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.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Queen of Darkness

BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1971)

Valerie Leon enjoys British cult status ten times over: one Hammer horror, seven CARRY ON's, and two James Bond's. From 1969 to 1975, she was best known for her Hai Karate commercials, and later spoofed her man eater image by playing a whip-cracking dominatrix in REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER.

IN early 1970s London, Margaret (Valerie Leon) suffers a recurring nightmare about an ancient Egyptian Queen, to whom she bears an uncanny resemblance. The priests who entomb the Queen first chop off her hand but, after throwing the member to the jackals, are killed by a mysterious force that lacerates their throats (as are the animals). A day before her birthday, Margaret's father, archaeologist Professor Fuchs (Andrew Keir), gives her a ruby ring. This artifact was discovered when, twenty years before, Fuchs and four others broke into the tomb of Queen Tera and found the item on her disembodied hand. At that moment, thousands of miles away, Margaret's mother died giving birth to her, signaling the start of Tera's sorcery.

Similar to TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970), there is a sense here that a complex society exists beyond the surface, with a number of mixed motive individuals caught up in the supernatural, rather than the black and white tableau of Terence Fisher. Also, with the marginal exception of THE WITCHES (1966), the film is Hammer's first Gothic to have a contemporary setting, and the production moves towards the ambiguous endings that would become standard for horror cinema in the 70s: is it Margaret or Tera, swathed in bandages, that survives in the hospital bed at the climax of the film?

BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB is a lurid adaptation of Bram Stoker's mystical novel The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903). It is a film as much about images as it is about characters: snake and cat statues, the skull of a jackal, the ruby ring and a fixation with throat-cutting and Valerie Leon's breasts.

BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB was one of Hammer's most cursed productions. Peter Cushing was initially cast as Fuchs, but Keir was hurriedly drafted in because of Helen Cushing's ill health. Screenwriter Christopher Wicking was banned from the set after an altercation with producer Howard Brandy, a young art department employee died in a motorcycle accident, and director Seth Holt succumbed to a sudden, fatal heart attack with a week's filming still to complete. Michael Carreras, who had just became the studio's Managing Director, prepared for a total re-shoot, but ultimately finished the production and supervised the assembly himself.

Despite all this behind the scenes chaos, the film is a welcome re-imagining of the Mummy sub-genre, moving away from a rampaging monster. It also possesses an atmosphere unlike any other Hammer, which is refreshing particularly in context with the studio's cheapening output; the drab modern suburbia seems almost permanently overcast, the nocturnal gloom an appropriate atmosphere for the return of Tera. It is as if Holt's spirit hangs over the production, creating an eeriness and melancholy that crosses the barrier between life and death. The problems that plagued the film inadvertently contributed to its non-linear style, but BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB has a Lovecraftian feel. The film also benefits from an effective severed hand, and disturbing shots of Tera's lactating stump oozing blood after each killing.

Bruce Timm's rendering of Leon for the back cover of Richard Klemensen's indispensable Hammer fanzine Little Shoppe of Horrors #24 (May 2010).

Dubbed throughout, Leon gives a suitably dream-like performance in her dual role. Shakespearean actress Amy Grant was initially cast as Margaret/Tera, but Sir James Carreras soon over-ruled in favour of Leon, despite her inexperience in leading roles. Consequently, the actress felt insecure on set, and one can only yearn for the part to have been offered to Martine Beswick, who would have devoured the role. Keir makes for a fine Cushing replacement, but his role of Fuchs is irritatingly underwritten, even hinting at incest. James Villiers is suave as the scheming Corbeck, and Aubrey Morris gives a bizarre showing as the sunglass-wearing Dr Putnam. And in an early attempt at an in-joke character name, Australian Mark Edwards plays Margaret's boyfriend Tod Browning, who is written out well before the climax even though he receives an "and introducing" credit.