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Vampire Circus (1971)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment ltd

Main image of Vampire Circus (1971)
35mm, 87 min, colour
DirectorRobert Young
Production CompanyHammer Film Productions
ProducerWilbur Stark
ScreenplayJudson Kinberg
CinematographyMoray Grant
EditorPeter Musgrave
MusicDavid Whitaker

Cast: Adrienne Corri (gypsy woman); Thorley Walters (Peter, the burgermeister); John Moulder-Brown (Anton Kersh); Robert Tayman (Count Mitterhaus); Anthony Corlan (Emil); Lynne Frederick (Dora Mueller)

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A Serbian village is beset by a mysterious plague. To make matters worse, the arrival of a very unusual travelling circus coincides with a series of unexplained deaths, suggesting the fulfillment of 15 year-old curse.

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By 1971, after nine vampire films, Hammer had begun to move away from the Gothic symbolism of the traditional Dracula tale to explore new aesthetics and settings. Vampire Circus places the blood-suckers in a more mythical, fairy-tale milieu, and the Circus of Nights provides entertainment of a magical kind with an erotic, hypnotic show featuring shape shifting, semi-naked writhing dancers and a sinister dwarf clown. This distracts the villagers from the sickness and death around them, but also acts as a smokescreen to obscure the circus's true purpose in coming to Schtettel: to fulfil the curse put on the village by Count Mitterhaus as he expired.

The film's strangeness and incoherence can be attributed partly to the circumstances surrounding its filming. It was director Robert Young's first feature, and his failure to complete shooting within the six-week schedule meant he had to edit together the material already shot, omitting some of the scenes in the script.

Despite this, the film fared well, and shows how Hammer managed to keep alive its cycle of vampire films; each episode managed to reach new extremes of intensity. With the gradual relaxation of censorship, the studio had already begun to inject bigger helpings of eroticism to complement the gore in its films and Vampire Circus delivers generously on this score. The twelve-minute pre-credit sequence alone contains enough sex, violence and destruction for most full-length films.

Along with the boundaries of taste, Hammer was also expanding the strictures of vampire lore. While the creatures still recoil at crucifixes, they employ human slaves to protect them from such weapons; not only can they transform into bats but also into other creatures, even other humans.

To complement the change of mood, Hammer chose to sidestep its regular cast and brought in newcomer Robert Tayman, whose Count Mitterhaus is very different to Christopher Lee's Dracula. A more louche and enigmatic figure, his shadowy presence dominates proceedings, despite the character being absent for most of the film. No need for him to make nocturnal forays to hunt for his prey; his human accolytes go out into the world to feed and avenge him.

Jo Botting

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