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CIRCUS OF HORRORS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Anton Diffring, Jane Hylton, Kenneth Griffith, Erika Remberg, Yvonne Monlaur, Vanda Hudson, Yvonne Romain, Donald Pleasence
Director:  Sidney Hayers
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.77:1
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  See Review
Length:  92 Minutes
Release Date:  October 23, 2001

“I’m beautiful…I’m BEAUTIFUL!”

Film ***

Let’s face it, there’s a kind of morbid spell of fascination that circuses weave over us.  We love to see the clowns, the acrobats, the animals, and the death defying feats, but part of what makes it so exciting and suspenseful is the fact that something could go terribly wrong at any time.  After all, is a high wire artist’s skill any less just because he or she uses a net?  Then why are we so much more intrigued when the net isn’t there?

Sidney Hayers’ Hammer-esque fright classic Circus of Horrors is about a “jinxed” circus, earning as much fame for what goes wrong as what goes right.  Many unfortunate deaths have occurred within it’s ring…all beautiful young starlets.

The circus is masterminded by Dr. Schuler (Diffring), once known as Dr. Rossiter.  At the beginning of the film, we see an obviously once pretty lady horribly disfigured and hysterical, with the not-so-good doctor racing to get away from his plastic surgery experiment gone wrong.  When he speeds through a blockade, he kills an officer, and ends up tumbling down a cliff in a fiery car.

With the aid of his nurse Angela (Hylton) and assistant Martin (Griffith), the doctor gets a new face and a new identity, and upon discovering a poor circus owner (Pleasence, in a small but memorable role) with a disfigured child, a new chance for himself.  After the owner dies in an unfortunate encounter with a dancing bear (trust me), Dr. Schuler takes over the circus, and adopts the young girl, Nicole.

Using his surgical skills, he reconstructs Nicole’s face so that she grows into a beautiful young woman (Monlaur) and an accomplished trick rider.  Schuler’s plan:  to offer haven to criminals and others on the lam by giving them new faces in exchange for their services in his circus.  (Never mind, I guess, whether or not said people have any skills whatsoever). 

The circus provides a perfect and profitable front for Schuler to hide his identity and practice his unusual methods of reconstructive surgery.  But officials across Europe are becoming alarmed at the high number of “accidents” at Schuler’s circus, which he of course dismisses as just the danger inherent in the profession.

The truth?  Whenever one of his former patients decides she wants out, she gets out…but Schuler’s way.  A knife throwing accident here, a spill from a high rope there…things happen, right?  The film’s main attraction is in knowing ahead of time who’s going to get it…it becomes only a question of how and when.  When an egotistical rope artist (Remberg) announces to Schuler, for example, that she’s going to reveal all of his secrets “after I finish my act”, we think, “bad move, lady” and await the inevitable.

But suspicion begins to abound when it’s learned that all of the “accident” victims have two traits in common:  they are all beautiful, and under close scrutiny, all show signs of having had facial surgery.  Near the film’s terrific climax, two elements converge that may or may not prove the good doctor’s undoing.  One, the woman he disfigured at the beginning of the movie arrives to attend the circus…will she recognize the former Dr. Rossiter behind his new face?  Second, he falls in love with one of his latest creations, Melina (Romain), which inflames the jealousy of his nurse Angela.  The fact that Melina is about to make her circus debut as a lion tamer?  Get ready for some white-knuckle suspense.

Circus of Horrors treads a tight rope of its own, between genuine horror and cheesy camp.  It has the right mix of both to be just entertaining enough.  Though the deaths are very few and far between, there is a kind of sick pleasure in knowing they are about to occur and waiting for them (all except for the dancing bear incident, which happens quickly and is almost tear-inducingly funny).  It’s a bright, colorful movie that uses its look to off-put the frightful elements.  Best of all, I think, is the lead performance by Anton Diffring, who mixes being diabolical with being earnest for a memorable Dr. Schuler. 

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the plot requires all of Dr. Schuler’s young ladies to be radiantly beautiful.  When the man cuts right, the results are indeed incredible.  At least until he has to dispatch them.

Video ***1/2

Anchor Bay delivers another quality anamorphic transfer for a classic horror film.  Though more than 40 years old, Circus of Horrors looks astonishing.  The original Eastman Color print is bright and rich in colors, with no bleedings or distortions.  I noticed no grain or image break-up, even in lower lit settings.  Images are quite sharp and detailed throughout.  Once again, Anchor Bay proves themselves the best friend of horror aficionados, taking an underground cult picture and treating it like it was an AFI Top 100 film on disc!

Audio ***

The mono soundtrack is actually quite lively, with a good musical score and plenty of big top sounds throughout, including crowds, calliopes and more.  The scene at the end with the lions is especially potent and loud.  Dialogue is always very clear, and I noticed no distracting background noise throughout the presentation.  A quality job.

Features **

The disc contains the original trailer, plus a few TV spots (in black and white, but verbally touting “in color”), a printed bio of Anton Diffring, a stills gallery, and a collection of posters and advertising.

Summary:

Horror, beauty, and a good central performance make up the three rings of the Circus of Horror.  Fright film fans will be more than pleased with this quality disc offering from Anchor Bay, which looks and sounds great.  You’re sure to never look at dancing bears in quite the same way again.