Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Always a television favorite and quite a performer in its original 1960 release, Circus of
Horrors is a very entertaining show, transcending its own exploitative nature by way of some
curious and sick ideas central to the appeal of Horror films. It's a colorful mix of sex and
sadism served up for public display, with good performances and excellent direction.
After botching an illegal experimental plastic surgery technique on socialite
Evelyn Morley Finsbury (Colette Wilde), Dr. Rossiter (Anton Diffring) crashes his car and requires
some repair work on his own face from his ever-loyal assistants Angela (Jane Hylton) and Martin
(Kenneth Griffth). Hiding in France under the name of Dr. Bernard Schüler, Rossiter inveigles
himself into the good graces of Vanet (Donald Pleasence), the owner of a small circus, by repairing
the face of Vanet's daughter Nicole (Charla Challoner). Rossiter stands by as a performing bear kills
the drunken Vanet. He then appropriates the circus and populates it with ex-prostitutes and criminals,
all of whom are females whose faces he's fixed with his
brilliant reconstructive techniques. When these performers rebel or try to leave Schüler's possessive
grip he arranges for them to meet with ghastly 'accidents' in full view of horrified crowds.
The 'Jinxed Circus' rakes in the cash but when it tours England, Schüler finds himself
back where people still remember the notorious name Rossiter.
Circus of Horrors has a lot going for it: an extremely fast pace and an unbroken succession of shock
scenes made believable by just enough of a plot to motivate the mayhem. The odd structure relates
plastic surgery horror to the war, where it is said Dr. Rossiter got lots of practice mending soldiers
before finding bombing victim Nicole Vanet. Beyond that it's Grand Guignol all the
way, with Rossiter a conscienceless fiend. He's abetted by two assistants whose motivation to cover up his
killings would be ridiculous but for the fact that, like everything else in the movie, their reasoning
is efficiently covered in very direct, bald exposition.
This is a sensual fantasy of mutilation and horror in the brightest of settings, a spectacle for an
audience that secretly thinks killing beautiful women is exciting and sexy .... Us. It's
also a key film for Phil Hardy's 1
ideas about Conservative and Liberal fantasies in Horror. The idea that Horror films are a circus
for entertainment made of terror and death is so simply stated here that the movie becomes fascinating.
Watching the genteel Dr. Rossiter create and then destroy beauty to satisfy
his pride and libido seems totally natural. With the colorful, musical circus providing an upbeat and
artificial showbiz background for the terror, narrative logic stays afloat no matter how farfetched
the killings get.
I think I saw an Anglo-Amalgamated logo for the first time just six years ago; the awkward-looking
Atlas figure got cut from these English exports when shown in America. Circus of Horrors is often compared
to its companion pictures, Horrors of the Black Museum and
Peeping Tom, all three of which were rather
precociously violent and bloody for the late '50s. Being the most serious and intellectually cold-blooded,
Peeping Tom got caught in a critical backlash and did a commercial wipeout. These
two others are much less defensible in the judgment of good taste (especially the nasty Black
Museum, which they never should have let little kids like me see), but Circus of Horrors
is irresistibly Guignol.
This audience for the Schüler circus is mostly kiddies but the movie caters to
the burlesque crowd. The movie is a parade of flesh with a broad selection of erotically charged
women to titillate the viewer. Young Nicole grows up to be the pert and sensual Yvonne Monlaur
(The Brides of Dracula, Terror of the Tongs), a French looker with huge eyes and lips.
Remaining virginal throughout the story, she's the only one that Rossiter doesn't directly lust
after. That makes her a candidate for survival, under the logic of male sex fantasies. The very
blonde and very abundant Vanda Hudson plays the equestrienne Magda Von Meck. Magda tries to
leave the circus to marry a Baron (Walter Gotell) and lives to regret it. Both Hudson and horror star
Yvonne Romain (The Curse of the Werewolf, Corridors of Blood, Captain Clegg,
The Devil Doll,
The Last of Sheila) get away with
a lot of near-nudity, which can't really be explained by the circus atmosphere: the British and American
censors must have been napping on this one. The most intense of the actresses is the beautiful Erika
Remberg (The Lickerish Quartet), who as the aerialist Elissa Caro makes the mistake
of vying with Rossiter for control of her own billing.
Circus of Horrors extends a key scene in Peeping Tom by having four out of five
actresses introduced through gruesome closeups of their facial scars. Nicole's is an innocent war
injury, but with the other three performers it's assumed that Rossiter found them as criminals or
prostitutes. Erika Remberg's heavy makeup makes her terrible scar look like an erotic ornament,
frankly, like some kind of sexual organ on her face. The mutilations 'cured' by Rossiter are presented
with a J.G. Ballard - Crash kind of fetish treatment. You have to go back to silent Tod Browning
movies to find sadism as direct as this.
The perverse logic of the film makes the women into Rossiter/Schüler's possessions. By using
his surgical talent to transform them into desirable circus stars, he claims rights over their
professional and sexual lives. This makes him an extension of Dr. Genessier in
Les Yeux Sans Visage, whose hubris
'entitled' him to commit monstrous crimes with impunity. Rossiter is more cartoonish than mysterious,
but filtered through the icy, oily Anton Diffring he becomes an iconic continental seducer-boogeyman.
Since our expectations are fulfilled by the unending string of brutal killings, we're more
than primed for Rossiter's comeuppance. It comes in several very satisfying stages, so we get to
witness the sadism coming and going, so to speak.
Phil Hardy is right about the fact that this
is a prime conservative horror ... just like the sickos who come to Schüler's circus hoping for blood and
gore, we're here for the exact same thrills, in a candy-colored, sexed up package. Circus of Horrors
never implicates us in the sadism contract - the nastiness has nothing to do with us ... I'm here
because I like Circus movies, honest.
Briskly paced and well directed, Circus of Horrors makes an asset of plot hooey that would
slay many another thriller. 2
A notorious public enemy chooses a very public Circus in which to hide out. Then
there's the coincidence of mutilated-but-gorgeous, blackmail-able women, all of whom easily develop
ace Circus skills. Rossiter keeps an apelike man-in-suit simian around for little purpose but to
mangle him in one of the film's multiple mayhem endings. The cops are extremely dense and the actions
of Rossiter's murderous sidekicks simply crazy. Donald Pleasence's imbibing circus owner is an
effective character at the beginning of his career - he still has a bit of hair. The script makes its
points and moves along, giving Pleasence just enough time to sketch Vanet as foolishly trusting. Safety
tip: when dancing with a drunken bear, don't let it step on any broken glass.
A reviewer at another site pointed out that Bernard Schüler's initials are the same as Billy Smart, which
allowed the use of Billy Smart's circus without repainting the 'BS' logos seen everywhere. Great color
lensing by Douglas Slocombe
(The Fearless Vampire Killers) effortlessly
mixes the backstage action with the staged acts and real ones. Only some audience reaction shots where the
focus is bad shows anything less than perfect camerawork. The cutting is particularly good, lending the
impression that Yvonne Romain is really attacked by a cageful of lions, and giving an 'accident' during a
knife-throwing act a really brutal sting. 3
The music also offers solid support, with the very 1960 pop song Look for a Star providing
a great counterpoint to the horror. Its lyrics chirp about love, idealism and security, when what we're
anticipating is another gruesome killing.
Of the Anglo-Amalgamated 'sadism' trio, Peeping Tom is the intellectual winner, but Circus of Horrors
is probably the most entertaining. Director Sidney Hayers is frequently called a hack, a charge that
makes no sense, with this film and Night of the Eagle (Burn, Witch, Burn!) to his credit. He was
reportedly heavily involved in the editing, and was the cutter on the acclaimed Tiger Bay and
A Night to Remember.
Anchor Bay's DVD of Circus of Horrors is brightly colored, sharply detailed in 16:9 and comes with a
very clear soundtrack. Some erroneous filmographies list it as anamorphic but it is really
flat 1:85. An earlier Image laserdisc was both squeezed and pan'n scanned, which added to the impression of
this being a wider film.
The disc comes with a trailer, some television spots, stills and ad materials. A thorough bio on Anton Diffring
shows the breadth of his career quite nicely and told me something I'd never realized before, that Germans in
England in WW2 were interned in camps, in Diffring's case, in Canada. I wonder if he was an alien or a Brit
citizen at the time.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Circus of Horrors rates:
Supplements: trailer, tv spots, stills, ads, Anton Diffring text bio
Packaging: Alpha-pak case
Reviewed: January 11, 2002
1. Phil Hardy, et al; The Encyclopedia of Horror films
2. I haven't seen Circus of Terror with Christopher Lee, but I've
suffered through Berserk! recently working on a show about Joan Crawford. Berserk! is an
incompetent remake of Circus of Horrors with a big slice of Mildred Pierce thrown in for
good measure. The circus atmosphere in Circus of Horrors is so well done, it's almost good enough to
stand by the excellent Trapeze. It's certainly far more entertaining than the stupid, shrill
The Greatest Show on Earth.
3. (spoiler) This knife throwing scene is a sadistic setpiece that distills
appeal of Circus of Horrors. Attached to a canted turntable and wearing only two garlands
of flowers, Magda Von Meck is a spinning target of flesh for a knife artiste in an Indian costume. Rossiter
the sidelines, and Angela realizes that her brother Martin is below futzing with the turntable mechanism,
to screw up the knife-thrower's timing. We know what's coming and the complete vulnerability of the very-
exposed Magda paints an extreme picture of Women in Horror films as idealized victims: Her function is to
be slaughtered, plain and simple. When it happens, it's shocking, even though we'd have been crushed had
she escaped ... a strange & chilling cheap thrill.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.
Return to Top of Page