Vampire Circus (US - BD RA)
Gabe views one of Hammer Horror's most bizarre films on Blu-ray disc...
15 years after the brutal slaying of the evil Count Mitterhaus, the quaint Austrian village that murdered him is left dying of plague. A traveling circus cuts through the gun enforced quarantine, and offers the dying village distraction from hardship and sickness. Unfortunately, their troubles have just begun. The circus is crawling with the shape-shifting vampire relatives of the late Count, all bent on revenge. As villagers start to disappear it finally dawns on town elders that these performers aren’t what they seem.
The last year has been quite the learning experience for me. After well over a decade filling my knowledge cup with every horror film I could get my hands on, I realized there was a huge gap in my education – Hammer Studios. For readers that don’t know, Hammer was (is, I guess) a British studio that found its niche in ‘reimagining’ the same classic horror tales Universal had made popular, like the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Dracula series, the Peter Cushing Frankenstein series, or stand alone films like the exquisite Curse of the Werewolf. The Hammer formula was stagy, gothic, bloody, and full of ample cleavage, all in stunning colour. The colour gore was the exploitation element they needed to sell, but the films are actually, on average, very classy, and pretty great. Well, for a while, then the late ‘60s hit, and Hammer found themselves out of fashion. Not to be defeated by younger audiences the studio started making more ‘youth friendly’ flicks like Dracula AD 1972 (a movie I happen to recommend and enjoy, by the way). Vampire Circus, with all its psychedelic imagery and groovy undertones, is one of the better samples of this piece of the studio’s history.
The film starts in a pretty classic Hammer fashion with castles, melodrama and fangs (perhaps a little more on the R-rated than old school Hammer), but things start getting weird when the circus comes into town, and striped, naked women start sex dancing with big cat trainers. Things never turn as groovy as Dracula AD 1972, mostly because the plot keeps within a period timeframe, but on many levels Vampire Circus feels more like a Paul Naschy flick with a decent budget and better actors. In place of dramatic special effects, director Robert Young opts for surrealist editing tricks and abstract sound. There’s a floaty, dreamlike quality to everything following the brutal pre-credit sequence. Pacing and plot are clearly not a huge concern, which reminds me of similar period Italian films, and gives the film its genuinely disturbing edge.
Vampire Circus doesn’t have the star power of a Christopher Lee or a Peter Cushing, but the cast is up to the usual Hammer standards, exceeding some of the less impressive outings like Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. The acting style is on the campy side, of course, but rarely ripe or noxious. I’d like to point out that the film also has a bit of a political streak, which is very rare for the normally allegory free studio. I’m not quite sure what Young and screenwriter Judson Kinberg are trying to say exactly, but a town ravaged by disease, guarded by armed men in a film made at the height of many left wing political movements surely has something behind its more obvious attributes.
This disc marks long standing exploitation king Synapse Film’s first ever Blu-ray release, and for the most part I’d say the studio is off to a good start. The source material’s age likely made for a less than ideal original print, but besides being a little on the dark side this is a solid 1080p showing. Problems like ever-present fine grain and flicker might bug other viewers, but most of us know it just goes with the territory. This is likely better than Vampire Circus has looked since its initial release, which was likely just as grainy and flickery. Details are sharp, though they are lost in the darkness of the frame on many occasions, and clarity is way beyond the mushy print I caught on Netflix streaming. Compression artefacts are nowhere to be found, and edge enhancement is at an absolute minimum. Comparisons can easily be made to the included DVD, which is noisier, less crisp, and not as vibrant. Colours look fabulous (the forest scenes are incredibly lush), though the brightest reds do bleed on occasion. Overall I’m thinking Hammer enthusiasts will be quite happy with the transfer, and I’m very much looking forward to more Synapse Blu-ray releases.
Synapse, unlike Blue Underground and Anchor Bay, has rarely opted to remix original tracks into surround sound, and this release is no exception. Vampire Circus is presented in an uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio, two channel mono track, and the sound is plenty effective. There are occasions when the quantity of noise overpowers the channels and leads to some minor distortion, but most of the track is clean, and even sonically contrasting enough to create the illusion of stereo on occasion. David Whitaker’s eerie and melodramatic score is both the track’s finest asset and most consistent problem, as it peaks in a distorted state, but still adds texture to the mix. For fun Synapse has also included a music and effects only track. If the music was just a little more of a constant element this might’ve actually become the ideal way to watch the dreamy feature. The dialogue doesn’t really explain the happenings any better than the images anyway.
Extras begin with ‘The Bloodiest Show on Earth: Making Vampire Circus’ (32:40, HD). This well produced, good looking featurette features a brief history of Hammer itself, then moves on to the history of this particularly odd film. It’s quick, but there’s a lot of information crammed into every nook and cranny, and genuinely made me respect the production more than I had while watching it. The most interesting factoid is an explanation for the film’s odd pacing and plotting – Robert Young simply ran out of time and money, and didn’t finish filming. Interviews include experts Joe Dante (does he make movies anymore, or does he just show up on extra features?), Ted Newsom, Philip Nutman and Tim Lucas, and a brief chat with actor David Prowse (Darth Vader), who plays the circus’ strong man.
Next up is ‘Gallery of Grotesqueries: A Brief History of Circus Horrors’ (15:10, HD), a featurette on real life circuses/amusement parks and their history in horror cinema, featuring the same graphic design as the making-of featurette. Effective, if not a bit thin, coverage includes classics like The Cabinet of Cagliari, The Unknown, Freaks, Murders in the Rue Morgue, House of Frankenstein, Circus of Horrors, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, Circus of Fear, Berserk, Torture Garden, She Freak, Carnival of Blood, and of course, Vampire Circus (eh, maybe ‘classic’ is the wrong word). ‘Visiting the House of Hammer: Britain’s Legendary Horror Magazine’ (9:50, HD) also shares graphic design and expert Philip Nutman with the other featurettes. Again, this feature is brief, but I personally learned a lot about the horror comic adaptation/horror magazine, and adored the big, colourful, hi-def cover reproductions. The extras are completed with a motion comic (3:10, HD), a still and poster gallery (HD), and the original theatrical trailer (HD).
Synapse’s first Blu-ray release features a solid transfer, clean mono audio, and more extras than most of the studio’s releases. It’s also one of the first Hammer Studio films to be released in HD in the States, if not the first. Excitingly the bar above the title on the cover art reads ‘Hammer Horror Collection’, which implies there might be more of the same on the way. Fans of the film and studio will be satisfied, and readers that haven’t seen the film might want to give it a look, even though Vampire Circus isn’t the best place to start a Hammer experience.
*Note: The images on this page were taken from the included DVD copy, and do not represent the Blu-ray's image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 14th December 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono English, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono Music and Effects Track
Extras: The Bloodiest Show on Earth, Gallery of Grotesqueries, Visiting the House of Hammer, Motion Comic, Still and Poster Gallery, Trailer, DVD copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Robert Young
Cast: David Prowse, Robert Tayman, Anthony Higgins, Thorley Walters
Length: 87 minutes
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