Vampire Circus, released in 1972, is a fairly typical late-period Hammer horror film. And that’s no bad thing. I happen to think that they made some of the most interesting and worthwhile movies in the early 70s, and that they had the right idea which was not to abandon the gothic horror on which they’d built their reputation but to add other elements to the mix to keep things fresh. So they made hybrid kung fu/vampire movies like the wonderful Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, and western/vampire movie hybrids like the equally entertaining and quirky Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter. Or they played around with the gothic genre, as in Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde.
Vampire Circus is, fairly obviously, a movie that combines circuses and vampires. What makes it work so well is that they didn’t just add a circus to provide a colourful background for a vampire movie, or add a vampire to a circus story. The two elements mesh seamlessly, with the fundamental nature of both the circus and the vampire being that of turning the world on its head, breaking the rules, making appearances deceptive and threatening the natural order of things. Vampire Circus also adds a very considerable dose of eroticism to the mix, and this also functions as an essential element of the story rather than being there (as in many Hammer movies) just to add some titillation.
The movie starts in classic gothic horror style. After a child has disappeared (apparently the latest in a series of such disappearances) we see a mob of torch-wielding villagers attacking a vampire’s castle. The vampire is destroyed, and his castle is burnt with his wicked female acolyte inside. But all this happens before the opening credits! We then find ourselves in the same village fifteen years earlier, the village in the grip of a mysterious plague, and with a travelling circus newly arrived. It’s a strange circus though - the performers’ tricks are both disturbing and seem to be inexplicable by the normal laws of nature. We can guess that there’s a common thread linking the vampires, the plague and the circus.
Robert Young, directing his first feature film, keeps the plot ticking over at a frenetic pace. There are no big names in the cast, but the performances are solid. Look out for Lalla Ward (to become much better known as Romana II from Doctor Who) as a sexy vampire circus dancer.
The circus sequences, with performers literally taking flight and shape-changing ,definitely add a touch of genuine and disturbing weirdness that you don’t get in most Hammer films. The ending is just a little disappointing, being rather too predictable. It’s a pity Hammer couldn’t quite bring themselves to depart from the conventions they’d established in that area. Overall though it’s a fine piece of gothic erotic horror, stylish and very entertaining, and visually impressive. A must-see for any fan of British gothic horror.