Cult Movies: Hammer horror Vampire Circus a seriously gory slice of dream-like fantasy

Robert Tayman as the evil Count Mitterhaus in Vampire Circus
Ralph McLean

Vampire Circus

RELEASED in 1972, when the once free-flowing blood was starting to seriously congeal in the pipes of the Hammer House of Horror, Vampire Circus has a very good claim to being one of the studio's last great fantasy films. It's certainly one of the oddest.

Coming to terms with the painful realisation that the public no longer wanted the lush, Gothic fairy tales that had proved so profitable in previous decades, the studio was slowly putting Peter Cushing out to pasture and leaving back the Victorian frock coats to the dry cleaners.

However, as the traditional Hammer bodice-ripper faced the executioner, a few low-key gems did manage to slip out before the axe finally fell: the luridly titled but thematically complex Vampire Circus is easily the best.

A seriously gory, sexually charged slice of dream-like fantasy film-making, while Vampire Circus may have floundered upon its original release, it's fully deserving of the rich respect it receives in cult circles today.

The young children of a small 19th century European village are dying off one by one and the locals are blaming the decadent Count Mitterhaus up in the castle. Convinced they have a vampire in their midst, they attack the cocky Count (played with the swagger of a snarling 1970s rock star by Robert Tayman) and drive a stake forcefully through his heart. Before he shrivels up and dies though, Mitterhaus curses the village elders – led by the great Thorley Walters and Laurence Payne – and the future generations of all those involved in his downfall.

Fifteen years later, we see the village locked down in the midst of a plague that is killing everyone in sight. Could it be the curse of old Mitterhaus operating from beyond the grave, or could it be the rough and ready circus that has rolled into town with its creepy clown and mysterious animals that seem to morph into humans before your very eyes?

Superficially, this looks like a standard period potboiler, with all the heaving bosoms and bloody stakes that such films traditionally boast. Peer closer though and a fascinatingly nasty little taboo-busting adult fairytale emerges.

Director Robert Young may have been saddled with a minuscule budget that saw filming cut short when the cash ran out and no traditional Hammer star names of note in his cast, yet he manages to create a genuinely unsettling mood of doom, gloom and unrelenting tension all the same.

Genre favourites like Dave Prowse and Adrienne Corri turn up in supporting roles and there are fang-bearing turns for future Doctor Who assistant Lalla Ward as Helga, a vampire temptress, and Anthony Higgins, who plays the sinister and silent Emil – who can seemingly turn into a deadly black panther at the drop of a frilly shirt.

Meanwhile, Skip Martin – a fine actor forever lumbered with evil dwarf roles at this time – adds a real touch of menace to his part as clown and chief rabble rouser.

Edgy, nasty and sexually charged throughout, Vampire Circus is a queasy and unsettling viewing experience even today. Book yourself a ring-side seat, if you dare.

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