15 years after having killed a powerful local vampire, the people of the tiny town of Stetl are falling victim to a mysterious disease. Just as they are about to lose hope, the Circus of Nights arrives in town and their performances are beginning to lift the spirits of the townsfolk. But the circus’s gypsy impresaria has an agenda of her own…
Vampire Circus has a fairly typical “Hammer look”. I assume that Hammer re-used costumes and set-elements frequently. From the look of the costumes I would guess that the story is meant to take place in the late 18th century, and while we can spot a seemingly Orthodox priest’s robe in one scene, the characters have all been given German names. So Stetl presumably is one of Gothic horror’s ill-defined places at the eastern edge of Central Europe.
What looks and feels a bit more exotic is the circus with its animals and acrobats. The circus as a horror element already had a long tradition, and so Hammer decided to combine this with vampires for this film. Not the easiest of connections, but that does not hurt the film. The story is not entirely straight-forward, but it is coherently narrated. According to rumours, some scenes were never filmed because the production ran out of time; but it does not look or feel that way. Captain Kronos, for example, had noticeable strange jumps in the story – Vampire Circus not so much.
I am not sure I would call this film outright entertaining, but it has its moments and the creepiness of the circus is really well transported. The circus also looks mildly authentic – I guess fake circus wagons and real circus wagons do not look all that different, so it’s easier to create a convincing set. By comparison, the town and all the houses are very clearly and visibly soundstages. Not bad-looking as such, but the soundstage-look is something that has not aged well. Just in the same way as the costumes of the wealthier villagers look “accurate” and yet at the same look precisely like stock theatre costumes.
Hammer employed quite a bit of nudity and “titillation” in this film, but I do not know nearly enough Hammer films to say if this film goes beyond the normal dosage. There are two particularly racy scenes, and what surprises me is that the first is shown very close to the start of the film and the other at the half-hour mark. After that, sex and nudity almost vanish. I cannot really find an explanation why Hammer thought they had to hook the audience early on – if this was modern TV rather than 47-year-old cinema I would say it feels as if they were afraid people would otherwise switch channels.
Apart from sex and nudity there is also one brief scene in this film that borders on sexploitation.
There is a fair bit of gore – mutilated and decaying bodies, for example, and a burnt face. The latter seems rather tame (it got Hammer into trouble with the British censors nonetheless); the former is pretty gruesome if not entirely convincing by today’s standards. Unfortunately, the fake blood used in this film looks really, well, fake.
The cast are all doing a good job. I like Laurence Payne as one of the town’s more prominent citizens, as well as Lynne Frederick as his daughter. John Moulder-Brown plays the (very) youthful hero and there are smaller parts for David Prowse (Star Wars) and Robin Sachs (Buffy).
There are probably three characters who are played by actual acrobats or circus performers: The appearance of a certain Bradforts-Amaros is credited as “by courtesy of Billy Smart’s Circus”; and two of the acrobats are introduced merely as “Milovan and Serena“, suggesting that they were a performing duo.
There is very little else to say about the film. The story plays out in the way you’d expect such a story to play out. But, as I said, the circus-horror elements are well-staged and interesting. Hammer also tried to give the final showdown a bit of a shine by movie magic to give a cross a kind of “holy glow”. Vampire Circus also features a rather novel decapitation method, which I appreciated; as well as a rather silly incident with a wooden cross that would be the cause of nightmares for any health&safety inspector.
This film is not outstanding, but it is certainly no worse than Captain Kronos; rather a fair bit more coherent, actually. So, while I cannot recommend this film unless you are specifically interested in the circus aspects, I think this film deserves a rating of 6 out of 10.