Circus of Horrors (1960)

Circus of Horrors (1960)

“A thief and a prostitute: the perfect candidate for the Schuler Circus.”

After botching a job on a society woman (Colette Wilde), a plastic surgeon (Anton Diffring) goes on the lam, taking over a circus owned by a Frenchman (Donald Pleasence) with a scarred daughter (Carla Challoner), and populating it with facially disfigured, troubled women whose beauty he restores. When his protegees choose to leave, however, he jealously kills them one by one, and soon a detective (Conrad Phillips) is on his trail.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Carnivals and Circuses
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Disfigured Faces
  • Donald Pleasence Films
  • Fugitives
  • Horror
  • Mad Doctors and Scientists

According to TCM’s article, “During a twelve month period between April 1959 and April 1960 British filmmakers tested the boundaries of the horror film with a much stronger emphasis on sex and violence in three features often referred to as the ‘Sadian Trilogy’ — Horrors of the Black Museum, Circus of Horrors and Peeping Tom.” Of these, Peeping Tom (1960) is the most highly regarded, but Circus of Horrors — while not “must-see” for anyone other than fans of the genre — remains a well-mounted, effectively lurid tale in its own right. Despite possessing a host of egregious flaws in narrative logic, it’s guaranteed to hold your interest, thanks in part to colorful cinematography (by DP Douglas Slocombe), solid direction (by Sidney Hayers, best known for 1962’s Burn, Witch, Burn!), and several fine performances (including a small, early one by Donald Pleasence, who — like all others killed or maimed in this film — meets a most unpleasant death).

German-born Diffring is nicely cast as the troubled lead of the film, who is clearly a “baddie” but not entirely evil; from the film’s opening sequence — in which a woman (Wilde) shrieks with horror at the botched job that’s been done on her face — it’s made clear that Diffring never intended for things to work out this way, and that he actually takes great pride in the stellar work he’s able to carry out, under the right circumstances. With that said, we soon learn that Diffring’s Dr. Rossiter/Schuler is an egomaniacal control freak who desires not only to make disfigured women beautiful again, but to hold them forever accountable to his will (and sexual desires). His choice (as a fugitive) to run a very-public circus, as well as his uncanny ability to turn all the women he takes under his wing into stellar acrobats, are evidence of the flawed logic listed previously; but they help to propel the undeniably sensationalist story towards its inevitable conclusion, with several gruesomely circus-themed deaths thrown in along the way. Meanwhile, fine use is made of Billy Smart’s actual circus performers; fans of this type of entertainment will surely enjoy seeing its historical capturing on film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anton Diffring as Dr. Schuler
  • Donald Pleasence as Vanet
  • Erika Remberg as Elissa
  • Fine use of Billy Smart’s Circus as a setting

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly recommended.


One thought on “Circus of Horrors (1960)

  1. A once-must, for Hayers’ direction, and for its status as a cult film.

    Unless he needs to establish himself (which, apparently, Hayers needed to do at the time), a talented director probably doesn’t want to be offered a script like ‘Circus of Horrors’. Not only would he have to get beyond the obvious ‘ick’ factor while reading, but he would then have to sit his cast down and convince each and every one of them that the only way to make the script work would be 100% conviction.

    To his credit, Hayers did both. This is indeed a tawdry tale – and Hayers deserves even more credit for maintaining a sure hand during the film’s concluding spin cycle. (It gets pretty hairy.)

    It’s also to the cast’s credit that no one cracks (or cracks up) under the strain of the ludicrous material. Overall, all involved work well toward making ‘COH’ a compelling watch. It’s produced on what seems a modest budget but, thanks to Slocombe, it looks quite good. And, even though a circus atmosphere holds little appeal for me personally, the more dangerous-looking aerial acts are certainly something to see.

    Of the cast, I’m particularly taken with Remberg (who married Hayers and remained with him til his death in 2000). As the only “protegee” with real guts, Remberg exudes a cool sexuality as well as a forcefulness that is not to be tampered with.

    Two years later, Hayers would, of course, be handed a much better script: ‘Burn, Witch, Burn’. There he had something he didn’t have to work quite as hard to pull off. I believe Peary lists only one other Hayers title (“In the Devil’s Garden”, which I haven’t seen). But, even though the bulk of his resume was for tv, I’d be curious to see what else Hayers accomplished for the big screen.

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