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December 14, 2010

Vampire Circus

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Robert Young - 1971
Synapse Films Region 1 DVD

Some of the thoughts I had while watching Vampire Circus weren't unique. Addressed in the documentary supplement are the sexual elements of the film. Vampire films have always been the most erotically charged of the horror genre, but what goes on Vampire Circus pushes what was previously suggested to its most explicit, and then some. The film might be said to be a culmination of the then recent changes in film ratings that allowed for greater depictions of sex and violence, along with changes in the Hammer production house that brought in younger directors behind the camera, and newer actors as their stars.

The opening scene of sex between the vampire, Count Mitterhaus, and his still human lover, Anna, is unmistakably animal lust. The nudity and the sensuality set the very literal stage for the circus, where some of the performers shift between human and animal form, and in one case a blend of the two, but also where the creatures of this "circus of night" seduce women and children. The children, both boys and young girls, are shown as vampire victims, suggesting a form of pedophilia. The decadence of Count Mitterhaus is also indicated by his almost effete, lace trimmed shirt. There are also some moments of sado-masochism, especially when the trapped Anna is whipped by the town's men.

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What no one in the documentary talks about is the name of the town, Schtettel. How did it escape notice that the town name sounds like shtetl, the Yiddish word for town, but more significantly, usually a Jewish ghetto. The similarity of Schtettel with a shtetl is that the town in Vampire Circus has been forced to be cut off from the outside world due to a curse by Count Mitterhaus that has caused unexplained death and disease for fifteen years. The name Mitterhaus seems to have been created combining a French legal term with the German word for house.

The film title is self explanatory. One of the vampires is the cousin of Count Mitterhaus, appearing as a panther, or as the dark stranger with eyes for the mayor's plump daughter. The circus mysteriously comes to town to fulfill revenge on behalf of Count Mitterhaus, and bring the count back to life. The more interesting aspects to the film are circus related, twin acrobats who literally fly through the air, a tiger woman who performs a sexual dance too avant-garde for the 19th Century setting of the story, and a "mirror of life" that allows select few to pass into another dimension. The limitations of the budget are most pointed in the scenes of the "mirror of life", where the special effects are largely created through editing and sound effects. While it would have been impossible to do something along the lines of Terry Gilliam's Doctor Parnassus, Vampire Circus could have created more of a sense of wonder had there been the kind of effects Jean Cocteau was able to create for Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus.

Still, for what it is, I can understand the affection some have for Vampire Circus. While there is the strong tug for the traditional vampire tale, Robert Young, a former documentarian who made his narrative film debut here, attempts to push the genre in terms of some of the more familiar themes, as well as with an unusual story. It would have been nice had the documentary about the making of Vampire Circus included Young, as well as some of the actors such as John Moulder Brown. Adrienne Corri and Domini Blythe, several whom are still not only alive but still professionally active. Only Dave Prowse is seen here, talking about how he first tried to make his way as a Hammer monster. Best known nowadays for being the guy underneath Darth Vader's costume in the Star Wars films, Prowse is more visible wearing little more than a loin cloth as the circus strong man. On the other hand, Joe Dante talking about movies is almost as entertaining as his own films. Others bringing their insights are film critic Tim Lucas and author Philip Nutman. Dante may have summed it up best by suggesting that Vampire Circus wasn't quite the film that the filmmakers had hoped to make, but it is worth seeing for tensions between genre traditions and new filmmaking freedoms.

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Posted by peter at December 14, 2010 01:56 PM