JANUARY 16, 2011
For whatever reason, I had the foresight to not watch Vampire Circus at work a few days before as I had originally planned, since it boasted a PG rating and thus I figured it would be “work safe”. Far from it. In addition to some fairly graphic kills (the crossbow beheading is amazing), this movie has a ton of nudity, including a brief full frontal shot. I can only assume that the US PG version had all of this stuff cut, though it’s not mentioned in the “alternate version” section of IMDb, which makes it sound like it was just the violence that was cut.
Anyway, it’s a pretty good movie, though I spent a lot of it seeing ways it could be improved. Also learned from the IMDb, some scenes were never shot due to it running over schedule, which I guess would explain why it feels very choppy at times, with characters coming and going frequently, and some plot points explained over and over while others were left maddeningly vague. For example, the titular circus is supposedly distracting folks away from the plague, but the plague element is so minimal, I had actually forgotten about it by the time someone makes this point.
Yet, it has the longest goddamn prologue I’ve ever seen outside of a James Bond film. It’s an 87 minute movie and a full 13 are given to setting up the vampire’s beef with the folks in the town. I mean, it’s not too complicated - the children of a “dead” vampire try to revive him using the blood of the children of the folks who killed him. If they hadn’t spent so much time shooting this stuff, maybe they could have shot some more of the plague subplot, or perhaps a few establishing shots that would keep it from feeling so “loose” at times, especially in the 2nd act when they cut back and forth between the circus and the town with alarming and jarring frequency.
Or any scene with the strong man. I dig the “circus of villains” concept, but the Strong Man should have been left out. You get the creepy midget clown, the vampire ringleader, etc – and then the strong man, who just looks like he wandered out of a 3rd rate Hercules or gladiator movie. I also could have done without the scene where the townfolk storm the circus and kill many of the animals – who wants to see a poor monkey get gunned down? Plus, it dilutes the strength of the climax a bit – they once again storm the circus only this time they go after the people who actually pose a threat.
But it’s still a unique and worthy entry to the Hammer canon. I liked seeing the vampire tale taking place outside of the usual castles and foggy villages, and they don’t hold back on the carnage despite the plan to murder children. There are also a lot of wonderfully strange/creepy moments; I particularly liked when a would-be victim sees something watching her through some trees, but as they get closer we see it’s actually a guy with shiny “eyes” glued to the shin area of his pants for some reason. And even though the animation is a bit primitive, I liked the concept behind the blood dripping onto the dead vampire and being absorbed, instead of the usual “reverse footage of someone melting” stuff.
And it starred Lynn Frederick! I was smitten with her after seeing Schizo, and was hoping to see another film with her (she didn’t make many – she was sort of ostracized from Hollywood and died young due to heavy alcohol intake). She was only 17 at the time this was filmed, so it’s a bit creepy, but oh well – she was a comely lass. In fact pretty much all of the women in the film are fetching, adding to the allure and making me wish I was like 30 years older (which would make me about 20 when this movie came out, you see). HMAD reader Robert R. should have mentioned this when he recommended it - I would have got to it sooner!
Points off for pink blood though. I don’t get it – what was so hard about making fake blood back then? Maybe it just didn’t photograph the way it looked on set? I’m always baffled by this – it’s not like alien goo or something that no one has ever actually seen. At one point they toss it on some plants during a particularly confusing kill scene (it involved a panther) and I wasn’t sure if the victim had gotten killed or if someone was playing paintball nearby.
Now that Hammer is back, I think they should consider doing a modern version. Replace the plague with one of our wars (or even better: economic woes!), give the circus folk a little more depth, but retain the Nightmare on Elm St-esque “kill the children for revenge” motif, and you have a kick-ass modern horror movie. Just make sure the lead villain actor is a little better than Anthony Higgins is here – he overacts a bit much and looks more like a cheesy 70s singer (I kept thinking of Air Supply) than a vampire. His death scene is also unintentionally hilarious – I would bet money it was the inspiration for Paul Reubens’ death in the Buffy movie.
What say you?