Hammer films had always been known for their bold productions and atmospheric Gothic settings, but as the market began to shift towards graphic, sexually charged thrillers in the late 60's and early 70's thanks to prolific European filmmakers like Jesus Franco and Jean Rollin, the house of horrors also began catering towards these new trends. One of the last films to be released by the studio that kept with the traditional form was 1972's VAMPIRE CIRCUS, which also proved to be one of the most evocative and original vampire tales of its time. The film's vibrant color palette and beautifully-crafted set pieces recall Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA, while the creepy carnival backdrop brings to mind Tod Browning's 1932 classic FREAKS.
Taking place in 19th century Europe, VAMPIRE CIRCUS begins with a vampire lord being staked through the heart by four nobles after he makes one of their wives his newest bride. Years later, the village has been ravished by the Black Death, and its citizens now live in fear within the quarantined city limits. A mysterious traveling carnival suddenly appears one morning, and begins to lift the failing spirits of the townspeople. What they don't know is that the exotic animals aren't the only ones with fangs at this colorful sideshow attraction. The undead performers drain the town's children of their blood as payment for the sins of their fathers, and use it to revive their fallen lord.
Unlike Hammer favorite Terence Fisher, who benefited from a long and successful career before making CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, newcomer Robert Young had never directed a feature film prior to his work on VAMPIRE CIRCUS, and yet his film retains all of the same stunning cinematography and unparalleled visual style as many of the studio's best. Young introduces a series of seamless transitions that allow the shape-shifting vampires to change from their human forms into bats, tigers, and jaguars. Many familiar faces populate the cast, including TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA's Anthony Higgins as the seductive vampire count Emil, and Adrienne Corri playing his sexy young lover that leads the twisted carnival. Their enchantment over the town is dispelled by two of the surviving teens in a climactic showdown that begins in the school chapel then takes them deep into the vampires' lair. Hammer would produce far fewer releases in the years to follow, but along with TWINS OF EVIL and THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES, the VAMPIRE CIRCUS is one of the studio's last great pictures before closing its doors in 1979.
If you liked VAMPIRE CIRCUS, check out:
HOWLING 6, TWINS OF EVIL, SANTA SANGRE.