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Retro Review: CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1960)

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CIRCUS OF HORRORS
(UK - 1960)

Directed by Sidney Hayers. Written by George Baxt. Cast: Anton Diffring, Erika Remberg, Yvonne Monlaur, Donald Pleasence, Jane Hylton, Conrad Phillips, Kenneth Griffith, Vanda Hudson, Yvonne Romain, Colette Wilde, Jack Gwillim, John Merivale, Carla Challoner, Walter Gotell, Kenny Baker. (Unrated, 92 mins)

Known primarily for the first dozen films in the long-running CARRY ON series, the British production company and distributor Anglo-Amalgamated occasionally delved into the respectable with BILLY LIAR and DARLING, but was otherwise a prolific B-movie factory through the 1950s and 1960s. They got in on the residual Hammer horror action with what was unofficially termed "the Sadian trilogy" by film historian David Pirie in his groundbreaking 1971 British gothic horror chronicle A Heritage of Horror. 1959's HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (directed by Arthur Crabtree) and 1960's classic PEEPING TOM (directed by Michael Powell) set the tone with their increased focus on the lurid, whether it's the grisly-for-the-time violence or the sexually suggestive elements (particularly in the self-explanatory PEEPING TOM) that took things a step beyond Hammer. 1960's CIRCUS OF HORRORS closed the "trilogy" in grand fashion and became a box-office success in the US, where it was released by American International and spawned multiple versions of Garry Mills' hit UK single "Look for a Star," which is heard several times throughout. Directed by Sidney Hayers, who would go on to helm 1962's terrifying BURN, WITCH, BURN, CIRCUS OF HORRORS is rather tame by today's standards but remains a trashy delight, anchored by the quintessential Anton Diffring performance, and is just out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory, because physical media is dead.






Diffring, fresh off off the title role in Hammer's THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, stars as Dr. Rossiter, an egomaniacal, quack plastic surgeon who flees post-war, 1947 London after a botched experimental operation that leaves a young socialite (Colette Wilde) horribly disfigured. Still convinced of his own genius, and with a pair of fawning sycophants in tow in sibling apprentices Martin (Kenneth Griffith) and Angela (Jane Hylton), Rossiter changes his appearance--primarily the removal of a proto-beatnik beard-- and starts going by "Dr. Schuller" by the time the trio end up in France, which is still in poverty-stricken devastation from the war. A chance encounter on the side of the road where Schuller asks a little girl (Carla Challoner) for directions leads him to a decrepit circus owned by the girl's widowed, drunkard father Vanet (a young-ish Donald Pleasence). The little girl--Nicole--has extensive facial scarring from a bomb blast, inspiring Schuller to concoct a scheme where he can continue to practice his craft by using the circus as a front. He restores the girl's beauty, which convinces Vanet to sign the circus over to him as part of a partnership. Then Schuller does absolutely nothing to intervene when the celebrating, shitfaced Vanet tries to dance with the circus' bear and is promptly mauled to death.


Ten years pass, and the circus has relocated to Berlin, where the grown Nicole (Yvonne Monlaur) now calls Schuller "Uncle," and the other circus performers--among them the star attraction Magda von Meck (Vanda Hudson) and the ambitious Ellissa Caro (Erika Remberg)--are all formerly scarred criminals being blackmailed by Schuller by being given a new lease on life and hiding incognito in the circus in exchange for letting Schuller operate on them. All goes well for Schuller until inconveniences start popping up--like Magda falling in love with wealthy Baron von Gruber (Walter Gotell) and wanting to leave the circus, or spiteful Ellissa making a lot of noise when Schuller starts devoting his attention to new and formerly burn-scarred attraction Melina (Yvonne Romain)--leading to the doctor cajoling the hapless Martin into staging a series of fatal "accidents" to keep them quiet. Adding to Schuller's dilemma is Angela's increasing resentment of being kept on the backburner after carrying a torch for him since his days as Rossiter, plus a detective (Conrad Phillips) who's gone undercover as a reporter to ingratiate himself into the "jinxed circus" to investigate why a dozen of its pretty female performers have died in freak mishaps over the last several years.


Anton Diffring (1916-1989)
The story is beyond preposterous, but it works thanks in large part to Diffring. Born in 1916, Diffring fled Hitler's Germany in 1939 only to find himself typecast as Nazi generals and commandants in films throughout the 1950s all the way to the 1980s (most notably in 1965's THE HEROES OF TELEMARK, 1966's THE BLUE MAX, 1969's WHERE EAGLES DARE, 1971's ZEPPELIN, 1975's OPERATION DAYBREAK, the epic 1983 ABC miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR, and Jerry Lewis' infamous and never-released THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED). Diffring turned up in respectable films like Francois Truffaut's 1966 Ray Bradbury adaptation FAHRENHEIT 451, but he also found consistent employment in Eurotrash fare like 1971's THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE, 1973's MARK OF THE DEVIL PART II and SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE, Jess Franco's 1977 nunsploitation potboiler LOVE LETTERS OF A PORTUGUESE NUN, the same year's German EMMANUELLE ripoff VANESSA (where he played Alain Cuny's aging sexual mentor role), and, in one of his last credits before his death in 1989, Franco's all-star 1988 plastic surgery gorefest FACELESS, where his very presence was an obvious shout-out to his turn in CIRCUS OF HORRORS. As sleazy as the proceedings can be, it's given a classy sheen with the cinematography of the great Douglas Slocombe, a future three-time Oscar-nominee whose long career lasted from 1940 until his retirement following 1989's INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, after which he lived another quarter century until his death in 2016 at the age of 103 (in addition to THX-1138 co-star Pleasence, the film has another George Lucas connection with Kenny Baker, seen briefly as a circus dwarf 17 years before playing R2-D2 in STAR WARS). Though Hayers (1921-2000) displayed some undeniable chops in the horror genre between this and BURN, WITCH, BURN (and a pair of 1971 efforts with IN THE DEVIL'S GARDEN and INN OF THE FRIGHTENED PEOPLE), the remainder of his career was spent mostly in TV journeyman mode with credits on shows like THE AVENGERS, THE NEW AVENGERS, MAGNUM P.I., THE FALL GUY, MANIMAL, T.J. HOOKER, KNIGHT RIDER, and THE A-TEAM.


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