His ambition and arrogance pushing him to attempt a reconstruction beyond the possibility of surgical techniques, the resulting irreparable disfigurement of poor Evelyn Morley drives the fragile patient out of her mind and Doctor Rossiter off the road when he attempts to run a police roadblock; surviving, his assistants Angela and Martin remodel Rossiter’s face prior to travelling together to the continent where he reinvents himself as Doctor Bernard Schüler.
Coming across a failing circus, the ringmaster’s young daughter Nicole scarred by German bombs, Schüler heals her and makes a proposal to Monsieur Vanet that together they will revive their fortunes, and within ten years he has done just that but at a cost, the circus having a reputation for being jinxed with beautiful young women dying in mysterious circumstances, women with no apparent history yet whose post-mortems revealed all bear hidden scars of plastic surgery.
Set in two time periods, a brief prelude in England and France of 1947 then the extended touring performances of a decade later as success and notoriety bring the attention of law enforcement to the Circus of Horrors, behind the curtain is I Am a Camera‘s Anton Diffring as Schüler, vain, controlling and demanding perfection and loyalty, recreating outcasts in his ideal of beauty and killing them when they finally grow tired and seek to leave his employment.
Directed by Night of the Eagle‘s Sidney Hayers from a script by George Baxt, Circus of Horrors is more about the spectacle than analysis, Diffring’s face little different before or after his surgery making it questionable why it is so difficult for the police to identify him and the common knowledge that anyone preparing to leave dies horribly during performance perhaps indicating that rather than announcing their intentions they should quietly flit during the night, any attempt by Schüler to track and blackmail them also inevitably exposing himself.
What is surprising for a film released in 1960 is what is made explicit, the former life of lion tamer Melina (Curse of the Werewolf’s Yvonne Romain) that of “a thief and a prostitute, the perfect candidate for the Schüler circus,” and the final exits of knife-thrower’s assistant Magda (Vanda Hudson) and rope-swinger Elissa (Erika Remberg) filmed in vivid “Specta-color,” perhaps an attempt to draw attention away from the fact that the victims are all essentially the same paper-thin character in different costumes, though the sight of The Night of the Generals‘ Donald Pleasence mauled to death by a bearskin rug is worth the ticket price alone.
Restored from the original camera negative for StudioCanal’s Vintage Classics range, Circus of Horrors is supported by a brief gallery of monochrome behind the scenes still and two interviews, both Kim Newman and Stuart Maconie placing the film in a continuum with Horrors of the Black Museum and Peeping Tom, Newman observing how the film manages the feat of “condemning something horrible while absolutely relishing in it” and Maconie setting the historical context of Britain on the cusp of the post-war boom but with the freedom and social liberties of the later sixties yet to arrive, what the new generation would see as revolutionary the old regarding as sordid and subversive.