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Monday, October 27, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 22: Vampire Circus (1972)

Screenplay by Judson Kinberg (with a story from an uncredited George Baxt and Wilbur Stark)
Directed by Robert Young

Anthony Higgins:  Emil
Laurence Payne:  Professor Albert Mueller
Thorley Walters:  Burgermeister
Lynne Frederick:  Dora Mueller
With David "I was in the Darth Vader suit" Prowse as the mute strongman and Lalla "I was one of the Romanas on Doctor Who" as Helga the vampire

So begins the Fall of the House of Cushing. By 1972, Hammer was on its way out, I'm sad to say. Fifteen years earlier they were the standard-setter of the horror genre, specifically with their Dracula and Frankenstein series. There were also the Quatermass films, a series of Mummy pictures, caveman fantasy (if you have humans and dinosaurs in your film there's no science going along with that fiction) and a double handful of random individual movies like The Gorgon, where the usual actors and locations got menaced by a creature incapable of sustaining its own franchise. Unfortunately, time makes ruins of us all and by the early 1970s Hammer looked quaint rather than shocking.

By the mid-1970s horror films had gotten vicious; Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre demonstrated the sea change that was taking place in the genre. Neither one was a period piece set in Europe, like so much of Hammer's output. Instead they brought horror to contemporary America and were explicit far beyond the low-cut bodices and artfully applied blood drips of Hammer's heyday. By the end of the 70s Hammer would be out of the moviemaking business altogether (and wouldn't be revived until three decades later); their house style was out of touch by the time Halloween rolled around and rewrote the genre's rules again (which led to a decade of gimmick slashers, as we all remember).

As I've said in several HubrisWeen reviews, horror films get influenced by trends and fads. And unfortunately by the time Vampire Circus had come out, even mainstream dramas and Westerns were more explicit and gruesome than the comparatively staid British films could manage (think of either the nonstop carnage in The Wild Bunch or the ending ambush in the critical and financial megahit Bonnie and Clyde). It's also worth pointing out that the British Board of Film Censors could prevent movies from being shown, or even made, in the United Kingdom at the time that Hammer was trying to get a little more explicit to compete with material from the Colonies.

So how does this one work out? It's a pretty mixed bag. It's certainly not a bad movie, frequently enjoyable, but the low budget's quite a handicap and the lack of Cushing and Lee is sorely apparent. But that doesn't make it a failure so much as a historically interesting misfire.

Like the overwhelming majority of Hammer's horror output, this is a period piece set in the middle of Europe in the 19th century. In this particular case, in the tiny Austrian village of Stetl, resting in the shadow of one of those big stone castles you get in vampire movies. A young girl named Jenny is frolicking pointlessly in the woods and gets enticed to follow a woman deeper into the forest. A man follows them, worried; he will later be introduced as Professor Albert Mueller. And the woman who brings the girl to Count Mitterhaus for a bit of quick exsanguination is the Professor's wife, Anna. Anna's a sick ticket; when she watches the Count murder little Jenny she's visibly aroused.

Outside, the Professor tries to assemble a vampire-staking posse and inside the castle Anna and the Count make love (as the vampire tells her, "One lust feeds the other"). The mob breaks in while the pair are lounging in bed (and there's a bit of actual nudity here, which is more explicit content than I tend to expect from Hammer). The vigilantes attack the Count one at a time like total morons and he kills a few of them before he's staked; before the fight, though, the vampire makes sure to taunt Mueller ("What have you done with my wife?" "Only what she wanted...schoolteacher."). When Mueller backstabs the Count, the dying vampire curses the town,saying that their children will die to give him back his life.

Little Jenny's body is returned to her grieving father and the men of the village make Anna Mueller run a gauntlet while they beat her with belts and sticks. She flees back into the castle, which gets gunpowder-bombed by the villagers. When Anna bleeds on the vampire, it restores enough of his power to whisper to her that his cousin Emil runs a circus and she should totally go find him in order to survive and eventually get revenge on everyone for that whole "impaling your undead boyfriend" thing. And then, in a really neat montage, the seasons pass in the village under the credits. A great little way to show time passing while everyone's reading the names of the actors anyway. Even near the end of their existence as a company, Hammer filmmakers showed quite a bit of talent and ability.

When the narrative resumes, a decade and a half has passed and a plague is killing people in the village. Some people say it's the vampire's curse, and others of a more scientific bent think it's just a disease but as long as the Austrian military is shooting anyone who tries to get out of the village it's a moot point. The village doctor has a plan to slip past the roadblocks, go someplace bigger and better-informed, get medicine for the plague and return to cure people. His scientific frame of mind thinks that the moldering castle is indeed to blame, but only because it's a breeding ground for rats, bats, bugs, vermin and telemarketers; one or more of those groups is spreading the plague around the village. No supernatural vengeance necessary.

Before he can leave, a dancing dwarf comes into the village square and promises a hundred delights when the circus arrives. That's a lot of delights. While he dances around, a silent strongman cranks a portable barrel organ and a gypsy woman parks a wagon. She politely evades the question of how several wagons and performers got through the roadblocks leading to Stetl and the show sets up out in the open by some bleachers (the budget for the movie apparently not extending to a big enough soundstage to set up a tent). One gawker sees a panther in a cage briefly replaced by a dude in a pink shirt and short Tommy Wiseau hair lying down in the straw. I'm not sure if looking at a panther and a person count as two delights or just one.

While that's going on, the doctor makes a break for it--he and his son Anton ride through the forest, past a politely worded sign that tells people to go back or be shot. When they get close to the barricade, Anton gallops his horse towards it to draw their fire; while the soldiers are reloading the doctor makes a break for it. Anton loses his horse and has to walk back to the village, but I'd call his mission a success.

The circus is pretty small. I'm not sure there's going to be a full hundred delights on display. But the dwarf conjurer is throwing flash powder around and everyone seems to dig that. The city burgermeister is brought out to a seat of honor in the bleachers and there's a "cat tamer" act that turns out to be a nude woman in tiger-striped body paint being "tamed" by her dance partner cracking a whip near her. That's an act that is quite a bit more risque than I expected for a 1972 British movie, and probably enough to get the circus burned at the stake in the 1800s for performing it in front of the kids in the audience.

The doctor's son returns just in time for a slapstick fight between the dwarf and the strongman. And then the panther gets let out of its cage and leaps towards the villagers, only to turn into an acrobat in mid-leap (which is done by way of a George Melies camera effect rather than anything more elaborate; I don't know if that's a budgetary or artistic choice but it was really neat to watch). The performance ends and a woman cries out that her son is missing--Emil (the panther dude) returns the kid to her in a simultaneous fakeout to the movie audience and the circus audience. We the viewers were expecting a fatality and the circus-goers in the film now think Emil's a good guy. Both groups were wrong.

After the show, Emil flirts wordlessly with a girl named Rosa; he escorts her home (or at least that's his story--what he winds up doing is getting her into the panther cage for a love scene and refraining from draining her blood at the last second. When she gets home, Rosa has a spat with her mother on the subject of sleeping with a gypsy that's also a carnie. If Rosa's mom knew he was one of the undead as well she'd completely blow her stack. Rosa wins the argument; she apparently runs roughshod over her family (and it turns out the Burgermeister is her dad. Maybe Hammer's just trying to say she's spoiled).

Back at the castle, the strongman is moving rocks around in the underground cavern where the Count's body lies undecayed after fifteen years. Emil says that the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children. How reassuring. Back at the performance, superimposed bats fly over the audience and then turn into a fraternal-twin tumbling and acrobatic act. I genuinely can't tell if the audience in the film is supposed to think this is the sort of thing that happens all the time, if they're supposed to think it's a performance trick covering up for supernatural abilities or if they're mesmerized by vampire powers. Lastly, the Burgermeister is given a free peek at "The Mirror of Life", which turns out to be two funhouse mirrors in a tent and a plain mirror that shows the Count killing the viewer. The Burgomeister has a heart attack after seeing this and he gets bundled off to his home by the strongman.

Some time later the dwarf is sneaking a family out through the forest. They're making a run for it now that they know there's a way through the barricades and roadblocks. There's something ominous rustling in the undergrowth and the family is getting tired. The dwarf tells them they've gotten past the roadblocks and holds his hand out for their bribe; when he gets it he wishes them all the luck in the world and walks off (leaving everyone stranded in a forest they don't know how to get out of). But that state of affairs doesn't last all that long, because a PANTHER JUMPS OUT AND TEARS EVERYONE TO PIECES. And I find myself wondering if this is the least competent day-for-night shooting I've ever seen or if this model of Hammer vampire is immune to sunlight, or really just what the hell is going on in the movie's narrative. There's a telepathic voiceover conversation where Emil the panthervampire declares that the bodies, when they're discovered, will frighten the villagers enough to keep them from trying to leave. And that tonight, the remaining children will die.

Back at the village the Burgermeister is on his deathbed. And elsewhere, Dora Mueller is running towards the village (rather than away from it; she was safe outside when the plague hit and is returning home out of loyalty and so that she'll be in danger from the vampires). She literally stumbles over the bodies (and pieces of bodies) from the panther attack and makes it back to the village. Anton is in love with Dora and would much rather have her safe somewhere far away where there aren't plagues, curses or a creepy laughing dwarf clown. Dora's father, the Professor, starts to put things together when a bodiless voice taunts him about wanting to know why the circus is frightening people.

Two boys get coaxed into the mirror in the sideshow tent; there's a really neat in-camera effect used when they walk into the mirror to get drained by the Count and Helga the vampire. And the requisite mob of villagers is getting their angry on to attack the dwarf (perhaps they counted the delights available at the circus and only came up with 92). And the Burgermeister rises from his deathbed to go shoot some carnies; with the discovery of the two dead kids from the mirror room, he's decided that the only way to save the rest of the kids in town is to exterminate the circus performers. He and another man kill the caged animals, but the panther turns into Emil when he shoots it. Rosa follows Emil into the cave, where the Count's body lies in state. Rosa winds up completely drained of blood and Emil donates some blood to the Count. He says the twins will kill the final child that night and restore the Count to mobility and action (he appears to still be fully undead).

That night the twins coax Dora into the mirror, but she's wearing a crucifix necklace and neither one of the vampires can look at it or touch her without pain; she escapes and the Doctor returns with a detachment of riflemen and an explanation for the plague. It's a form of rabies spread by bats and he's got medicine for it (too bad for my suspension of disbelief that I just learned from an earlier HubrisWeen movie that rabies is incurable). The doctor has another tidbit of news--every town the circus has stopped at for a performance has had a child disappear or die. They're staying longer in Stetl so that they can revive the Count, but their plan means they're also in one place long enough for the Austrian military to draw a bead on them. When the news about the disease and the circus gets dropped on Professor Mueller he gets to say the totally metal line "We have two plagues to fight," and starts assembling men for the third-act vampire-killing posse.

Four antagonists stalk towards a manor house; Emil turns into a panther and goes upstairs for a budget-conscious attack where you hear all the screams and carnage but don't see anything. The gypsy woman and vampire twins Heinrich and Helga are on the ground floor menacing Dora. It turns out that the gypsy and strongman are of considerable use to the vampires; they aren't injured by looking at or touching a cross so they relieve Dora of her protection. The vampires toy with Dora while she runs, but she manages to escape while they turn their attentions to Anton in the chapel of the manor house. She drops a massive wooden cross from a ceiling beam onto one vampire and the feedback from the psychic link between the pair kills them both. Anton rings the chapel bell and Professor Mueller and the doctor arrive, and Mueller says the gypsy woman is his wife, who ran away from the village fifteen years ago.

While the doctor, the professor and Anton gear up to kill the vampires the strongman breaks into the room where Dora and her mother are hiding and brings them to the cavern. When he returns to the village he refuses to tell the mob where the vampires are hiding and gets shot (with a cool early 70s gore effect on his bare back when the gun goes off) and then beaten to death. One assumes the mob has a Rasputin checklist and will be poisoning and drowning him while we're off watching one of the villagers burn down the Mirror of Life tent, get mesmerized by the enchanted mirror, and get immolated because he stayed inside where the fire was.

Down in the crypt, the Count gets more blood on him; Emil drains the gypsy woman and Dora's going to be next. Anton fights his way into the crypt (killing the dwarf when he gets attacked; flinging the poor guy onto a heap of rocks and breaking his neck). He's got a cross but a bat bites his hand and makes him drop it. Emil bites Professor Mueller fatally but gets taken out when the schoolteacher pulls the stake from the Count's chest and shanks his attacker. Anton burns the attacking bat with a torch but the Count gets revived and yanks the torch out of Anton's hand (grabbing it from the burny end, no less) and slapping the kid down. Anton picks up a crossbow and holds it up so the cruciform metal plate on the bottom is in the Count's field of vision and then places the bow over the vampire's head and pulls the trigger, decapitating him with its metal wire when he fires a quarrel.

The survivors leave the cavern and the villagers pile burning torches inside it to incinerate the vampires' bodies as well as the dead victims and the plague bats still inside. Anton and Dora survive and embrace (and one of the signs that it's a Hammer flick from the seventies is that the younger characters make it through while most of the middle-aged ones got killed off), and the credits roll.

I did genuinely enjoy this one, but not nearly as much as I thought I was going to. The screenplay's a mess, there's tons of padding while we watch the circus performers, and I'm unsure whether or not Emil is immune to sunlight or if the sequences where he's out in sunlight were actually supposed to be day-for-night and wound up being indistinguishable from every other scene in the film. The chapel in the manor house is a really neat looking, distinctively decorated set and we spend about two or three minutes in there; most of the movie is spent outside watching the circus or in the cavern with an inert body lying there with occasional blood droplets landing on it.

The talents of both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are sorely, sorely missed. Nobody turns in a bad performance, mind you, but other than a couple of great moments where someone rises to the occasion nobody's setting the world on fire either. Watching this one and knowing what I know about Hammer's history, it doesn't surprise me that they went under seven years after this one came out. The only real surprise to me is that it didn't happen a year or two sooner. Times had moved on and they changed with them (there's a lot of children getting murdered in this one, which I didn't expect at all). But not enough to stay viable in the marketplace. It turns out that classy eroticism and Kensington gore can't compete with the grindhouse in the Nixon years.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for movies beginning with today’s letter are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Velvet Vampire

Yes, I Know:  Viy

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