Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Cheer: Vampire Circus

Ho, ho, ho, nothing says Christmas like a late period Hammer Horror film. While it is always cause for celebration when a fan favorite finally bows on DVD, the release of Robert Young’s Vampire Circus (trailer here) is particularly festive, marking the 100th release from Synapse Films. It is now available from finer online retailers, but many wage slaves might find Synapse’s own site for discerning horror cineastes nanny-blocked (as it is at my office).

In 1971, vampires were still Hammer’s bread and butter. After the success of The Vampire Lovers starring the late great Ingrid Pitt, the studio was no longer afraid of a little raciness. Perhaps more accurately, they were reluctant to release films without some crowd pleasing sexual content. With Circus, they delivered plenty just in the extended twelve minute prologue. Anna Müller, the hot wife of the local school teacher, has taken up with Count Mitterhaus, lord of the castle and undead vampire. After feasting on an innocent young girl, they grapple together in dark, evil ecstasy. Then the villagers arrive, pitchforks in hand, led by her slightly put out husband. They take care of business readily enough, but not before he curses the whole town of Schtettel, promising to return through the deaths of the children. The end, as if.

Circus flashforwards a few years to find the town dying again. This time it is a plague which superstitious townsfolk blame on the curse. Schtettel’s hopes depend on Dr. Kersch (who resembles a slightly less fat and pompous Thomas Friedman) getting through the quarantine blockade and returning with medicine. To while away the time, they enjoy the “gypsy” circus that mysteriously appeared, staging bizarre Cirque de Soleil shows, like that of the ferocious tiger woman in striped body paint. It hardly takes a genius to suspect the Circus of Nights is up to no good, but the doctor’s son Anton is a bit slow on the up-take.

While the DVD commentators somewhat overstate their case, suggesting Circus was heavily influenced by the work of Fellini and Bergman, the film certainly features some pretty trippy imagery. It was also a welcomed return to the quality production values that marked the studios early output. Though set in a remote Serbian town at an unspecified time, it also has the distinctly Victorian vibe Hammer perfected.

Although the Hammer superstars (Pitt, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee) are notably absent, at least one Hammer semi-regular still turns up. David Prowse, whom any movie geek worth his still-in-the-box Snaggletooth action-figure can tell you filled-in the Darth Vader body suit, appears as the circus strongman, getting about as much on-screen dialogue as he did in Star Wars. In general, the cast is pretty good, if occasionally a bit stiff, but Domini Blythe remains quite memorable as the alluring Anna Müller. Likewise, as her spurned husband, Laurence Payne nicely steps into the Cushing-esque role of anguished monster slayer.

Stylishly directed by horror novice Young, Circus is entertainingly creepy. If not quite a swan song, it is definitely a late blooming from the studio—a good reminder why so many horror fans love Hammer. Synapse also did right by its packaging too, including both DVD and Blue Ray discs (yep, that blood sure is red), with a fairly generous selection of extras, including featurettes on the making of the film and the tradition of circus and carny themed fright flicks that are a cut above average by bonus standards. A good, clean stocking stuffer, Circus is now available on DVD/Blue Ray, courtesy of Synapse Films.