Sidney Hayers (director)
92 min (length)
12 October 2020 (released)
09 October 2020
This British film from 1960 provides us with a roller coaster of unabated horrors piled up nicely. However, as we find out this particular circus may as well be a travelling ‘Grand Guignol’ show!
The celebrated crime writer George Baxt wastes no time and kicks off with a real shocker as we dissolve from a night long shot of a country house (the year is 1947) from which female screams are emanating. We witness an incensed woman tearfully smashing up the mirrors in her bedroom. A little later her father and fiancé arrive and are confronted by this disfigured woman. On the cabinet beside her is a photograph of how she'd looked before her beautiful face was ruined. This pretty much sets the tone for what is to come…
Evelyn Morley (the unfortunate woman in question) had been operated on by a brilliant renegade plastic surgeon called Rossiter (Anton Diffring); unfortunately Evelyn removed the bandages too early and needed at least two more operations. It wasn't really Rossiter's fault then or was it? On the run for performing such operations illegally, Rossiter crashes his car which bursts into flames. Injured he arrives at a place where he and his two confederates Angela (Jane Hylton), who just happens to be madly in love with him, and her brother Martin (Kenneth Griffith) are holed up waiting for his return. In view of the fact that Rossiter is now a wanted man in England the best idea for the three of them is to leave for Europe, in this case France. Rossiter has changed his name to Dr. Bernard Schuler and they see a little girl named Nicole pumping water by the roadside and ask her for directions. Schuler notices she is badly disfigured...well, well! “A bomb blast from the war, there are many like me now” the poor little mite informs him. Opposite the road are the remains of a shabby travelling circus - the owner of which is her drunk of a father, Vanet (Donald Pleasence). Schuler - always quick to seize an opportunity - sees a viable future indeed: he will operate on the little girl for free and thus become Vanet’s business partner - an ideal front. The operation is a complete success and he gets the delighted father to sign over the managerial side though Schuler would like to be the owner. This is rectified in no time when an intoxicated Vanet is killed baiting his bear (or someone wearing a bear's outfit). Yes, Schuler could have saved him but is quick to realize his golden opportunity.
Rossiter/Schuler claims he'd have the circus up and running in no time - but first he needs to find acts. Hard to believe but he goes on the hunt for beautiful but disfigured women which he then transforms for his ‘Temple of Beauty’. The first one he picks up is a prostitute who he has just witnessed stabbing an old client…
A whopping ten years later The Bernard Schuler Circus is the toast of Europe and the former prostitute in question, Elissa Caro (Erica Remberg), is now one of the headliners and performs a highly dangerous act high up in the air. Trouble is she is not getting star billing. This honor is given to Magda (another statuesque beauty played by Vanda Hudson) who stands on a horse galloping round the ring and jumping through a frame of knives. It appears that over the years a number of the leading female performers have met with tragic accidents. They all know too much and Schuler simply cannot let them leave. By now, Magda has met a rich and monocled 'sugar daddy' (Walter Gotell). Naturally she wants to leave the circus so yet another nasty accident will have to be arranged. The crazed Schuler doesn’t carry out these murders himself - this is Martin's job.
Soon we have inquisitive Inspector Ames (Conrad Phillips) posing as a crime reporter sniffing around the circus. As far as investigations go he doesn't do too badly - after allowing himself to be seduced by the conniving Elissa he falls in love with the rather nice Nicole, now grown up and played by French actress Yvonne Monlaur. Amusingly, the grown up Nicole sounds much more French than the English Carla Challoner who played her as a child. Soon yet another disfigured statuesque beauty enters the fray - Melina (Yvonne Romain), who wears a veil as a result of having had acid chucked in her face. Schuler, smitten by her ample bust and shapely rear, agrees to operate. This time he has fallen in love and after succeeding on both levels with Melina he feels a return to England is seemly. The incredibly long-suffering Martin and still love-struck Angela don't think it a good idea but that’s not the only trouble a-brewing for our mad doctor: after Elissa overhears a conversation between Inspector Ames and Nicole she attempts a little blackmail… Meanwhile, Melina's top-of-the-bill act is that of a lion tamer! Are you kidding? Things are bound to go bloody wrong and we’re talking very bloody indeed… though Schuler won’t escape his well-deserved fate no matter how dastardly his scheming plans…
Anton Diffring is really quite ideal in this part - with his sculpted features and hooded ice-blue eyes he looks even more sinister and calculating. It is very much his film and he is commendable in the role achieving just right balance. Baxt was always an interesting writer but this never less than highly entertaining film is full of loopholes. For example, are we to believe that a crafty lass like Elissa would have been with the circus for ten years without stirring up any trouble? And would Martin and Angela really put up with being treated like doormats by Schuler? But these are minor quibbles. Tony Hatch's corny but catchy hit 'Look for a Star' complements Elissa’s act, Douglas Slocombe's photography is superb and Sidney Hayers (Erica Remberg's real life husband) pacey direction is perfectly suited to the overall ambience of this film.
CIRCUS OF HORRORS is available for the first time fully restored on Blu-ray. Additional Bonus Material includes Interviews, Behind-the-Scenes gallery and trailer.