Vampire Circus is a hallmark Hammer Film, yet it's one of the most unlikely horror stories they ever did — it spotlights voluptuous vampires, buxom bodiced babes, suspense and sexuality, but it's got a much more hypnotic vibe to the proceedings and although its façade is gothic, its undead heart is all dark fantasy and twisted romance. The bloodsuckers have nothing to do with Dracula, and Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee are nowhere to be found (and are, in fact, not missed).
The legend begins with the set-up: a sexy, supernatural ceremony gone awry when a group of 17th century Serbian villagers crashes a vampire's party, and with his dying breath he curses their families for all eternity. Next, payment comes due when the "vampire circus" cruises into the plague-addled town a decade later and sets up their tents of terror, fronted by some very convincing, creepy barkers. As the townspeople stream in, yet don't come out, panic begins to seep from the canvass into consciousness. But by the time the mortals realize their predicament, they're done for.
Who are these gypsies? They are The Circus of Nights, led by a stunning brunette lady and her… son?, the leonine Emil..., a mysterious, magnetic showman and exotic animal tamer (played by Adrienne Corri and Anthony Corlan, respectively), and their troupe of beings and beasts. The otherworldly beings include a temptress tiger-woman, a mysterious strong-man, a malignant midget, and evil acrobatic twins who exist on the other side of the Halls of Mirrors. The wild animals include a black panther, a crazed chimp, several horses, and a bear… while the film's low budget is revealed now again through the annotated animal attack sequences, creative cutting is appreciated, as is the use of flesh and blood mammals (if puppets were used at all, it's hard to tell).
Both Corri and Corlan (actually actor Anthony Higgins, who was using an alias at this time in the 70s) steal the show with their truly feline, convincing shape-shifter personas, bringing to mind — albeit, tamed-down — versions of sex-saturated characters from a Jean Rollin art film. There's a routine subplot featuring a bland beauty from the village, and her attraction of Emil, but it's the villains who really shine and shimmer in this sinister little carnival fable.
The Blu-ray transfer looks amazingly crisp and clear, but the DVD comes with both regular and "decaf" discs, for those who haven't upgraded yet or need to look at the film on a laptop. Both are leaps and bounds better than the old, scratchy print that was going around for awhile there (this is the first restored DVD version available… thank you, Synapse Films!).
There's a veritable dog-and-pony show of featurettes, the most entertaining and informative of which is "The Bloodiest Show on Earth." It spotlights Hammer historians Tim Lucas and Ted Newsom, co-star David Prowse (Darth Vader himself, who plays the Strong Man). However, I am partial to the lesser-featurette, Gallery of Grotesqueries, focusing on the history of circus horror in the cinema. I'd never really made this connection, but it's true that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari really is the germination of them all (I would have said, Freaks). There's also a splendiferous Vampire Circus digital comic book, a stunning array of stills, and the original theatrical trailer.
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson
- THE BLOODIEST SHOW ON EARTH: Making Vampire Circus - An all-new documentary featuring interviews with writer/director Joe Dante, Hammer documentarian Ted Newsom, Video Watchdog editor/author Tim Lucas, author/film historian Philip Nutman, and actor David Prowse.
- GALLERY OF GROTESQUERIES: A Brief History of Circus Horrors - A retrospective on circus/carnival themed horror productions.
- VISITING THE HOUSE OF HAMMER: Britain's Legendary Horror Magazine - A retrospective on the popular British horror/comic publication featuring author Philip Nutman.
- VAMPIRE CIRCUS: Interactive Comic Book - Featuring artwork by Brian Bolland.
- POSTER AND STILLS GALLERY
- ORIGINAL THEATRICAL TRAILER