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An intriguing late Hammer horror with great extras but a disappointing Blu-ray transfer
on 5 July 2012
Hammer's glory days were behind them as they moved into the early 70, with the studio that made its mark with horror films run by people who didn't actually like horror films and production shifting towards a slew of TV sitcom spinoffs to cash in on the huge success of their first On the Buses film. With the Dracula and Frankenstein series winding down, their horror films were increasingly the result of outside producers approaching them rather than projects generated in-house, some interesting, some disastrous. Vampire Circus belongs in the former category, a not always successful attempt to do something a bit new with the tits'n'fangs formula. Although it could almost fit in as a fourth entry in the studios Karnstein trilogy (The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, Twins of Evil), it takes its influences from both gothic literature, the studio's back-catalogue and arthouse classic with its Felliniesque dwarf and Bergmanesque travelling players as harbingers of doom, and adding a further layer of sexuality and perversion. Beginning with an extended pre-title sequence that sees the obligatory torch bearing villagers finally deciding to deal with the local vampire count who has been feeding on their children with the help of schoolteacher Domini Blythe, for whom infanticide is clearly such a huge turn on she'd kill her own child to get off with him ("One lust feeds the other"), the main body of the story takes place 15 years later, finding the village riddled with a plague that has even killed off the town's priest and wary of the vampire's curse that their children will die to give him life. Enter the Circus of Nights, come "to steal the gold from dead men's eyes," offering diversion, temptation and, of course, death...
A troubled production - the typically tight budget prevented director Robert Young from getting all the footage he needed when he ran over schedule - the scars aren't particularly noticeable, and it does have a fairly unique atmosphere among the studio's films that's helped by having a largely very un-Hammer cast: no Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee but the likes of Laurence Payne, Adrienne Corri, Anthony Higgins (when he was still calling himself Anthony Corlan), John Moulder Brown, Lynne Frederick and future Doctor Who companion Lalla Ward (though Hammer irregulars Thorley Walters and Dave Prowse do appear). At times the influence of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes can be felt, especially when Payne's schoolteacher confronts the unseen circus people about their origins or when various characters look into the Mirror of Life, albeit with a much higher body count. It's never as successful as Bradbury's dark carnival, but it's still an intriguing entry in the Hammer canon.
Unfortunately Synapse's Region A-locked Blu-ray release is a very disappointing transfer, despite being taken from the UK theatrical version rather than the censored US release. While the daytime scenes are largely fine, the picture quality is excessively dark in the night scenes, losing a lot of detail, whether it be a panther all but lost in the shadows of his cage or the bats flying off into the night in the final shot rendered all but invisible even if you boost the brightness on your TV set. It's doubly frustrating because the standard definition clips included in the documentary on the disc have none of these grading problems, which weren't anywhere near as pronounced on Carlton's UK DVD. On the plus side the disc does have an excellent array of extras - a good 32-minute talking heads documentary on the making of the film, a 15-minute look at circus and carnival horror movies (though Something Wicked this way Comes is curiously overlooked), an excellent featurette on the British Hammer Horror comic that was published in the 70s, a stills and poster gallery, brief `motion comic' adaptation of the pre-title sequence and original trailer. All the extras are also included on the Region 1 NTSC DVD that's included with the Blu-ray.