Circus of Horrors (1960)
"Spectacular Towering Terror! One man's lust...made men into beasts, stripped women of their souls!"
On the run after a botched operation, a deranged plastic surgeon takes over a run-down circus with the assistance of two accomplices and proceeds to turn it into one of the star attractions in Europe. He transforms disfigured young women into beautiful circus performers. But when they attempt to leave the clutches of the circus and the obsessed doctor, they begin to meet with deadly accidents in the circus ring.
An early entry into the Anglo-horror cycle that was kick-started towards the end of the 1950s with a slew of Gothic horrors released by Hammer Film Productions, Circus of Horrors doesn't travel along the same monstrous path but instead goes for the contemporary psychopath approach, finding more common ground with the likes of Peeping Tom and Horrors of the Black Museum, both of which were also made by the Anglo-Amalgamated Productions company. The focus of these films, almost an unofficial trilogy of psychological thrillers rather than outright horror films, was sadism and horrors of the human kind with a focus on cruelty and sexual violence, as opposed to that of the supernatural. The films were all ahead of their time and whilst Peeping Tom has rightfully been heralded as a classic, Circus of Horrors has been somewhat forgotten about, and unfairly so, though probably due to the gimmicky nature of the plot. It was a surprise hit on its release in the US but it's not hard to see why.
Circus of Horrors has your standard old school British horror approach which means lots of dialogue and slow-burn build-up peppered with a few scenes of brutality or gore to keep things spicy and the whole thing then finishing off rather abruptly. There's not really a whole load of plot - simply a repeated cycle for most the film which involves the doctor operating on a new victim, turning her into the star of the show and then deciding to 'terminate' her contract when she starts moaning about wanting to leave. There's padding either side of this involving the wrap around plot, with the opening being about the doctor on the run from the law and finally having to face the consequences in the finale. It's a great finale too with the doctor being chased around his circus and you wonder which of the numerous parties after his blood will get him - the police, the woman he disfigured at the start of the film or his accomplices who have finally grown sick of the murders. The pace throughout the film is great, with director Hayes and editor Reginald Mills really ensuring that things are tight and don't let up their ever-tightening grip on the main antagonist. It's clear that Dr Schüler, despite his best efforts, isn't going to get away with it and watching the net close in on him is a real highlight.
Circus of Horrors isn't overly graphic in its violence, the odd moment of aggression being harsh but fleeting, and there are some neat circus-related deaths including a woman fastened to a rotating wheel whilst a knife-thrower hurls razor-sharp knives at her (you can guess the rest). I got a bit sick of some of the circus music and at times the film seems to be an advertisement for the real circus (real-life Billy Smarts Circus) that allowed the film crew in to take the stock footage of the acts that is continually peppered throughout. Circus of Horrors does wear its gimmick on its sleeve, a little too much at times, particularly in the silly decision to include a man in a gorilla suit which almost shatters the perfect illusion of the circus that had been created up until that point. The bulk of the circus-orientated material is well incorporated into the film, it just seems to go on for too long.
Anton Diffring stars in the lead role and he's fantastic. He plays the role perfectly with charisma and menace, making his amoral Dr Schüler a real piece of work. You can never totally hate him because he believes in what he's doing and his work becomes his obsession, so much so that he turns into a monster - sort of like the Frankenstein of plastic surgery. On the other hand, you do want to see him pay for what he's selfishly done to others. Quite how Diffring never really made it bigger is a mystery but he's clearly the best thing about the film.
Able support comes from the bevy of beauties that he turns from freaks into stunners. And Donald Pleasance is even on hand for a few scenes early on before he's offed by a really cheap-looking stuffed bear. Despite this moment, and the aforementioned gorilla suit, Circus of Horrors has dated very well and stood the test of time better than a lot of its contemporaries. The atmosphere is fairly moody, definitely dark and there's a nasty undercurrent just lying beneath the surface - the sexual repression coming to the fore that would really manifest itself in the horror genre in plainer form in the late 70s and 80s. Circus of Horrors is definitely a pioneer in that regards, shaping what would become a trademark horror staple in years to come.
There's not an awful lot more to say about Circus of Horrors except that it's a solid genre effort from a classic era; a twisted tale of the macabre that would have gone down well amongst a sea of Frankenstein monsters, blood-sucking vampires and mummies. It has decent central idea, is superbly acted, always entertaining, well-paced and violent and moody when it needed to be. Check it out!
Circus of Horrors
Director(s): Sidney Hayers
Writer(s): George Baxt (original screenplay)
Actor(s): Anton Diffring, Erika Remberg, Yvonne Monlaur, Donald Pleasence, Jane Hylton, Kenneth Griffith, Conrad Phillips, Jack Gwillim
Duration: 92 mins