Thursday, October 1, 2009

Vampire Circus (1972)

Quite a few scholars of the filmography of the vampire give credit to Universal Film's 1931 monster epic, Dracula, as the movie that made vampires sexy.

Personally, I give sole credit to Hammer Films for not only successfully linking eroticism with the vampire legend, but also turning the vampire into one of the most reliable marketing vehicles in the history of motion pictures.

Between 1958 and 1974, Hammer produced no less than eight feature length films featuring Dracula as the primary nemesis as portrayed by the legendary Christopher Lee. However, two Hammer films arguably did more to give shape to the vampire as sex symbol than any other.

One is Vampire Circus from 1972.

In the early seventies, Hammer Films experienced the proverbial sea change old guard Hammer executives slowly left the business and were replaced by a crop new producers who not only had a finger on the pulse of new audiences, but also were eager to take daring risks if it resulted in more profitable films.

Vampire Circus really is the blueprint of the 1970's Hammer horror movie. It tried its best to break every convention possible not only with the traditional trappings of vampire folklore, but it additionally charged the material with a sense of sexuality rarely seen in the medium before now.

And it does this in the first twenty minutes of the film.

In the opening scenes we discover that a remote village sometime in 17th century Austria serves as the hunting ground for a sadistic, undead scourge named Count Mittenhaus (Robert Tayman). Mittenhaus's dashing good looks and supernatural charisma have allowed him to make a thrall of the wife of the local school teacher.

Anna Miller (Domini Blythe) then serves her count by luring women and young girls alike to Mittenhaus's castle, where he then feasts on the blood of his prey.

Eventually, the villagers led by Anna's husband, Professor Albert Miller (Laurence Payne) catch onto Mittenhaus's plot and band together to put an end to the count. They manage to put a stake through his heart and then burn down the castle, but not until after Mittenhaus swears to eventually take his vengeance.

The action then picks up a few years later and we see that the village has been isolated due to a growing epidemic that most of the townsfolk blame on Mittenhaus's dying curse.

Shortly thereafter, a wandering band of gypsies arrive to entertain and ease the suffering of the locals with song and acts of acrobatic excellence, but unbeknownst to them, the seemingly benevolent troupe of performers is in actuality a group of vampires led by the undead cousin of Count Mittenhaus; the dangerous and enigmatic, Emil (a very young Anthony Higgins performing under the name, Anthony Corlan).

Their mission? To bring Count Mittenhaus back to life so that he may avenge himself against the people that dared to defy him.

As I mentioned before, Vampire Circus does a lot of things differently than previous Hammer vampire films.

For starters, it abandons almost all of the usual vampire folklore as Emil and his fellow vampire conspirators can function in sunlight so long as they are in a different form. In Emil's case, he takes the rather odd form of a black panther during the daytime and hides in plain sight with the other jungle cats kept by the traveling circus.

Vampire Circus also retains the Hammer introduced concept of blood serving as a catalyst to reincarnate a vampire that hasn't been utterly destroyed by sunlight. This plot device served Hammer Films well in subsequent films in the Dracula catalogue.

Secondly was the erotically combustable screenplay. There is no better way to show just how seductive a vampire is than to have some nubile young thing stare at him with that vacant, come hither look on her face while peeling off every stitch of clothing that she has on. If vampires and attractive naked women are your things then fella, this is the movie for you.

Thirdly is the fact that for a vampire movie, Vampire Circus is a lot gorier than you'd expect it to be. In some scenes Emil rips people to shreds while in panther form, while in the climactic scene where Mittenhaus pays the price for his evil, his demise occurs in a not so tidy manner.

The final thing is that this movie accomplishes all of this with a list of relative unknowns, as a whopping zero members of the usual Hammer standards have a presence in this movie. Some may recognize Anthony Higgins from his later portrayals of both Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty and of course, David Prowse aka the body behind Darth Vader is cast in the role of the circus's silent strongman. It is very odd to see a Hammer vampire movie with no mention of Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, but here it is and it is a damn fine piece of work.

In line with Hammer tradition, director Robert Young does everything in his power to make Emil and the other vampires as alluring as possible, while also making sure that the audience remembers that they are evil incarnate and not creatures to be sympathized with. The vampires in Hammer films use their seductive wiles on humans the way scorpions use their stingers: it is the mechanism by which a hunter secures his meal.

Although I found it somewhat uncomfortable to watch, Young continually reinforces the malevolently predatory nature of his vampires by having them prey on the younger villagers, especially the children. Watching the powerful and statuesque Count Mittenhaus gaze longingly in hunger on the pale throat of a small, defenseless girl and knowing that his only desire is to take her life to sustain his own really does bring Young's concept to terrifying clarity.

These creatures are far different than the Ricean versions we find in cinema or literature today; individuals bordering on emo that are "misunderstood" and view their condition as both blessing and curse. Although these "vampires are people, too" works such as Twilight kinda bother me phillosophically, they do serve the noble purpose of preserving the vampire for future generations.

Suffice to say that if you're looking for a retrospective feel to your Halloween movie viewing this season, then track this movie down with the swiftness.

No comments: