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Default Circus of Horrors



Reviewer: Paff
Review Date: October 15, 2001

Released by: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Release date: 10/23/2001
MSRP: $24.98
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.77:1 | 16x9: Yes



Can you think of anything more beautiful than a woman who's had her face burned by acid? OK, that's not my cup of tea, but I guess there's some people who really enjoy that kind of thing. That fetish is the focus of the 1961 British film Circus of Horrors. Anchor Bay Entertainment, who are seemingly the only company who wants to give this era of horror any respect, has just restored this film, and produced an impressive DVD. Let's go to the circus, shall we?

The Story

Circus of Horrors opens in 1947 in England, not long after the end of World War II. After a botched operation, plastic surgeon Dr. Rossiter (Anton Diffring) is forced to change his name and face, as he and his partners (Jane Hylton, Kenneth Griffith) are go on the run. Dr. Rossiter becomes Dr. Schuler, and the trio ends up in France, needing a new front to continue their experiments in facial reconstruction.

A young French girl Nicole (Carla Challoner), her face horribly disfigured in the war, becomes Dr Schuler's first patient. Her father Vanet (Donald Pleasence, with hair!) runs a struggling circus that Dr. Schuler believes to be the perfect place to hide from the authorities. Good to see that some kids still dream of running away with the circus when things get tough. Anyway, after Dr. Shuler restores Nicole's beauty, Vanet makes Dr. Schuler his partner, but then dies in the first of many accidental deaths in this film.

Next thing we know, it's ten years later, and Schuler's circus is the 2nd greatest show on Earth. The only thing is, his entire circus is staffed with female criminals whose faces he's rebuilt. He knows that as long as he has copies of their criminal records, they will be his employees for life. OK, a few performers do try to leave the circus, but they quickly meet up with some more bizarre accidents. Of course, Schuler's just lucky he doesn't have PETA to contend with, considering the way his circus animals are treated. But I digress.



Everything comes to a head when Schuler dares to bring his circus to England, where he's still a wanted man. An English policeman, Ames (Conrad Phillips), has some major suspicions about the rash of deaths. He seduces the Schuler circus performers, including the now adult Nicole (played by the lovely Yvonne Monlaur). But it's that botched surgery job from 1947 that may just be Rossiter/Schuler's downfall.

Man, what is it with some guys and physical deformities? I gotta say, I don't find disfigurements to be particularly attractive. But Dr. Schuler does, and that's the main focus of Circus of Horrors. If this concept sounds familiar, it should; there was a similar idea in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, released only a year before Circus.

Schuler's fascination with ugliness, as well as his cruel mastery of his female performers rates pretty high on the creepy scale. The circus itself is rather peripheral. That might be my main (and only) complaint about Circus of Horrors: Too much circus, and not enough horror. Anyone who's ever been to the circus notices that circus workers are among the creepiest people on the planet. And that's not even considering clowns, any child's worst nightmare. The only terrifying person in this movie is Schuler, and even then it's an uneasiness terror, not the standard horror villain at all. I think there's a missed opportunity for some behind-the-scenes sideshow weirdness that would have pushed this from a good to a great film.



Schuler's fascination with ugliness, as well as his cruel mastery of his female performers rates pretty high on the creepy scale. The circus itself is rather peripheral. That might be my main (and only) complaint about Circus of Horrors: Too much circus, and not enough horror. Anyone who's ever been to the circus notices that circus workers are among the creepiest people on the planet. And that's not even considering clowns, any child's worst nightmare. The only terrifying person in this movie is Schuler, and even then it's an uneasiness terror, not the standard horror villain at all. I think there's a missed opportunity for some behind-the-scenes sideshow weirdness that would have pushed this from a good to a great film.

But in several ways, that's also the strength Circus of Horrors. Diffring's performance is absolutely wonderful. He's definitely the star of this movie, and everyone else is just a minor character. Just the idea of someone who's that much of a control freak (long before the term "control freak" was even invented) will keep any viewer interested, if only to see how this weirdo will eventually be finished off.



The supporting cast is a mixed bag. Yvonne Monlaur was fantastic in Terence Fisher's Brides of Dracula; we only get a few scenes of her in this one. Pleasence's screen time is also too short, although this is before he became well known. Hylton and Griffith as the brother and sister team of Schuler's assistants are a bit of a nuisance. But I really liked the team of catty circus performers (Erika Remberg, Vanda Hudson, and Yvonne Romain), whose constant carping about star billing is rather humorous. If it were me, seeing what happens to performers when they upset Dr. Schuler, I think I'd just keep my mouth shut.

Circus of Horrors isn't the best horror film from the early 60s, but it is darn enjoyable. The chilling attraction to facial deformities makes the film well worth watching, as does the circus atmosphere. The pacing is a bit slow, but it's never boring. The treatment of the animals may turn a few viewers away, but it's nowhere near as brutal as the Italian cannibal films. In fact, some of the "vicious" animals are only stuntmen in costumes, but it's still unsettling. Good little movie, definitely one to check out.

Image Quality

Apparently, Anchor Bay was unable to get a print of Circus of Horrors, so they had a major studio completely reshoot the film earlier this year. Wait…no, that can't be right. Donald Pleasence and Anton Diffring are in this version, and they're both dead. So can someone tell me how a 40-year old film looks this good? The only hints about the age of this film are some laughable effects and the cheesy 60s pop song that Elissa (Erika Remberg) performs to.

Seriously, I was very impressed with the quality of this transfer. I tried to find the slightest blemish or fade, and couldn't see a single one. From the opening credits till the end, this is just about as flawless as one could possibly expect. And when you consider the age of the film, it's only more remarkable. As for the specifics, it's a 1.77:1 widescreen edition, enhanced for 16x9 TVs.

Sound

As is to be expected with a 40-year-old film, the sound presentation is a typical mono mix. It's slightly fuzzy (I noticed this during the opening song), and the accents (especially Diffring's) are sometimes a bit difficult to make out. But overall it's not distracting, and is an adequate but unremarkable representation.

Supplemental Material

inline Image Anchor Bay went pretty light on the extras this time. Just the usual assortment of trailers, TV spots, stills and posters. We also get a brief biography of star Anton Diffring. I'm not sure what extras could possibly exist for an obscure British film like this. Besides, the outstanding video transfer of Circus of Horrors makes up for the lack of supplemental features.

Final Thoughts

Circus of Horrors is a rather slow, but disturbing film. Anton Diffring is great as the "mad scientist", and his bizarre attraction to ugliness makes for highly recommended viewing. The fantastic video quality can not be praised enough. I think it's too bad this excellent work will go mostly unnoticed, this being such an obscure film. But fans of Hammer-type horror (this is NOT a Hammer film, even though it looks like one) will definitely want this in their collections. Give it a look.

Rating

Movie - B-
Image Quality - A+
Sound - C
Supplements - C


Technical Info.
  • Color
  • Running time - 1 hour 32 minutes
  • Unrated
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English and French Dolby Digital Mono

Supplements
  • Trailer
  • TV Spots
  • Stills
  • Posters and Advertising
  • Anton Diffring Bio

 

 

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