrobats, and an odd fellow named Emil who can transform into a panther and fancies the mayor's daughter. He's also the cousin of Mitterhaus. Soon more breasts are bared, children are dying, mothers are wailing, and a scheme to resurrect the count is well underway.
Vampire Circus has a few cameos that should amuse genre fans, including future Buffy guest star Robin Sachs (who played the wicked Ethan Rayne) and former Doctor Who companion (Romana II to be precise) and current Mrs. Richard Dawkins, Lalla Ward, as the twins. Darth Vader himself, David Prowse (who also starred in Hammer's Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell and Horror of Frankenstein), plays the mute strong man. But despite such curiosities, and the ample supply of blood and breasts on display – including those of a woman painted with cat stripes who dances with a whip-wielding Emil (at least I think it was Emil; I was a little distracted by the stripes) in what stands as one of the most erotic scenes in any Hammer film, Vampire Circus, unlike Kronos, never offers fully realized characters to root for or hiss at. And although there are some pretty cool (if primitively rendered) visuals, the story's predictability nullifies their enjoyment. We know exactly what's going to happen well before the protagonists do; and journeyman director Robert Young can't find a way to keep us involved in the barely-there script.
Synapse's new Blu-ray release offers as good a look at those visuals (and as good a listen to the film's soundtrack) as fans of Vampire Circus could hope for. Grain is present, but the picture looks completely natural, with no evident DNR (digital noise reduction) trickery. One gets the sense that all involved have done their best to make the film look as good as it possibly can on home video. Hammer fans will be especially pleased to know the studio's infamous palette of bloody reds and midnight blues is well presented.
The extras impress as well. The central documentary, The Bloodiest Show on Earth (which runs about a half hour) features commentary from first-rate genre film historians like Tim Lucas and Joe Dante, as well as Hammer expert Ted Newsom and actor David Prowse. A featurette on scary movie circuses is also interesting. But my favorite extra is the third featurette – on the beloved Hammer's House of Horrors, the British comic magazine that offered adaptations of the studio's films for a generation of UK filmgoers too young to see "Certificate X" movies. A motion comic of the Vampire Circus comic art is also included, along with a gallery of stills and that luscious poster art.
Oh, for the dreams that might have been...