Easily confused with 1965’s Circus of Fear, this Sidney Hayers thriller from 1960 is a rarely-sighted genre feature that’s developing a cult following. And no wonder; with an original conceit, Donald Pleasence, Kenneth Griffith and Anton Driffing, plus lots of action featuring tv staple Billy Smart’s circus, it’s a hugely idiosyncratic entry that looks great in this re-mastered blu-ray version.
Driffing takes a break from his usual sinister Nazi roles to play Rossiter, a plastic surgeon who goes on the run for the cops, running one down in the opening chase. He’s a nasty piece of work, who preys on women with scars, fixes their appearance, but arranges horrid deaths for them once their currency as his play-thing is exhausted. He travels to France while on the run, and inveigles himself into the circus run by Vanet (Donald Pleasence), who gets cuddled to death by a bear, or at least a man in a bear suit. Rossiter is not only a sadistic psychopathic misogynist with no regard for human life, but also an aspiring businessman who has designs on running a successful circus. When Rossiter uses a series of on-stage accidents to get rid of the women he has remoulded, the authorities start to take notice and home in on his dubious operation.
A follow-up to Horrors of the Black Museum, Circus of Horrors is an eccentric, quaint and yet effective slice of Grand Guignol, which focuses on the nefarious exploits of a mad, bad man, much in the manner of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Driffing is in his element here, and makes Rossiter something of a madman’s madman, always looking for another opportunity to slake his foul desires. A repeated song, Look for A Star, grates on the fifth or sixth outing, but the circus itself is fascinating, playing down the clowns, but instead offering a series of suspense scenes in which knife-throwing, trapeze artists and wild animals provide the danger as Rossiter uses the environment to form the method of his murders.
Photographed by the great Douglas Slocombe, Circus of Horrors is an old-school treat for horror fans, with no supernatural elements, but somehow a distant godfather to the slasher genre. Kim Newman contributes an insightful interview on the extras, explaining the provenance in forensic detail, and expressing a child-like delight in the ingenious mayhem that results. This is the kind of film in which an escaped gorilla is barely a footnote in the cavalcade of action, and justifies the title of Circus of Horrors in every sense.
Thanks to Studiocanal for access to this title.
Circus of Horrors is out now on blu-ray, and also streaming for free for Amazon Prime members in the UK via one of the links below.