Friday, October 12, 2007

vampire circus (1972)

I guess I've pretty much given up on trying to come up with clever titles for the daily Halloween posts, but cleverness is kind of overrated anyway, so fuck it.

Somehow in yesterday's post on "Venom" I neglected to mention that the film also featured a brief, brief, all-too-brief appearance by Michael Gough. Probably best known in the States (and recent film in general) as playing Alfred the Butler in the 1980s-90s "Batman" films, Gough has had a long and distinguished career and has appeared in enough unusual horror flicks to make him, in some eyes at least (including mine), a horror icon on par with Vincent Price, Peter Cushing or Lon Chaney Jr. Or at the very least, Petter Lorre and Herbert Lom. My favorite of his films is the slow-moving, exceedingly eerie "Crucible of Horror," in co-stars with his real-life son. Other notable horror roles include "Konga," "Horrors of the Black Museum," "Trog" with Joan Crawford, "Horror Hospital" and Hammer's "Horror of Dracula." I'm not sure if alot of his material was cut out of "Venom," or if he just agreed to a very small part, but he's really only onscreen for a few minutes, though even in that brief amount of time he is able to establish a nice repartee with Nicol Williamson, who plays the main policeman at the scene of the siege. Anyway, another reason "Venom" is worth 90 minutes out of your day.

Like "Venom," last night's selection came from across the pond- Hammer film's 1972 "Vampire Circus," directed by Robert Young. Hammer was, of course, THE name is British horror from the late 1950s well into the 1970s. Their productions were typically pretty high-quality but "Vampire Circus" is especially good. It's fun, intelligent, violent and sexy. The film opens with a spectacular assault on a vampire count who has been holding a small German town in terror. The very 70s looking (despite this being a Gothic horror) count, who says of sex and blood,"One lust feeds the other," bloodily dispatches a roomful of villagers before taking a stake to the heart, cursing the town with his dying words.

15 years later the town is suffering from some kind a plague- possibly rabies from the legion of vampire bats that have nested in the count's abandoned castle. The area around the town has been quarantined by other nearby villages, who shoot anyone who tries to get out of town. There is a town doctor who attempts to explain away the town's misfortunes with science, as opposed to the supernatural, but when the doctor escapes the quarantine to go out and find medicine for the villagers, a very strange circus appears in the town.

As the title suggests, the circus is comprised partially of vampires and has connections to the count. Though their theatrics seem initially innocent, it quickly becomes apparent that their motives are somewhat more sinister. Among their ranks are a man who turns into a panther (a manther?), an acrobatic set of twins who transform into bats (twats?) and a strongman (played by David Prowse, of "A Clockwork Orange" and Hammer's "Frankenstein & the Monster From Hell," and is probably best known as playing the body of Darth Vader in the first three "Star Wars" films). The ringleader is played by Adrienne Corri, who also appeared in "A Clockwork Orange."

"Vampire Circus" is awash in some excellently creepy atmosphere. In one particularly defining shot, we see a vampire bat crawling out of the eye of a skull. The action is pretty exciting and over-the-top- the twins, who experience one another's pain, are killed when one is accidentally impaled with a giant cross. The film is also full of particularly beautiful women. In addition to Corri, there's Domini Blythe as Anna, the count's companion in the early scenes, Christina Paul as Rosa, the manther's first victim, and Lynne Frederick as Dora, the film's heroine. Frederick has an interesting career, appearing in such films as the apocalyptic "No Blade of Grass" (directed by actor Cornell Wilde), designer Saul Bass' sole directorial effort "Phase IV" (also an apocalyptic tale) and Luci Fulci's aptly titled western "Four of the Apocalypse" (with Michael J. Pollard, Fabio Testi and Thomas Milian). She married comedian Peter Sellers in 1977, against the wishes of his family and friends, who saw her as only being after his money. Less than a year after Sellers' death in 1980, she re-married to British television personality David Frost, though they were only together for about a year. Frederick died in 1994, purportedly as a result of the effects of alcohol abuse. Despite the somewhat lurid later chapters of her life, she was quite a good actress in her few major roles.

In the end, "Vampire Circus" is especially good, even for a Hammer production, which are typically especially good to begin with. Unfortunately, it seems to be unavailable on DVD on the US, so it might be kind of hard to track down a copy. If you do, though, it will certainly prove worth the effort. Until next time... (don't forget to check out my radio show, Modern Products, this sunday from 4-6pm, on This week is week 7 of our 13 weeks of Halloween. If you can't listen live, you can also download the podcast.)

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