In praise of the lurid and pulpy 1960 shocker

Before H.G. Lewis was bathing in cheap stage blood and flipping stomachs at drive-ins everywhere and the same year that Alfred Hitchcock ran chocolate sauce down the drain while a sort-of nude Janet Leigh screamed, there was director Sidney (BURN WITCH BURN) Hayers’ wonderfully pulpy and surprisingly sadistic CIRCUS OF HORRORS, a Grand Guignol shocker with a campy cruel streak that was far ahead of its time.

The film was the product of a partnership between British studio Anglo-Amalgamated (the same studio that brought us PEEPING TOM and Roger Corman’s THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH) and US genre machine American International Pictures, their second after the successful Michael Gough vehicle HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM. And like that deliciously dark picture, CIRCUS has a rough, lurid edge and trades in cruelty and nasty behavior to provide its frissons.

But the movie is great for other reasons too. It’s a bright, candy colored melodrama about the abuse of power and, like any good Frankenstein tale, it’s a moral parable about the dangers of playing God.

The great Anton Diffring, who a year earlier starred in the magnificent THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH and decades later wound up in Jess Franco’s FACELESS, stars as Dr. Rossiter, a brilliant plastic surgeon on the lam after a series of botched operations. We see one of these failed procedures in the first 5 minutes, with a comely woman whose face is slowly melting to putty. When she screams in horror at the disintegration of her visage, we scream too. It’s a harrowing scene that must have alarmed audiences in 1960 and still has the power to ick you out today…

After he flees the city and crashes his car, he himself is disfigured and, with the help of two loyal assistants, rebuilds his own mug and re-christens himself Dr. Schuler. The trio travel to France where they meet a poor, kindly circus owner (the great Donald Pleasence) and his scarred daughter. Figuring this not-so-big top is the best place to hide out, Rossiter/Schuler makes a deal with the ringmaster to heal his daughter, which he does, in exchange for taking him on as a partner in the circus. But when the owner is killed by a dancing bear (it’s a great, violent and ludicrous sequence), Schuler takes over the joint entirely.

Combing through the city streets, Schuler begins collecting wounded women, including a prostitute/hustler whose face-long scar has driven her to a life on the skids. In one of the movie’s most entertainingly sick bits, the hooker stabs and steals the wallet of one poor John, and as he cries for help and bleeds out in the background, Schuler pins the girl to a wall and urgently convinces her to join his psycho circus. Schuler becomes a sort of surgical Svengali, rebuilding broken women and controlling them, training them to be his star attractions and, if they dare threaten to leave, murdering them.

Of course, the ruse can’t last forever and, despite the circus’ success and evolution into the biggest of its kind in the country, the law begins to snoop around and, very quickly, Schuler’s reign of megalomaniacal terror winds down.

There’s so much to savor in CIRCUS OF HORRORS, including the lilting, romantic and delightfully tacky Garry Mills song “Look for a Star”, a song that actually charted successfully in England, and of course the endless array of violent, theatrical murders, bubbling-cauldron melodrama and winking mean-spiritedness (love the death by knife throwing bit). But the movie really works primarily because of Diffring’s truly magnetic performance, a complicated turn that sees his Rossiter/Schuler veer between sympathetic and sociopathic, sometimes within the same scene. We never quite hate him. His intentions are always good – or at least the germ of his intentions are –  and yet they’re fatally corrupted by his ego. It’s a fascinating character and a very layered performance in a truly remarkable horror movie that has sadly slipped into the sideshow of shock cinema history. It’s out there, waiting and ripe for rediscovery.


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