Life's tough when you're a superstitious yokel in a 19th century East European village. You kill a vampire who's been stealing away your wives and children, only to find fifteen years later that your friends and family are being ravaged by plague and your village is under quarantine. Anyone trying to leave will probably get shot. However on the plus side, a circus is coming to town!
Vampire Circus is weird and eerie. It doesn't really have much of a plot, being little more than a string of set-pieces with the only progress and story development coming from the monsters. However it's a Hammer horror movie. That's okay. What's interesting about the film is how much it's centred on its concepts and freaky visuals, making it almost arty in a staid British kind of way. I wouldn't want to liken it to Jean Rollin or anything, but it has almost dreamlike moments and at times gets playful with the mythos. Hammer's main vampire franchise was of course the Christopher Lee Dracula films. Those were enormously successful but could be a bit predictable, whereas these non-Dracula vampire films were freer to experiment.
There's sex, violence and vampirism, but what's more the film's making explicit connections between them. The bad girls have sex, yes, but for once it's not as simple as that. They're chasing the bad boys. The village menfolk clearly haven't got what it takes, whereas the vampires would kill you as soon as look at you. In particular it's a surprise when Anthony Higgins's Emile speaks, since until then he'd been so smoulderingly animal-like that one's assumption had been that he wasn't even sentient. His gaze alone had been all but burning the clothes off the mayor's daughter. Guess how she responds. Hint: she's a teenager. This is powerful stuff, although obviously it puts the film even more than usual at the mercy of its actors. It works in the hands of Anthony Higgins, but falls flat on its face when it comes to Robert Tayman's pretty boy Count Mitterhaus and his comedy fangs. "One lust feeds the other." Oh dear.
At least this means lots of nudity, although on the downside none of the actresses have particularly big tits. You might however be wondering what on earth it would mean for a vampire to have sex with a human. Do you have sex with your food? (Don't answer that question.) According to this film, the answer is that the woman in question won't become undead, even if she gets pregnant and has vampire children.
Then there's the violence, the third side of this triangle. Just as this film has 1970s nudity, it also has 1970s violence. Well, the Hammer equivalent, anyway. For once staking a vampire isn't as simple as surprising him asleep and inserting your mighty weapon, but instead means a bloody hand-to-hand fight in which you can expect to lose two-thirds of your comrades. Even the vampire's victims aren't merely young women, but are likely to be children. That first one was cute. It's a powerful scene, especially given the imagery of the vampire's lover helping to procure him little girls, or at least it was heading that way until Robert Tayman unleashes his fangs and it all gets a bit silly.
For a moment near the beginning I even thought we were going to see a gang rape. A man unbuckles his belt, approaching a nearly naked woman who's betrayed them all. As I said, this is strong stuff. Take the "vampire = sex" metaphor too far and you'll be seeing this film as a riot of rape, paedophilia and even arguably incest.
Then there's the circus itself, which is freaky. There's a dwarf, a strongman (played by Dave Prowse) and a pair of exotic dancers, of whom the woman wears only tiger paint. There are animals which turn into people. This is of course a traditional vampire ability, although I don't remember it being done with a panther before. These transformations are even incorporated into the show, on the assumption that the audience will think it's just stage magic. There are a pair of evil twins played by Lalla Ward and an unrecognisably young Robin Sachs from before his days on Babylon 5, Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. However most sinister is the hall of mirrors, with a Mirror of Life that eats anyone who looks into it. Again this is picking up on the traditional link between vampires and mirrors, but taking it further than I've ever before into fantasy. Ray Bradbury would have loved it.
I like the performances, but not universally. The romantic young couple can't act at all, to the point where it sabotages the finale to have them in it. One of them, John Moulder-Brown, had been a child actor. I should also throw more brickbats at Robert Tayman, who looks like an idiot and quite possibly sounded like one as well. His performance was redubbed. However the village men are surprisingly good, including Hammer veteran Thorley Walters as the Burgomeister and Lawrence Payne as the tragic Mueller, cuckolded by a vampire but never anything but honest and honourable. You can think of him as playing the Peter Cushing role. He does very well.
On the side of evil, we have a dominating Adrienne Corri (whom I mistook for Stephanie Beacham) and of course Anthony Higgins. He was in Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know. Don't expect much acting from the others, except the dwarf, but in most cases this doesn't matter.
So, what are this film's downsides? Firstly, it's perhaps in danger of being a bit boring. It's not particularly interested in plot, instead being powered by its outre ideas and visuals. Those are admittedly remarkable, but they'll only carry you so far. Next we have the actors. Count Mitterhaus and Little Lord Fauntleroy are a drag factor, although the girlfriend is partly redeemed by not wearing a bra. Nevertheless we're expected to be interested in the two young lovers and we're not. The vampires' demises are also well down to Hammer's standards of ridiculousness, with even the crossbow crucifix paling in comparison with the comedy impalement. However I laughed like a drain, so will count that as a plus point if only for entertainment value.
Overall, this film is an experience. Bats clambering from a skull's eye socket. Gruesome vampire bites, not the usual two discreet punctures. People killing caged animals. Mortal women in love with a vampire and yet despite everything will eventually die trying to save their children, although you'll miss that last one if you weren't paying attention. Apparently shooting went over schedule and some key scenes were never filmed, which perhaps explains my problems with the plot although I suppose it might have helped the surrealism. I'd still love to know what else they'd planned to include, though. The running time is only 83 minutes, so there might have been another ten or even fifteen minutes of material. I couldn't call this Hammer's best film, but it's one of its most interesting.