Eye For Film >> Movies >> Circus Of Horrors (1960) Film Review
British cinema in the early 1960s – nothing but the Carry Ons and some stiff upper-lip black and white war films, you might think. Not forgetting, of course, the one with the mad plastic surgeon populating his circus with deformed prostitutes, then killing them off one by one.
Those who write-off films of the pre-British New Wave era as stodgy time-fillers should take a look at this. As should any connoisseurs of pure Grand Guignol horror melodrama. So shocking at the time that it was banned in Finland (!), Sidney Hayers’ trash-fest is still luridly, ludicrously good fun.
The film sets out its stall early, with a barely-clothed woman rampaging through a stately home smashing mirrors with gusto. Meanwhile her hubby and pater are driving towards the house, muttering darkly about Dr Rossiter having gone too far this time. When they burst into the bedroom she turns to them, weeping – to reveal that (as the ad campaign no doubt put it) she has the body of an angel but the face of a monster!
It’s a genuinely shocking moment – the woman’s ruined visage (the result of botched plastic surgery, of course) has a striking waxy blankness reminiscent of the classic Eyes Without A Face. This film isn’t in that league, but it unrepentantly aims for the jugular and often hits its mark.
We are then introduced to Rossiter himself (Anton Diffring) driving frantically from the scene. He knocks down and kills a policeman at a roadblock (the cad!) but the car swerves off the road and crashes, in a scene which gives an early indication that paying for the plastic surgery special effects obviously left about two shillings and sixpence for everything else.
But Rossiter survives and flees to France with two of his friends – the besotted Angela (Jane Hylton) and her weak-willed brother Martin (Kenneth Griffith). Stumbling across a run-down circus owned by the drunken, embittered Vanet (Donald Pleasence) he transforms Vanet’s bomb-scarred daughter Nicole and is rewarded with a half-share in the business.
This soon turns into a full one – Pleasence becomes histoire after a drunken encounter with a dancing bear. Rossiter does nothing to help him and spins the first of many lies to Nicole about her father’s death. But he transforms the circus by recruiting disfigured ‘ladies of the shadows’ before turning them into ravishing beauties and making them the star attractions.
Ten years later ‘Dr Schuler’ is proprietor of the biggest Big Top in Europe and all the ladies he’s worked his magic on have the hots for him – particularly the scheming Elisssa (Erika Remberg, who actually became the director’s wife in real life) and the now grown-up Nicole (Yvonne Monlaur).
Well, not strictly all – the ones who didn’t fancy him he had murdered, naturally. But the police are (finally) starting to get suspicious and when the circus goes on tour to England Schuler/Rossiter’s past catches up with him...
It ain’t Citizen Kane, but equally it’s a notch or two above the legions of Z-grade schlockers that Hammer was already beginning to churn out at the time and which proliferated as the Sixties swung on. No-nonsense journeyman Hayers (assisted by the great cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, whose career covered everything from Ealing classics to Raiders Of The Lost Ark) creates an effective landscape of post-war gloom, populated by mentally and physically scarred people for whom Schuler offers a tantalising, superficial salvation.
The circus scenes are beautifully lit and staged, too (Billy Smart gave them the run of the show), catching that undercurrent of ghoulish anticipation of disaster. Rest assured, however, that no live animals were harmed (or indeed involved in any way whatsoever!) during Donald Pleasence’s death scene or a climactic encounter between Schuler and a rampaging ‘gorilla’ – a bloke in a suit straight out of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. In fact, the effects as a whole are the film’s major weak spot, but if you’ve a high kitsch tolerance this actually adds to the fun.
Diffring, so often cast as the Teutonic bad guy in supporting roles takes advantage of a rare leading part – to, er, play a Teutonic bad guy. But he has undoubted screen presence, catching the character’s feral charisma and warped genius. The supporting players chip in with gusto, too, particularly the recently-deceased polymath Griffith, probably best known now as the mad relative in Four Weddings... but in his younger days a Britflick stalwart.
You could probably write a PHD on what Circus of Horrors reveals about British attitudes to sexuality, violence and medical advances in the post-war period. But instead why not just sit back and watch the nearest thing you’ll ever get to an Avengers episode directed by Dario Argento.Reviewed on: 18 Oct 2007