Off-Season Reviews: Circus of Horrors

Today’s film, Circus of Horrors, knows exactly what circus aficionados look for in their cinematic representations: the music. Nothing screams “real circus” more than a blasting brass fanfare. Which must be why director Sidney Hayers shoehorned truncated versions of all of Franz Reizenstein’s and Muir Mathieson’s themes into the film’s title crawl.

Either that, or Hayers was scared that no one would make it through the entire film to hear everything…

At the start, we witness the downfall of one Dr. Rossiter (Anton Diffring). A plastic surgeon so in love with his own abilities that he’s unable to stop when the medical authorities tell him to. Leaving one mother horribly mutilated and the police, lead by Inspector Arthur Ames (Conrad Phillips), hot on his trail.

One high speed chase, and resultant car crash later, and Dr. Rossiter becomes Dr. Schuler. Taking his two friends, Angela (Jane Hylton) and Martin (Kenneth Griffith), with him, Schuler runs to Germany to escape the law. Where he joins a circus. Yes, a circus. ‘Cuz there’s really no better way to lie low than to hide in a traveling troupe of performers; “it’s the ideal front!” gushes Schuler.

Not just any traveling troupe of performers of course, no Schuler decides to only employ ex-criminals. Thieves, prostitutes, murderers, anyone who might need a second chance face is who Schuler’s looking for.

Schuler rules with an iron filing cabinet, as the good doctor realizes the best way to keep his gang in line is with his sharp tongue (“Elissa, your tongue is sharp as the knife, that once was so essential to your earlier profession.”) and a file on each of them. A dossier loaded with their past case histories and illustrated with before and after photos. Just in case having a circus roll into town wasn’t alarming enough for the local constables, Schuler feels the need to carry a dooming paper-trail around with him.

God bless this film.

Not just any circus, one who's "animals" look surprisingly like men in costumes.

Have I mentioned how Schuler gets a circus? It’s almost as amazing as the rest of this story! Fleeing through Germany, Schuler stops to ask a little girl, Nicole (Erika Remberg), for directions, when he notices her huge facial scar. Her father, naturally, runs a circus. Schuler offers his services in exchange for the circus providing a front for him.

Oh yeah, Schuler comes to run the circus after Elissa’s father is eaten by a dancing bear. Never for a moment does the absurdity stop in this film. It just keeps piling it on; wisely realizing that the moment it stops is the moment it fails.

Anton Diffring carries this film. No matter what hair-brained scheme Schuler is imagineering, Diffring sells it. If God, angry about my blessing talk, ever erases Udo Kier from the time-space continuum, Diffring will just take his place. Slide right in, downplaying is sudden appearance with some (very) European utterance.

When Diffring’s star power begins to fade, Erika Remberg steps up. Playing an antagonist to the antagonist, Remberg’s Elissa is the definition of cut-throat. She wants top billing, and, when she doesn’t get it, makes motions to leave. She knows how Schuler rid himself of the other girls though, making the film’s climax a cat-and-mouse between two equally damned parties.

Elissa’s death is Schuler’s undoing, as Inspector Arnes is investigating the circus again, upon the doctor’s return to Great Britain. Schuler is compelled to return from his exile to avenge his good name; on account of the advanced facial transplant techniques he’s created with his outlawed surgeries.

Yet another brilliant idea: discarding one’s secret identity in a country where you’re still considered a criminal in order to bask in the glow of illegal experimentation.

Though, when it’s all said and done, Dr. Schuler might’ve been onto something. There really is no such thing as “bad publicity.” Take, for instance, the film’s murder theme, Gary Mills’ “Look for a Star.” Despite being used in the background to add foreboding and dread to all the circus’ “accidents,” its use in the film did give the song a new life. Charting three times in 1960: at #26 for Gary Mills, #34 that same week (July 25th) for Deane Hawley, and then peaking at #16 on August 1st for Gary Miles.

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