Monday 2 November 2009

Circus of Horrors (1960)

Director: Henry Hathaway
Stars: Paul Douglas, Richard Basehart, Barbara Bel Geddes and Debra Paget
Starting a horror film with a young lady in a state of undress is never a bad thing and this one is screaming and smashing up the place to boot. She's Evelyn Morley and she isn't being attacked or raped, contrary to initial expectations, she's been driven half insane. Her fiance has been searching for her for two weeks, after she disappeared following plastic surgery that every doctor except Rossiter refused to perform. Now she wishes that he'd refused too, because she's been mangled into a hideous wreck. He breaks through the police roadblock and escapes, only to hurtle down a hill in his car and end up needing his own face fixed.

However this gives him the opportunity to become someone else, which he promptly does. Soon Dr Rossiter is Dr Schuler, though both are played by Anton Diffring, finally finding a role that didn't call for him to play a cultured Nazi that looks like Bing Crosby. He still has the accent and he's just as cold and twisted, but we don't get a single Nazi reference, even when he and his assistants skip off to the continent and effectively invade France. We don't know quite what he intends initially except escape but while trying to get directions to Bordeaux from a young girl at the side of the road, a young girl who was disfigured by a Nazi bomb during the war and the daughter of a circus owner, he finds his future.

Schuler's professional interest is piqued by Nicole Vanet's scar and his Teutonic sense of destiny is invoked by her father's profession, so he trades her reconstructive surgery for control and safety in this travelling outfit. It's a rundown affair that can't find too many customers, mostly because it's 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War, so whatever money is around is being spent on reconstruction of cities rather than faces. Ten years later, the Zirkus Schuler is a huge hit, populated with and run by thieves and murderers that he's turned into beautiful women, and who maintains control over by keeping records and before and after photographs. Anyone who tries to leave finds themselves prey to an 'unfortunate accident', giving the circus a second unofficial name, the Jinx Circus.
The first 'unfortunate accident' is Nicole's father, Vanet, who is played by the wonderful Donald Pleasence. If there's anything better in the movies than Donald Pleasence, it's a drunken Donald Pleasence and if there's anything better than a drunken Donald Pleasence it's a drunken Donald Pleasence dancing with Bosco the bear. The only downside is that he's a little too drunk and drops his bottle of wine, so when Bosco treads on the glass shards he angrily mauls his master to death. That means the end of Donald Pleasence which is a terrible thing for us but a good thing for Schuler who promptly takes over everything, not just the circus but Nicole too.

Having someone like Anton Diffring behind the maniacal lead character was a coup for Lynx films, hardly a major name in the booming British horror movie scene. They only made four films, this being the only one in the horror genre. The film also benefits from a number of beautiful women, who are notable for being beautiful full figured women rather than having the stick figure approach to beauty that we tend to see today. This isn't just Yvonne Monlaur and Erika Remberg, who share top billing with Diffring as Nicole Vanet and a murderous whore turned high wire artiste called Elissa Caro respectively, it's most of the women in the film, including Vanda Hudson and Yvonne Romain.

The story is solid though not without flaws. There's no attempt to explain how a circus with so many freak accidents can continue for so long, not just through preventative safety actions brought by the law but through circuses being traditionally populated by superstitious folk who wouldn't want to stay in the Jinx Circus. Also the man in a gorilla suit was completely pointless, especially given that another great plus for the film is the fact that it was made with strong collaboration from Billy Smart's Circus, making the fake gorilla the only fake animal out of the many animals in the film, except the stuffed bear used at one point during the mauling of Vanet.

Horror was a booming genre in England in the late fifties, sixties and into the seventies. The most important studio was Hammer, who became so dominant through sheer volume of releases and savvy marketing that 'Hammer Horror' is a term often used to describe other films they had nothing to do with, films really made by companies like Amicus and Tigon. The quality was variable and decreased over time, but generally averages pretty high, even in films without such great names as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. This is a worthy addition to the oeuvre, successful enough that a later film, 1966's Circus of Fear, reused a bunch of the footage. It's worth watching for the story, for the circus, for Diffring and of course, for the pulchritudinous young ladies.

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