I grew up on the Hammer films in a time before videos were common and older horror films were shown regularly on the four TV channels we had back then. They may sometimes seem tame and cheesy by today standards but there’s still a strong story in this film that still makes it a good watch today
The people of Stettel are very angry with the local Count Mitterhaus, an evil vampire who has been feeding on their children and seducing their women. Led by the village elders they invade the castle and the schoolmaster Müller (Laurence Payne) drives a wooden stake through his heart. As he dies he utters a curse that all of them will die and their children will die to give him life. The schoolmaster’s wife Anna (Domini Blythe) was seduced by Mitterhaus and was helping to him find children to feed on. They force her to run the gauntlet but she escapes back to castle where she drags Mitterhaus down to a crypt and he tells her to seek out his cousin Emil with the Circus of Nights who will know what to do. The villagers destroy the castle with fire and gunpowder but the fire doesn’t reach the crypt where the Count’s body is and Anna escapes.
15 years later and Stettel is in trouble again, this time with a mysterious plague that has the local doctor baffled. The neighbouring villages have erected blockades at the roads around Stettel to stop anyone leaving and spreading the plague. Dr Kersch (Richard Owens) wants to get out of the village to the city where he’ll have the resources to find a cure. Their meeting is interrupted by a circus arriving in town lead by a gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri) and Michael the dwarf (Skip Martin). Kersch reasons that if they got in he can get out. Kersch and his son Anton () go to the outskirts of the village and Anton makes a really obvious run for the blockade allowing his father sneak past unseen.
Anton returns to the village and the circus has set up already and almost the whole village is there. Michael greets him as the returning hero. The Burgermeister and his family arrive and are given the prime seats. There are various animals in cages including a tiger and a black panther with jewelled collar. A pair dancers appear, the man dressed as an animal tamer and the woman wearing nothing except a pair of tiny silver panties and stripy make up like a tiger. This all seems a bit sophisticated for a family circus but the villagers all seem to love it.
Next the gypsy woman unlocks the panther cage. The cat runs towards the audience and leaps into the air but when it lands it’s a man called Emil (Anthony Higgins) wearing a shiny pink shirt and he’s also got the same jewelled collar as the panther. The villagers all clap at the clever illusion but it really wasn’t an Illusion. Emil was the panther and he changed mid-leap. He landed right in front of the Burgermeister’s teenage daughter Rosa who is very impressed by Emil. There is a minor panic when Mrs Hauser thinks one of her sons has gone missing and she’s accusing the gypsy woman of stealing him when Emil appears with the boy on his shoulder. Emil had found him looking at the panther cage.
Rosa stays after everyone else to see Emil but the gypsy woman sends her home and sends Emil to escort her. He escorts her to the panther cage where he has sex with her but the gypsy woman warns him is too early for him bite her and he withdraws his vampire fangs. At the castle ruins the gypsy woman gets the circus strongman to clear the rubble and uncover the crypt with Mitterhaus in his coffin. Emil repeats the curse the count put on Stettel and says all the children must die. The gypsy woman asks if they all really have to die and Emil say yes all of them. This the first hint of who the gypsy woman is.
The next night the main act is pair of acrobats Heinrich (Robin Sachs) and Helga (Lalla Ward and I’m going to have geek moment here because I remember her as a companion of the fourth Doctor who was herself a timelord) who leap high into the air and seem to turn into bats. The villagers think it’s all a great trick instead of thinking “Wait a minute they are turning to bats, just like vampires. “ Then Emil does his jumping and changing trick again landing right at Rosa again and there’s a concerned look on the Burgermeister’s face. Michael announces another chance for them to spend money on a hall of mirrors and they give the Burgermeister a free go. Inside it’s just the usual distorted mirrors but the last mirror is different. It looks like a normal mirror at first but then he sees Count Mitterhaus feeding him and he collapses with shock. The Burgermeister has to be helped home by the strongman. Since the doctor hasn’t back yet there’s not much they can do for him except keep him in bed.
Next day the Schilts and Schilt’s mother pay Michael to take them out of the village past the blockades. He takes them deep into the woods and Schilt gets a sense that they’re being followed. They stop for rest and Michael tells them that they’re past the blockade and he collects his payment and runs off. Emil the panther was following them and he tears them all to pieces as a warning to anyone who tries to leave.
Later in the day we see a young woman Dora Müller running past the blockade towards Stettel. She is Mr Müller the schoolmaster’s daughter and girlfriend of Anton. While hiding from the men guarding the blockade she comes across the bodies of the Schilt family and somehow manages to keep quiet.
Dora’s father knows that the Circus has come to destroy them and he hears the Count‘s voice reminding of his curse. Müller protests that Dora is safe in the city but the Count says she’s on her way there right now. Moments later Dora arrives at the circus and meets her father who is naturally not happy to see her there. She tells them what happened to Schilt family and how they were torn apart and everyone thinks of the big cats in the circus. Anton tries to defend the circus to stop everyone going crazy but he’s clearly wrong.
Once everyone is gone the gypsy woman finds the two Hauser boys hiding underneath one of the wagons. She lets them in the hall of mirrors free and when they come to the last mirror they see the acrobats in the reflection but they are not behind them. The acrobats come out of the mirror offer to show the boys how the trick was done. They take the boys into the mirror which leads into a cave where they bite the boys and kill them.
Next day Hauser is searching for his boys and of course he’s blaming the circus but when they find their bodies and see the vampire bite marks their thoughts turn instantly to the Count and his promise of vengeance on them and their children. The Burgermeister has gone crazy and he wants to kill all the animals and Hauser goes with him. They kill the chimpanzee and the tiger but the panther disappears and Emil appears and attacks the Burgermeister causing a fatal heart attack Rosa goes to Emil who bites and kills her.
The acrobat twins try to attack Dora but they can’t because of the cross around her neck. Dora and Anton go back to the schoolhouse but Emil comes and kills a bunch of students staying upstairs. The gypsy woman enters downstairs and rips the cross off Dora’s neck. Now the twins come for them again and they have a showdown in the chapel. Dora kills the twins by stabbing Helga with a huge wooden cross and Heinrich dies too. Because they’re twins or something.
Anton and her father take Dora back to the schoolhouse and leave her with Mrs Hauser while they go off to look for Emil and the gypsy woman. Dr Kersch returns with medicine to treat the plague and a military escort. He’s seen proof of the existence of vampires and tells them that wherever the circus went they found victims of vampires.
The strongman breaks into the schoolhouse and captures Dora and Mrs Hauser and takes them back to the Count’s crypt. When Hauser sees a vision in the mirror at the circus he figures that they are in the Count’s crypt at the castle. The villagers head for the castle ruins and try to find a way down into the crypt and they have to kill the strongman. Anton finds another way in but is attacked by Michael and in the struggle Anton kills Michael. Nton holds up a cross and uses it to keep Emil away but a bat attacks him and he drops the cross. Emil is about to bite Dora but the gypsy woman stops her and gets killed instead. Once dead she changes back into Anna Müller, Dora’s mother. The others manage to break in at this point Emil fights them all off. He struggles with Müller but stabs him though the heart with the same wooden spike he used to kill the Count. Emil dies but Müller also dies of his injuries.
Anton and Dora are just getting their breath back when Count Mitterhaus comes back from the dead. He throws Anton aside and goes for Dora but Anton has a crossbow which he uses as a cross to repel the Count then he puts the crossbow over the Counts head and fires, causing the string on the crossbow to slice off the Count’s head.
Even though there’s no Dracula and no Van Helsing this is a pretty good vampire film from Hammer. It has quite a bit of gore and a fair amount of sex and nudity but then it was made in the 70s when films could be made for adults.