Vampire Circus – Blu-ray Review

The “Hammer” name is synonymous with classic tales of horror, including The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959), and loads of sequels to all three. Hammer is known for horror productions that deliver Gothic scares with beautiful women and quality actors on a low budget. Vampire Circus, one of Synapse Films’ latest Blu-ray transfers, follows this formula exactly, being filled with gorgeous women, good acting, and an intriguing, if imperfect, vampire tale.

A young girl is lead to a castle by a beautiful woman, and killed by Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman), a vampire. Professor Albert Mueller (Laurence Payne) gathers a group of people together that decide they’ve had enough of the Count, and storm the castle, killing him. As Count Mitterhaus dies, he puts a curse on the small, 19th century Austrian village, vowing that all their children will die so that he can rise again. Fifteen years later, the village is hit with the plague. During this plague, a circus comes to town and distracts the locals from their current problems. Unfortunately for them, the circus is actually filled with shape-shifting vampires, and the town’s children start disappearing, which makes them realize that Count Mitterhaus’ prophecy might be coming true after all.

The best aspect of Vampire Circus has to be the acting. Modern horror audiences might tire of Vampire Circus once they realize this isn’t a “jumpy” horror movie, but rather one that relies on the myths of vampires themselves, and character development to grab the audience. In a time where vampires are being forced down movie-goers throats – due to the popularity of the Twilight series – it is a welcome breath of fresh air to see a vampire flick with solid acting.

Laurence Payne, (playing Prof. Albert Mueller, the schoolteacher) does an excellent job accepting the given circumstances of each scene, and delivers a believable, moving performance. Adreinne Corri, playing the gypsy woman, and the leader of the circus, is also effective, and plays nicely alongside Skip Martin (the circus dwarf named Michael), and Anthony Corlan (playing a shape-shifting panther/vampire named Emil). Corlan comes off as the most unnatural of the group, but this may be because of his character choice as the awkward vampire rather than him lacking acting talent. Domini Blythe, who is only present in the beginning of the film as Anna Mueller – the schoolteacher’s wife who leaves her husband for the seductions of Count Mitterhaus – deserved to be in the movie more, as she is not only beautiful, but a talented actress. An interesting side note is that David Prowse – who later played Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy, as well as Frankenstein’s monster in other Hammer productions – plays “The Strongman” in Vampire Circus. Prowse has no lines of dialogue, but manages to play a memorable role, and one of the more interesting “brute” characters I can recall. The acting, all-around, is what makes Vampire Circus effective, and helps to keep the audience connected all the way through the film.

The story of Vampire Circus starts out well, but it manages to wrap around itself a little too much, and some viewers might find it confusing to follow on first viewing. Some of the circus acts are fun to watch, such as the lady dancing with only leopard-patterned paint covering her body, but some of the other circus acts seem pointless, deterring from the main plot for no reason. This oversaturation of the circus events also lessens the idea that all the town’s children are dying; if more emphasis were placed on the fact that all these kids were dead or dying, the movie would move along with more urgency, and could help add tension to the film. Instead, the film rests on its heels, and the plot loses importance. If all these kids are dying, why is the town so ready to just sit around and watch a circus act? This circus gimmick, along with muddy final scenes, manages to weaken the intensity of the vampire movie as a whole.

Vampire Circus tells a unique vampire story that we haven’t seen in quite some time. It hearkens back to the days when vampires were sexy and evil, instead of sexy and sparkly, and manages to be just gory enough for those with bloodlust, but corny enough so that it won’t offend anyone. Vampire Circus is a solid effort that lives up to the Hammer name.

Synapse Films has done an excellent job transferring Vampire Circus onto Blu-ray, especially considering this is a film from 1972. The colors are an odd mix of subtle and vibrant, but they work well, and look beautiful on Blu-ray. With a film this old, I usually notice two problems: the dark scenes get lost and there tends to be a lot of minor imperfections with the film itself. With Vampire Circus, the dark scenes are dark, but I can still make out the detail in the shot, and the film imperfections have been almost completely done away with. This is one of the better Blu-ray releases I have seen when compared to other movies from this era. The visual specs are listed as a widescreen, 1080p presentation, with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

The same care was given to the audio of this release, and there are no noticeable problems. It would have been nice to have at least a stereo option, but what is here – a DTS-HD English 2.0 Mono option – does the job adequately enough. The option to watch the movie with only its music and effects track is also present, but I cannot fathom why. There are no subtitle options at all.

DVD Copy of Vampire Circus: The full-length film, and all the special features are made available on this additional DVD. The Blu-ray looks too good to pass up, and anyone with the capabilities of playing the BD should stick to that. Otherwise, this is a fine DVD with decent video quality (anamorphic widescreen, 1.66:1 aspect ratio), and audio quality that is comparable to the BD (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono). The DVD disc is separate from the BD, making this a two-disc combo pack.

The Bloodiest Show on Earth: Making Vampire Circus (32:39): An in-depth look at the Hammer film company, and the making of Vampire Circus. This is not a typical “making of”, and contains loads of information on the events surrounding the movie, as well as the film itself. It even touches on why the ending of the movie may seem incomplete to some. “The Bloodiest Show on Earth” is a wonderful special feature that Hammer fanatics, and classic horror fans in general, will adore.

Gallery of Grotesqueries: A Brief History of Circus Horrors (15:07): Playing on the gimmick that the movie uses, this feature talks about the history of the circus in horror films. Discusses The Unholy Three, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Freaks and other classic horror films. This is a great, unique look at some classic horror cinema, but because there are spoilers, it is recommended only to those that are classic horror fans, and have seen most of the more famous films.

Visiting the House of Hammer: Britain’s Legendary Horror Magazine (9:47): This is a fascinating look at how Dez Skinn turned into a comic and magazine powerhouse, beginning with the House of Hammer Comics. It talks about how House of Hammers Comics was the only way people under the age of 18 could see Hammer horror productions, given the fact that Britain had no “R” rating equivalent where minors could be accompanied by adults. This magazine/comic hybrid contained full-blown comic adaptations of the hammer movies. The covers, drawn by Ryan Lewis, are beautifully grotesque, and inspired by the Hammer movies. Hammer fans will eat this special feature up, and it is highly recommended. More information would have been appreciated, but what is here is an informative introduction to the company.

Vampire Circus: Motion Comic Book (3:15): Unlike the Watchmen motion comic, or the motion comic on The Crazies BD release, this comic has no voice acting, and is just the beginning of the movie put to comic book form. Each panel of the comic scrolls onto the screen, pauses, then moves on. Nothing too special here, and as it is only the opening scene of the movie, is disappointing. A good idea that was not executed well.

Animated Stills and Poster Gallery (1:58): These are still shots from the movie, along with alternate posters from the original release, including a couple of the better posters from outside the US and Britain.

Original Theatrical Trailer (2:31)

No doubt about it, Synapse Films has given Hammer horror fans something to celebrate with this Blu-ray release of Vampire Circus. The film itself is a solid effort, but the visual appeal of the Blu-ray, along with excellent special features, are what make this release a standout. Established fans of this film, and other Hammer horror releases, can pull the trigger on this purchase with confidence. The special features make this a viable option for those looking to get into Hammer as well, as the special features give a good overview of the production company, and Vampire Circus a solid example of what else to expect from Hammer.

Synapse Films & Hammer Films Productions present Vampire Circus. Directed by: Robert Young. Starring: Adrienne Corri, Laurence Payne, Thorley Walters, John Moulder-Brown. Lynne Frederick, & Anthony Corlan. Written by: Judson Kinberg. Running time: 87 minutes. Rating: Not Rated. Released on Blu-ray: December 14, 2010.