Director: Sidney Hayers
Script: George Baxt
Cast: Anton Diffring, Erika Remberg, Yvonne Monlaur, Donald Pleasance, Kenneth Griffith, Conrad Philip, Colette Wilden
Running time: 92 minutes
On the run from the authorities, after a botched plastic surgery operation, Dr Rossiter (Diffring) and his two assistants (Remberg & Griffith) go on the lamb and end up in rural France. After a chance encounter with a facially scarred little girl, Rossiter performs surgery on the girl in exchange for a stake in the circus her father, Vanet (Pleasance), runs. The doctor changes his name to Dr Scholer and, after a convenient accident involving a bear kills off Vanet, Scholer takes over the circus filling it with ex-cons he helps gain loyalty from through his ground-breaking plastic surgery techniques that he uses to fix up their faces..
Scholer has a habit of falling for his leading ladies, but when they want to break things off and leave his circus he makes sure they have an unfortunate ‘accident’ so they can’t ever grass him up. But as the bodies pile up and the ‘good doctor’ has one affair too many (he’s kind of in an on-off relationship with his nurse who’s madly in love with him) she and her brother decide ‘enough is enough’, particularly when an investigative journalist (actually a cop) starts snooping around looking for answers in the so-called ‘jinx circus’.
Circus of Horrors is a picture I’d read about a lot over the past few decades in various horror magazines and books so I was keen to check out the second film in Anglo Amalgamated Film Distribution’s so-called Sadean trilogy that started a year earlier with Horrors of the Black Museum (featuring Michael Gough) and culminating with Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.
Although it’s rather dated it still retains a certain creepiness and bizarreness to it that makes it compelling viewing. Set and filmed within an actual circus (Billy Smart’s in actual fact) the audience gets to see quite a few still impressive high wire stunts and crazy animal tricks that you’ll never see in today’s more enlightened times.
Circus of Horrors has a great cast who are all good in it, especially Diffring, who really sells his character’s sociopathic tendencies, but simultaneously enables an audience to see his skewed point of view too. Donald Pleasance has one of the funniest death scenes ever when he’s mauled by a stuffed bear and Griffith is excellent as the put-upon assistant who ends up doing plenty of the mad doctor’s dirty work for him.
It’s a very colourful film and is well shot, with a decent score by Franz Reizenstori and Muir Mathieson, topped off with a chart-topping song ‘Look for a Star’ written by the writer of Petula Clark’s hit single ‘Downtown’ and the theme to ‘Crossroads’.
Playing out like the bastard love child of an episode of The Avengers and a Dario Argento giallo, Circus of Horrors has a unique charm all of its own that makes it recommended viewing for lovers of kitsch and cult films.
While far removed from being perfect, with its writ large clichés and stereotypes and its cheesy effects (check out the man in a gorilla suit who hates Diffring’s character), Circus of Horrors still manages to be well worth a watch especially if you’re a fan of creepy circus movies, replete with lots of attractive leggy women and film’s with a sadistic twist.
Studiocanal is distributing Circus of Horrors on Blu-ray. There are some decent extras to enjoy on the disc too including:
Interview with Kim Newman (20 mins) – The ever reliable journalist and author discusses the film in detail, describing it as a nice piece of Grand Guignol, albeit one with misogynistic and sadean undertones;
An appreciation by Stuart Maconie (26.23 mins) – The broadcaster and author demonstrates his comprehensive knowledge of the film, being the super-fan he is, and claims that Circus of Horrors invented the modern British horror film.
Behind the scenes – Still gallery (11 photos);
Original trailer (2.31 mins) – Cool retro trailer