GORE IN THE STORE
CIRCUS OF HORRORS ****
Directed by Sidney Hayers.
Starring Anton Diffring, Kenneth Griffith, Jane Hylton, Erika Remberg, Yvonne Monlaur, Donald Pleasence.
UK 1961 Certificate: 15 92 minutes
Released by Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics Collection on 12th October 2020 on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital.
Of the two 1960s British horror films showcasing the Billy Smart Circus, Jim O’Connolly’s BERSERK! (1967) is probably the better known, thanks principally to a leggy, on-form Joan Crawford sporting Edith Head-designed leotards and a catfight involving Diana Dors. If you still demand more of your vintage genre entertainment, there’s also a full-blown musical number named “It Might Be Me” that now makes the film play out like some kind of black gloved, giallo-infused Marquis De Sade-sponsored precursor to THE GREATEST SHOWMAN.
Sidney Hayers’ earlier CIRCUS OF HORRORS has the splendidly icy Anton Diffring instead of Joan, but it is an equally enjoyable entry in the carny horror sub-genre, as well as an early offering from the fascinating subset of plastic surgery genre films. It followed relatively hot on the heels of Franju’s (more explicitly gruesome) EYES WITHOUT A FACE and preceded a range of other thematically similar, often nasty pictures like CORRUPTION (1968), FACELESS (1988) and assorted 21st century psycho-horrors like GOODNIGHT MOMMY. CIRCUS OF HORRORS’ legacy also stretches to Doktor Haze and Gerry Cottle’s same-named, gruesome latter-day burlesque-enhanced freak show which has toured the world since its humble beginnings at Glastonbury in the mid-nineties.
The action-packed 1947 opening of CIRCUS presents a fascinating post-war backdrop, haunted by the kind of forgotten people suffering physical, emotional and financial scars from WWII. The striking prologue also sets a certain tone of hysteria early on, as a disfigured woman in her underwear (the film’s first prurient dabbling with not-quite-nudity) freaks out, smashing mirrors and laughing maniacally as we get a gaudy closer look at her horribly mutilated face. Detached, bearded plastic surgeon Diffring has been testing out some experimental new techniques on this lady (Colette Wild) and, after a dramatic car crash through a police barricade, relies on his loyal assistants (Jane Hylton and brother Kenneth Griffith) to facilitate a new face and identity (or, rather, the same face minus the beard and funky eyebrows) in France and thus evade the encroaching law. Almost immediately, he encounters a little girl (Carla Challoner) facially scarred by a wartime school bomb and takes over the struggling circus owned by her dad (Donald Pleasence...with hair!). The revived travelling entertainment is subsequently used as a front for his revolutionary but legally dubious work on a succession of disfigured acrobats, while making a ton of cash in the process.
Following in the lurid Eastmancolour tradition of Anglo Amalgamated’s earlier proto-slasher films HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM and PEEPING TOM, this relishes its morbidly titillating scenes of Diffring bedding his performers and repeatedly luring scarred murderers and thieves – notably Erika Remberg’s remorseless prostitute – to be restored to full beauty before meeting with a mysterious “accident” when they threaten to move on. Looking great in a stylish bomber jacket as he puffs on a fag, Diffring is a splendidly smug, loathsome yet highly charismatic antagonist – and neither his hapless criminal victims nor Griffith’s snivelling, self-serving assistant and manipulative Scotland Yard inspector Conrad Phillips are any more sympathetic.
The most memorable moment from CIRCUS OF HORRORS is a relatively discreet but vivid scene of knife violence around the same time as PSYCHO and HOMICIDAL : before she has a chance to escape her inevitable fate at the circus, Vanda Hudson is bloodily despatched in a knife-throwing act gone awry while Diffring trots out his usual “faulty mechanism” cover-up story at what is increasingly known as the “jinxed circus”. In an entirely credible satire of humankind’s car crash mentality, the more “accidents” that befall the circus, the more the crowds flock in the hope of seeing a trapeze artist fall to their doom or someone get eaten by a lion.
Although, perhaps inevitably, it never quite tops the astonishing early moment in which Pleasence is fatally bear-hugged while il-advisedly getting pissed and attempting to dance with a performing bear, this remains huge fun. If the midsection lags a little, it rallies around for a lively, violent finale of ratty gorilla suit rampaging, lion mauling’s, stabbings and vehicular homicide. Plus, the recurring pop song “Look for a Star”, written by Mark Anthony (Tony Hatch) and performed by Garry Mills, provides a disarmingly eerie accompaniment to the on screen depravity.
Extras - The main attraction of this welcome Studio Canal restoration is the brand-new HD master, bringing renewed lustre to the suitably garish colours of Hayers’ morally bankrupt world. Although there is, perhaps inevitably, some thematic crossover, you also get a pair of interviews from two articulate famous fans, Kim Newman and Stuart Maconie (totalling around 46 minutes). Newman shows off his CIRCUS OF HORRORS novelisation and puts the film in the context of circus horror flicks dating back to Tod Browning’s famous silent pictures. He also positions it as the midpoint of Anglo Amalgamated’s unofficial genre trilogy, its circus backdrop replacing the tabloid journalism of HORROS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM and the analysis of cinema at the core of PEEPING TOM. Maconie highlights the significance of David Pirie’s “Heritage of Horror” while considering its visual palette as a precursor to the giallo within a story rife with recurring Brit horror themes, including a prevailing mistrust of “experts”.