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Circus of Horrors

Circus of Horrors
Anchor Bay
1960 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 88/92m. / Phantom of the Circus
Starring Anton Diffring, Jane Hylton, Kenneth Griffith, Erika Remberg, Conrad Phillips, Yvonne Monlaur, Donald Pleasence, Colette Wilde, Vanda Hudson, Yvonne Romain, John Merivale, Carla Challoner
Cinematography Douglas Slocombe
Production Designer Charles Permane
Art Direction Jack Shampan
Film Editor Reginald Mills
Original Music Muir Mathieson, Franz Reizenstein
Writing credits George Baxt
Produced by Leslie Parkyn, Julian Wintle
Directed by Sidney Hayers

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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 the twisted 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 fidgets on 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.

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