These days, I mostly talk movies on The Film League podcast. But some slip through the cracks or don’t get the time they deserve. That’s the case with this gem of a Hammer film from 1972. It was directed by Robert Young, who is perhaps best known for directing the first series of Jeeves and Wooster, based on the P.G. Wodehouse novels and starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.
But Vampire Circus is about as far from a comedy of manners as you can get. Instead, it revels in its Hammer horror style, packed full of lush but probably inaccurate set decorations, nudity, and lots of fake blood.
Set in a 19th century Austrian village named Shtetl (that’s Yiddish for town, or maybe it’s “Städtle,” German for “little town”), the film concerns the retribution taken on the villagers by a traveling circus of vampiric predators. They’ve come in the middle of a plague quarantine, promising to entertain the residents with their carnival acts. But the carnival turns into a rather more literal “farewell to the flesh” when the vampires begin preying on town children, using the blood to awaken the vampiric Count defeated by the townspeople 15 years earlier.
The circus proves too tempting a distraction for the quarantined town, who flock to see the show night after night. They are astonished, but perhaps less surprised than they should be, at the strange and magical performances. Caged animals transform into human dancers and acrobats, and a funhouse mirror becomes a deadly portal.
Soon the whole town is embroiled in the twin dramas of the mysterious murders and the suspicious performers. The ensemble cast of this film is truly a joy to watch—despite minimal screen time for most of the actors, they convey rich and lived-in experiences. Multiple small storylines play out amongst them, even as the carnage swells and takes over.
The town is saved, in the end, by a pure and devout teenaged couple who wield crosses against the unholy evil. Dora defeats their dopplegangers, twin vampires who feel each other’s injuries, while Anton kills the revived Count.
Vampire Circus is streaming on Netflix right now, and I highly recommend it. The movie is probably my new favorite Hammer film, as it successfully elevates the form above its too-campy elements and manages to elicit powerful sympathy for the large cast of characters.