Of all of Hammer Films admittedly inconsistent 1970’s offerings, none fascinate or entertain me as much as 1972’s Vampire Circus. I first saw the film in a heavily edited broadcast version way back in the early 1980’s, and, as a result of the wholesale edits, found the movie something of an incomprehensible mess. During the video boom, however, I managed to see a much more complete cut – one in which the film’s eroticism and salacious subtext (the rather perverse suggestion that the murder of children served as something of an aphrodisiac for Mitterhaus and his kind) were intact – and it was a different film entirely – a gloriously twisted hybrid of Hammer gothic and sexually charged psychedelia. It’s since become one of my favorite films of the era and I’m thrilled to see Vampire Circus serve as the inaugural Blu-ray release from Synapse Films, completely restored, completely uncut, and just as deliriously entertaining as ever.
When a young girl is lured into the castle of Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) by Anna Mueller – the former wife of schoolteacher, Albert (Laurence Payne), who is now in service to the Count – the townspeople of Stetl rise up and invade the royal’s home, where they discover the girl has been bled dry. After a brief battle, the Count is staked through the heart, but, before he dies, he curses the townspeople, warning them that that their children will bleed so that he can be brought back to life. The townspeople decide to burn down the castle with Anna and Mitterhaus still inside, and Anna spirits him away to his coffin where he gives her one final instruction – to find his cousin as he’ll know what needs to be done to resurrect him.
Fifteen years have passed. Stetl is now a dying town, it’s borders surrounded by riflemen from neighboring villages, with instructions to shoot anyone coming in or out of the Stetl in an effort to contain the mysterious plague that is wiping out its population. Somehow, however, The Circus of the Night have made it through the quarantine with guises on putting on a for the people of Stetl. Led by the “Gypsy” (Adrienne Corri) and the seductive Emil (Anthony Corlan aka’ Anthony Higgins), the performers seduce the villagers with magical feats, exotic animals, and tall tales, all the while blinding them to their actual agenda – the killing the children of the men who killed Mitterhaus so that the count may rise again.
Vampire Circus has amassed an enormous cult following since its borderline disastrous release nearly four decades ago, where, after losing battles with censors around the world, the film was unceremoniously dumped on audiences with much of its sex and violence toned down for mass appeal. Hammer, itself, all but disowned the release, while critics and audiences either panned the film or ignored it altogether. It wasn’t until the late 1970’s, with the advent of home video, that most viewers were finally given the chance to see the film as its creators had intended, with all of its blood and skin intact. What they discovered was a movie that was equal parts classic vampire tale and Fellini-esque arthouse film. It’s actually very much like a film within a film, as the scenes of life in Stetl, and the cast of characters who inhabit it are very much cut from the Hammer mold. When the action shifts to the titular circus and it’s hippie/vampire archetypes, however, the film becomes something else entirely as director Robert Young turns traditional Hammer tropes on their ear. It’s this bizarre juxtaposition that makes the film so fascinating for me, and makes it such a blast to revisit.
Synapse delivers Vampire Circus to Blu-ray in a gorgeous 1080p 1.66:1 transfer that boasts rich, vibrant colors, and fairly impressive detail. There’s a fine grain throughout, but, on occasion, it gets a touch “buzzy” (especially in low light situations), although it’s nothing too distracting. What struck me about this transfer was how clean it was once it moved past the initial credits sequence as there wasn’t an artifact or sign of print damage to be found. Balancing out this new, nearly pristine print is a crisp and surprisingly robust 2.0 DTS HD Master Audio track. The dialogue, here, is nicely up front and center, while the film’s aggressive score establishes its presence early on, clean and distortion free. I applaud Synapse’s decision not to try and force a multi-channel soundtrack on this film, as, oftentimes, the end result of such tinkering sounds artificial and hollow. I prefer this “vintage” stereo mix as it doesn’t stray too far from the film’s mono origins, and, for a film like Vampire Circus, suits it just fine.
The collection of extras assembled for the set are fantastic, including a very informative and well-made behind-the-scenes retrospective, The Bloodiest Show on Earth: Making 'Vampire Circus', which features interviews with Hammer historians, filmmaker/fans like Joe Dante, and actor, David Prowse (who appears in the film as the “strong man”). Interspersed with the interview footage are a collection of rare behind-the-scenes photos, posters, and more. Gallery of Grotesqueries: A Brief History of Circus Horrors is a nifty look at the use of circus/carnival motifs in horror films, replete with clips and ephemera, while Visiting the House of Hammer: Britain's Legendary Horror Magazine revisits the legendary fright magazine, while the Vampire Circus Motion Comic offers us several pages of said magazine’s comic adaptation of the film. Rounding out the extras are a stills and ephemera gallery, and the original U.K. trailer for the film.
Synapse Films have entered the Blu-ray fray with an impressive first offering in Vampire Circus. The film looks and sounds magnificent, while fans will love the wonderful collection of HD bonus features. This is an easy recommendation for me, but Vampire Circus, with it’s oddball collection of characters and arthouse sensibilities may put off those looking for a traditional vampire film. Those who give it a chance, however, will be won over by the film’s quirky charms and exquisite aesthete, and will see why this Hammer oddity has become such a prized fan favorite.