The association between circuses and horror seems strange but in many ways makes total sense. Circuses have featured death defying feats of acrobatics and agility for years and in much less enlightened times many had freak shows alongside the exotic caged animals, both of which were meant to astound, amuse and shock the paying customers.
These days mainstream circus has cleaned up its act however the bizarre and the terrifying have been incorporated into literal circuses of horror playing up the fear factor and embracing the art forms unsavoury past by combining Goth, Steampunk and Victorian imagery with dark comedy, burlesque and black magic.
In horror cinema its usually clowns that take centre stage most notably in the hugely popular adaptation’s of Stephen King’s IT however movies like Tod Browning’s controversial cult classic Freaks and Alejandro Jodorowsky surrealist masterpiece Santa Sangre demonstrate that the whole show can be utilised to create a vivid and dreamlike environment prime for perversion and panic.
Sidney Hayers 1960 Circus of Horrors, a surprise hit in the US when it came out, uses the circus as a brilliant backdrop to tell a twisted tale of a plastic surgeon on the run from the law and his sadistic obsession with control in creating perfection from the damaged faces of the female runaways who flock into his clutches.
Opening in England in 1947 we see the disturbing aftermath of an operation gone wrong which has led to Scotland Yard to pursue the arrogant surgeon Dr. Rossiter (Anton Diffring from Beast Must Die) and his assistants, brother and sister Martin and Angela (Kenneth Griffith and Jane Hylton).
Heading for France the trio happen upon a young girl with a scarred face whose father Vanet (horror icon Donald Pleasence) is the owner of a rundown circus. Injured during the war as many other had been the child seems beyond help however Rossiter now disguised as Dr. Schüler says for a price he has the means to make her beautiful again.
Desperate for his daughters happiness Vanet hands over ownership of the entire circus and although Schüler keeps his promise he also has a hand in the poor mans horrific death eliminating any obstructions to the sick surgeons wicked plan.
Using the circus as a front he begins to recruit deformed runaways who have fallen on desperate times offering them a new face and a new life in his spectacular show. The price is complete loyalty to the demented doctor who fashions the females to join his “Temple of Beauty” before tiring of them and moving to the next perverted project.
Believing he is untouchable Schüler decides to take the circus back to London to reveal his plastic surgery techniques and gain the adoration and attention he think he deserves however little does he know that the police are closing in on him and his story is about to come full circle.
In his book A Heritage of Horror (1971) film critic David Pirie saw Circus of Horrors to be the third entry in Anglo-Amalgamated’s “Sadian Trilogy” the previous films being Horrors of the Black Museum and Peeping Tom, both from 1959. He mentioned all three films focused on sadism, cruelty and violence with an emphasis on sex which was totally opposed to the supernatural horror of the Hammer films in the same era.
Standing at the centre of this story Schüler is a true psychopath literally moulding the woman around him into his vision of beauty like they are statues rather than human beings. Demanding complete domination over every element of the lives of those around him he uncaringly dispatches of anyone who gets in his way by causing tragic accidents during their acts, gaining his circus the nickname of the Jinx Circus while providing the viewer some unusual and spectacular murders.
A true exploitation movie Circus of Horrors does indeed feature plenty of scantily clad women and blood drenched deaths weaved in amongst the scenes of circus skills and performances all done by the famed Billy Smarts Circus troop. Sadly this also includes some animal cruelty and cultural appropriation that is unacceptable to modern audiences dating the movie badly alongside some of its unconvincing effects.
On the bright side Cirus of Horrors is wonderfully scanned and restored from the original camera negative by Studiocanal to produce a brand new HD master which also features brand new interviews with film critic and author Kim Newman and broadcaster Stuart Maconie amongst its extras.
Circus of Horrors provides a gripping and interesting story using the circus as both backdrop and means for murder and manipulation, entertaining the audience as much with the spectacle and skills on show as the gruesome deaths that occur.