The circus is certainly an interesting place. With its mix of clowns, performing animals, gymnasts bending into all sorts of interesting shapes, and people performing death defying feats, the circus, or carnival, has always had a darkly fascinating aura to it, making it perfect fodder for film makers. Particularly horror film makers – and that’s where Sidney Hayers’ 1960 film comes in, the aptly named Circus of Horrors.
Available for the first time on Blu-ray courtesy of Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics collection, Circus of Horrors might not be the first example of the use of the circus or carnival in horror or film in general but it is a fine example of British exploitation cinema. This quickly gets proven in the disturbing opening scene, when the police discover a local society woman has become the victim of a botched operation courtesy of plastic surgeon Dr. Rossiter (Anton Diffring) and is now horribly disfigured.
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The use of make-up effects isn’t over the top here but still makes for quite a shocking image, and one that may stay with you a while after that scene has ended. Now on the run, Rossiter and his assistants Angela (Jane Hylton) and her brother Martin (Kenneth Griffith) evade the police and escape to France where Rossiter has now disguised himself as Dr. Schuler. Whilst there they come across circus owner Vanet (Donald Pleasance) whose circus is rundown.
After Dr. Schuler/Rossiter successfully operates on Vanet’s daughter Nicole (Yvonne Monlaur), whose face was scarred in a wartime bombing, he tells Vanet he will run the circus for him. But after a drunken incident with the circus’ performing bear leaves Vanet dead, Schuler takes over the circus completely and uses it as front for his experimental surgical exploits on the young women that join the circus. The travelling circus seems to be the perfect cover for his deranged behaviour, but once the bizarre and gruesome accidents start piling up they catch the attention of the newspapers and Scotland Yard who are now on Rossiter/Schuler’s trail.
Although Rossiter and Co. getting out of the country in the first place might seem unlikely, it certainly makes for a grisly cat-and-mouse tale of sorts, with Anton Diffring’s performance as the arrogant, power hungry sociopath being quite entertaining to watch as Diffring throws himself into the role, hamming it up when needs be.
Rossiter’s sinister motives must scare Angela and Martin, who not only travelled with the clearly disturbed doctor in the first place but stick around and remain faithful to him although certain scenes show that they are frustrated with Rossiter and want to leave. It’s a strange relationship for sure but nonetheless it’s supposed to show the power and hold the diabolical doctor has over people and how he can get his own way, and in this case it mostly works. You just have to suspend your disbelief a little but that’s part of what horror is about anyway.
As far as film and horror villians go, Diffrings’ Dr. Rossiter might not be mentioned alongside the classics but he does make for a highly unlikeable human being; befriending disfigured young women to transform them for his own twisted gain and his successful “Temple of Beauty” part of the circus. This woman-hating side of Rossiter certainly adds an extra dimension of scorn upon reactions to the character and that feeling of wanting to see him get his comeuppance.
Also worth mentioning are Donald Pleasance’s relatively short appearance as down on his luck circus owner Vanet. Pleasance certainly makes the most of his screen time here. In particular his unfortunate drunken incident with the circus bear! Conrad Phillips puts in a spirited performance as Inspector Arthur Ames too, but in a more cool, calm, almost Bond-esque manner as he gets closer to uncovering Rossiter’s deadly games.
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Extras for this release of Circus of Horrors include a new interview with critic and author Kim Newman; a new interview with broadcaster Stuart Maconie; behind the scenes stills gallery, and the original trailer.
Overall, Circus of Horrors might not be considered a classic but it is an entertaining, sometimes exciting, and at times quite gory and shocking film for a 1960 audience, and is a fine example of early British exploitation cinema.
Circus of Horrors is out now on Blu-ray from Studiocanal.