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Director: Robert Young
Synapse Films

For years, Synapse Films has been releasing numerous diverse films from various countries and genres on DVD, but for their 100th release, the company unleashes a long-awaited classic horror title from none other than Britain’s Hammer Films. Long controlled by MGM, the Lion’s recent lapse of home video rights for this title was thankfully taken advantage of by Synapse, who are now delivering the goods in a very big way (as a dual blu-ray/DVD combo package). One of Hammer’s most unusual gothic triumphs of the early 1970s, VAMPIRE CIRCUS is finally officially available on digital media in the United States, and it was well worth the lengthy wait.

In 19th Century Serbia, the town of Schettel is ruled by Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman, HOUSE OF WHIPCORD), a vampire who resides in a secluded castle, seducing women and feeding off the blood of young children. Schoolteacher Mueller (Laurence Payne, THE CRAWLING EYE) is dismayed when his young wife Anna (Domini Blythe) willingly enters the Count’s castle with one of the town’s children, soon to be a sacrificial offering. Mueller organizes the male villagers of Schettel, including the Burgemeister (Hammer regular Thorley Walters) and the aggressive Hauser (Robin Hunter), to invade the Count’s home and put an end to his evil. Mitterhaus is killed by a large wooden stake, but vows revenge on Schettel, cursing its people with doom and death upon their children which will one day give him back his life. The castle is destroyed by fire and explosives, and the now demonic Anna clings to her bloodsucking lover in a crypt as the massive dwelling crumbles above them.

Fifteen years later, Schettel is still in dread of the Mitterhaus curse, with the now plague-ridden town sending their doctor (Richard Owens) past a roadblock to return with aid and put to rest their "superstitious" belief in vampirism. Coincidentally, the “Circus of Nights”, a traveling caravan of performers and trained animals, enters the village with a Gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri, MADHOUSE), a clown-faced dwarf (Skip Martin, HORROR HOSPITAL), a strongman (Dave Prowse, HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN), twin acrobats (Robin Sachs and Lalla Ward) and various others in tow. But the most mystifying member of the circus is longhaired Emil (Anthony Corlan, aka Anthony Higgins), a vampire who not only has seductive prowess towards his victim, but also the ability to shape-shift into a vicious black panther. Emil happens to be kin to Count Mitterhaus, and has entered the village with plans to implement the curse and the Count’s impending return, with the lives of Schettel’s children at the forefront of bloody retribution.

VAMPIRE CIRCUS was made in late 1971 at a time when many critics and fans felt that Hammer had run its course in terms of cinematic vampire exploits. But with a diverse style (at times the picture looks like an adult fairytale with European art film sensibilities) from the picture’s director, Robert Young, who was fairly new to features at the time, and an imaginative screenplay by Judson Kinberg (which adds a number of unique visual delights to the usual vampire lore) the film is a winner and one of Hammer’s finest. Even without the presence of a Christopher Lee or a Peter Cushing, VAMPIRE CIRCUS makes due with a fine ensemble cast (so much so, that someone once remarked that it has as many players as a “Carry On” entry) which also includes John Moulder-Brown (THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED) and the late Lynne Frederick (PHASE IV) as the central young lovers, Christine Paul (who, as Emil’s lover/victim provides some of the female nudity), and the real-life husband and wife acting team of John Brown and Sibylla Kay as the doomed Schilts.

VAMPIRE CIRCUS has been both criticized and applauded for its abundant (for Hammer) amount of bloodletting and eroticism. This was such the case that the film was trimmed of 3 minutes for its stateside PG-rated release (through 20th Century-Fox), and this was made up of most of the gore and bare breasts, as well as highly memorable exotic dance by a tiger woman (Serena, in a feline-striped costume that was literally painted on!) which was awkwardly edited down to practically nothing. As this was years after Hammer left the confines of Bray Studios, VAMPIRE CIRCUS was shot at Pinewood, and Scott MacGregor not only aptly redresses some sets left over from TWINS OF EVIL and COUNTESS DRACULA, but adds a terrifically decaying underground crypt furnished with skulls and other human bones. As the film’s very early 1970s-looking vampire leads, Anthony Corlan (who had previously played the hero in Hammer’s TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA) and Robert Tayman are unforgettable in appearance (with some truly elongated fangs) and performance. Corlan plays one of the most hissy, facially-animated vampires you’ll ever see, while Tayman (who is basically seen up and about only during the film’s 13-minute pre-credit sequence, as well as the quick climax) is pure on-screen evil. Tayman’s chops were re-voiced by David de Keyser (who later did the same for John Forbes-Robertson in THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES), but the resulting effect works well.

VAMPIRE CIRCUS has been previously available on DVD in just about every country except the U.S., that is until now, and even if you have one of those foreign copies, this DVD/blu-ray combo is an essential purchase. The film is presented fully uncut (87 minutes) at 1.66:1 (High Definition 1080p for the blu-ray and an anamorphic widescreen for the DVD) and needless to say, looks terrific. What's so impressive about VAMPIRE CIRCUS' appearance here is how much richer and fuller the colors are and how strong the picture detail is when compared to foreign video releases and the U.S. laserdisc (the only time it was ever issued on home video in The States). The picture has only some minor wear, and even though several scenes look a tad too dark, the overall results are the best the film has ever looked. The audio is equally impressive (DTS-HD English 2.0 mono for the blu-ray and Dolby Digital English 2.0 mono for the DVD) and furthermore, you can isolate David Whittaker’s excellent score and the sound effects on a separate track found on both discs.

Extras (identical on both the DVD and blu-ray) include three exceptionally crafted featurettes, produced and directed by Daniel Griffith. First and foremost is “The Bloodiest Show on Earth: Making Vampire Circus” (32:36) which contains interviews with filmmaker Joe Dante, Hammer documentarian Ted Newsom (“Flesh and Blood”), British author/film historian Philip Nutman and VAMPIRE CIRCUS star Dave Prowse. The documentary nicely manages to cover a lot of ground on the film in only 32 minutes, as everything including producer Wilbur Stark, director Robert Young, the cast, the film’s touchy themes of victimized children, the film falling behind its shooting schedule, the sex and violence, the distribution and much more is discussed. “Gallery of Grotesques: A Brief History of Circus Horrors” (15:05) has Nutman back discussing the history of circus/carnival/freak show themes in horrors films, from the silent era all the way through to the 1970s. “Revisiting the House of Hammer: Britain’s Legendary Horror Magazine” (9:48) is a fun look at Dez Skinn’s comic/horror film magazine, first unleashed in 1976, and Nutman tells a great story about discovering the first two issues of the publication while on an otherwise boring summer holiday with his family. Rounding out the extras are an interactive comic book (featuring artwork by Brian Bolland) an animated poster and still gallery and the film’s original British Rank Organization theatrical trailer.

With this very special release, Synapse Films has given DVD Drive-In readers an early Christmas present, with your editor more than anyone feeling like a kid on said morning. Thankfully, more Hammer titles are on the way in 2011 from Synapse (TWINS OF EVIL, HANDS OF THE RIPPER, the “Hammer House of Horror” series), so there's even more reason to celebrate this holiday season! (George R. Reis)