Wednesday, February 16, 2011

BLU-RAY REVIEW: Vampire Circus (1972)

Blu-ray/DVD Combo

RATING: Unrated
DIRECTOR: Robert Young
CAST: Adrienne Corri, Thorley Walters, Anthony Higgins, Robert Tayman
TAGLINE: Human fangs ripping throats - no sawdust can soak up the torrent of blood!

PLOT: A little girl is brutally slain by a vampire in a tiny 19th century Austrian village. Seeking revenge, the townspeople invade the foreboding castle of Count Mitterhaus and kill him for the crime. As the Count dies, he curses the villagers and vows that their children will all die so that he may someday return to life. Fifteen years later, as the village is ravaged by the plague, a traveling circus comes to town and distracts the villagers from their current hardships. Little do they know that their troubles are only beginning! The circus is actually a troupe of shape-shifting vampires and, as the local children start disappearing, they realize the prophecy of the long dead Count is coming true.

FILM: The tale is set in the 17th century Austrian village of Stettle. In an extended prologue to the film Professor Albert Muller (Laurence Payne) is in the forest with his daughter Dora  when she is led astray by an attractive young woman named Anna (Domini Blythe) and taken to the castle of the feared vampire Count Mitterhaus. Anna turns out to be the estranged wife of the professor who has come under the spell of the vampiric Count. Muller proves unable to enter the castle to save the young girl and returns to the village where he gathers a mob who return to the castle with the preferred armaments of 17th century mobs;  pitchforks and torches. Meanwhile Anna offers the young girl to the count who drains her blood as Anna looks on, clearly sexually aroused by the pseudo act of pedophilia. Pretty lurid stuff for a Hammer film of the time I would imagine. After draining the young girl the Count and Anna make love but are interrupted when the angry mob burst into the castle and drive a stake through the Count's heart. With his dying breath the he curses the villagers swearing death to their children so that he may be resurrected. The villagers duly set fire to the castle but not before Anna drags the Count's body to a secret crypt. Mitterhaus is briefly resurrected by a drop of blood and tells Anna to seek his cousin Emil whom will aid her in his resurrection. The way he is briefly resurrected reminded me of an humorous extended death scene that one might see in Simpson's Treehouse of Horror episode, fun stuff. With that in mind it should be said that this is a slightly campy and quirk filled vampire film that's not above a bit of dark humor here and again. I think the odd tone and dreamy atmosphere of the film lends it a unique quality that helps it stand alone amongst so many other bloodsucker films of the period.

Fifteen years later the village is plagued by what some believe to be the black plague while others whisper that the Count's prophecy has come to fruition. The village is shunned by the neighboring villages who fear it and have set up an armed, trigger-happy quarantine around the village perimeter. That's some slow acting curse, fifteen years? Fairy tales and fables rarely seem logical and Vampire Circus definitely has fable-esque quality to it. One day a travelling circus called 'Circus of Nights' arrives in town and despite the oddity of such an arrival during a time of plague the villagers welcome them and appreciate the distraction. The circus is led by gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri) and a menacing white-faced dwarf named Michael (Skip Martin). Also among the performers are Emil (Anthony Higgins), David Prowse (yep, the dude underneath the Darth Vader costume) as the Strongman and high flying twin acrobats.  The troupe put on a series of performances for the village that includes Emil transforming into a panther mid-leap and a fantastically erotic performance from a tiger-lady completely painted head-to-toe, it's mesmerizing stuff. Having just recently taken in a viewing of VAMP (1987) I couldn't help but think of Grace Jones performance here, but this is way better, sexually super-charged stuff.  Now, this shouldn't be too much of a surprise as the film is is called Vampire Circus but the circus performers are indeed shape-shifting vampires who are there to resurrect the Count by murdering the villagers children.  After the first performance Emil the shape-shifter manages to seduce the mayor's daughter Rosa (Christina Paul) and during the second performance the mayor himself (Thorley to a  thoroughly enjoyable film.

DVD: This is Synapse's initial Blu-ray offering and the presentation is truly wonderful. The original Brian Bolland artwork is fantastic and the newly restored 16:9 enhanced 1.66:1 aspect ratio brings the nearly 40 year-old  film back to life. Obviously not as eye-popping as a more recent films, the image looks a bit soft at times but the colors are suitably vibrant and the black levels look consistently deep. The image is accompanied by  DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 audio and while it's not what I would call dynamic it is adequate to the film. A great bonus audio option is an isolated music score showcasing composer David Whitaker's dark filmscore. This is a fairly obscure Hammer horror film and to have such great bonus content to compliment the film is much appreciated. The Bloodiest Show on Earth: The Making of Vampire Circus (32:37) is an all new documentary featuring interviews with Tim Lucas, Joe Dante, actor David Prowse and others discussing the film, it's a great watch. Next up is Gallery of Grotequeries (15:07) a brief look back at circus and carnival themed films through the ages. Visiting the House of Hammer (9:47) is a short retrospective of the "House of Hammer" which was a British horror magazine not unlike "Famous Monsters of Filmland" only Hammer oriented. Rounding out the special features are an interactive black and white comic book, a theatrical trailer and a poster and stills gallery. What's missing? An audio commentary, subtitles and a newly created 5.1 surround mix would've been grand but that's just nitpicking. Note, the special features are presented in anamorphic widescreen HD and duplicated on the DVD in SD. This mark's the first Region 1 Hammer film on Blu-ray, here's to  to more to come. A pretty fantastic and loving assemblage of film and bonus content. Very impressed with Synapse's initial Blu-ray offering,  we should be so lucky that all the obscure genre gems receive this respectful treatment Blu-ray and DVD.

- VAMPIRE CIRCUS: Interactive Comic Book (3:15)

VERDICT:  It's a real shame that VAMPIRE CIRCUS is not better known, at least here in the States, and we should all be appreciative of Synapse Films for bringing it to the masses. This may just be my favorite Hammer film, definitely my favorite Hammer vampire flick. It's a bit surreal and lurid even by Hammer standards of the time and with hints of pedophilia, the murder of small children, and a bizarre carnival atmosphere this is a striking and unique take on the vampire lore. This is a first class, dark fantasy mixed in with some surreal sexed-up vampirism. A high recommend from me, this is a must-buy.
****1/2 (4.5 out of 5 stars)