Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on December 23rd, 2010
“And now I wish to present an entertainment which has given pleasure to many of the crowned heads of Europe. Ladies and gentlemen, tonight for your eyes alone…”
In the 1950’s and 1960’s Hammer picked up where Universal had left off. They became the studio for the very best in horror films. With names like Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney finally reaching the end of their reign, Hammer offered up the likes of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. They resurrected all of the famous Universal monsters in their own image. Now we had a new cycle of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and The Mummy. While the films were somewhat low-budget and released mostly through the drive-in circuit, these films made a bloody splash with horror fans all over the world. But by the time the 1970’s had begun, the studio was falling behind in the horror genre. Anthony Hinds had left the studio, and with him went some of the passion for the horror films that made Hammer famous. The studio heads became more interested in other kinds of films, and the horror department languished for a time.
In 1971 Hammer began their short-lived comeback with the release of Vampire Circus. It was released as a double drive-in bill with Countess Dracula. The film returned Hammer to the roots that had built its fan base to begin with. Finally the studio had returned to making a period piece. Most fans believe that the Dracula series went terribly astray once Dracula had been brought into the modern world. Here, however, we were back in the early 19th century in a remote village in Serbia. There are many more Hammer iconic elements to be found in Vampire Circus. While the film did not contain their two bankable stars in Lee or Cushing, the film did feature David Prowse, Darth Vader himself in the role of a circus strongman. There’s plenty of the exploitive sex and nudity here, but not quite to the extent of the previous films. Even the gore element was reduced somewhat here. You won’t find the traditional bloody breasts scene anywhere in Vampire Circus.
That isn’t to say that the film wasn’t one of the most controversial films of the time. It might even be considered a bit risqué by today’s standards. There are obvious themes of child molestation and pedophilia present in this film. It’s really Hammer’s way of pushing the envelope. The studio had already explored the lesbian vampire film with its renowned Karnstein trilogy. Some might suggest this was the natural evolution of that path. While nothing is depicted graphically, we all know that what is implied is often far more frightening … and real… than what we are shown on the screen. The film was banned in several markets. It’s not surprising that the movie really hasn’t been available in home video for most of the nearly 40 years since its original release.
The story begins in 1820 in a Serbian village. A little girl is led into the castle of the local vampire, Count Mitterhaus (Tayman). Before the village mob (with torches, of course) can get to the castle, the girl has been murdered. All that’s left for them to do is to take their revenge on the Count and his accomplice, the turned wife of a local resident. The castle is torched and destroyed. The Count is killed, but not before passing a curse onto the village threatening the lives of its children.
It’s 15 years later, and it appears the Count has found a way to make good on his curse from the grave. The village has been quarantined because the plague is spreading among its people. No one is permitted in or out of the village. But that wasn’t the Count’s curse at all. The real horror is about to arrive in the guise of a traveling circus. The performers mesmerize the local population. Trapeze artists fly through the air with the greatest of ease. Yes, but there’s a twist. These acrobats turn into bats in mid-flight. Of course they can. They are vampires who can transform into any animal from bats to large cats. The creatures are here to have revenge on the village that killed their cousin. They seduce the town, transforming it’s morality into decadence. Worst of all, they are targeting the children.
One of the problems with this film is reflected by the waning interest in horror at Hammer. The film fell dreadfully behind schedule and budget. Instead of extending what was necessary to finish the film properly, the money was cut off, and what we’re left with here is essentially an unfinished film. The result is there are plenty of plot holes and threads that are never really carried through. The Count himself is resurrected for mere minutes in the film’s rather frantic finale. The special effects suffer horribly. It’s obvious that we’re seeing shots that were never really completed. The bat transformation on the trapeze is a glaring example of unfinished effects. It’s amazing that the film that we do see comes together as well as it does here. Yet, even with its unfinished condition, Vampire Circus truly returned Hammer to its glory if only for a moment. Having it available finally on Blu-ray is a very special treat indeed.
Vampire Circus is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. When you consider that the film is a 40-year-old budget feature, this is an outstanding image presentation. Every aspect of the original’s atmosphere is retained perfectly. The grain remains, but never in excess. It’s exactly as it was presented back in 1972. In Hammer films the color red is always a stand-out. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking that unique Hammer blood color and texture or the gowns and drapes that decorate the set. The red stands out vividly against an otherwise drab setting. There’s enough detail here to truly appreciate the wonderful set designs employed at Hammer. While most of these sets and Pinewood locations appear in almost every one of their films, the crew manages to always give us something that looks brilliantly period and authentic. The image presentation captures for us the essence of a Hammer production. I’m very eager to see more of the library restored on high definition.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 accomplishes everything you need it to do. Dialog is perfectly placed, and the sound is free of hiss or any other noise common to older productions. Hammer had a wonderful foley staff. I remember as a kid how prominent things like footfalls and cloth movement always were on these films. This audio presentation brought all of those old memories running to the surface. This is a remarkably faithful reproduction of the film’s original release.
Another pleasant surprise finds all of the features in HD. You also get a DVD copy of the film.
The Bloodiest Show On Earth: (32:39) This is a lot like a making-of feature, but presented in retrospect. Film historians and Hammer fan Joe Dante talk about all of the aspects of the production from casting to promotion and distribution. They offer up a rather nice history of Hammer to add perspective to the whole thing. There are many production stills to accent the information being presented.
Gallery Of Grotesqueries: (15:07) This film offers a history of circus horror films from Tod Browning’s controversial Freaks to Vampire Circus. There are plenty of stills from each of the discussed films.
Visiting The House Of Hammer: (9:47) This is a look at the popular 1960’s British horror magazine and the publishing empire it spawned. The magazine was very much like our own Famous Monsters Of Filmland.
The folks at Synapse are just like us. It’s obvious that they are first and foremost fans of the genre. Just look at their catalog, and you’ll see wonderful titles from classics to plenty of mind-numbing schlock. It’s all in good fun, and I have to believe that many of these guys are working a dream job. They’ve certainly make my job a lot more fun when they send me such fun nostalgia as Vampire Circus. There are certainly some images in this film that I have never forgotten. Who can forget the famous iconic image of the tiger woman? She was a nude actress with only body paint that made her green and gold with black tiger stripes. Consider this one a Christmas present wrapped in a bloody red bow to help you get through the cheerfulness of the season. Vampire Circus might have been long gone, but it was never forgotten. Thanks to the folks at Synapse, it’s “back from the grave”.