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Circus of Horrors

Circus of Horrors(1960)

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teaser Circus of Horrors (1960)

During a twelve month period between April 1959 and April 1960 British filmmakers tested the boundaries of the horror film with a much stronger emphasis on sex and violence in three features often referred to as the "Sadian Trilogy" - Horrors of the Black Museum, Circus of Horrors and Peeping Tom. The latter film, directed by Michael Powell, aroused the most controversy and revulsion because Powell was a celebrated filmmaker (The Red Shoes [1948], Black Narcissus [1947]) and his choice of subject manner here deeply offended the critics to such an extent that it effectively derailed his career. While the other two films, Horrors of the Black Museum and Circus of Horrors lacked the consummate artistry of Powell's Peeping Tom, they were nonetheless effective in shocking audiences with scenes of gory murder and erotic titillation and earning the censors' wrath.

All three films were distributed by Anglo-Amalgamated and the first one out of the gate was Horrors of the Black Museum, directed by Arthur Crabtree. Co-written and produced by Herman Cohen, the film starred Michael Gough as a deranged crime writer who improves his readership by committing gruesome, untraceable murders. Sensationalistic in the extreme with a heavy streak of misogyny, it was followed by the equally lurid Circus of Horrors and was executive produced by Herman Cohen. "I was involved in that through [producer] Nat Cohen," Herman stated in an interview with Tom Weaver in Attack of the Monster Movie Makers. "I had quite a lot to do with it picking Anton Diffring and other things like that. I didn't get a credit I didn't ask for one but I was the executive in charge, representing the money, representing Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy, and I owned a piece of the picture. I had a lot of respect for Julian Wintle, who got the screen credit as producer. Julian was a very classy producer for Rank who had his offices at Pinewood, he was quite a British gent but he did not know horror. So Nat Cohen asked me to be a part of the picture."

While many horror films have been set in circuses and carnivals, Circus of Horrors, directed by Sidney Hayers, earns extra points for exploiting the milieu in imaginative and unsettling ways. At the center of the story is Dr. Rossiter (Anton Diffring), a plastic surgeon on the run from the police after a botched operation. Traveling under a new identity as Dr. Schuler with his two assistants Angela (Jane Hylton) and Martin (Kenneth Griffith), the surgeon befriends Vanet (Donald Pleasence), the owner of a rundown circus. Schuler quickly inveigles his way into a business partnership with Vanet as a cover from the police but his main motivation is to continue his illegal operations, transforming disfigured women into beautiful circus stars. Part of the movie's disturbing quality is due to the voyeuristic nature of Rossiter's obsession with ruined faces and his single-minded determination to turn them into works of art. Unfortunately, the surgeon's control freak nature usually ends up driving his creations to revolt and seek their freedom from him, often by threatening to expose his past. In response to these ungrateful patients, Rossiter arranges their "accidental" deaths, usually before live audiences. As a result, an investigative reporter and Scotland Yard are soon stalking the traveling troupe around the country, intent on cracking the case.

Filmed at Beaconsfield Studios with locations in London and Buckinghamshire, Circus of Horrors benefits from the participation of Billy Smart's Circus. One of the most popular circuses in Britain and Europe, Billy Smart's operation was particularly famous for its animal acts, especially the performing elephants. Equally impressive and achieving a high level of suspense and tension are the sequences featuring the trapeze artists, the knife thrower and his assistant, the lion tamer, the high wire performers and the bareback riders stunts that look extremely dangerous and occasionally end in death in this movie.

Another factor contributing to the movie's effectiveness is the accomplished cast with Anton Diffring ideally cast as the compulsive, egomaniacal surgeon with a God complex. Among the lovelies in his "Temple of Beauty" are Yvonne Monlaur, Yvonne Romain, Vanda Hudson (who is awarded one of the more memorable death scenes) and Erika Remberg, whose sensual allure was also well used in Radley Metzger's The Lickerish Quartet (1970). There is also a colorful minor role for Donald Pleasence, who makes the most of his brief scenes as the hapless carny owner.

For once the garish Eastmancolor process seems made for the tawdry subject manner, bringing a pop art fantasy look to the proceedings which often yield bizarre and nightmarish visual schemes. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe would go on to score Oscar® nominations for his work on Travels with My Aunt (1972), Julia (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Last but not least credit must be given to director Sidney Hayers (Burn, Witch, Burn [1962]) for his taut pacing and knack for staging the many Grand Guignol moments in all their grisly glory. Occasionally there are missteps a wildly overplayed climax and the obvious use of actors in animal suits in a few scenes, one involving a very unconvincing gorilla. But Circus of Horrors, along with Horrors of the Black Museum and Peeping Tom, set a new, more explicit standard in the horror genre while achieving a high level of stylishness; it holds up remarkably well after almost forty years.

While many critics either ignored or dismissed Circus of Horrors as unwholesome trash when it was first released, it did garner some positive reviews such as this one by Howard Thompson in The New York Times: "With a text that might scare the horns off a billygoat, Circus of Horrors turns out to be the crispest, handsomest and most stylish movie shocker in a long time....another frankly melodramatic variation on the mad surgeon theme, it's very well handled indeed. Much better, in fact, than most. Even so, don't take the kids or Aunt Minnie....Bald as it may sound, this American International release projects and sustains an electric tension, without splashing gore in the viewer's eyes. Under Sidney Hayers' keen direction, it moves swiftly and succinctly toward a finale that nearly ruins it...But for a hair-raiser that could have wallowed in primeval absurdities, Circus of Horrors is surprisingly civilized."

Some additional trivia: "Look for a Star," the musical number, sung by Garry Mills, that is played throughout the film and accompanies Elissa's big top spinning act, became a top forty hit in England and the U.S. Original popular versions were recorded by Deane Hawley and Billy Vaughan but Mills' version is the best known and is guaranteed to haunt your memories of this movie. Executive producer Herman Cohen would go on to produce another horror film with a circus setting in 1967 - Berserk starring Joan Crawford but it can't top the high water mark set by Circus of Horrors.

Producers: Samuel Z. Arkoff, Julian Wintle
Director: Sidney Hayers
Screenplay: George Baxt
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Art Direction: Jack Shampan
Music: Muir Mathieson, Franz Reizenstein
Film Editing: Reginald Mills
Cast: Anton Diffring (Dr. Schuler), Erika Remberg (Elissa Caro), Yvonne Monlaur (Nicole Vanet), Donald Pleasence (Vanet), Jane Hylton (Angela), Kenneth Griffith (Martin), Conrad Phillips (Insp. Arthur Ames), Jack Gwillim (Supt. Andrews), Vanda Hudson (Magda von Meck), Yvonne Romain (Melina), Colette Wilde (Evelyn Morley Finsbury), William Mervyn (Doctor Morley).

by Jeff Stafford

Attack of the Monster Movie Makers; Interviews by Tom Weaver (McFarland)

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