Saturday, November 1, 2008

Circus of Horrors (1960)

...aka: Phantom of the Circus

Directed by:
Sidney Hayers

Anton Diffring was an incredible, underrated, one-of-a-kind, German-born character actor who specialized in villains and deserved more fame than what he received. He had both a great look and a great on-screen persona; with blonde hair and piercing, pale blue-gray eyes, a demeanor that was classy, intelligent and somewhat icy (but never wooden), and a very thick, cultured-sounding German accent that kept him typecast as Nazis during a portion of his career. On the eve of WWII, the actor (who studied in both his home country and in Milan, Italy) was sent to England by his parents (who strongly opposed Nazism; Diffring would ironically go on to play sadistic Nazi's on many occasions) and was interred as a potential spy by the British government and sent to Canada. When the multi-lingual actor was released, he would move on to New York City stage, screen and TV work before returning to Europe to appear in all manner of films. After appearing in an episode of the TV series Tales of Mystery (an adaptation of "The Man in Half Moon Street"), Hammer Studios took notice of his potential as a horror heavy and gave him the role of the mad Baron Frankenstein in a pilot for a proposed TV series to be called TALES OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958). It was never picked up, but Diffring's work was nonetheless impressive and Hammer gave him a second lead role in their 1959 shocker THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH. The film was an international hit and a year later Diffring received the lead in CIRCUS OF HORRORS, which was co-produced Anglo-Amalgamated in England and AIP in the US. It turned out to be an even bigger hit than Man and the best genre showcase Diffring ever had for his unique talents.

He’s Dr. Rossiter, an unorthodox plastic surgeon in England (circa 1947) whose latest experiment backfired in a major way, leading to hideous disfigurement and a slip into insanity for his subject Evelyn (Colette Wilde). When the authorities close in on him, Rossiter is involved in a fiery car crash and believed to be dead, but has actually fled the country with his two associates; his dedicated lover Angela (Jane Hylton) and weak-willed Martin (Kenneth Griffith), who had both assisted him in the failed surgery. "Somewhere in France," the trio encounter a little girl named Nicole, who has a bad facial scar caused by a bomb hitting her school during the war. Nicole's poor, sad, drunken father Vanet (Donald Pleasence with hair) owns the shell of a circus, but was abandoned by his friends and had to close the place down. Dr. Bernhard Schuler (the name Rossiter now uses after having his face changed after the auto accident) makes a deal with him to both restore Nicole's face and turn the circus back into a prosperous business. After being successful at the former, Vanet signs the entire circus over for loan reasons only (agreeing that he will still keep ownership), has too much to drink and stumbles into "Roscoe" the bear (a man in a silly suit). Dr. Schuler sits back and watches as he's mauled to death. Now he's in control.

Ten years later in Berlin, the once run-down circus is now a thriving business for Schuler, who is still assisted by the miserably faithful Angela (who has been pushed off to the back burner, but is still in love with him) and Martin (who ends up stuck doing all the dirty work). Now a beautiful, innocent teenager, Nicole (Yvonne Monlaur) has been adopted by "uncle" Bernhard after her father's death and is in the process of being primed for stardom in "the most exciting circus in the history of show business." The rest of the ladies are actually once-scarred thieves, murderesses and prostitutes (or in one case, all three!) made beautiful by Dr. Schuler's knife. Among those is busty blonde "Queen of the Equestrians" Magda (Vanda Hudson), who does a leap of death through a ring of knives and can jump rope on a moving horse, and vicious aerialist Elissa Caro (Erika Remberg), who is jealous of Magda's star billing, incorporates a hangman's noose in her act and uses sex and blackmail to get what she wants. Hey, just because you get a new lease on life through renewed beauty doesn't mean you've changed any on the inside! There's also Melina (Yvonne Romain), Magda's acid-scarred friend, who pops in about midway through to take on lion tamer duties and strike the fancy of Schuler in her incredible push-up bra. (By the way, this move has a lot of bra scenes).

When any of the performers threaten to leave or try to cross Dr. Schuler, he arranges fatal "accidents" to occur in front of the live audience. Madga, who plots to run off with her wealthy, monocle-wearing sugar daddy, gets a blade stuck in her neck during Chief Eagle Eye's knife-throwing act. The rest of the deaths are usually in accordance to what act the person happens to be performing and most are actually carried out by Martin. And wouldn't ya know it, these tragic deaths and the horrific reputation of "The Jinxed Circus" are really appeasing the thrill-seeking audiences and drawing even larger crowds than usual! Since twelve have died already, the police think it's a little fishy and send Scotland Yard's finest; Inspector Ames (Conrad Phillips), who is such a pro that he gets two sentences into an interrogation of Elissa before falling prey to her seductive charms. Using the name Arthur Desmond, he claims to be a freelance crime reporter (which gives him free reign to snoop around and ask questions) and romances the naive Nicole, who he pumps for important clues and falls in love with.

All the backstabbing, false identities, botched facial surgeries, bloody deaths, love, hate and assorted treachery would be plenty for one movie, but this gem really knocks it out of the park when it comes to overall entertainment value. The setting gives us lots of fun stuff and the funhouse spirit of the circus is beautifully, colorfully handled; there's some fire-eating, elephants, fireworks, gasping audience members, a hostile caged gorilla (who figures into the ending), some chimpanzees who perform a mini-aerial act and roll around on balls, shaky beauties who do still modeling of famous historic characters (such as Adam and Eve, Helen of Troy and, yes, even Sappho and her "handmaidens!") and much more. There are also many great, sarcastic one-liners and caustic exchanges (best when spoken by Diffring or Remberg), some clever humor (like a charity performance for "The Mental Health Foundation") and some effective irony (Schuler's demise right in front of the "Temple of Beauty" exhibit). Though ads promoted this as "The Exploitation Movie of the Year," at the core is a surprisingly progressive theme that attempts to explore sexual perversity; with the main villain lovingly fondling wounds and scars and being sexually turned on by female disfigurement. The supporting cast is very good (particularly Hylton; Pleasence looks even more deranged than the psycho surgeon in his brief cameo!), but this move is dominated by Diffring.

The DVD from Anchor Bay sadly does not include any interviews (the director and a good deal of the cast have passed on, anyway), but does an excellent job in other areas. First off, the print is in vivid, pristine shape and looks terrific. Secondly, there is an excellent, detailed biography of star Diffring. And finally, and best of all, is an incredible, rare collection of stills, lobby cards, posters and ad art that are of great historic value. Browsing through them is taking a trip back in time to a day when an enthusiastic ad campaign and showmanship heightened box-office receipts. There are many fun things to learn here, such as theater owners having the option of ordering "special circus accessories" to decorate their movie houses with. There were also CIRCUS OF HORRORS balloons, comics, newspaper color-in contests, masks and even a novelization by Tom Owen that was once released by Panther Books. The great theme song "Look For a Star" (sung by Garry Miles and composed by Mark Anthony - no, not that one, he can't be that old) was released as a 45. The DVD is in English and French language versions and also comes with the trailer and three black-and-white TV spots.


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