While out in the forests with one of his charges, schoolteacher Albert Mueller (Laurence Payne) loses sight of the little girl he is supposed to be looking after, but then realises she has been abducted by his estranged wife Anna (Domini Blythe). As he chases them through the trees, he watches the pair disappear into the castle of Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) leaving Mueller to uselessly pound on the locked doors, calling for his wife. He knows the little girl is doomed, for the Count has been kidnapping the villagers' children and draining the life out of them - because he is a vampire...
An oddity in the run of Hammer horrors, Vampire Circus could not be accused of lacking ideas as it's an undeniably busy addition to the collection of the studio's efforts to move with the times in the early seventies. Scripted by Judson Kinberg, the trappings of the era were present and correct, that is, the nudity and the gore, along with a sense of floundering in the face of more up to date entertainments. But then, the British film industry was heading for dark times during this decade and by this point Hammer was being lined up as one of the many casualties.
They did make it to the end of the seventies, but by that time their output had slowed to a trickle, so it's interesting to go back and look at the most eccentric example of their vampire movie stock in trade. Once the villagers have destroyed the Count thanks to a stake through the heart, he places a curse on the lot of them, but they're happy to be rid of the bloodsucker and stick him in his coffin then blow up the castle. All this occurs before the opening credits have even rolled, so that action-packed nature of the narrative is well under way from the start, meaning that some viewers have found the film confusing.
Simply because there's so much going on. After the titles, we jump forward fifteen years and our hero is not Mueller, though he is still around, but young Anton (John Moulder-Brown), although this is not immmediately apparent. That curse has come to fruition and a plague has seized the townsfolk, my goodness, there must be at least three people afflicted, so the doctor rides off past the roadblock to fetch medicine. Of course, the real rot is thanks to the slumbering Count, and wouldn't you know it he has allies in the shape of a circus (which you may have guessed from the title), rendering this a kind of Hammer version of Ray Bradbury's classic horror novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Led by an unnamed "gypsy woman" played by Adrienne Corri, who it turns out is actually Anna in an unexplained development, the circus folk entertain the villagers no matter how many bodies are beginning to pile up, with the offspring of the original vampire killers singled out. It's a mark of the weird, stagey, dreamlike atmopshere first time director Robert Young works up that you can accept all manner of plot inconsistencies and outright lack of logic when the results are so colourful. At the same time, there's something queasy about the way the villains prey on the young, the very young in some cases, although Moulder-Brown and the girl he has to save, Dora (Lynne Frederick), make for decent enough protagonists when they could have been as strident as the rest of the cast. A strange one, then, probably a dead end when it came to developing the vampire genre, but not without intrigue. Music by David Whitaker.
[Synapse Films have released a special edition of this on DVD and Blu-ray, with some excellent extras including a making of, a featurette on circus horrors and another on the UK Hammer comic magazine, a comic strip version of the film, and a trailer. Please note that the Blu-ray is Region A, and won't play on UK machines.]