Four out of five psychologists agree that something rotten is alive and well between the sawdust and the high wire in the delirious Circus of Horrors. Lame big-top horror pix are common enough, but this fiendishly entertaining delight would inspire the voyeur-sadist in MisterRogers. Anton Diffring is the steely-eyed medical maniac with a mission to populate an insane circus exclusively with cosmetically-enhanced prostitutes and criminals. And I won’t turn that into a White House joke.
Circus of Horrors
1960 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 88/92m. / Phantom of the Circus / Street Date September 10, 2019 / 29.95
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
Film Editor: Reginald Mills
Makeup: Trevor Crole-Rees
Art Direction: Jack Shampan
Original Music: Muir Mathieson, Franz Reizenstein
Written by George Baxt
Produced by Leslie Parkyn, Julian Wintle
Directed by Sidney Hayers
What’s the best circus movie? The original animated Dumbo, of course, and then maybe Carol Reed’s Trapeze, or Max Ophul’s dreamlike Lola Montès. But for the next slot I nominate a down-market horror item — a sordid epic that nevertheless carries a genuine glamorous-sawdust appeal, the English exploitation hit Circus of Horrors. Its circus acts are well integrated and appealingly brief, something that can’t be said for Cecil B. De Mille’s Oscar- winning groaner, or the simply awful The Big Circus.
Always a television favorite and quite a performer in its original 1960 release, the very entertaining show transcends its own exploitative nature by simply being candid and honest about its curious and (for 1960) ‘sick’ ideas. The colorful mix of sex and sadism is served with good performances and excellent direction.
Talk about a fast pace: the second shot in this movie is of a mutilated woman stumbling madly into her boudoir. After botching an illegal experimental plastic surgery technique on socialite Evelyn Morley Finsbury (Colette Wilde), the arrogant & irresponsible Dr. Rossiter (Anton Diffring) kills a policeman, crashes his car and requires some repair work on his own face from his ever-loyal assistants/lackies 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 Monsieur 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 repaired with his brilliant reconstructive techniques. When these performers rebel or attempt to shake Schüler’s possessive grip, he arranges for them to meet with ghastly ‘accidents’ in full view of horrified crowds.
Aerialist Elissa Caro (Erika Remberg) aspires to circus greatness, while and the horsewoman Magda von Meck (Vanda Hudson) wishes to retire from Schüler’s employ — and sexual domination. The grown-up Nicole (now Yvonne Monlaur) is unaware of her ‘uncle’s’ villainy, and is preparing to join the act as well. Elissa becomes furious when Schüler turns his attention to a new potential beauty, the acid-scarred Melina (Yvonne Romain). The ‘Jinx Circus’ rakes in the cash but Schüler is determined to dominate all around him, and return to the public eye as a great innovator in plastic surgery. When the Circus tours England, he finds himself back where people still remember the notorious name Rossiter.
1960 was a ‘Summer of Chills,’ a Springtime for Horror: The City of the Dead, Blood and Roses, Black Sunday, House of Usher, Peeping Tom, Psycho. The Hammer message finally soaked in everywhere: gory horror pix can’t lose, even if they’re open season for every 2-bit censor board on the planet. A score of films that focused on sick surgery arrived in such a tight grouping that the classic Eyes without a Face can’t have been their only inspiration — horror movies became obsessed with mutilated women. Was the news just getting out about abominable medical experiments in the recent war?
“No Skies of Gray on that Guignol Way…”
Circus of Horrors has a lot going for it: an unbroken succession of shock scenes is made believable by just enough of a plot to motivate the mayhem. The extremely fast pace gives it the appeal of a serial thriller. The war does haunt the film, as the reprehensible Dr. Rossiter got lots of practice mending soldiers’ ruined faces before finding the little bombing victim Nicole Vanet. Beyond that it’s Grand Guignol all the way, with Rossiter a conscienceless fiend. He’s abetted by two enablers whose actions would be ridiculous but for the fact that, like everything else in the movie, their motivations are addressed in very direct, bald exposition. Martin begins as a surgeon-trainee, but is soon carrying out Schüler’s evil murders. The luckless Angela loves Rossiter/Schüler, and suffers as he visits one grateful patient after another (nobody knocks in this movie, repeatedly interrupting Schüler’s lovemaking). Angela and Martin are still despicable villains: they rebel only when threatened personally.
What remains uneasy subtext in the poetic Eyes without a Face, stands on the exploitative surface of this sensual fantasy. The horror unspools in the brightest of settings, a spectacle for an audience eager for anything exciting and sexy. If we look at the history of popular entertainment, that perverted viewership is US — the dulled senses crave basic stimulation. It’s also a key film for the distinctions between Conservative and Liberal fantasies put forward by Phil Hardy’s critics in his Encyclopedia of Horror. The history of horror movies is clogged with good efforts that shy away from their own subject matter, as if denying culpability in their own content. But no moral or Puritan hypocrisy offsets Circus of Horror’s self-delight — this show acknowledges its entertainment circus of death without excuses. It isn’t afraid to be honestly sadistic, even as it masquerades as all-ages entertainment.
This movie is refreshingly uninhibited. The genteel Dr. Rossiter is a material quack in a material world, and female flesh is his playground, to be beautified and destroyed to satisfy his pride and his libido. 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 become.
The Sadism Trilogy.
Fans and critics group Circus of Horrors with two other pictures distributed by Anglo-Amalgamated, Arthur Crabtree’s Horrors of the Black Museum and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. All three hang a series of atrocious murders on thin crime investigation storylines. Being the most serious and intellectually cold-blooded, the self-reflexive black comedy Peeping Tom got caught in a critical backlash and did a commercial wipeout. The other two are less defensible in the judgment of good taste, especially the nasty Black Museum, which they should never have shown to little kids like me. But the irresistible Circus of Horrors is pure escapist Guignol: horror thrills with a cruel vision of human nature. Plus a dash of sex.
We’re told that Victorian audiences attended attractions in which nude women posed in imitations of famous paintings, ‘art’ exhibitions that were exempt from the decency laws. The Schüler Circus has its own tableaux vivant ‘parade of beauty’ sideshow, where patrons merely view women in themed costumes, standing still like statues. The main performers are a parade of much more erotically charged women, that do move. The blonde and very abundant Vanda Hudson plays the equestrienne Magda Von Meck, who would like to leave the circus to marry a Baron (Walter Gotell, uncredited). Both Hudson and horror star Yvonne Romain (The Curse of the Werewolf, Corridors of Blood, Captain Clegg, 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 caught napping on this one. A quick online search will turn up images from the elusive, hotter Continental version.
↑ The most intense of the actresses is the beautiful Erika Remberg, whose aerialist Elissa Caro makes the mistake of vying with Rossiter for control of her own billing. The second-billed Remberg indeed looks as if the vagaries of mainstream genre films would make her impatient; she eventually moved on to daring adult films, such as Radley Metzger’s The Lickerish Quartet. The IMDB calls out three marriages for Remberg, to director Sidney Hayers and actors Walter Reyer and Gustavo Rojo.
← 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, Nicole is the only plastic surgery patient not directly targeted by Rossiter’s lust. Under the logic of male sex fantasies, that makes her a candidate for survival.
Circus of Horrors extends a key scene in Peeping Tom by introducing four out of five actresses through gruesome close-ups 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.
(Spoiler this paragraph:) Speaking of undiluted sadism, the film’s goriest setpiece is loaded with a guilty voyeuristic bloodlust. Affixed to a canted turntable and wearing only a skimpy costume of flowers, Magda von Meck is a spinning target of flesh for a knife artiste in an Indian costume. When Rossiter fidgets on the sidelines, Angela realizes that her brother Martin is below futzing with the turntable mechanism, to screw up the knife-thrower’s timing. We know exactly what’s coming: the utter 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 felt cheated had she escaped. It’s a strange & chilling cheap thrill.
I imagine that a feminist would consider Circus of Horrors a prime example of male oppression. By using his surgical talent to transform the women into desirable circus stars, Schüler claims rights over their professional and sexual lives. This makes him an extension of Dr. Genessier in Eyes without a Face, whose hubris ‘entitled’ him to commit monstrous crimes with impunity. Rossiter/Schüler is a Harvey Weinstein of the Big Top, a megalomaniac in love with his own power. As interpreted by the icy, oily Anton Diffring, he becomes an iconic continental seducer-boogeyman, more cartoonish than mysterious. 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.
Nobody would ever murder somebody THAT way. Well, Duh.
Briskly paced and smartly directed, Circus of Horrors makes an asset of plot hooey that would slay many another thriller. A notorious public enemy chooses a very public circus in which to hide out. Then there’s the coincidence of mutilated-yet-gorgeous, blackmail-able women, all of whom easily develop ace circus skills. The actions of Rossiter’s murderous sidekicks are simply crazy. Angela’s misplaced love for Schüler makes okay dramatic sense, but Martin’s willingness to commit so many capital crimes is explained only by the defeated, miserable look on his face.
Finally, these are the craziest cops ever in a horror picture. With Schüler’s circus so clearly a public threat, the authorities would withhold permits until they were satisfied about things like, oh, the actual identity of the owner and his star performers. While looking for evidence, the cops would shut down the show for whatever code or health violations they could find… have those lions gone through quarantine? Instead, we have a Don Juan investigator (Conrad Phillips) who seduces the performers to get information! The show sidesteps these weirdnesses simply by not giving us time to think about them.
Rossiter keeps an man-in-suit simian around for little purpose but to cause havoc in one of the film’s multiple mayhem endings. Donald Pleasence’s imbibing circus owner is certainly effective; it’s early in Pleasance’s career and 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. One wonders how many of the circus personnel were former crooks, surgically altered. Upon re -viewing Circus of Horrors, a friend suggested that maybe the murderous Bosco the Bear needed to hide out from the cops too, so Schüler used his surgical skill to transform him into the ape-monster in the cage!
We saw only a couple of shaky story points in Circus. A tell-tale scarab ring could have been better established, to cue Lady Morley-Finsbury’s memory (perhaps she was distracted by her husband John Merivale’s long absence in Mexico). And Elissa Caro seems to have an admirer in an unnamed, un-credited circus clown, whose makeup resembles that of Emmett Kelly. The clown is featured in stills and given several close-ups, but we don’t realize that he’s the crying-on-the-inside type until he’s given a moment of special mourning. It’s pretty clear that a bit of Elissa-Clown sidebar content was lost in the rush to give the film a breakneck pace.
It’s long been pointed out that Bernard Schüler’s initials 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. Every shot is simply beautiful. The cutting is particularly good, selling the illusion that Yvonne Romain is attacked by a cageful of lions, and maximizing the brutality of the knife-throwing incident. The impact of a body falling from a great height is also perfectly edited… Georges Franju may have seen this show before filming his Judex.
The film’s music also offers solid support. The generic main circus theme seems to be laughing at us, but with the ‘sad’ clown mask priming us for tragedy. I’m told that a full lp soundtrack was issued for the film, something unusual for a horror release of this year. The very 1960-sounding pop song Look for a Star provides a great counterpoint to the horror. Its lyrics chirp about love, idealism and security, when what we’re anticipating is another gruesome killing. It was a radio hit, with English and American versions that sound almost identical. Somebody was cheated.
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 labeled a hack, a charge that makes no sense what with this film and his superior Night of the Eagle (Burn, Witch, Burn!) to his credit. He was reportedly heavily involved in the editing, and also cut the acclaimed Tiger Bay and A Night to Remember.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of Circus of Horrors is the presentation this unsung classic deserves. Douglas Slocombe’s bright colors pop, impressing us with the dazzling angles of the spinning Elissa Caro. Even the wide shots of the circus tent and the various acts are attractive, with spotlights tracing patterns in the smoky air. The 1:77 aspect ratio looks good, with no distortion. I remember that the old Image laserdisc of this title was both cropped and slightly squeezed — there was no way to make it look good.
I’m not sure I miss not having a battery of extras on this title, although that’s perhaps a symptom of the movie’s relatively low status in the halls of horror. The usual gang of experts might have had difficulty ‘explaining’ what we’re watching, when 90% of its meaning is right on the surface. We’re given an effective U.K. trailer, two rather gory B&W TV spots and a nice still gallery. John Landis’s Trailers from Hell commentary piece isn’t one of his best — he’s usually right-on insightful, but here he simply calls Circus of Horrors a bad movie! Gee, was John offended by its bad taste?
I would like to know if Circus of Horrors is considered to be Anton Diffring’s best movie. His roles in big pictures seem mostly as aristocratic German officers, which can’t have been much of a stretch for him. He’s so irredeemably BAD as as the Sinister Dr. Schüler that he’s almost sympathetic: can’t a twisted maniac pursue his life’s dream in peace?
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
With input from Gary Teetzel
Circus of Horrors
Supplements: trailer, still gallery, Trailers from Hell hosted by John Landis.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 12, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson
Here’s John Landis on Circus of Horrors: