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Vampire Circus (1972)

A bizarre amalgamation of hoary cliche, new ideas and breathless pace, Vampire Circus (much like Hammer's Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter) is a very watchable slice of hokum. Its "everything but the kitchen sink" approach doesn't always work (The first appearance of Count Mitterhaus is reminiscent of how Mr Claypole arrived in Rentaghost), making it a notch below the sublime Kronos, but it's still cracking stuff - and another reason to beat up anyone who says Hammer were crap in the 70s.

Count Mitterhaus, despite not being in much of the film, is a very formidable foe indeed - and his activities are made all the more repellent by the almost paedophilic nature of his first "conquest". He may like to prey on little girls, but he can handle himself, too - assorted villagers are butchered in the opening fight before he's staked.

Vampire Circus's opening scenes are often applauded, and it's not hard to see why - in the space of the 12 minutes before the credits, we've had a young girl killed, some full-frontal nudity as Mitterhaus shags the schoolteacher's wife Anna ("One lust feeds the other," he drools), the obligatory torch-wielding mob, a big fight and an exploding castle. We've also had a comedy moment when the villagers find Jenny's body: "She's been killed - by a vampire!" (All cross themselves as one), and a terrific curse from the dying count: "None of you will live... your children will die to give me back life..."

This forms the entire plot of many Hammers, yet here the film hasn't even started. Blimey.

With a start like that, you'd think it's going to be a hard job to keep up the pace - but they manage it. 15 years later, the village is ravaged by plague - but to cheer everyone up, the circus arrives (and we all know enjoyable circuses are). Unfortunately, it's the Circus Of Nights, alluded to by the dying Count as the place where his cousin, Emil, works.

The town has a new Doctor, who insists that "Vampires exist only in legends. The imaginings of sick and diseased minds... nowhere else." Is he perhaps talking about the scriptwriters at Hammer?

Luckily, to offset the ramblings of stuffy old Doc, the circus is here, "To steal the money from dead men's eyes..." Erm... hooray!

The circus itself is a bit of a lame affair, with just three animals (a panther, a tiger and a chimp), a naked snake woman and a dwarf (the always dependable Skip Martin, late of Horror Hospital and Masque Of The Red Death). However, it's not the tools you've got, it's what you do with them that counts, and the show they put on is actually very impressive. Bizarrely, the villagers don't seem to find anything odd about the sight of the panther turning into Emil in mid air before their very eyes.

The aforementioned Emil is a bit of a ladies' man, too (must be his pink top) and it isn't long before he's shagging the Burgermeister's daughter - finishing off by visiting his cousin's tomb and unleashing a horde of bats (which turn into acrobats for his show).

"The sins of the father shall be visited on his children," he explains. And it's not long before the body count is rising - whether it's villagers being ripped apart by Emil the panther (cue much comedy looking from side to side as they realise something is out there in the woods) or young boys being lured through a spooky mirror into Mitterhaus' tomb and butchered (the sight of former Doctor Who assistant Lalla Ward, mouth caked in bright red gore, as seen from the victim's point of view is one of the abiding images of the film).

It's not long before the villagers have put two and two together, yet for some reason take their anger out on the dwarf (smacking his head repeatedly against a caravan) and even more bizarrely, the chimp and the tiger - which are both shot dead. The Burgermeister (Thorley Walters, annoying - as usual) dies of a heart attack as he attempts to shoot Emil as well.

Vampire Circus is a brutal film - but not everything is shown. In what seems like an exercise in restraint (although budgetary restrictions probably had more to do with it), Emil slaughters a room full of students, like some kind of befanged Paul Calf. And at the end there aren't many people left standing, whether they're circus folk, vampires or villagers.

But enormous exit wounds and cross-impalings aside, the tour de force of the proceedings has to be Robert Tayman's over-the-top performance as Mitterhaus, who comes across as a far more formidable foe than Christopher Lee's Dracula ever did. There's a real sense of dread when he starts to wake up.

Hokum, maybe, but I challenge anyone not to enjoy it. Vampire Circus has stood the test of time - and today's filmmakers could do worse than to take a look at it if they're constructing a vampire tale of their own. It wears its crapness firmly on its sleeve, and adds a sense of crazy paced style sadly lacking in today's turgid gore fests.

Last updated: February 27, 2010

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