Saturday, January 14, 2012

22. CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1960)

Cleverly pegged by writer David Pirie as part of Anglo-Amalgamated's "Sadean trilogy" (along with HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM and Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM), 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 d├ęcor 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.
  

4 comments:

  1. Burn, Witch, Burn is also currently streaming on Netflix just in case you didn't know Tim. It's in HD too! I had a Sinister Cinema VHS copy of this (which they have as HYPNO) all throughout the late '90s and watched it to death. FANTASTIC MOVIE.

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  2. Never knew about the added nudity for the continental version Tim...Does it exist ANYWHERE on a PAL release?

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  3. I'm afraid not. I found some frame grabs online, but they're distorted, as if photographed off an old TV broadcast. Hopefully it will surface someday. Thanks for all the generous feedback today!

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  4. Vanda Hudson was born on Thursday October 7th 1937 and at one time when she used to be the beautiful British actress from the all time greats and her wonderful performance as Magda Von Meck in The British Horror film Circus of Horrors in 1960 directed by Sidney Hayers and when she is pinned to the infamous spinning wheel as the part of the knife throwing act and she is stabbed in the neck in front of huge crowds.

    She appeared in TV & Movies included The Avengers,Jungle Street,
    Strip Tease Murder,Libel,Heart of The Man,Father Came Too,Ticket to Paradise,The Vipe and Promise of Bed.

    Mixing with the famous stars over the years including Anton Diffring
    Jane Hylton,Yvonne Romain,Ian Hendry,Patrick Macnee,Eric Barker,
    Kenneth Cope best known as Jed Stone and Marty Hopkirk in Randall & Hopkirk(Deceased),Jill Ireland,Ann Lynn,Richard Briers and Sally Smith.

    Sdaly on Friday April 2n 2004 when she passed away at the age of 66 years and I won't forget the beautiful British actress icon is the late Vanda Hudson.

    Terry Christie
    From Sunderland,Tyne & Wear

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