Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Vampire Circus (And How To Use It)

Vampire Circus is one of Hammer's better efforts.  But don't take my word for it.  You can read a review of it at the Internet Movie Database, Check out the Plot Synopsis at Allmovie, get more in-depth coverage at 1000MisspentHours, the BritishHorrorFilms site, or see loads of stills from the movie at the HorrorSeek site.  You can watch the movie online for free, for now...at least until the current rights-holders decide to put out an authorized DVD...though you can pick up a reasonably decent version of Vampire Circus from Brazil via Amazon in the meantime.  The Zone2  has the better cover, but it won't play in most machines here in North America, even if it is in English.  The cool cover with the Tiger-woman is for Zone2, the uptight/blah-cover that sucks is for North America.

 DoctorWho fans are quick to point out the appearance of Lalla Ward (The Second Romana from the 17th season, with Tom Baker as The Doctor), but very few people have picked-up on the presence of one David Prowse who plays the silent strongman--this is the actor who portrayed Darth Vader (with James Earl Jones doing the voice).  So there's some bonus horror movie trivia for you.

A Quick Plot Synopsis (With 30% more Spoilers by weight)
What made/makes Vampire Circus so special, aside from the gratuitous nudity, copious amounts of blood splattered everywhere, the usual Hammer-level of set design and period costumery, is the plot.  This movie begins where most other vampire movies (especially in 1972) ended.  The angry villagers are finally torqued off enough to do someting about the depredations of the vampire Count Mitterhaus and they manage, finally to kill him with a stake to the heart.  But before the nefarious Count can expire from his impalement, he mutters a curse upon the townspeople--they and all their children will die to restore the Count's life.  Then he goes limp.  The Count does not dissolve into goo or flake away into ashes like Dracula sometimes did.  He just lies there like a haughty, arrogant corpse with a touch of the Tom Jones/Englebert Humperdinck vibe going on.

The opening sequence leading up to the credits is in effect a mini-movie in itself, after a fashion.  Just over 10 minutes (closer to 12), the opening sequence covers more ground than most other entire movies.  It's jam-packed and moves at a brisk pace. The sub-plot with the school teacher's wife (a willing and sexually compliant accomplice to the Count) is super important to the rest of the movie even having a chance to take place.  Her disgust for her husband's perceived weakness is palpable and jarring, especially when she manipulates him to protect her from running the gauntlet of angry villagers, allowing her to run away back into the Count's crypt right before the Burgomeister has the villagers set casks of gunpowder all over the place to literally blow it all to hell.  The explosions are okay, especially for 1972.  But then who expects Serbian villagers to be experts in castle demolition?

The credits finally roll after the big blow-up sequence.  Time flashes forward 15 years.  Plague is upon the land and the village of Stetl.  The new doctor is a skeptic.  Everyone else is living in fear and under the looming shadow of Count Mitterhaus's dire curse.  They are also cut off from the rest of the world by armed roadblocks of angry men from surrounding villages who don't want anyone leaving Stetl to spread the plague any farther.  Dire times.  Grim times.  The doctor rides out to crash the roadblocks and get to the Imperial capital and acquire medicines and soldiers to set things to rights.  His son helps him get past the roadblocks by running past them as a decoy, then he returns to town to take up his father's business as resident medical expert.  Obviously they're desperate.

No sooner is the doctor gone on his mission than a travelling circus comes into town.  Somehow they managed to sneak in past the roadblocks.  They are The Circus of Night and they have come to steal the coins off of dead men's eyes, or so boasts their leader a mysterious Gypsy woman.

The Circus sets up their camp, puts on a few performances, and once everything is in place, they carry out the evil plan of the Count and begin to slaughter the villages' children, driving the Burgomeister insane with what he sees in the so-called Mirror of Life, and things look down-right grim until the doctor returns with medicine and a revelation: vampires are real and they've been killing off villages one by one along a path that neatly coincides with the route taken by the Circus of Night.  The doctor has medicine for the peculiar form of rabies that has been spread amongst the villagers by bats and a few soldiers to help get the drugs distributed and to sort things out with the Circus and their vampires.

Long story short, the Circus is stopped, but the Count is resurrected anyhow, and then finally killed by decapitation in the last couple of minutes of the movie.  The body count is extremely high.  There's a lot of blood spilled.  Some of it more convincing than the rest.  The big scene with the Twins in the chapel is unique, one large wooden crucifx impaling one twin killing the other one through their sibling bond.  In fact there are a lot of clever, interesting ideas interspersed all through this movie.  It makes for a wonderful double-feature with Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter.

How To Use It: Fantasy
Vampire Circus is an excellent source of ideas for how to handle the aftermath and repercussions of a bunch of meddling kids or unwashed adventuring scum who manage to kill off the local vampire nobleman.  This is definitely the single best example of a movie showing what happens after the Big Bad Guy gets staked.  The various interactions betwixt and between the villagers verge on the Soap Opera level, especially once it is revealed that the incestuous Twins are Count Mitterhaus's unholy offspring with the teacher's (ex)wife and that they are half-siblings to the girl Dora who is protected by a golden crucifix which her mother--the magically disguised Gypsy woman leading the Circus--must tear off of her so that they can drain her blood.  The level of twistiness borders on Shakespearean and then adds some decidedly Hammer-style perversity for good measure.  The various crisis and personal conflicts that some of these characters undergo is really intense and extremely well-done, and ideal for developing into a wealth of spin-offs and sub-plots.

The people involved in the killing of the Count are inextricably bound-up in the evil plot to resurrect him.  Everything is built-up from the villagers' staking of the Count, the Count's curse, the subsequent guilt and fear of the curse, and only intensified by the plague, the armed roadblocks, and the arrival of the Circus which many see at first as a welcome distraction from the unremitting horror of the plague and its nearly walking dead victims.

In terms of using this movie as a springboard for an RPG session or adventure, you could do far worse than to adapt the movie straight-off.  Especially if the players haven't seen it yet.  Even if they have, you can tweak things a bit to throw them off.  Switch genders amongst the bad guys--convert the Count to resemble Elizabeth Bathory more than a Dracula knock-off.  Switch the school teacher and his sluttish wife and maybe reduce the school teacher's husband to a Renfield-like character, or someone who got seduced and is in way over his head like Johnathan Harker in Stoker's novel.  Or maybe he becomes a vampire in his own right and takes the place of Mitterhaus's kinsman Emille.  That tightens things up a bit, and could lead to a quicker set of confrontations.  Or maybe he runs off with the Countess' body and only returns once he's been able to restore her to undeath/unlife.  In fact, taking that approach opens up the possibility of converting the scenario over from a Circus coming to town with bad designs, to a single guy in a wagon who is passing through looking for someone whom he believes can help him, but everyone else recognizes as a bad, bad person.

At that point you can dispense with the vampire aspect entirely, if you like and have him track down Baron Frankenstein, some other Mad Scientist, or some cult of zombie-makers or some more Lovecraftian cultists, evil patriarchs of banned temples, aliens at some bizarre crash-site...there's a lot of directions that this can go.  Plus, once the Countess is resurrected, however it takes place, you get the revenge trip all over again.  Maybe they sneak back into the village disguised as a Gypsy caravan or a Circus and things go to hell in a handbasket as they pursue the revived Countess' evil scheme for revenge and destruction.

It could work.

Just swapping-out the vampires for lycanthropes would shake things up just enough to throw off players who've seen the movie already.  Toss in some black magic, more curses, some connection to nonhuman monsters out in the deep wilderness who are using the Circus to scout out potential new raiding targets...and you've the makings of a really fun adventure.

In fact, the idea of the Circus being in cahoots with some band of violent nonhumans, say a group of goblins or tribe of orcs, takes the supernatural edge off of things enough to lull players into complacency and gives you loads of opportunities to string them along with red herrings until the orcs, goblins, bandits, whomever finally arrive and set the place to the torch.  You can even have a boss monster amongst the orcs or whomever be a lycanthrope or vampire, just to keep some connection to the source material...or to leave you an opening for a return engagement inspired by the opening sequence of the movie.

How To Use It: Super Heroes
Consider how it might play out if the Count were actually your settings equivalent to Doctor Doom, or one of his ancestors.  Maybe the movie portrays an incident that took place in the past, only things didn't quite go the way of the movie.  Maybe some time traveller has meddled with this situation and things need to be set to rights before a super-science power-armored vampire tyrant takes over the world with his armies of cloned vampire twin acrobats...thus you get to use the movie, and play out the situation into an alternate timeline as well.

How To Use It: SciFi
A derelict old tramp spaceship drags itself into the docking bay of a megacruiser, habitat, or spaceport.  Onboard is a travelling circus.  They have exotic beasts from several worlds, some of which are not quarantined or are unexplored.  They have political connections.  The authorities let them in, for whatever reason.  A plague breaks out, people disappear, and a faction of separtists, rebels or malcontents who'd been suppressed for decades surge back into action, led by some obscure noble who was reported dead long ago...

Whether they're actual vampires, aliens, human-alien hybrids, agents of the Annunakki, or whatever, the basic premise of the movies' Circus of sinister dwarves, homunculi strongmen, shape-shifting cultists, etc. all can work well within whatever confined, pseudo-utopian Orwellian society you care to drop them into...and if it's not a utopia, and more of a dystopia, all the better!  The Circus could be the front for a weird form of AI that possesses the dead out of a perverse sense of drama, or some evil mutant/alien conspiracy to overthrow the established powers.  Maybe they bring a nanotech/biotech plague that creates zombies, vampires,or worse with them.  Possibly the once deceased noble seeks to rise up from obscurity like an undead Paul Atreides/Dracula surrounded with an army of vampiric worm-symbiont assassins...

The point is to have some fun.  Use the movie as a starting-out point and see where your imagination takes you.