Circus of Horrors is a 1960 British film from Anglo-Amalgamated Productions featuring the much-loved German actor Anton Diffring in the lead role as a crazed plastic surgeon.
When a socialite is hideously deformed for life after botched surgery under the knife of Dr Rossiter (Diffring), he and his entourage skip the country and find cover on the run. Rossiter reinvents himself as Dr Schuler, and after an unfortunate incident with the original owner and a savage bear, he takes over a circus. It becomes his front for pursuing his nefarious medical procedures. Schuler befriends facially-disfigured vulnerable women and enters them into his ‘Temple of Beauty’. However, when the women he has operated on want to leave the circus, he arranges for them to come to a sticky end, leading to a series of unfortunate ‘accidents’. Before long, the police come sniffing around the circus tents, and Schuler has to protect his secrets before they catch up with him. Whatever else happens, the show must go on!
Botched facial reconstructions and crazy plastic surgeons with delusions of grandeur have been the stuff of horror movies since Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff starred together in The Raven. The added twist with this movie is the circus setting. This proves effective, affording plenty of space for the action to take place, and within an arena that is often as disturbing and grotesque as it is amusing.
Anton Diffring enjoyed a highly successful career in British TV and film. Ironically, since he fled Nazi Germany on account of his homosexuality, he carved out a niche for himself playing blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan SS officers and the like, ending his career in Doctor Who playing a Nazi facing off against the Cybermen in 1988, less than a year before his death. He is a commanding leading actor, bringing a sinister, intense quality to Dr Schuler. He is aided and abetted by Welsh actor Kenneth Griffith, who excelled in creepy roles, and his sister, played by Jane Hylton. There is a small role for Donald Pleasence, who characteristically overplays every moment to great effect, making a big impact with little screen time.
A note of caution to some viewers is the period depiction of wild animals at the circus. A great bear, a gorilla and a pride of lions all play a part in the events that unfold. There’s no suggestion of animal cruelty, and the substitution between real animals and men in furry costumes is jarring, and these days, unintentionally comical. Other aspects of production are better achieved. The athleticism and stunts of the circus performers translate effectively to the screen. There are moments of tension that director Sidney Hayers carefully builds up. It may well be a cliche, but a ‘wheel of death’ stunt that goes wrong is a memorable set-piece. Erika Remberg’s fate is perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment of the film. The stunt is incredible.
If you like melodrama and a touch of the Grand Guignol, then Circus of Horrors will tick all the right boxes. Viewers who prefer psychological and dramatic realism are likely to be less impressed. Circus of Horrors stands up well as a distinctive British horror film, even if the devices it calls upon aren’t wholly original, and its execution isn’t flawless. But it is stuffed with great character actors of the era and made with such gusto, it’s hard not to get caught up in it, especially as it reaches its thrilling conclusion.
The picture has been restored from the original camera negative which was scanned and restored in 4K. Owing to the archive nature of the film, some texture remains, but the picture is sharp. Enthusiasts of the genre can enjoy lengthy featurettes presented by film critic Kim Newman and broadcaster Stuart Maconie.
Cast: Anton Diffring, Erika Remberg, Yvonne Monlaur, Donald Pleasence, Jane Hylton, Kenneth Griffith, Conrad Phillips Director: Sidney Hayers Writer: George Baxt Certificate: 15 Duration: 92 mins Released by: Studiocanal Release date: 12th October 2020 Buy Circus of Horrors