Film Review: Vampire Circus (1972)

Release Date: April 30th, 1972 (UK)
Directed by: Robert Young
Written by: Judson Kinberg, George Baxt, Wilbur Stark
Music by: David Whitaker
Cast: Adrienne Corri, Anthony Higgins, John Moulder-Brown, Lalla Ward, Robin Sachs, Lynne Frederick, David Prowse

Hammer Film Productions, Rank Film Distributors Ltd., 20th Century Fox, 87 Minutes

Review:

“The Circus of Nights! A hundred delights!” – Michael

Vampire Circus is a little known Hammer Studios film from the early 1970s, when they were on their way out as a dominant horror studio. It came out at the same time that Hammer’s Dracula series was winding down.

I have always liked Hammer’s non-Dracula vampire spectacles, however. And to fanboy out a little bit, Vampire Circus has always been a favorite of mine. That may have something to do with Darth Vader himself, David Prowse, being in the film, as well as one of my favorite Doctor Who companions of all-time, the second Romana, Lalla Ward. Realistically, I just love the premise.

The story is pretty original and really fun. A troupe of circus gypsies shows up in town and captivates the people. The reality is that they are vampires out to get revenge on the town for killing their master Count Mitterhaus.

Speaking of which, the opening sequence, which features the original defeat of Mitterhaus, is one of the best things Hammer has ever created. It was also a great way for director Robert Young to start his career, as it was the opening to his first feature film.

Vampire Circus is really imaginative and it certainly isn’t a cookie cutter vampire flick. The circus twist is really cool and freshened things up for the genre. Everything from the live performances to the animal stunts just added a really cool vibe to the picture. It certainly had a bit more flair than other Hammer vampire movies.

Additionally, the cast was really good. I really enjoyed the performances of Adrienne Corri and Anthony Higgins. Higgins was particularly mesmerizing as the sexy male vampire that transforms into a black panther. Skip Martin, as the sinister dwarf, was a big highlight too. He was legitimately scary and intimidating for a little fellow. He played up the creepy clown shtick quite well, before creepy clowns were even a thing.

The style of the film mimics what was the norm for Hammer’s gothic horror pictures. Even if it may have felt dated for the time, its creativity certainly makes up for it being stylistically derivative. Plus there is a naked body painted tiger lady that rolls around all frisky and seductive.

Vampire Circus is probably only a good film for those who love the work of Hammer Studios in their heyday. But if you are one of those people, this is a unique experience that deviates quite well from their typical formula while not venturing so far away that it isn’t a Hammer picture.

Plus, Count Mitterhaus, Emil and the Gypsy Woman were pretty cool villains, as was their troupe of circus themed henchmen.

Top 25 Films Starring Peter Cushing

peter_cushingPeter Cushing was one of the greatest horror icons of all-time. He starred alongside the legendary Christopher Lee in more than twenty films and also worked a lot with Vincent Price. He was the king of Hammer Horror, even more so than Christopher Lee.

Cushing could play heroic, sinister or just bad ass roles. He was Van Helsing, Dr. Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes and a plethora of other great characters. He owned every role he ever played.

He is known to most people as Grand Moff Tarkin, the commander of the first Death Star in the first ever Star Wars. That character also reappeared via CGI in the recent Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Since I did a list like this for Lee and for Price, I figured that doing one for Cushing was a must.

1. Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope
2. The Curse of Frankenstein (and whole Frankenstein series)
3. The Horror of Dracula (and Dracula installments he’s in)
4. Twins of Evil
5. The Vampire Lovers
6. Captain Clegg (also known as Night Creatures)
7. Sword of Sherwood Forest
8. The Hound of the Baskervilles
9. The Gorgon
10. Madhouse
11. Dr. Who and the Daleks (and the sequel)
12. The Mummy
13. Island of Terror
14. The Abominable Snowman
15. The Beast Must Die
16. I, Monster
17. The Skull
18. The Creeping Flesh
19. Asylum
20. The Blood Beast Terror
21. Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors
22. The House That Dripped Blood
23. Scream and Scream Again
24. She
25. Horror Express

Top 25 Films Starring Christopher Lee

christopher_lee_draculaI recently did a post about the Top 25 Films Starring Vincent Price.

Another horror legend, who just happens to be my favorite British actor is Christopher Lee. Actually, it is Sir Christopher Lee as the man who has played Count Dracula, Rasputin, Count Dooku, Saruman, The Man with the Golden Gun, Frankenstein’s monster, Lord Summerisle and many other characters was officially knighted. Fitting since he has the world record for most swordfights on screen.

Lee is an amazing actor with amazing presence and has the best voice in the history of cinema.

Here are his twenty-five best roles out of the several hundred he’s done:

1. The Wicker Man (the original, obviously not the Nic Cage remake)
2. Rasputin: The Mad Monk
3. The Horror of Dracula (and whole Dracula series)
4. The Devil Rides Out
5. Jinnah
6. Lord of the Rings/Hobbit series
7. Star Wars (prequel trilogy)
8. The Curse of Frankenstein
9. The Man With the Golden Gun
10. The Hound of the Baskervilles
11. The Gorgon
12. The Mummy
13. The Devil Ship Pirates
14. I, Monster
15. The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll
16. The Skull
17. Crypt of the Vampire
18. The Oblong Box
19. The Fu Manchu series
20. The Musketeers series
21. The Creeping Flesh
22. The City of the Dead (Horror Hotel)
23. The Pirates of Blood River
24. Gremlins 2: The New Batch
25. Corridors of Blood

Film Review: The Hammer Films Dracula Series, Part II (1970-1973)

I already covered the first four films in this series. So now on to the final four.

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970):

Release Date: May 7th, 1970 (UK)
Directed by: Peter Sasdy
Written by: Anthony Hinds
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by: James Bernard
Cast: Christopher Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Gwen Watford

Hammer Film Productions, Warner-Pathé Distributors, Warner Bros., 95 Minutes (UK), 91 Minutes (USA)

taste-the-blood-of-draculaReview:

This is one of the darkest of the Hammer studios Dracula films. Actually, I would say that it is the darkest.

The opening scene sees a greedy salesman stumble upon Dracula dying, as this scene is edited together with the closing moments of the previous film. When Dracula dies, this man takes all of his belongings and even collects his blood, which is now in a powder form.

The main group of characters, at least in the first half of the film, are these rich eccentric men and “model citizens” who have a secret club where they dabble in seedy behavior because they are bored with their seemingly humble and moral lives. When they get tired of brothels and their typical seediness, they meet a somewhat insane and possessed young man who leads them to Dracula’s belongings and most importantly, the vampire’s blood. The men are grossed out at the thought of drinking the evil Count’s blood but the crazed young man takes a swig, causing him to cry out in pain as the freaked out rich men beat him to death. In this mayhem, Dracula begins to resurrect.

The rest of the story follows Dracula seeking revenge on the three rich men for some reason. He also fancies all the women and one of their beaus has to become the hero.

I love the plot of this film but after a great setup, the last act is a bit anti-climactic.

Scars of Dracula (1970):

Release Date: November 8th, 1970 (UK)
Directed by: Roy Ward Baker
Written by: Anthony Hinds
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by: James Bernard
Cast: Christopher Lee, Patrick Troughton, Dennis Waterman, Jenny Hanley, Michael Gwynn, Michael Ripper

Hammer Film Productions, EMI Films, 20th Century Fox, MGM-EMI, 91 Minutes

scars_of_draculaReview:

They didn’t waste time making this film, as it came out just about six months after the previous installment.

This chapter in the series is infamous for being the most violent entry. It isn’t full of stomach-churning gore but it is much more bloody and intense than any other film in the series. I feel like Hammer thought that they had to up the ante somehow and more gore and more blood was the easiest route.

Scars of Dracula reintroduces us to the religious protagonist once again, after we got a break from the formula in the last movie. Although his role is pretty limited to just a few scenes. The religious hero is played by Michael Gwynn. The main protagonist is a young man looking for his missing brother, who finds himself protecting his love. Classic Doctor Who fans should love the fact that the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, plays Count Dracula’s servant.

This is a solid film in the series. Really, none of these movies are bad. It actually does amaze me though, that the quality is still there six films deep.

Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972):

Release Date: September 28th, 1972 (UK)
Directed by: Alan Gibson
Written by: Don Houghton
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by: Mike Vickers
Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Caroline Munro, Stephanie Beacham, Christopher Neame

Hammer Film Productions, Columbia-Warner Distributors, 96 Minutes

dracula_ad_1972Review:

This film freshens things up a bit by bringing Dracula into what was then the modern world. It also brings Van Helsing back to the series (played by the great Peter Cushing once again) as he plays two versions of the character. He plays the original version of Van Helsing in 1872 and then plays his great-grandson, in 1972. Both amazingly look exactly the same.

The story follows a Dracula disciple named Johnny Alucard (“Dracula” spelled backwards) and his attempt to raise the evil count and exact revenge on the Van Helsing family by sacrificing the professor’s niece to the dark lord.

I actually enjoy this film a lot and think that the 1972 setting was great. The teens in the film weren’t annoying and actually were all pretty likable and cool characters. Even the villain, Johnny Alucard had a great presence and is still, to this day, one of my favorite vampire characters in film history. His death was a little bizarre though.

The film also features Caroline Munro as Dracula’s first sacrifice. She was a Bond girl in The Spy Who Loved Me, a few years, later and she is one of my all-time favorite girls in that film series. Here, she was a bit younger, just as beautiful and really captured the scenes she was in.

Christopher Lee didn’t get as much screen time as I would like but he still owned the scenes he was in and it was nice seeing Dracula and Van Helsing facing off once again.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973):

Release Date: November 3rd, 1973 (UK)
Directed by: Alan Gibson
Written by: Don Houghton
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by: John Cacavas
Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Joanna Lumley, Michael Coles

Hammer Film Productions, Warner Bros. Pictures, 87 Minutes

the-satanic-rites-of-draculaReview:

This is the final film in the Hammer Dracula series. It is also the weakest.

For the most part, this film is enjoyable because it features Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and it is their final showdown. And frankly, I’ll watch any film with either man in it and especially any film with both of them in it.

Taking place in the modern era, like the previous film, this one misses its mark somewhat. Where its predecessor was campy and fun, this one was extremely dark, fairly gorey and was the first film in the series with lots of gratuitous nudity. In fact, I don’t think there was nudity at all in any of the previous Hammer Dracula movies.

Now I am not one to complain about nudity but the use of it in this film doesn’t really fit the vibe and style of the series. And where I would let kids watch most of the other films, I’d have to keep this one hidden on a higher shelf in my DVD library.

I feel like they should have ended the series with the previous film. This just felt forced and neither Cushing nor Lee looked all that interested in this picture when they were on screen. At least the film before this had some charm.

*There is another film with Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. It is “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires”. Dracula is also in the film but he is not played by Christopher Lee. Also, this isn’t a straight up Hammer Horror film, it is actually a co-produced horror/kung-fu flick that was a collaboration between Hammer and Shaw Brothers (a prominent kung-fu studio at the time). I will review this at some point, I’m sure.

Film Review: The Hammer Films Dracula Series, Part I (1958-1968)

I have to break this into two parts, as there are eight films to review.

Christopher Lee was the greatest actor to ever play Dracula. In fact, he probably also has the most longevity as the character since he played him in seven films for Hammer over what spanned about two decades.

Lee has since gone on to get more notoriety in films outside of horror after playing Saruman in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. He also played Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels. But before all that, he was the king of horror and this series featured him at his most iconic and memorable.

Horror of Dracula (1958):

Also known as: Dracula
Release Date: May 8th, 1958 (UK)
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Written by: Jimmy Sangster
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by: James Bernard
Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling

Hammer Film Productions, Rank Organization, Universal International, 82 Minutes

horror-of-draculaReview:

In the first film, we get a retelling of the classic Bram Stoker tale. Some of the characters are the same but the events differ greatly.

Jonathan Harker arrives at Dracula’s castle. However, in this version, he knows who Dracula is and he is there to destroy him. Before he gets that chance, he ends up a vampire himself. This brings in Van Helsing. In this series he is played by Christopher Lee’s constant co-star and lifelong best friend, Peter Cushing.

Cushing is most famous as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. So this film features two great Star Wars villains as leads. The film also features Michael Gough, who was best known in more modern times as Alfred in the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman films that were released between 1989 and 1997.

As a film, this installment is the best in the series. It is some of director Terence Fisher’s best work. It has a great pace, a great atmosphere and the cinematography was total Hammer Horror style, which would become synonymous with the studio and many other studios that tried to knock it off and mimic Hammer’s success. Granted, the style was used in The Curse of Frankenstein a year prior but Fisher’s implementation (and probably invention) of the style was really at its best in these two films.

This movie is greatly acted, greatly directed and the special effects for the late 1950s are pretty damned amazing. Taking into account the limited techniques of that era, the Dracula death scene is pretty cool to watch and I can see where at that time, it would have been awe-inspiring and cutting edge. Hell, it is way more effective than the overabundance of CGI that we get now and it also looked more realistic because what you see on screen was actually physically on the set.

The Brides of Dracula (1960):

Release Date: July 7th, 1960 (UK)
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Written by: Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan, Edward Percy, Anthony Hinds
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by: Malcolm Williamson
Cast: Peter Cushing, Martita Hunt, Yvonne Monlaur, David Peel

Hammer Film Productions, Universal International, 85 Minutes

brides-of-draculaReview:

One could argue that this film should be omitted as Christopher Lee is not in it and neither is Dracula.

Peter Cushing returns however, as Van Helsing and this fleshes out his story more, which is good considering that a version of his character doesn’t return to the series until the final two films. Also, this film is directed by Terence Fisher. Regardless of those who don’t consider it part of the series, it is, at the very least, a spiritual successor to Horror of Dracula.

This film follows Baron Meinster (played by David Peel), who is a disciple of Count Dracula. The plot revolves around a girl who comes to town and tickles the Baron’s fancy. However, the Baron has an overbearing mother who literally has him chained up. He is said to be insane. The girl, Marianne, feels for the Baron and grows a bond with him. One thing leads to another, a girl winds up dead and Van Helsing, who just so happens to be in the right place at the right time, suspects vampirism.

This is a pretty good film and it is consistent with Terence Fisher’s great catalog of classic horror gems. Sure, Lee doesn’t reprise his role as Count Dracula but the story is engaging enough to keep one interested and Cushing is good enough to keep any film afloat – even some of the shittier horror films he found himself in throughout the years. This is not one of those shitty films, however.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966):

Release Date: January 9th, 1966 (UK)
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Written by: Jimmy Sangster, Anthony Hinds
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by: James Bernard
Cast: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley

Hammer Film Productions, Seven Arts, Warner-Pathé Distributors, 20th Century Fox, 90 Minutes

dracula-prince-of-darknessReview:

Finally, after an eight year hiatus, Christopher Lee is back as Dracula! And he would remain so for the rest of this iconic series! Unfortunately, Peter Cushing checked out and wouldn’t return until the seventh film in the series Dracula A.D. 1972.

This is my favorite chapter in the series. I find the story to be the most engaging and interesting of all the Hammer Dracula movies. Weirdly, Dracula doesn’t even have a line of dialogue in this film other than a few grunts and noises and intense stares. Truthfully, he doesn’t need words, as his motivations are pretty clear and it actually makes him more frightening and animalistic in this movie. Christopher Lee has a way of telling a story with his eyes and body language and even without words, Dracula felt more like the apex predator that he is in this film than any other Dracula film in history.

This installment is also directed by Terence Fisher and plays like the final part of his Dracula trilogy – encompassing this film and the two before it. This would be his last movie in the series and frankly, after this film, the quality started to decline. Granted, every film was still a positive experience except for the final one.

The plot in this film deals with four Londoners who end up in the Carpathian Mountains on vacation and are warned to stay away from the evil castle on the nearby mountain. Of course, they end up in the castle and are used to resurrect Dracula. The Dracula regeneration scene is pretty spectacular.

This is also the first film in the series to feature a bad ass religious figure taking on the evil vampire lord. They needed someone to fill that Van Helsing spot in the film, so this started the trend of having religious figures combating Count Dracula. This film also uses the formula the best, as Andrew Keir’s Father Sandor was like a kick ass Santa Clause with a high-powered rifle.

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968):

Release Date: November 7th, 1968 (UK)
Directed by: Freddie Francis
Written by: Anthony Hinds
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by: James Bernard
Cast: Christopher Lee, Rupert Davies, Veronica Carlson, Barbara Ewing

Hammer Film Productions, Seven Arts, Warner-Pathé Distributors, Warner Bros., 92 Minutes

dracula_has_risen_from_the_graveReview:

Man, I really enjoy this film too. It brings back the religious protagonist. In this film he is Monsignor Ernest Muller. He is less effective than Father Sandor in the previous chapter and is actually the catalyst that unleashes Dracula, even though he doesn’t realize it.

This film also brought in another protagonist, one who is dating the niece of the Monsignor. This character was more interesting as he was a self-professed atheist that got under the skin of the religious know-it-all. In fact, I feel like they used the dichotomy between the religious man and the non-religious man to make a commentary on the subject within the scenes of this film.

As things would go, Dracula wants the girl, the boyfriend must protect the girl and conflict ensues. While this isn’t the best in the series, the plot is fresh and the series isn’t falling victim to redundancy at this point.

Lastly, the Dracula death scene in this film is phenomenal and beautifully shot; props to the director, Freddie Francis.

Continued in Part II shortly.

Film Review: The Gorgon (1964)

Release Date: October 18th, 1964 (UK)
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Written by: John Gilling
Music by: James Bernard
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Richard Pasco, Barbara Shelley, Michael Goodliffe

Hammer Film Productions, Columbia Pictures, 83 Minutes

the-gorgonReview:

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing starred alongside each other in over twenty movies. When it comes to watching old school horror pictures, especially from Hammer, it is hard to see one without seeing the other. Many films they did together are classics. Then there are some that aren’t. This film, historically speaking, probably falls somewhere in the middle, as far as popular opinion goes. Personally, I love The Gorgon and think it is one of the best Lee-Cushing films not involving Dracula or Frankenstein.

If you have seen a Hammer horror film before, you probably know what to expect. There really are no surprises here. It is consistent visually with their late 50s/early 60s gothic horror style. In fact, it is directed by Terence Fisher who was Hammer’s premier director and the man who helmed most of Hammer’s classics.

The story is different than other Hammer films, as the monster in this one is something out of the ordinary. Well, if the title is any indicator, the monster is a gorgon: an entity like Medusa from Greek mythology. She has snakes for hair, lives in a dark abandoned castle and can turn anyone into stone with her gaze. The village around the castle is alerted to something being strangely amiss when the body of a murdered girl is discovered to be rock solid. This causes the doctors, scientists and other folks around to get involved in solving the mystery.

What makes this film interesting, is that Cushing and Lee are sort of playing a role reversal in this film. Usually, Cushing is the good and pure hero – the Van Helsing type, while Lee is either the monster or some other type of morally depraved presence. Lee is the straight-laced hero this time, as Cushing is a more questionable character.

The role reversal and the unique monster make this picture something special in the Hammer Films catalog. And whether or not the special effects stand up to the test of time, the film still comes off as pretty creepy. It makes me wish that modern horror could accomplish something this suspenseful, without exposing the monster every five minutes and relying on jump scares for the entirety of the picture.

While this might not be as well remember as Horror of Dracula or The Curse of Frankenstein, it belongs in their company. It is certainly much better than most of the sequels spawned by those two films and they had a lot of sequels. The Gorgon is one of Hammer’s best pictures.