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Circus of Horrors Print E-mail
Tuesday, 09 October 2001
While Hammer Films were turning out classy, sexy and bloody thrillers for the world market, other British producers weren't idle.

Leslie Parkyn and Julian Wintle produced "Circus of Horrors," "Burn Witch Burn" and "The Unearthly Stranger" during the early 1960s; American writer George Baxt, who wrote for companies on both sides of the Atlantic, turned out "Horror Hotel"/"City of the Dead," "Circus of Horrors," "Shadow of the Cat," "Burn Witch Burn," and (for Hammer) "Vampire Circus," among others.

Sidney Hayers directed "Circus of Horrors" for the team, then went on to "Burn Witch Burn" (also known as "Night of the Eagle,") a more respectable, far less disreputable film, one of the best horror films of its type. But then, if you can get past the breezy sadism of "Circus of Horrors," it, too, is one of the best films of its type -- it's just that its type is not well regarded.
Understandably -- the protagonist is an obsessive, criminal plastic surgeon who seems to be genuinely sadistic, and in the feverish grips of what might be called a Pygmalion complex. As played by the glacially handsome Anton Diffring, Dr. Rossiter -- soon Dr. Schüler -- is one of the most twisted "heroes" in horror history. Diffring is also excellent in the role, giving what may be his best movie performance; he conveys a great deal of emotion without any exaggeration. We never like him, but he's so corrupt he's amusing.

The movie opens in 1947, as Rossiter's latest surgical patient goes bonkers -- her face has been ruined by his misguided techniques. (He later claims everything would have turned out all right, had he been allowed to continue, and we actually see no reason to disbelieve him.) After an automobile wreck, he crawls to the home of his accomplice Martin (Kenneth Griffith) and Martin's sister Angela (Jane Hylton); Angela loves Rossiter, and (so it seems) so does Martin, so they alter his face a little (mostly he shaves his beard and bleaches his hair), and they flee to France.

Rossiter, now calling himself Dr. Bernhard Schüler, repairs the face of the young daughter of the owner (Donald Pleasence) of a dilapidated circus. The grateful owner makes Schüler a partner, then drunkenly walks into the arms of his trained bear. Schüler at first thinks about saving him, but (for no good reason other than sheer nastiness) lets the injured animal kill the circus owner. Having wanted to join the circus since he was a boy -- a clever line from writer Baxt -- Schüler takes over the circus with Angela and Martin.

After fixing the scarred face of a murderous prostitute, he explains to Angela and Martin he'll continue to do this: change the faces of criminals and train them as circus performers. He'll keep before-and-after pictures, so he can blackmail them into continuing on with the circus. Another useful line by Baxt explains that in postwar Europe, there are all too many people with disfiguring facial scars.

Ten years later, the circus is a big hit on the Continent, and we learn of the further steps Schüler is all too eager to take to keep his performers in line: if they try to leave the circus, he kills them in a way that makes the death look like an accident. But there have been a lot of such deaths, and the circus has gained notoriety as The Jinx Circus. Of course, this makes the public even more eager to see the show. Now, the circus is heading for England.

But of course, there are still performers who want to leave. Magda (Vanda Hudson), an equestrienne, has fallen in love with a rich guy with a monocle; she assures Schüler that she'll never turn him in, but he orders Martin to arrange her death anyway. (It's a pretty colorful demise, involving her being fastened to a rotating wheel, and a knife thrower dressed as an Indian flinging blades at her. You can imagine the rest.)

It's made very clear that Schüler falls in love with each of the women whose faces he fixes; there's even a reference to Pygmalion and Galataea in the dialog. And it's clear that he kills them more because he no longer loves them -- nor they him -- than out of any fears that they're going to turn him in. (After all, he still does have his blackmail-preventing photos.) Schüler is a genuine human monster, in love with his handiwork because it IS his handiwork -- he delights in creating beauty to the point where he becomes sexually obsessed with the beauty he has created. He's the ultimate narcissist, and a killer to boot.

Sidney Hayers keeps the action zipping along, at least until the circus arrives in England. The story bogs down somewhat, as a police detective (Conrad Phillips) begins investigating, and also falls in love with Nicole (Yvonne Monlaur), the circus owner's daughter now grown to adulthood. At times, it becomes a little hard to keep track of all the beautiful women, and just who's in love with Schüler right now, and who's decided he's a swine. But Hayers barrels ahead, leading to a climax involving Schüler running madly all over the circus. (It's the real Billy Smart Circus, a fairly big show for England, and we see at least some of several interesting acts.)

But really, the story of a movie like this is rarely the most interesting thing about it; it's much more interesting and entertaining to watch Diffring's ice-chip eyes widen at the prospect of a new face to fix, or narrow when he decides he's being betrayed. With his sculptured face that can seem coldly brutal one moment, tenderly sensitive the next, Diffring was one of the great "Nazi faces" of movies of the 1950s and 1960s, more or less the Continental Peter Van Eyck, and a very good actor as well. Tall, well-built and handsome, he looks terrific in the slightly extravagant costumes he wears throughout the movie. There's a decent biography of him among the extras on the disc.

It's also wondering how he'll kill off the next victim, how he'll deal with the obsessed Angela and the dark and glowering Martin. (Kenneth Griffith, still working today, is primarily a comic actor, but he glowers well, and offers just the slightest hint that his sexual obsession wavers between his sister and Schüler.) But there's something almost cheerful about the brutality and sadism of "Circus of Horrors;" there are some shocking deaths, with blood and scratches and stuff, plus all those scarred faces, but Hayers' brisk direction and the good-to-excellent color cinematography by Douglas Slocombe keep us from dwelling on any of the horror. We see it, we note it, and we're on to something else.

Horror movie fans have been hoping for a decent home video release of "Circus of Horrors" for years. Anchor Bay's packaging of "Circus of Horrors" is quite good; the 16X9-enhanced widescreen print is very handsome and colorful, though the colors are on the pastel side (deliberately). The sound is mono, but professional and crisp. Extras include the theatrical trailer, some TV spots, a very extensive gallery of stills, some advertising art, a choice between English and French tracks, and that decent biography of Diffring.

Though hardly a great film, "Circus of Horrors" is an energetic, entertaining, lusty and violent horror thriller of the Grand Guignol school. But even at that, it's not any more gruesome than the subject matter suggests; the truly creepy element is Diffring's Dr. Schüler, an authentically horrible person, gripped in an obsession that destroys all around him, and caring nothing about that at all. He's a memorable screen villain, presented in a little jewelbox of a movie.

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