One of Hammer’s best horror films of the 1970s stars none of the studio’s familiar performers (Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Ralph Bates, Victoria Carlson, Michael Ripper et al.). While packed with more than its fair share of nudity and gore, it’s also very exciting and creates a few interesting twists on traditional vampire lore.
Like Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 the same year, VAMPIRE CIRCUS gets off to a strong start with a bloody and pulse-pounding pre-credits sequence. When Professor Mueller (Laurence Payne) spots his younger wife Anna leading one of the village children into the castle of Count Mitterhouse (Robert Tayman), he organizes a lynch mob to storm the castle, rescue the child, and destroy Mitterhouse, who’s rumored to be not only a serial killer of children, but also a vampire. Mueller kills the Count, who curses the townspeople on his deathbed and swears to destroy the next generation of villagers.
Fifteen years later, it appears the Count’s prophecies have come true. The village is riddled with plague, and the King’s soldiers have cordoned it off. No one goes in or out, except a small traveling circus which somehow manages to break through the roadblock. Besides the gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri) who appears to be running the show, the performers include a midget clown, male-and-female twin acrobats, a strongman played by David Prowse (STAR WARS’ Darth Vader), a tiger woman, and Emil (Anthony Corlan), who appears to be able to turn into a black panther. More bloody murders occur, as it becomes clear to the audience—if not to the villagers—that not only are the circus performers bloodsuckers, but also Emil is the cousin of Count Mitterhouse and plans to revive his kin’s corpse.
While VAMPIRE CIRCUS contains enough crosses, wooden stakes, and vampire bats to please purists, the “next generation” of horror fans certainly will find much to like. These vamps can float through the air, transform into cat creatures, and, of course, mesmerize the beautiful young women of the village. Dripping with unusual touches (like a very sexy dance involving a naked woman painted in tiger makeup), period style, and enough heavy dollops of sensuality and raw violence to push the “R” rating of the day, VAMPIRE CIRCUS makes Hammer’s Dracula series appear almost quaint. Even the Hammer films (such as THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA) that were made later seem old-fashioned compared to this audacious entry. Director Robert Young bookends the film nicely with action setpieces that open and close the film, and his cast of veteran character actors, young leading men, and fetching ingénues perform flawlessly.