CIRCUS OF HORRORS is one of the most unabashedly sensationalistic examples of British horror.
It's a grisly showboat for actor Anton Diffring, who gives an outrageously narcissistic performance as Dr. Rossiter, a demented plastic surgeon whose failed attempt, in 1947 London, to restore the beauty of a politically well-connected woman drives her mad and causes him to flee England along with two associates, one of whom (THE MANSTER's Jane Hylton) loves him blindly. Driving "somewhere in France," they meet a disfigured little girl whose alcoholic father (Donald Pleasence) owns an impoverished circus. Rossiter, changing his name on the spot to Bernard Schuler (his new initials fortunately matching the monograms adorning the décor of Billy Smart's Circus), agrees to restore the girl's beauty in exchange for half interest in the circus -- which quickly becomes outright ownership when the father is killed while drunkenly attempting to dance with a trained bear. Ten years later, Schuler has turned the circus into one of Europe's top attractions by stocking it with buxom attractions he has exhumed from the ranks of thieves and prostitutes, all with fixed faces. When Schuler's lovers decide they want out, from the circus itself, or to marry into money, or just the get the hell out from under his lusty moves, they are killed mid-performance -- hence its growing notoreity as "The Jinxed Circus."
I've seen this film many times and, while it's no masterpiece, it always seems to improve and enrich with each viewing. It's pure pulp and full steam ahead, but it's the subtext that grows ever more intriguing. Being set in postwar Europe, where the characters can't walk ten steps without bumping into some new facial scar, the film ventures some early anti-war comment that primes us to see Diffring as a kind of renegade Nazi surgeon. He struts around his circus in black shirt and jodphurs, performing illicit surgeries that are connected to some psychosexual analogy of the Aryan ideal: Schuler's Temple of Beauty, wherein he collects still lives of plasticated physical perfection. And if Rossiter/Schuler himself is motivated by crazed sexual ambition -- creating perfection so that he can nail and enslave it -- so are the machinations of his downfall: the grown daughter of the circus owner (BRIDES OF DRACULA's Yvonne Monlaur) unwittingly offers incriminating details to the police while being romanced by an undercover cop (Conrad Phillips), and his final betrayal of the woman who has loved and protected him all along -- by cruelly announcing his plans to wed his "masterpiece" Milena (CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF's Yvonne Romain) -- directly leads to his being ripped apart by someone wearing the worst-looking ape suit ever put before a camera. Director Sidney Hayers went on to direct the still-better BURN, WITCH, BURN (1962, also known as NIGHT OF THE EAGLE), an adaptation of Fritz Leiber's CONJURE, WIFE scripted by Richard Matheson.
Viewed on Netflix.
PS: The presence of a new Studio Canal logo gave me hopes the print used might reincorporate some of the alternative nude shots filmed with Vanda Hudson (pictured) for the "continental" release version, but no go. The otherwise fine quality source was cropped from 1.66:1 to 1.78 and there were some noticeable earmarks of a careless PAL conversion, including an uncorrected projection speed.