A personal memoir about watching a Hammer horror classic and almost paying for the experience with my life
As I continue into my forties, I am astonished by just how lazy I am. Well, maybe lazy isn’t the right word. In fact, I’m far from that. I’m busier than I’ve ever been; writing, making films, editing magazines, performing music and many other creative pursuits (not to mention minding my three awesome kids) that I’m blessed to be involved in.
But when I was a youth, I never stopped moving.
See, I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 32 and, living in Toronto, I relied exclusively on trains, buses, streetcars and feet.
These days, I rely on minivan and Amazon to get the things I need and the fixes I want.
But back then, in those carefree and questing days…whooo-weee. Nothing could stop me from getting where I needed to get, no matter the distance, no matter the sort of transportation required, no matter the time I had to block off to get there.
In my teens, I lived in a place called Mississauga, a city in the Greater Toronto Area. My fellow freaks that were in search of more esoteric culture in this artless deathtrap, used to call it MiserySauga. And it was indeed miserable. When there was a film or concert I wanted to attend, I would simply have to take the bus, the train and the foot to get there. It took me 2.5 hours using these routes to get downtown and I’d gladly bank this time just so I could sit in an opulent, ancient movie theater and watch oddball, arthouse and obscure flicks on the big screen. Or so I could simply have a coffee in a place where people-watching was exciting; where fashion, beauty, conversation, ideas and eccentricity were plentiful.
It was all worth it and I did it often.
Now, I still enjoy these solo pursuits. But the lengths I’ll go to to sate these needs are minimal when stacked up against those longer, less schedule-bound days.
Last night, as I lay down to detox before bed, I opted to put on the 1972 Hammer Horror classic VAMPIRE CIRCUS, a late period offering from the studio that I have long loved. And I immediately recalled the first time I saw this film and the berserk lengths I went to in order to see it. And I remembered how that quest almost killed me.
When I was 17, my weekend job was working at the Dixie Flea Market, at the dismal Dixie Value Mall in the East end of MiserySauga. The flea market was a basement grotto, only open on Saturdays and Sundays and it was a place I had been going to for years, primarily to trade VHS tapes with a pockmarked, shyster video-vendor that always ripped my naïve ass off. But to me, the place had a sleazy, smelly (it always smelled of mold, sweat and hot dogs and still does) carnival charm.
So getting a paying job at this greaseball palace was a real thrill.
My gig was working for an old alcoholic vendor of “Peg Perego” mini-bikes for toddlers. You know, those motorized things that move at 1 mile per hour? My responsibility lay in charging parents a buck for their brats to ride around on this little make-shift track while they bought crap from the market and, hopefully, to actually sell them one of these over-priced vehicles.
I never did sell a bike.
But I sold tons of rides.
And for every 5 bucks earned, I’d put 3 in my pocket.
I’d take that pilfered profit and leave my post (only when it was kid free; I’ve always loved and cared about children and would never do something THAT irresponsible) and run over to the bookseller and buy lurid pulp paperbacks or to that grifter VHS dealer and buy a big-box shocker or a movie poster and oh, fuck, I skimmed that pithy till hard and criminally fattened up my collection of crap in the process.
Anyway, one weekend I learned that Toronto’s legendary cineaste Reg Hartt was screening a double-dose of Hammer films on the Sunday night at his “Cineforum”.
Two films I had never seen but had read much about.
One was 1968’s THE DEVIL RIDES OUT.
The other was VAMPIRE CIRCUS.
Reg Hartt is a veteran film collector and exhibitor who has a vast collection of 16mm prints and he would screen them every night in his living room/library, right downtown Toronto on Bathurst st., just south of College. I had heard Hart (who is still very much active I believe, though he now screens primarily off digital sources) also used his “screening room” as a way to entice cute young men into his lair for some fun, but I had been there on at least three occasions (once to see a beautiful, bright 16mm print of HORROR OF DRACULA, a screening that changed my life) and each time found Hart to be a great guy and the experience of seeing these movies this way to be unique, warm and exciting.
So, I made plans to go after work, by myself (again, always my preferred method of seeing movies) to take the 2 busses, 2 subways and one streetcar to see these amazing movies, neither of which I would have had any access to otherwise.
There were but two substantial problems here, however.
One, it was the dead-of-blood-freezing-cold Canadian winter. Late February, as I recall. An arctic tundra that was colder than my ex-mother-in-law’s kiss.
As a result, the other, was that I was suffering from an accelerating chest cold.
Then of course, there was the fact that I had already traveled 1.5 hours by yet another double bus-ride to get to my job at the flea market to begin with. And because of that I would have to tack-on that return trip time onto the near 3 hour additional time it would take for me to get downtown and back.
At night. In the cold.
That’s some serious fucking travel time to see a vampire movie.
But I was 17. I was young. I was in love with films to a degree that was unreasonable. So, after a full day taking dollars from dumb-ass dads while their snotty tots had low-speed chases around a filthy carpeted “track”, I took my stolen-spoils, bought a hamburger, closed up shop and set off on my journey to see some vintage British chillers…
It was 7pm. It was dark outside already. Blacker than a witch’s tit, in fact. So cold, my lungs felt like leather and, seeing as my lungs were already bothered and bearing mucous-fruit every five minutes, the feeling was deeply unpleasant. A day-long blizzard had turned to rain by this time, which didn’t sit well with the gaping holes in my boots, every step sucking in a swamp and every press of my arch like sloshing around in a sponge.
A cold fucking sponge.
I got on the first bus and, despite the state of things, I was excited to be on my way. You know that that feeling. When you’re finally moving? That feeling of quest was battering down the weight of my increasingly sickly condition.
But just as soon as I was starting to thaw on that bus, it was time to get out, transfer in hand and wait for the second bus on the corner.
There was a coffee shop at that stop and so I ducked in to get a a cup of something hot. I smiled at the cute girl at the counter. I felt alive then, like a sort of warrior on my way to an imagined mecca. And though, this mission was a solo mission, I secretly wished this pretty girl would jump over the counter and come with me. I could educate her in the ways of weird cinema and she could fall madly in love with me…
Once that fantasy passed, I got on the next bus. That bus took me to Kipling station, the first stop in my long subway ride to get me to Bathurst station. At Bathurst, I left the train and waited on the outside platform for the Southbound Bathurst streetcar.
I could feel the grip of the cold. It was a tight grip indeed. And with my toes now frozen and numb, and a cough sputtering in my chest, I started to seriously doubt my journey. Like, just maybe, I should have just gone home.
But I didn’t.
I continued on.
I made it to Reg Hartt’s house/theater, the neon glow of his Cineforum sign in his window, welcoming me gently. Reg himself greeted me just as warmly, took my 10 bucks (a steep price for me then, but since my wallet was packed with ill-gotten gains, it didn’t really matter) and then I settled into a wildly uncomfortable folding chair to see the magic shadows I had made such an effort to see.
I was late and had missed the first 40 minutes of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT but I picked up on the story and the tone of the piece quickly and started syncing myself with the three other older gents in attendance, dudes who presumably hadn’t traveled the earth to see these films as I had.
Hartt’s heat must have been broken because the room was unreasonably cold. And I’ve never been one to properly dress for the weather and that night was no exception. I was shivering through my ripped-up leather jacket and my toes? Fuck ‘em, I had zero feeling in them.
But I was watching Christopher Lee battle phantoms and I was fucking thrilled.
It was magic.
After DEVIL, Reg started to prepare the VAMPIRE CIRCUS print and I asked if he had any coffee. He did. The coffee helped and, pre-screening, we were treated to Reg’s lively mini-lecture/intro about the film we were about to see.
But by the time the first strains of David Whitaker’s delicate score started and we enter the walls of the evil Count Mitterhaus’ bloody lair and the Count’s fangs sprout in blood-lust just before he kills a kid (still one the most perverted and dark openings in any Hammer film, maybe any film period), I started to cough again.
And then I really started to cough. A lot.
It all started to fall apart. My shivers were uncontrollable. I kept spitting phlegm into my empty cup, secretly, as it wasn’t my cup and such an act is beyond uncouth. My head started to feel swimmy. I knew I was getting hot because my skin felt sensitive.
I had gone from getting sick to sick to seriously fucking ill.
But I stayed. I watched VAMPIRE CIRCUS in a daze. Freezing, shaking, burning, quaking, coughing, spitting. I made it to the finish line and deduced through my delirium that the film is perhaps Hammer’s greatest vampire offering, an absolutely mad and frantic piece of fantastique cinema with sex, blood, horror, fantastic bats, pretty sets, solid cast, lovely animals and a killer climax.
When the reel wound out, I literally stumbled from that house on the very verge of collapse.
Reg Hartt asked me if I was alright and I smiled and said yes and thanked him for an awesome evening. I moved back out into the stone-age Hell that was the cold Toronto night and made my journey home. I began sort of blacking out, mostly because I was exhausted but also because my body just wanted to call it a day.
This was before cell phones and no kid my age had a pager unless he was a drug dealer so I had no way of reaching my parents while I was in transit.
But by the time I made it to my bus transfer point in Mississauga, I knew I needed help.
I crawled back into that coffee shop to find a pay phone. I went back to that counter, but the pretty young girl wasn’t there anymore, instead replaced by a gruff, bald, short, middle-aged Greek man who gave me attitude when I kindly asked for change for a dollar so I could use the pay phone. He made me buy something so I purchased a fucking donut which I tossed in the trash and proceeded to stick a quarter in the phone and call my father.
Dad was at that point a cabby, night-crawling through the city in search of fares. He was just 2 years shy of divorcing my mother, a painful dissolve in itself. But I never held a grudge and he and I had always been close. I got him just as he was en route back to his apartment for the night and told him about my predicament. I asked if he could take me home.
Within 10 minutes he was at that coffee shop.
I collapsed into his cab, never more grateful to be near him. I felt safe, like a soldier flying home from the front-lines. I told him what I did. Where I was. And I told him why I did it.
He thought I was crazy. But he understood. He wanted to know about the film and I suddenly perked up as I raved about the climax of DEVIL and the mad thrills of finally seeing VAMPIRE CIRCUS. I gave him a version of that Reg Hartt lecture on the history of Hammer and how the movie fit into that puzzle, produced as it was in the waning days of the once great studio.
It was a cozy denouement to a very long, strange trip.
When I got home, my mum wasn’t very interested in Hammer horror. Rather, she saw her tom-catting son looking like grim death. I said I was fine, drew a bath (perhaps the greatest bath of my life) warmed up and went to bed.
I replayed the night’s journey in my mind and, despite the agony in my infected chest, I smiled.
What an adventure.
And yet, the price I paid for doing these things alone, outside of the walking pneumonia that I was diagnosed at the ER with the next day, was that I really had no one else to share my story with.
These many years later, I’m sharing it with you.
Thanks for reading.
Now, today, you wouldn’t catch me ever embarking on such a venture. Partially because I have no time, partially because I’m older and I don’t spring back from illness as quickly, partially because I drive now but primarily, because I don’t have to.
You wanna watch VAMPIRE CIRCUS now? Order the Blu-ray. Stream that (blood) sucker off some sort of service if you want. It’s easy to find almost any film or entertainment you want at any given time no matter where you are, ever.
The days of bus rides through the center of public transit Hell to sit in some strange dude’s living room and freeze to death while he pumps a print through a projector onto a pull down screen, are done.
And maybe that’s kind of sad, no?