The Greatest Show On Earth, Part 2: Drastic Plastic… CIRCUS OF HORRORS Reviewed

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Circus Of Horrors (1960). Directed by Sidney HayersProduced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, Leslie Parkyn, Norman Prigen and Julian Wintle. Written by George Baxt. Cinematography by Douglas SlocombeEdited by Reginald Mills and Sidney Hayers (uncredited). Art direction by Jack Shampan. Musiby Muir Mathieson and Franz Reizenstein. Makeup Artist: Trevor Crole-Rees. Stunts by Peter Diamond (uncredited). Starring: Anton Diffring, Erika Remberg, Yvonne Monlaur, Donald Pleasence, Jane Hylton, Kenneth Griffith, Conrad Phillips, Jack Gwillim, Vanda Hudson, Yvonne Romain, Colette Wilde.

If the plot of Arthur Crabtree’s Horrors Of The Black Museum (1959) seems a tad fanciful to you (and let’s face it, the thing is bloody unhinged), it comes across like one of those gritty kitchen sink-dramas that were being churned out round about this time when you compare it with Anglo-Amalgamated’s next Horror offering, Sydney Hayers gloriously deranged Circus Of Horrors (1960). The terminally unlikely scenario of this one was dreamed up by writer George Baxt, who contributed uncredited dialogue to the script of Hammer’s Revenge Of Frankenstein (1958) and collaborated with Milton Subotsky in writing City Of The Dead / Horror Hotel (also 1960) which was effectively the first Amicus (though officially Vulcan) production. He was back at Hammer for John Gilling’s shadow Of The Cat (1961). I962’s Burn, Witch, Burn aka Night Of The Eagle, also directed by Hayers) was an uncharacteristically restrained exercise in psychological horror on the parts of both writer and director. Baxt was back doing uncredited dialogue duties for Hammer (and indulging his obvious big-top fetish) in Robert Young’s Vampire Circus (1972.) The final feature he scripted (in collaboration with its director, Jim O’Connolly) was Tower Of Evil aka Horror Of Snape Island (1972.) The point of this little digression is to establish Baxt’s credentials as a churner out of quality trash, a happy knack which reached its undoubted high water mark in Circus Of Horrors…

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… which kicks off in “England, 1947”, where two stiff upper lipped-dudes are driving like twats out of hell to the assistance of society lady Evelyn Morley (Colette Wilde), speculating whether she’s been talked into going under the knife of controversial plastic surgeon Dr Rossiter, despite being warned by other doctors that the proposed procedure is “hopeless… even dangerous!” They get their answer when they roll up at the Morley place to find her smashing the joint up, laughing hysterically and sporting a face like a well-smacked baboon’s arse.

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Apparently, back in the 1940s, it was Scotland Yard rather than the General Medical Council who dealt with surgical malpractice. Dodging one of their roadblocks, on-the-lam Doctor Rossiter (Anton Diffring) drives a blazing dinky car down a hillside and is badly burned while escaping from it. His devoted assistants Angela (who’s madly in love with him) and her brother Martin (fuck knows what his motivation is) operate to heal his scars and simultaneously disguise his identity (though actually the only discernible difference in his appearance, pre and post-car crash, is that he’s shaved his beard off).

Adopting the guise of Dr Schuler, Diffring tells his sidekicks (played by Jane Hulton and Kenneth Griffith, respectively) that they can lie low in France until all this silly bit of bother has blown over. Tooling around en francais, they happen upon a young girl by a rural roadside, whose face was scarred by a left-over bomb from WWII. When they ask Nicole to be directed to her papa, she points out the circus on the other side of the road… good job too, they nearly missed that! “Schuler” restores Nicole’s pretty face. “I am beautiful… I am beautiful… I am beautiful…” she repeats, over and over again, while skipping among the assorted clowns, freaks and strong men, to the point where you’re rather hoping that one of them will grab the little brat and give her a good slapping. Meanwhile her dad (Donald Pleasance) is signing the failing circus over to Schuler, who promptly gets him drunk and stands by, without any attempt to intervene, while he is mauled to death by an extra in a flea-bitten furry suit… er, I mean, by one of his performing bears.

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Censured by Angela and Martin for his callousness, Schuler advises them that they will turn the circus into the greatest attraction on Earth by populating it with desperate criminals whose appearance he has changed to allow them to evade justice. They’ll be variously coached to ride horses through flaming hoops, train lions and elephants, fly through the air on flying trapezes and so on… and they’ll be deterred from breaking ranks by the “before and after” dossiers that they know Schuler has compiled on them. What could possibly go wrong? Well, when the deterrent effect of those dossiers proves somewhat less than compelling, an ever-increasing number of would-be grasses encounter unfortunate accidents during their performances. It doesn’t exactly help that Schuler is an insatiable fanny hound and that the beauties he creates with his surgical skills are promoted and demoted on the bill according to where they currently rank among the notches on his bed-post. Professional and sexual jealousies further stoke the tension and increase the number of malcontents for whom spectacular demises must be devised. Adding significantly to the sinister ambience, each one is accompanied by Garry Mills crooning “Look For A Star”, a gloopy hook line in search of a song that’s uncomfortably reminiscent of Joe Meek at his most murderously mongy.

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Now, absolutely none of this makes a lick of sense. If Rossiter / Schuler is such an ace cosmetic surgeon, how did he botch the Morley girl’s op so spectacularly as to necessitate such a drastic career change? What were the odds on him finding a facially damaged young girl whose father needed help turning his circus around? How does the endless succession of grisly deaths among his employees square with Rossiter / Schuler’s avowed attempt to keep a low profile? Where did he pick up the skill set with which to train circus performers and the business acumen that enables him, over the course of a decade,  to turn the lamest show on Earth into – as he promised – “the greatest attraction in Europe” (we see him chiding the ring master over the timing of the clown’s entrance: “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a dozen times!”)? By now, his little operation has also become known as “the jinxed circus” (“riding to glory on a trail blood”) due to the amount of its performers who’ve publicly pegged it (all chalked down to misadventure by the credulous authorities). As a suspicious police detective observes when the show hits Blighty, this ghoulish aspect has promoted ticket sales among the more jaded elements of the thrill seeking public. The roar of the grease paint, the smell of the crowd, eh?

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“Death takes a lot of defying around here”, quips Inspector Arthur Ames (Conrad Phillips), posing as “Arthur Desmond, freelance crime reporter” and romancing Nicole, now grown up in the comely shape of Yvonne Monlaur. Meanwhile the bitch-off between Elisa the stiletto-wielding prostitute turned high-wire queen (Joan Colins-lookalike Erika Remburg) and horse back acrobat Maga (Vanda Hudson) is reaching critical mass. Magda’s leaving the circus and Schuler to marry a besotted old rich dude…. how foolish of her to agree to working a final shift in the knife throwing act. Ditto Elisa (who’s already survived the introduction of a snake into her bathroom) and her flying noose routine, which inevitably concludes with her becoming  the 12th “accidental death” in this circus. “Quick, get a doctor… and send in the clowns!” barks Schuler. It’s just like David Cameron said… namby-pamby “Health & Safety culture” is a millstone around the neck of thrusting young entrepreneurs! Meanwhile exhumations of previous circus employees / victims have established that they’d all undergone plastic surgery and the police are (very slowly) putting two and two together (“Plastic surgery is the key!” “But what lock does it fit?”) Just to up the ante, the cops invite Evelyn Morley and her smacked baboon’s arse of a face to the circus’s big London opening…

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Getting careless, Schuler is mauled by a man in a gorilla suit. He authorises Martin and Angela to operate on his face but unwisely taunts the latter about his engagement to his latest protegé Melina (Yvonne Romain) before going under the anaesthetic. There’s a fantastic ultra close up of Angela mugging furiously to convey her delight when Schuler rips his bandages off to reveal a face like a festering walrus scrotum. His long serving, long-suffering sidekicks have clearly had enough… they also stint on the daily PCP rations so that the lions end up mauling Melina while she’s attempting to “tame” them! As the man in the gorilla suit chases Schuler into the path of Evelyn Morley’s limo, there’s another great mugging close up as the former society beauty (who recognised Schuler as Rossiter by dint of the snot green scarab ring he unwisely wore in both guises) runs over the doc, whose consequent injuries are beyond the remit of plastic or any other kind of surgery. Bastard had it coming…

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It was smart indeed for Billy Smart’s Circus to participate in the promotion of a film which perpetuates the myths that a) circuses are entertaining and b) clowns are funny, though I don’t imagine it ended up recruiting a lot of staff for them, given the estimate it offers of an average circus performer’s life expectancy!

Schlocky as they undoubtedly are, both Horrors Of The Black Museum and Circus Of Horrors tell us a lot about British society on the cusp of the ’50s and ’60s. The shadow of WWII still looms large and there’s clear dissatisfaction with austerity but misgivings about the consumerism that might replace it. Where would it all end if the rabble’s tastes are relentlessly indulged? Spend a couple of hours watching ITV (not exactly a plastic surgery-free zone) for the chilling answer… Perhaps the most apposite auguries of this brave new world are the medical atrocities of Mengele et al, which seem to have somehow “inspired” the surgical practices of Rossiter / Schuler (ironic that the gay actor Diffring, who fled persecution in Hitler’s Germany, was so often called upon to play characters who, explicitly or otherwise, amounted to “nasty Nazis”). Perhaps the dread apprehension of what Hitchcock and others had filmed in the death camps in some way influenced Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, the film that completed Anglo-Amalgamated’s so-called “Sadean trilogy” in the following year.

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“Camp? Moi?”

And never forget…

 

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