Circus of Horrors (1960) [31 Days of British Horror Review]

Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, Jules is at it again in March, treating us to a chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.

Starring: Anton Diffring, Yvonne Monlaur, Donald Pleasance
Director: Sidney Hayers

A mere three years after Hammer had reinvented British horror with The Curse Of Frankenstein, Anglo Amalgamated brought the concept of man playing god firmly and luridly into the present day.

Instead of the gothic castles and laboratories of that seminal film, this more realistic tale set its villain in an (initially at least) run-down circus, with its operations being conducted in back room trailers. Most significantly, its erstwhile villain/anti-hero was not trying to create life from dead parts, but create beauty from ruined flesh, but the motivation remained the same- glory and pride, to make the world know their name and acknowledge their superiority over everyone else.

England, 1947. Dr Rossiter (a career best Anton Diffring) is a successful plastic surgeon operating on the highest level of society, but when a procedure goes horribly wrong, he goes on the run with his assistants Angela and Martin (Jane Hylton and Kenneth Griffith), but not before they repair his own face after he crashes his car while evading the police.

Relocating to France, the trio come across a dilapidated circus ran by the drunkard Vanet (Donald Pleasance) and his disfigured daughter Nicole. Now going by the name of Dr. Schüler, the surgeon offers to operate on the child as a means of ingratiating himself with its owner. The surgery is a success, but Schüler later allows Vanet to be mauled to death by a bear, leaving him free to take over the circus.

Ten years later and the travelling show is a huge success and the talk of Europe. What nobody knows is the circus performers are all dregs of society such as thieves, prostitutes abs even murderers, but also recipients of Schüler’s surgery, each taken from the streets as guinea pigs for his cutting-edge research into facial reconstruction.

Worse, Schüler’s desire for beauty and beautiful women in particular has led him to become psychotically possessive, to he extent he has been arranging fatal accidents for anyone who dares try and leave him and his circus…

Ooft. For its modest run time, there’s an awful lot going on here. One thing is for sure, Circus Of Horrors moves along at a cracking pace, so there’s no chance you’ll ever find yourself looking at your watch.

If you can ignore some of the logical leaps the film takes (like how a surgeon can turn untrained prostitutes and thieves into Europe’s premier circus performers), this is a delightful slice of lurid Grand Guignol, that grips right from the off.

Anton Diffring is superb here, not quite insane, but skirting round the edges of it with his hubris and monomaniacal obsession with having the world acknowledge his greatness. There’s no remorse or warmth to him, even when in the throes of passion with his latest woman, Differing brings a wonderfully subtle coldness to the character.

The supporting cast is equally strong too, Jane Hylton pitches Angela’s unrequited love for Schüler with just the right amount of sadness and acceptance, while Kenneth Griffith’s Martin is a tragic figure, bullied into arranging the accidents that befall anyone foolish enough to try and leave Schüler and his circus.

As the grown-up, but still innocent Nicole, Yvonne Monlaur is as radiant a presence as she was two years earlier in Brides Of Dracula, even if her affair with the undercover policeman investigating her “uncle” Schüler is another element that you just have to try not to think about too much.

It’s the set-pieces that really bring Circus Of Horrors to life though. For the most part you can see them coming a mile off, but that only adds to the tension, as director Sidney Hayers shoots them brilliantly and Mills every bit of fear out of them. From Vanet getting mauled by the dancing bear (it’s an awful effect, but a great scene) to the series of accidents that befall the circus such as the knife thrower missing his target, the aerialist falling to her doom and the star of the show being mauled by lions, each death is built up to perfectly as proper nail-biters. It’s intense stuff.

Circus Of Horrors is nowhere near as great or important a film as its Hammer predecessor, but its still a wonderfully nasty and often times gripping little story in its own right. Fast-paced, well-acted and brilliantly shot, it’s a lesser British horror for sure, but one that’s well worth paying attention to.

Rating: 3.5/5.

JULESAV The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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