Circus of Horrors was the middle film of an unofficial trilogy that started with ‘Horrors of the Black Museum’ and ended with ‘Peeping Tom’ over a brief 18 month period from 1959 – 1960. All three were horror films with Museum being just a series of set piece murders and Peeping Tom being a great psychological horror that was released a few months after Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ which really opened the doorway for modern day horror. Unfortunately Peeping Tom was reviled by the critics and director Michael Powell ,who had made such British masterpieces as ‘The Thief of Baghdad’, ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, ‘Black Narcissus’ & ‘The Red Shoes’, never really managed to recover his career despite directors such as Martin Scorsese citing the film as an influence on his own films.
Circus of Horrors was an early British exploitation film with its depiction of voluptuous scantily clad women meeting violent and sadistic ends amid the lurid backdrop of the circus. Starting in 1947 England Dr Rossiter (Anton Diffring) is a plastic surgeon who botches an operation on a society woman leaving her hideously disfigured and the Dr, with his assistants Angela (Jane Hylton) and her brother Martin (Kenneth Griffith), evade the police escaping to France disguised as Dr Schuler. It’s there that they meet Vanet (Donald Pleasance) the owner of a dilapidated circus whose daughter’s face has been scarred in a wartime bomb raid. Schuler successfully operates on her and wangles his way into running the circus eventually taking over entirely when Vanet dies in a bizarre drunken incident with a performing bear. The circus is an ideal for his bonkers mad experimental surgery where he befriends disfigured women and transforms them for his now internationally renowned ‘Temple of Beauty’. All is fine until they threaten to leave where they then come to gruesome end in circus performance ‘accidents’ which as they rack up raise the suspicions of both the newspapers and Scotland Yard.
Being both gay and Jewish Anton Diffring fled Germany as a refugee and yet ironically many of his roles in film were as sadistic Nazi’s so the role of a surgeon, albeit just as sadistic, was a change and he is very good in the role which is clearly a nod to Nazi bastard Dr Mengele. His supporting cast included Donald Pleasance in an all too surprising appearance as he has hair. Kenneth Griffith appears in an unusually toned down role from his normal scene stealing roles from just about every film he appeared in throughout the 70’s up to his cameo, ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ . There’s also a brief appearance from R2-D2 himself the late Kenny Baker as a clown (see our YouTube link to Bill Skarsgard at the It Chapter Two premiere). And the film was directed by Sidney Hayers and ex-editor who had cut the first Titanic film, ‘A Night to Remember’ but before directing before ending up in America directing episodes of 80’s TV series as varied as The Fall Guy (now there’s a film version we want to see!) as well as Magnum PI, Remington Steel, Manimal, TJ Hooker, Airwolf, Knight Rider, The A Team and of course, Baywatch.
Bizarrely the film spawned a hit single with, ‘Look for a star!’ that had been intended for a Norman Wisdom film but he didn’t want it. Written by David Hatch, the Simon Cowell of his day, the song was a hit and Hatch would later go on to write the theme tune for Top TV tat, ‘Crossroads’.
There’s little doubt that Circus of Horrors is a lurid, perverse, misanthropic and misogynist yet at the same time it is a guilty pleasure and its central premise of circus audiences drawn to the horrific accidents where in turn cinema audiences are going to see a horror film is all little bit meta.
Released on blu ray for the first time the film is part of a vintage classics collection which also includes ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’ and like them the disc has a host of decent bonus features that includes an insight interview with critic and author Kim Newman and a slightly left field interview with Stuart Maconie about his love of the film. With all the cast, crew and director all no longer with us there is no commentary but the disc also includes the trailer and some behind the scene stills.
Something of a rarity Circus of Horrors is an overlooked curio from British cinema but the 4K transfer makes this a decent watch.
Here’s the Circus of Horrors trailer……..
CIRCUS OF HORRORS IS RELEASED ON BLU-RAY ON 12TH OCTOBER 2020