The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: Vampire Circus (dir by Robert Young)


One of the greatest Hammer vampire films didn’t even star Christopher Lee.  In fact, it wasn’t even a Dracula film.  Instead, it was the story of a circus.

1971’s Vampire Circus tells the dark story of a Serbian village called Stetl.  Early in the 19th century, the children of Stetl are dying.  The superstitious villagers believe that Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) might be responsible.  In fact, they suspect that Count Metterhaus might be a vampire!  Why?  Well, first off, he only seems to be around during the night.  Secondly, he lives in a big spooky castle.  Third, he’s a count and don’t all counts eventually become vampires?

Now, it would be nice to say that all this turned out to be a case of the villagers letting their imaginations get the better of them but nope.  It turns out that they’re pretty much right.  One night, the local teacher, Albert Muller (Laurence Payne), sees his own wife, Anna (Domini Blythe) leading a child towards the dark castle.  It turns out that Anna has fallen under the spell of Count Mitterhaus.  The villagers promptly drive a stake through the Count’s heart, though he manages to do two things before dying.  First off, he curses the town and announces that the blood of their children will give him new life.  Secondly, he tells Anna to escape and track down his brother.

Fifteen years later and, as one might expect, Stetl is a town under siege.  However, the town is not being attacked by vampires.  (Not yet anyway.)  Instead, the town has been hit by the plague and, as a result, it’s been isolated from the outside world.  Men with guns have surrounded the town and are under orders to kill anyone who tries to leave or enter.  Some in the village believe that this is the result of the Count’s dying curse while others just see it as more evidence of man’s inhumanity to man.  Regardless, it’s not good situation.

Fortunately, escape arrives in the form of the Circus of the Night!  That’s right, a gypsy carnival suddenly appears in town.  How did it manage to slip by the blockade?  Who knows and who cares?  What’s important is that the villagers, especially their children, need an escape from their grim existence and the Circus seems to offer something for everyone.  There are dancers.  There are acrobats.  There’s the mysterious tiger woman.  There’s a mirror that makes you see strange things.  And, of course, the are vampires….

That’s not really a shock, of course.  The name of the film is Vampire Circus, after all.  What always takes me by surprise is just how ruthless and cruel the vampires are in this film.  Even by the standards of a 1970s Hammer film, this is a blood-filled movie but, even beyond that, the vampires almost exclusively seem to target children.  Fortunately, all of Stetl’s children tend to be a bit obnoxious but it’s still a shock to see two fresh-faced boys get lured into a mirror where they are both promptly attacked by a vampire.  (And don’t even get me started on what happens when one of the vampires comes across a boarding school.)  Make no mistake, this circus is not made up of the type of self-tortured, romanticized vampires that have dominated recent films.  These vampire are utterly viscous and without conscience.  In other words, these vampires are actually frightening.

The members of the circus are, themselves, a memorable bunch.  David Prowse is the hulking strongman.  Lalla Ward and Robin Sachs are the achingly pretty, innocent-faced twin acrobats who greedily drink the blood of anyone foolish enough to wander off with them.  Some members of the circus can transform into animals.  What’s interesting is that not all of the members of the circus are vampires.  Some of them, I guess, are just groupies.

Featuring the reddest blood that you’re ever likely to see and a cast of memorably eccentric character actors, Vampire Circus often feels more like an extremely dark fairy tale than a typical Hammer vampire film.  Clocking in at 87 minutes, Vampire Circus is a briskly paced dream of carnivals and monsters.

 

Horror Film Review: The Curse of the Werewolf (dir by Terence Fisher)


The 1961 Hammer film, The Curse of the Werewolf, is a good example of a film that could succeed on casting alone.

As you can probably guess from the title, this film is about a werewolf.  And there was never an actor more perfect for the role of a werewolf than Oliver Reed.  Set aside Reed’s legendary reputation for wild off-set behavior.  Set aside the fact that Reed specialized in playing men who often seemed to have a beast lurking deep within them, a beast that was constantly bursting out.  With his handsome but scarred face and his burly physique, Oliver Reed looked like a wolf.  If I had to sit down and paint a picture of how I visualized a man who transformed into a beast, the picture would probably end up looking like Oliver Reed.

In fact, Reed is so perfectly cast in this film that it’s easy to overlook the fact that he doesn’t even show up until the last quarter or so of the film.  Clocking in at a relatively leisurely-paced 91 minutes, The Curse of the Werewolf plays out more like an extremely grim fairy tale than a traditional horror film.

It begins in 18th century Spain, with a beggar stumbling across the wedding of a cruel nobleman.  When the beggar asks for food, he’s mocked.  He’s cruelly forced to beg and then, for his trouble, he’s thrown into jail.  Isolated from the world, the beggar’s only human contact comes from his kindly jailer and the jailer’s mute daughter.  When the nobleman tries to force himself on the daughter, he’s rejected.  As a result, he throws the jailer’s daughter into the cell with the now animalistic beggar.  When she’s eventually released, she promptly murders the nobleman but she’s now pregnant with the beggar’s child.

That child is named Leon Corledo and eventually, he’ll become Oliver Reed.  But first, we watch as he grows up, the adopted son of the kindly Don Alfredo (Clifford Evans).  Alfredo’s housekeeper considers Leon to be cursed because he was born on Christmas Day and his mother died in childbirth.  Alfredo may dismiss that as a silly superstition but, as Leon grows up, strange things do happen.  Goats are murdered and, even though a dog is blamed, we know that it has something to do with Leon.

Yes, Leon is a werewolf but interestingly enough, it’s not the full moon that transforms Leon into a beast.  Instead, it’s stress and depression.  When Leon grows up and goes to work in vineyard, he’s fine until he realizes that he’ll probably never be a rich man like his boss and he’ll never have enough money to marry Christina (Catherine Feller).  That’s when he loses control and transformed.

The Curse of the Werewolf is a dark and moody film, directed in an appropriately atmospheric fashion by Terence Fisher.  Leon is one of the more tragic Hammer monsters, having been born with an affliction that he can’t control and which no one else is capable of understanding.  Oliver Reed gives a wonderful performance, revealing the tortured soul that lurks underneath the fearful exterior.  This Hammer film may not be as well-known as the Dracula or Frankenstein films but it’s definitely one that deserves to be seen.

Horror Scene That I Love: The Monster Reveals Itself In The Curse of Frankenstein


Today’s horror scene that I love comes from the 1957 classic, The Curse of Frankenstein!

In this scene, the Monster (Christopher Lee) reveals himself and then promptly attack his maker (Peter Cushing).  My favorite thing about this scene is that zoom shot of the Monster’s face after the bandages have been removed.  The look he’s giving Frankenstein leaves no doubt about how the Monster feels about being reanimated.

Knowing that Lee and Cushing were close friend in real life makes this scene all that more enjoyable.

The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: Hands of the Ripper (dir by Peter Sasdy)


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The 1971 Hammer film Hands of the Ripper tells the story of Anna (Angharad Rees), a woman living in Victorian England who has a few issues.

What type of issues, you may wonder?  Well, first off, she’s the daughter of the infamous serial killer known as Jack The Ripper.  When she was just a baby, her father killed her mother while Anna watched from her crib.  Now, years later, the teenage Anna is working for a fake medium named Mrs. Golding (Dora Bryan).  It’s Anna’s job to stand behind the curtain and provide the ghostly voices whenever Mrs. Golding is holding one of her fake seances.

One such séance is attended by both a sleazy member of Parliament named Dysart (Derek Godfrey) and a progressive psychiatrist named Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter).  When Mrs. Golding’s ruse is discovered, she decides to “give” Anna to Dysart.  However, this plan falls apart when Anna suddenly goes crazy, grabs a fireplace poker, and murders Mrs. Golding.  Dysart flees the scene, leaving Anna, who claims to have no memory of attacking anyone, with John.  Assuming that he can cure her, John takes Anna in and set her up at his house.

Well, it turns out that curing Anna will not be quite as easy as John assumed.  For one thing, Anna is extremely repressed and often refuses to open up to him.  Also, there’s the fact that Anna keeps killing people.  Whenever anyone stands to close to Anna or kisses her on the cheek, Anna goes into a trance and hears her father’s voice demanding that she kill.  John, convinced that he can save Anna, continues to cover up every murder.

I really wasn’t expecting much from Hands of the Ripper.  In fact, I have to admit that the main reason I dvred it off of TCM was because I thought this might be the film in which Klaus Kinski played Jack the Ripper.  I was wrong, of course.  The Kinski Jack the Ripper film was called Jack the Ripper and it was directed by Jess Franco.  Hands of the Ripper, on the other hand, is a Hammer film that was released in 1971, at a time when Hammer was struggling to stay relevant in an ever-changing cinematic landscape.  Perhaps that’s why the murders in Hands of the Ripper were gory, even be the bloody standards of Hammer Films.

Interestingly enough, though the film was made over 40 years ago, the murders themselves remain quite shocking.  I can only imagine how audiences in 1971 reacted to them.  The scene where Anna suddenly attacks a housekeeper made me flinch, as did a later scene in which one of Anna’s victims stumbled out onto a crowded street, minus an eye.  Angharad Rees gave a good performance as Anna, one that keeps you guessing as to whether or not she’s just crazy or if maybe she really is possessed by the spirit of her father.

Hands of the Ripper is a good Hammer film, one that combines the usual Hammer tropes with a bit more psychological depth than one might expect.  This is one to keep an eye out for.

Horror Film Review: The Mummy’s Shroud (dir by John Gilling)


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In this underrated horror film from the legendary Hammer Studios, a British archaeological expedition travels to Egypt and makes the mistake of entering a mummy’s tomb.  As often happens, it turns out that the tomb is cursed and everyone who sets foot inside of it is destined to be tracked down and murdered by a mummy!

That’s pretty bad news for some of members of the expedition.  Among those who are now on the Mummy’s list, there’s Sir Basil Waldron (Andre Morrell) who, in the film’s most effective moment, finds himself talking to a toothless fortune teller who cackles as she tells him, “You are going to die!”  (Needless to say, a 7 foot tall Mummy is soon standing behind him).  And then there’s Claire (Maggie Kimberly), the linguist who translated the curse.  And there’s the expedition’s hilariously pompous financial backer, Stanley Preston (John Phillips), along with Stanley’s son, Paul (David Buck).  And finally, there’s poor Mr. Longbarrow (Michael Ripper), Stanley’s press agent.  If you’ve seen any other Hammer films from the late 60s, you’ll recognize the majority of the cast and you will probably be able to guess everyone’s fate from the minute they first appear on screen.

That, of course, is part of the fun!


First released in 1967 and often dismissed as being one of the lesser horror films to come out of Hammer Studios, The Mummy’s Shroud is actually a pretty effective film.  I watched it late last night, with lights out and the sound of rain pounding on the windows outside and I have to admit that, even if nothing about the film surprised me, it still had enough eerie moments that I found myself watching for sudden shadows and the sound of heavily wrapped feet.

And why not?  Mummy’s are scary!  Even if you don’t know all of the grotesque details that go into the mummification process, Mummy’s just look frightening.  It’s the bandages, to be honest.  The bandages keep you from knowing exactly who is doing the stalking but, at the same time, you know that if those bandages were unwrapped, you wouldn’t want to see what’s hiding underneath them.  By their very existence, Mummies are proof of the finality of death.

And The Mummy in The Mummy’s Shroud is frightening!  He towers over all of the “human” actors in the film and when he attacks, he does it with a sudden and savage cruelty.  Perhaps the death that disturbed me the most was the death of poor Mr. Longbarrow, who is literally lifted up off of his feet and tossed out of a window.  He crashes to the street below and, briefly, the screen is awash with Hammer’s trademark red blood.  It’s a disturbing scene, both because Longbarrow is one of the few likable characters in the film and also because the Mummy could have just as easily and much more efficiently strangled him.  Instead, the Mummy had to be mean about it.

Seriously, there’s nothing more frightening than a sadistic mummy.

The Mummy’s Shroud may not be one of Hammer’s best films but still, it’s an efficient little horror film and one that, I think, many other horror critics have been a bit too quick to dismiss.


Horror Film Review: The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (dir by Roy Ward Baker)


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As some of our more frequent readers may remember, I shared the 1974 Dracula-martial arts hybrid The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires as one of our horrors on the lens last October.  Judging from the comments that I got last year, this was apparently one of the more popular films that we featured.

And why not?  The film is one of those rather ludicrous movies that really could have only been made in the early 1970s.  It combines two genres that really should not go together — martial arts and the Hammer Dracula series — and somehow, it all works.  Don’t get me wrong.  The film doesn’t make a bit of sense.  I’ve seen it a few times and I still have a hard time following just what exactly is going on.  But you don’t watch a film called The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires for the plot.  This is one of those movies that you watch for the style.  Fortunately, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is all about style.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is the final entry in Hammer’s Dracula series.  Or, at least, it might be.  It all depends on whether or not you consider 7 Golden Vampires to actually be a part of the series.  I do but quite a few people don’t.

Why the controversy?

Well, first off, Christopher Lee does not appear in this film.  Much as he did with Brides of Dracula, Lee read the script and announced that he would not be returning to play Dracula.  Of course, when Lee refused to appear in Brides of Dracula, Hammer responded by creating an entirely new vampire for Prof. Van Helsing to battle.  This time, however, they simply recast the role.  An actor by the name of John Forbes-Robertson took on the role of Dracula and, unfortunately, he gave a rather bland and unmemorable performance.  If Lee’s Dracula seemed to be motivated by rage, Forbes-Robertson is merely petulant.

The other issue that purists have with the film is that it violates the continuity of the previous Dracula films.  The film opens in 1805 and features Dracula leaving his castle for China, where he will spend the next 100 years as the leader of the infamous 7 Golden Vampires.  The problem with this, of course, is that there had already been 7 other films that established that Dracula spent the 19th Century going between England and Eastern Europe.

It would be easy to declare that 7 Golden Vampires has nothing to do with the other Hammer Films except for the fact that Peter Cushing returns of Prof. Van Helsing.  When the film opens, Van Helsing is in China, lecturing to skeptical students about the legend of the 7 Golden Vampires.  After one lecture, Van Helsing is approached by a man (David Chiang), who explains that the 7 Golden Vampires have been attacking his village.  Van Helsing agrees to help the man vanquish the 7 Golden Vampires and, along the way to the village, he even tells some stories about his previous battles with Dracula.

So, here’s my theory.  The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires does take place in the same continuity as the Christopher Lee Dracula films but I do not believe that the vampire played by Forbes-Robertson is actually Dracula.  I think he’s just an upstart who has claimed the infamous name while the actual Dracula is inconvenienced.

As for the film itself, it works far better than you might expect.  At the time 7 Golden Vampires went into production, Hammer was struggling to survive with their once racy products now seen as being rather tame when compared to what other studios were releasing.  7 Golden Vampires was a co-production between Hammer and the Shaw Brothers, which means that the film was full all of the gothic trappings that I love about Hammer while also featuring all of the martial arts action that fans of the Shaw Brothers would have expected.  It’s an odd combination that works exactly because it is so unexpected.

Finally, one word about the 7 Golden Vampires.  Not only are they far more desiccated than the average Hammer vampire but whenever they ride up on their horses, they’re filmed in slow motion, just like the zombies from Amando De Ossorio’s Blind Dead films.  As a result, those 7 Golden Vampires are pure nightmare fuel.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires may have been the final entry in Hammer’s Dracula franchise but at least the series went out on a memorable note.

Horror Film Review: The Satanic Rites of Dracula (dir by Alan Gibson)


The_Satanic_Rites_of_Dracula_posterFirst released in 1973 and, like Dracula A.D. 1972, set in what was then the present day, The Satanic Rites of Dracula was the 8th entry in the Hammer Dracula series.  It was also the last to feature Christopher Lee in the role of Dracula and that perhaps is why, judging by some of the other reviews that I’ve read online, The Satanic Rites is one of the more reviled entries in the series.

Judging from a lot of those reviews, the attitude seems to be that The Satanic Rites of Dracula was so bad that it was the film that made Christopher Lee say, “No more!”  Reportedly, Lee felt that the film itself was both poorly written and that it was too violent.  And, even though the film is rather tame by the standards of today’s horror films, The Satanic Rites is still probably one of the more extreme entries in the series.  The film features a graphic and drawn-out flashback in which we see a naked woman sacrificed by a Satanic cult, a scene that’s bloody even by the standards of Hammer.  Later, when Jessica Van Helsing (played by Joanna Lumley, who took the role over from Dracula A.D. 1972‘s Stephanie Beacham) is menaced by a pack of female vampires, the vampires literally claw at her body like wild animals.  And finally, when one of Dracula’s brides is staked, blood literally splashes across the screen.

Christopher Lee was not a fan of The Satanic Rites of Dracula and neither are a lot of critics but you know what?  I think The Satanic Rites of Dracula is actually rather underrated.  If nothing else, it’s certainly far more unpredictable than some of the far more critically embraced Dracula films.

Satanic Rites opens with a British secret agent (Maurice O’Connell) escaping from a country house in which he had previously been held prisoner.  Though he’s fatally wounded during the escape, the agent manages to tell his superiors that, at the house, he witnessed a Satanic ritual that involved some of the most important people in the British government.  Since one of the accused occultists is a government minister, the secret service passes the case on to Scotland Yard’s Inspector Murray (Michael Coles, reprising his role from Dracula A.D. 1972) and then provide him with clandestine assistance.  (Or something like that.  To be honest, I get the feeling that the main reason Murray was called in was to maintain some continuity between Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula.)  Murray suspects that vampires may be involved so he calls in Lorrimar Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).

After discovering that his old friend, scientist Julian Keeley (Freddie Jones), is a part of the cult, Van Helsing deduces that it’s all part of huge conspiracy headed by none other than Dracula himself.  The plan is to release a mutated form of bubonic plague and wipe out humanity.

Why is Dracula planning on destroying humanity?

Van Helsing theorizes that this might be Dracula’s way of committing suicide.  By wiping out humanity, Dracula will no longer have anyone to feed upon and his undead existence will finally end.  And, if nothing else, you have to admit that is a pretty interesting motivation!

How can you not enjoy a film that’s as strange as The Satanic Rites of Dracula?  It may not be a typical Hammer Dracula film and it may be a bit too obviously an attempt to revitalize a fading franchise by tossing everything that was then trendy at it but so what?  This is one of those movies that could have only been made at a certain point in time by a certain group of filmmakers and, as such, it’s valuable as both history and entertainment.

Christopher Lee may have hated The Satanic Rites of Dracula but he’s being way too hard on the film.  If nothing else, it provided a nice excuse for Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing to face off and how can you not appreciate that?