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The show must go on
A UK region 2 DVD review of CIRCUS OF HORRORS by Slarek
 

The five year period between 1957 and 1962 was a damned good one for the British horror film. Hammer Studios hit gold with inventive reworkings of Universal favourites Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy, Michael Powell delivered the brilliant but career-crushing Peeping Tom, and John Moxey made the creepily atmospheric City of the Dead, to name but five. And then there was Sidney Hayers. Not a name specifically associated with the horror genre, Hayers nonetheless made two of the most enjoyable genre films of this period. In 1962 he directed the terrific Night of the Eagle, but two years earlier he had already made his mark with the evocatively titled Circus of Horrors.

The film opens with a bang in 1947 England at the climax of a story we are invited to piece together on the move, as two men race to the house of beautiful Evelyn Morley, who is smashing mirrors in a state of near hysteria. We soon see why when the results of a badly botched plastic surgery operation are revealed. The surgeon, Dr. Rossiter (Anton Diffring in one of his most energetic performances), is fleeing at high speed, tearing through a police road block, knocking a constable flying and plunging his flaming car down the side of a quarry. He escapes with his life and struggles to the house of his assistants, Angela and Martin (Jane Hylton and Kenneth Griffith), who work quickly to repair his facial injuries. England has become too risky for them now and they decide to flee to France. At this point we're just 7 minutes in, and that includes the opening credits.

A chance encounter with Nicole, a young girl they stop to ask directions from in the French countryside, lands the trio in the company of alcoholic circus owner Vanet (the ever wonderful Donald Pleasance). Nicole is Vanet's daughter and she's been left facially scared by the war, something Rossiter, under the new name of Dr. Schüler, convinces Vanet he can repair. He does so, and in gratitude Vanet signs the circus over to him. As a business it's not doing well, but Schüler believes he can transform its fortunes and use it as a cover for his continuing experiments. His takeover is complete when Vanet is mauled to death by a circus bear. It's an unfortunate accident that is triggered by Vanet's drunkenness, but Schüler hesitates when he could have helped, and in the process turns a dangerous corner in his career.

Ten years later and the show is a success and playing in Berlin to full houses. A lot is left to the audience to work out for themselves and it's best not to give it too much thought. You will, for example, need to fathom how a few pretty faces, carefully restored by Schüler's skilled hands, could turn a run-down attraction into Europe's premiere circus, or where the good doctor learned the skills to train trapeze artists and bareback riders to such a level of professionalism. It doesn't matter. What does is that once you've been recruited to Schüler's circus, you're in it for life. Try to leave and you're likely to have an unfortunate accident, arranged by Schüler and executed by the obedient Martin.

Now this is one busy little narrative. I'm already three paragraphs in and I haven't even covered the business of Schüler's relationships with the women he restores to beauty and the anguish this causes the still doting Angela, or high wire artist Ellissa's jealousy of bareback rider Magda's top billing, or the introduction of Inspector Arthur Desmond, who poses as a crime reporter investigating the cursed circus when it arrives in England. This is a copper with a somewhat unconventional approach to investigation that appears to involve snogging his female interviewees, something that soon lands him in the arms of the now slightly older (though nowhere near as old as Desmond) Nicole.

This is a horror movie on the fringes of that classification, qualifying for genre inclusion on the basis of what it implies rather than shows – like Peeping Tom, it's as likely to be labelled a thriller or psychological drama as it is a horror piece. The similarities to Powell's film extend to the use of a Germanic antihero whose fascination for women ultimately leads to their murder. In all other respects, however, the egomaniacal Doctor Rossiter/Schüler is the polar opposite to Peeping Tom's introverted Mark Lewis – while Lewis lurked shyly in the shadows, Schüler is the all-controlling dictator of a world of his own creation, able to order executions that he leaves to others to carry out. There may be no blood on the doctors hands, but there's plenty on his soul.

Circus of Horrors is never as scary as Hayers' later Night of the Eagle, but still has its moments of genuine tension, notably one unfortunate's encounter with a cage full of agitated lions and a knife-throwing act that, well, you can guess how that ends. Douglas Slocombe's active camera, together with some tight editing from Reginald Mills and an uncredited Sidney Hayers, never lets the pace drop and even prevents the film from tripping over that most dreaded of genre stumbling blocks to reality, the man in a gorilla suit. In the best genre tradition, the deliciously amoral villain is far and away the most enjoyable character, with the nearest the film has to a hero not even appearing until halfway in, and even then he proves largely ineffective. It's old school British horror at its most unpretentiously enjoyable, and its smart and breezy enough to have stood the test of time rather well.

sound and vision

A fine transfer that belies the film's age, with only that pastel leaning you'll find on some Eastmancolor prints of the period dating it as a film of its time. Sharpness is very good, contrast and black levels solid, the colours very nicely reproduced and there's hardly a dust spot to be seen. A very solid job. The framing is 1.78:1, which once again disagrees with the 1.66:1 on the IMDb, but there's never the sense that the picture has been cropped or the framing is too tight. The transfer is, as you'd expect, anamorphically enhanced.

The Dolby 2.0 mono track is clear and stable, with only very minor distortion on the trebles, which is about standard for a film of this vintage. No complaints here.

extra features

As with Night of the Eagle, this is pretty much a movie-only affair, but we do get the original Trailer (2:24), which promises "A Ringside Seat with Terror!" and is actually rather well assembled. It's also in surprisingly good condition.

summary

Optimum have again done a fine job on this release, with a very good transfer and the budget price compensating for the lack of extra features. This and Night of the Eagle bode well for their new Horror Classics banner – let's hope the standard is maintained by the next releases. I, for one, am eager to see what they may be.

Circus of Horrors

UK 1960
88 mins
director
Sidney Hayers
starring
Anton Diffring
Erika Remberg
Yvonne Monlaur
Donald Pleasance
Jane Hylton

disc details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles .
none
extras
Trailer
distributor
Optimum
release date
30 April 2007
review posted
30 April 2007

related review
Night of the Eagle (DVD)

See all of Slarek's reviews