“The Circus of Nights! A hundred delights!”
Tom’s rating: If eight retractable fangs, a sexy shapeshifting panther vampire, and a circus midget don’t do it for you, then I don’t know what will.
Tom’s review: Halloween arrived early at our house this year. This weekend we’ve been delving into stores looking for early Halloween decorations, and my oldest took a shopping tour through Austin’s goth clothing shops where it’s Halloween every day! We even played an appropriately creepy card game named Morbid Curiosity as a family.
Something I can’t recommend seeing as a family, however, is the 1972 film Vampire Circus. That said, if you’re throwing a goth party for the adults, then by all means play a little Bauhaus, rent Vampire Circus, and break out the Morbid Curiosity card game. Just don’t invite a younger crowd because the 13+ rating shouldn’t be believed.
Vampire… Circus you say? YES! It’s a ’70s horror film produced by Hammer. Hammer really has to be the undisputed king of old timey horror movies, producing such classics as 1958’s Horror of Dracula, 1959’s Hound of the Baskervilles, and more Frankenstein movies than you could ever stitch together and bring back to life. Unfortunately Hammer’s decline started in the ’70s and ended in the ’80s when horror films really started to saturate the market. That said, let’s talk about the weird gothic romp that is Vampire Circus.
The movie starts with an innocent scene in the Serbian country town of Stetl. A schoolteacher’s student innocently plays in a forest clearing as he studies nearby. His wife stops the child and whispers to her as they begin to wander away into the forest. The school teacher, Mr. Mueller, looks up from his studies to late and realizes the worst has happened! His wife has been seduced by the local vampire and has taken his student to him as a sacrifice.
Now, I get a little squeamish when it comes to killing kids in movies, especially when the scene right after that is a sex scene. That juxtaposition is super uncomfortable, and I was just glad my 13-year-old wasn’t watching with us to be honest. I forget that it’s kind of an unwritten rule of early ’70s films that there be a lot of boobs in the first 15 minutes.
Anyway, Mr. Mueller is locked out of Count Mitterhaus’s castle and can only imagine what is going on inside. He gathers the villagers and begins to remind them how, you know, ALL their kids have been disappearing and it’s now time to burn the place down. After some convincing, they raid the place, drive a wooden stake through Count Mitterhaus’s chest and leave Anna, Mr. Mueller’s wife, there to burn with her vampire lover.
Anna knows the secret passageways around the castle, however, and drags her dear Count Mitterhaus into the hidden crypt below the house. As it turns out, a stake through the chest is really just a speed bump for a vampire’s body, and he kind of just stays in an undying limbo. He whispers to his sweet acolyte and savior that she should find his cousin Emil and his Circus of the Night. He’ll know what to do!
We then cut to 15 years later and the village of Stetl is under a plague, and they all believe it’s the vampire’s curse wreaking vengeance on them for what they had done. The town’s doctor, one Dr. Kersh, tries to convince them all to chill out because, you know, vampires are not real! He hatches a plan to head to a big city and get some medicine. This is no easy task as the towns around Stetl set up quarantine blockades and are totally willing to shoot anyone that wants to leave the town. With the help of his son Anton, Dr. Kersh barely makes it out of the town — right as a circus troupe arrives in to town.
The circus’s midget and resident creepy clown yells to the villagers, “The Circus of Nights — A hundred delights!” Wanting to know what all the fuss was about, the town’s Burgermeister rolls in and asks what the heck are they doing in the town of Stetl while there’s a plague going on! To which the strange gypsy woman in charge of the ragtag circus of nights responds, “To steal the money from dead men’s eyes.” Strangely, the dimwitted Burgermeister is like… ok sounds good, and off we all go to the circus! Hooray!
As it turns out Count Mitterhaus’s cousin Emil is not only a vampire, but a shapeshifting panther vampire, and he’s brought with him a couple of naked body paint, non-vampire dancers; Anna in disguise as a gypsy; a non-vampire strongman; a monkey; a tiger; a couple of acrobat vampires, who are also twins; the aforementioned midget clown; and a fun, mystery tent full of mirrors that serves as a portal for the vampires to move between crypt and circus.
The plan is pretty simple, kill the children of the people that killed Count Mitterhaus and drip their blood into his chest wound to bring him back to life, and that’s exactly what they begin to do.
After a bunch of deaths in town, the people start to wonder what’s up, but really only figure it out once Dr. Kersh returns to Stetl with news. (1) The plague is really just a form of rabies from bats, and he has a cure. (2) Vampires are real, and we should kill them all.
That’s when things start to sway in the villagers’ favor as it becomes a vampire and circus performer murder fest with all the wonderful vampire tropes you’ve come to expect (bless the power that crosses have on vampires).
What’s also great here is that it’s all early 1970s low budget horror gags for deaths. Revel in the fakeness, friends! Red paint makes great blood. Panther attacks can be done with a shaky camera and a big velvet sabertooth looking plushy! What’s more realistic than rubbery heads with their eyes hanging out! Truly the greatest is at the culmination of the movie when Mr. Mueller pulls the stake from Count Mitterhaus’s chest and uses it to stab Emil in the chest in one genius swoop. Of course, he also dies in the same heartbeat and allows Count Mitterhaus to return from the dead, but it was a genius move regardless!
At the end of the movie Count Mitterhaus is dead once again thanks to Anton using a crossbow not only as a cross to repel the vampire, but also as a head severing device. I like this unconventional thinking, Anton! In the end, at least two of the kids survive the slaughter, and thus Count Mitterhaus’s evil is undone.
Vampire Circus takes two creepy flavors and marries them together in unholy matrimony. If you’re a fan of old horror or are just looking for something a little weird, a little campy, and a little creepy, this might just be the cult classic you’re looking for.