31 Days to Scare ~ Vampire Circus

The Facts:

Synopsis: As the plague sweeps the countryside, a quarantined village is visited by a mysterious traveling circus. Soon, young children begin to disappear, and the locals suspect the circus troupe might be hiding a horrifying secret.

Stars: Adrienne Corri, John Moulder-Brown, Laurence Payne, Thorley Walters, Lynne Frederick, Anthony Higgins

Director: Robert Young

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  A longtime fan of Hammer Studios and their horror tales, I’ve come to see recently just how limited my scope was in my formative years.  I’m making up for the time that I focused in on some of the more generic (but still worthy!) offerings and am quite enjoying expanding my horizons. With titles that might not be so in the mainstream featuring the familiar names that trigger a notion of what you can expect, like a Dracula or a Frankenstein or a Werewolf, I’m finding some fairly excellent experiences on a regular basis. I almost feel bad saying I’ve “discovered” these movies because they’ve been there all along just waiting for me to find them. So, with great humility, let’s talk about Vampire Circus.

How had I never seen this one before?  I’d heard Vampire Circus spoken of highly before and know I’ve seen the poster numerous times over the years; it’s striking image of eyes wide and a mouth open and fangs bared is instantly memorable.  Making an impact with promises of blood and mayhem, I can say the movie delivers on all accounts and it’s an R-rated delight from a studio that started off a little tentative in their willingness to go the extra mile.  From the beginning, it’s clear this isn’t just another standard vampire flick filmed against an eastern European backdrop…there’s some plot that’s been thought out and it’s exceedingly well made.

An extended prologue finds a group of villagers in the Serbian village of Stetl finally doing away with the vampire Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) who has been preying on the young children in the village.  As he dies, he curses the townspeople and their children, promising they will all die in order for him to live once more.  Entrusting a follower (Domini Blythe) to find his relation and tell him what the villagers had done, the Count dies and his castle is destroyed.  Fifteen years pass and the village has indeed been plagued by one problem after another.  A plague has cut them off from the rest of the world and no one can go in or out…until the circus comes to town.

Led by a flame-haired gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri), the Circus of Night arrives in the village under mysterious circumstances and quickly begins to enthrall the townspeople with their unbelievable acts of daring and transformation.  High flying twin acrobats turn into, well, bats.  A panther can turn into a smoldering man in the blink of an eye.  Then there are the dancers who perform a risqué pas de duex (with full nudity, another reason the movie was slapped with an R rating) along with a funhouse hall of mirrors that turns deadly.  Oh…and most of them are vampires.  So begins a three-ring act of violence and revenge, with each victim being brought to the Count’s final resting place and being offered as a sacrifice, their blood restoring him to his full gory glory.

It takes longer than it should for the townspeople to figure out what’s going on but even when they do there are still a few mysteries yet to be solved that are gradually doled out before a blood-soaked finale set in a tomb.  The special effects are well-rendered and it’s more than a little bit scary at times.  In general, the atmosphere is right on target for the time and place, something Hammer was always so pitch perfect in achieving time after time.  The production design is lovely and the location shooting in Europe adds to the authenticity of the work.  Even the performances manage to be more than just your standard victim and prey stock characters, though not everyone can bare their fangs and sink them into necks as good as Anthony Higgins.

This is an absolute must-see for fans of horror, classics and new.  Especially if you have a penchant for the vampire genre and especially the Hammer brand of filmmaking, it’s an essential watch.  It drags ever so slightly in the middle with a bit of repetitive kills and sensuality but at 87 minutes you aren’t waiting around too long before things pick up again and the Vampire Circus prepares for its big finale.

31 Days to Scare ~ Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Dracula is resurrected, preying on four unsuspecting visitors to his castle.

Stars: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell

Director: Terence Fisher

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  After the rousing success of Horror of Dracula in 1958, Hammer Studios moved forward with a smashing sequel, The Brides of Dracula, in 1960 without one key ingredient…Dracula himself.  While the sequel had all the right stuff, gorgeous costumes, lavish production design, a solid plot, and committed performances the absence of our titular creature of the night was felt.  Yet it took the studio another six years to get Christopher Lee back in his fangs and cape for another round as the world’s favorite bloodsucker.  And the wait was worth it.

A prologue recaps the ending of Horror of Dracula which was modeled after Bram Stoker’s classic tale.  Van Helsing vanquishes Dracula by exposing him to sunlight, turning him to dust.  The credits for this film play over the dust being blown away leaving just his ring as a reminder of the evil.  Jumping ahead ten years and we find the tiny European town where Dracula’s castle resides continues to harbor superstitious locals that attribute every strange death to Dracula’s curse.  Early on, a visiting priest (the gruff yet jolly Andrew Keir) stops a band of mourners from driving a stake through the heart of a beauty that passed away from an unknown ailment warning them that not every death is the result of a vampire’s bite.

The priest runs into a sightseeing foursome (Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell) and advises them to steer far clear of Castle Dracula.  Even though he believes the count to be long gone, there are things better left alone.  Of course, curiosity gets the better of the men in the group and when the coach bringing them to their next destination refuses to drop them near the castle they are left to fend for themselves…until a strange coach appears and takes them right to the castle where a gruesome fate awaits them all.  They arrive to find they were somehow expected, with a creepy manservant (Philip Latham) ready to serve them dinner…or does he intend to serve them as dinner?

When Lee finally does appear, resurrected through a fairly gory ritual, he’s all silent malevolence that works like a charm.  With no dialogue, Lee’s performance rests on his physicality and wild bloodshot eyes alone and it’s a highly effective performance at that.  Shelley is a hoot as a tightly-wound shrew that nags everyone so much you kind of hope she gets bitten first.  There’s nice work from Farmer, too, as another blonde beauty Dracula sets his sights on.  If the men fade a bit into the background it’s only because Lee is such a dominating presence they can’t really compete with him before or after he returns from the grave.

Movie monsters weren’t anything new when this film went intro production but this is a seriously high class affair.  The ending may be slightly rushed and not as satisfying as the preceding 80 minutes but there’s a reason why Hammer Studios was known as the prestige horror factory of that era.  While they reused many of the same sets, costumes, and actors throughout their history they manage to make every film feel unique and special.  The Dracula property was one they held in high regard and it shows in every single frame of Dracula, Prince of Darkness.  While Lee would return to the role for five more sequels of lessening impact, Dracula, Prince of Darkness as well as Horror of Dracula are timeless classics, and with good reason.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Brides of Dracula

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young teacher on her way to a position in Transylvania helps a young man escape the shackles his mother has put on him. In doing so, she innocently unleashes the horrors of the undead once again on the populace, including those at her school for ladies.

Stars: Peter Cushing, Martita Hunt, Yvonne Monlaur, Freda Jackson, David Peel, Miles Malleson

Director: Terence Fisher

Rated: NR

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: With the success of Horror of Dracula in 1958, British film studio Hammer Pictures realized they had a property with franchise potential and started plotting out a sequel.  Two years later, director Terence Fisher and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster collaborated again and walked The Brides of Dracula down the aisle at cinemas to another round of bloody good box office returns. The first of eight Dracula sequels filmed between 1960 and 1974, this is truly representative of a sequel that’s equal to its predecessor.

Lovely French teacher Marianne (the, um, lovely and French Yvonne Monlaur) is bound for her new position at a girls school on the outskirts of Transylvania.  With her carriage driver going full tilt to make it through the forest before nightfall, it’s a rocky road to travel especially when a stowaway hitches a ride after the carriage stops to clear a log blocking their path.  Arriving at a small village inn, as she dines the coachman takes off without her, stranding her in town for the night. She’s not put out for long though as the inn is visited by a Baroness (Martita Hunt, grandly ghoulish) that bids her to dine in her castle and stay the night, an offer the townspeople advise her not to take.  Before you know it, Marianne has freed the son (David Peel, arguably the most movie-star handsome of the Hammer vampires) of the Baroness from his shackles and he has taken flight (as a bat!) on the hunt for blood.  Thankfully, Dr. Van Helsing (the always excellent Peter Cushing) happens to be traveling in the area and knows the mark of a vampire when he sees one.  Will he be able to save Marianne from the Baron before he sinks his fangs into her?

This is a very fun, entertaining film and one that I’d miraculously not seen before.  The Dracula films featuring Christopher Lee always felt very intense with melodramatic acting that seems to pay special attention to the heaving bosoms of the women Dracula has the hots for.  How interesting that in the first sequel to their blockbuster, Hammer only brought back Cushing to reprise his role and focused on an entirely new (albeit descended from the big D himself) bloodsucker.  While Lee was an excellent Count his presence isn’t missed here, mostly because Sangster and Fisher have filled the film with appealing characters and splendid dialogue.

Sure, there are some holes here and there and some characters introduced as important are never heard from again.  I also wished more time was spent at the boarding school for girls, seems like there was missed potential there to add a few more brides to the mix.  As is typical of all Hammer creations, this one oozes opulence in every frame with gorgeous costumes and rich production values.  The acting is strong and cinematographer Jack Asher films the action with a Technicolor flourish.  While the action of the finale takes place in a well-designed windmill, it comes up ever so short by rushing through the dénouement to get to the credits.

If you wore out your copy of Horror of Dracula like I did or just would like a new old classic to keep your attention, The Brides of Dracula is one you can commit to without any fears of getting cold feet.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Woman in Black: Angel of Death

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Synopsis: 40 years after the first haunting at Eel Marsh House, a group of children evacuated from WWII London arrive, awakening the house’s darkest inhabitant.

Release Date: TBA 2015

Thoughts: In another example of striking when the iron is lukewarm, the sequel to the 2012 modest hit The Woman in Black will arrive in theaters in January. Having been a fan of the book and the play on which the first film was based, for the most part I was satisfied with the not quite as scary but handsomely produced effort that saw Daniel Radcliffe (What If) face scary ghosts that haunt an English manor. Only the creepy house and the ghosts are back for The Woman in Black: Angel of Death and if it retains the high production values and well-timed spooky moments of its predecessor then it will redeem itself for taking so long to start haunting again.