Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Circus of Nights

VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1971)

Bald, naked and coated in body paint, Serena is the Tiger Woman.

AS Hammer entered its wilderness years, Robert Young's VAMPIRE CIRCUS rediscovers the studio's vigour for the genre. Picking up the gauntlet thrown down by TWINS OF EVIL (1971), this offering pushes Hammer further into the softcore sex and copious bloodletting required to maintain interest amongst pictures made outside of Elstree or Pinewood. Despite the film being Young's first picture, and the inevitable delays resulting from the extensive use of animals, Michael Carreras ceremoniously pulled the plug on the unfinished production when it had reached the end of its six-week shoot. The footage was subsequently spliced together, creating a Euro-horroresque/incoherent charm of its own.

Opening with a twelve minute prologue which plays like a featurette, in 1810, vampire Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) and his mistress Anna Mueller (Domini Blythe) are apparently destroyed by the villagers of Schtettel. Fifteen years later the village is riven with plague and quarantined, and The Circus of Nights, led by an enigmatic gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri), arrive to entertain the villagers nightly with a Tiger Woman (Serena), a Panther Man (Anthony Corlan), twin acrobats Heinrich (Robin Sachs) and Helga (Lalla Ward), and a clown dwarf (Skip Martin). In fact, the troupe are undead, shape-shifting relatives of Mitterhaus, who seduce and procure the blood of the local young to resurrect him.

Written by Steve Parkhouse and illustrated by Brian Bolland, VAMPIRE CIRCUS was adapted into comics for The House of Hammer #17 (Feb 1978).

The Circus of Nights ("A hundred delights!") is one of the most subversive takes on the essential innocence of the carnival ethos. The villagers gasp in amazement at the antics of the troupe, and even though the performers change into bats and black panthers before their eyes, they take a remarkably long time to react to their visitors true nature. The villagers are portrayed as generally deserving of the various fates that the vengeful vampires see fit to bestow upon them. The undead are predominantly young, talented and sexy, whereas the town folk are sexually repressed, middle-aged, unattractive and riddled with fears and prejudices. When Anna watches her lover feed from the throat of a young girl in the prologue, watching in voyeuristic ecstasy in a prelude to making love with Mitterhaus, there is no question that she is truly liberated.

VAMPIRE CIRCUS is one of the few British horror films to understand the difference between nudity and eroticism, and would be impossible to make in today's conservative climate. Not only does it break the taboo of unleashing violence to young children - a scene where two boys are lured to The Mirror of Life is particularly uncomfortable - it dares to be homoerotic, suggestively bestial and incestuous. Because of such lurid material the film has gone unappreciated, but this may be underscored by the lack of a name horror star. Laurence Payne's world-weary schoolmaster, the central heroic figure, only receives sixth billing in a large cast which includes David Prowse unsurprisingly as the circus strongman, Thorley Walters as the bumbling Burgomeister, John Moulder-Brown as the most unconvincing romantic lead in the whole Hammer canon, and Lynne Frederick as Dora.