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Circus of Fear (Network DVD)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
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Directed by: 
John Moxey
Christopher Lee
Leo Genn
Anthony Newlands
Heinz Drache
Eddi Arent
Bottom Line: 
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Beginning in the late-fifties and continuing well into the sixties, several long-running film series based on the lurid crime and mystery tales of Edgar Wallace were established almost simultaneously in Britain and West Germany, and ran in parallel for many years, each with their own distinctive contemporary take on the work of one of England’s most prolific writers of pulp noir and crime, whose countless stories have continued frequently to be used as the raw material in mystery adaptations for the screen and for television since the 1920s and up to the present day. In England, Anglo Amalgamated oversaw the production of well over forty black and white 50 minute second features shot at Wimbledon’s Merton Park Studios, which proved themselves a formidable training ground for a veritable who’s who of emerging British acting and film-making talent. Meanwhile, in West Germany, Rialto Studios concocted its own distinctive take on the Wallace formula, with its Anglophile mystery series dealing in exaggerated symbols of Britishness (Scotland Yard Headquarters, remote English country houses, bowler hatted butlers, a fog-shrouded Thames and the Houses of Parliament are constantly re-occurring images and tropes) but they’d often get many of the telling incidental details of English life -- such as car makes or police uniforms -- slightly wrong, since all of the films were produced, written and shot in Germany.

The English-made Merton Park features were mostly centred on traditional procedural investigation, invariably carried out by affable, up-standing, mackintosh-wearing Scotland Yard detectives, who’d solve in the space of fifty minutes (and with unimpeachable predictability) mysteries, murders and robberies amid a pre-swinging London scene composed of pristine Kensington streets, mews houses and elegant courtyards. The German series, though (which later came to be appreciated under the banner of the ‘krimi’ sub-genre) created an almost surreal, jazz-scored, English-themed fantasyland -- a shadowy, expressionistic, mist-enwreathed world populated by masked criminal masterminds, black gloved garrotters, red robed mad monks, and more and more semi-gothic trappings that continued, as the series progressed into lurid colour, to edge it further and further into horror territory. These films’ increasing focus on elaborately staged and erotically charged murder sequences saw the series eventually subsumed by the giallo genre when the later pictures started being co-financed by Italian producers, but the work of Edgar Wallace (and his son Bryan Edgar Wallace) continues to provide inspiration for German thriller-makers to this day, usually in the world of television adaptation.

The 1966 production “Circus of Fear” aimed to bring the stylistic trappings of both the English and German series’ together under the stewardship of that colourful impresario of low budget but lush-looking B movie product, Harry Alan Towers. The film is one of the producer’s characteristic pan-European puddings: a British-German co-production designed so that it could be marketed slightly differently according to the particular peccadilloes of whichever territory it was being sold in, and which, in this case, intentionally assemblies a cast of English character actors and several of the German stars of the Rialto Krimi series to that purpose, in a faux Wallace thriller written by Towers himself under his writer’s nom de guerre of Peter Welbeck. Since most entries in both the (by now flagging) Anglo Amalgamated series and its Rialto cousin constituted only very loose interpretations of the Wallace source novels to begin with, it didn’t matter particularly that “Circus of Fear” doesn’t appear to be based on any specific Wallace thriller; it merely incorporates elements of both concurrent film series’ and appropriates enough tried and tested plot mechanisms and tropes from the Wallace formula to be a fairly convincing mimic in parts, with both English and West German flavours included in the recipe -- although inevitably it falls somewhat  short of both.

Interestingly, British-born director John (Llewellyn) Moxey, better known today for lensing the 1960 cult New England Gothic horror classic starring Christopher Lee “City of the Dead,” and  the much praised Kolchak TV film “The Night Stalker” (1972), kept his foot in the door of the British film industry by helming six of the Merton Park “Edgar Wallace Mysteries” second feature series for Anglo Amalgamated between 1962 to 1965, while also directing episodes of British TV staples such as “Coronation Street” and “Z Cars” in between. (Moxey moved to the states in 1968 where his name became associated with episodes of just about every major U.S. ‘60s &‘70s detective, action and fantasy TV series going, from “Mission Impossible” to “Charlie’s Angels” to “Kung Fu”) The Merton Park connection perhaps explains Towers choosing him as a director for this particular project.

Meanwhile, Towers’ German backers and distributors, Constantin Films, made sure three of the most recognised names (to German audiences) of their Rialto Krimi cycle – Klaus Kinski, Heinz Drache and Eddi Arent – were flown in to be involved in the shenanigans for the added domestic marquee value their participation could bring to the project. This also enabled the German marketing for the film (under the much more Wallace-like title “The Secret of the Silver Triangle”) to shamelessly pitch the feature as yet another entry in the on-going German Rialto Wallace series (complete with a lurid poster in the same house style), yet the film feels thoroughly British in execution -- with a strong cast of British character actors like Leo Genn, Victor Maddern, Cecil Parker, Anthony Newlands and Maurice Kaufmann lending some credibility to Towers’ convoluted, Red Herring-stuffed screenplay, which was filmed back to back with “The Brides of Fu Manchu” on the sublet lots of Hammer Productions’ Bray Studios as well as in some typically Avengers-esque, Berkshire countryside locations, with the finished product daubed in particularly lustrous Eastman Colours. Even so, when the film was exhibited in Germany, the prints used were rendered in gritty black and white to help tie it to the previous house style of the German series, and so as not to usurp or inhibit the marketing of the latest true Rialto produced release -- “The Hunchback of Soho” – which was being pitched at the time to German audiences as the first full colour film in the Edgar Wallace cycle.

Christopher Lee was the ideal name to head the cast, despite being almost completely hidden behind a black hood for three quarters of the picture, since not only was he intimately associated with British horror (the name “Circus of Fear” and Towers’ dubious approach to the marketing of the film in the UK -- flagging up non-existent horror content -- was inspired by the luridly sadistic British film “Circus of Horrors” from a few years before: a picture, ironically enough, produced by Anglo Amalgamated as one of  its own attempts to tap the horror boom!) as well as having previously worked for Moxey on “City of the Dead”, but the peripatetic actor had already appeared recently alongside Klaus Kinski in several of the German language Wallace Krimis as well: “The Devil's Daffodil” and “Secret of the Red Orchid” -- and so was easily accommodated by both the two intended main targeted audiences for the picture. In the states, the film was re-titled “Psycho-Circus” while the US trailer is equally as disingenuous about the content as the British horror hyping approach, mainly concentrating on the opening heist scene on Tower Bridge to suggest a tough, modern crime thriller rather than the pedestrian whodunit that eventually transpires.

The first ten minutes feel like they belong in a completely different film, as a crew of burly stunt men playing gangster heavies (including 1970s Doctor Who stunt veteran Roy Scammell) rob a security van of its quarter million haul and make their getaway by speedboat across the Thames after ambushing the transport’s police escort (the vintage black Wolseley police cars with ringing bells instead of sirens give the film’s true age away instantly) while staging a hold up on a traffic-less Tower Bridge – but not before their inside man has exercised an itchy trigger finger and killed a panicking guard with a shotgun blast to the chest. Moxey uses this kinetic pre-titles teaser to indulge a ken for tough-looking, punchily edited (by future “The Italian Job” and “Get Carter” editor John Trumper, to boot) suspense and action scenes minus any dialogue or bombastic music score. The scene is simply conveyed in pictures, with some judicious editing and juxtaposition of apposite images. When composer Johnny Douglas’s (“The Railway Children”) old fashioned incidental music does finally kick in though, it proves to be overtly heavy-handed and much more appropriate to a Hammer-esque Gothic horror film than the serious crime flick this appears to be gearing up for; the main titles theme does essay a mournfully catchy trumpet melody, though.

The gang convene at their warehouse hideout near a Thames-side wharf in London’s docklands, where white tie-wearing gang leader Jackson (Tom Bowman -  “Village of the Damned”, “The Frightened City”) takes orders from the mysterious organiser of the heist (whose identity -- in true Edgar Wallace fashion -- is unknown even to the men ‘employed’ by him to carry the plan out!) However, while Mason (Victor Maddern – “Blood of the Vampire”, “Carry on Regardless”), the disgraced killer of the security guard, is sent with a battered suitcase full of the stolen loot to a deserted farm near a village on the outskirts of Winsor, to hide the haul until smuggler Manfred Hart (Kinski – fresh off the set of “Doctor Zhivago”) can spirit it out of the country, the anonymous organiser betrays the entire gang: most of them are rounded up after a high speed car chase along an almost deserted stretch of M1 Motorway (which was shot on the fly amongst real traffic, although in 1966 there wasn’t much of it about in comparison to today), ending in crash & burn, the death of gang leader Jackson, and the arrest of everyone else. Still unaware of this, Mason turns up at the rendezvous point promptly – which is also the winter quarters of Barberini’s travelling Circus, and so is full of old circus paraphilia -- to be flamboyantly offed by an silent black gloved assassin using a circus throwing knife!

By this point every character thus far introduced has been inelegantly disposed of save for a furtive-looking Klaus Kinski, who proceeds to spend the rest of his few scenes in the film lurking in the shadows looking suspicious, with a cigarette clenched between his teeth as more bodies pile up (this was one of the few films from this period in which English language speakers could hear Kinski’s real voice … he was usually voiced by a dubbing artist in the English versions of most German Wallace Krimis). The policeman on the case is Inspector Elliot (Leo Genn – “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”, “Die Screaming Marianne”) -- an affably quizzical, carnation wearing gentleman constantly fending off demands for instant results from his ever irritable chief Sir John (Cecil Parker), with wry humour. Elliot soon traces the missing money to the picturesque village of Englemere after some of the numbered notes are logged being passed in the children’s section of a department store. Other notes are traced to the bank account of circus owner Barberini – which necessitates a trip to the out-of-season circus’s Berkshire haunt for the inspector and his loyal second-in-command, Detective Sergeant Manley (Lawrence James), where Elliot initially poses as a professional photographer while he sizes up likely suspects among the fifty-strong troupe of performers.

Unfortunately, Barberini’s employees are revealed to be a bizarre lot, riven by a tangle of jealousies, infidelities, hidden histories and secret identities, furnishing a complicated jumble of red herrings for the viewer to keep track of. A colourful supporting cast is paraded: circus dwarf ‘Mr Big’ (Skip Martin – “Vampire Circus”, “Horror Hospital”) is on hand to blackmail practically the entire troupe having picked up on all the dirty little secrets his circus colleagues have been attempting to withhold from each other simply by hanging about the site late at night with his ear pressed to their trailer doors! Gina the knife thrower’s assistant (Margaret Lee –an English actress who went from one Harry Alan Towers production to the next during the 60s) is having an affair with a hairy armed lover, but it’s not whom her explosively jealous partner Mario (Maurice Kaufmann) thinks it is. Ringmaster Carl (Heinz Drache) has his romantic sights set on the pretty blonde lion tamer’s assistant Natasha (Suzy Kendall), but has an ulterior motive for paying her so much interest as his father was murdered by Natasha’s father Otto, who, although later tried and convicted for the crime, escaped from prison three months after he was given a life sentence. Carl is convinced that Natasha’s father will not be able to resist making contact with his daughter again and suspects that her taciturn lion taming uncle, Gregor (Christopher Lee) -- hideously scarred after an accident involving one of his feline charges and is compelled always to mask his face in public with a hood -- knows more than he’s letting on about both the murder and Otto’s whereabouts. After the police discover Mason’s facially mutilated body in an outhouse on the farm site (with a distinctive make of circus thrower’s knife sticking out of his back that has a silver triangle on the handle – a unique design that used to belong to a circus master whose been dead for the last ten years), it turns out that the killer is still on the premises and very much determined to seize the money left over from the unsuccessful heist after murdering anyone who stands in his/her way!

“Circus of Fear” alternates its Bray Studios sets with location work shot at one of Billy Smart’s Big Tops. Moxey manages to incorporate some real circus elephants into the action at one point, staging a dangerous-looking fight sequence between Mario and Carl inside the actual elephant ring – but mostly the animals are conspicuously never seen in the same shot as the actors, with the hooded Lee displaying his taming skills unconvincingly to a selection of stock footage lions. It’s a testament to Lee’s commanding screen presence that he is able to do anything with this unremarkable part at all since, for most of his screen time, it is his voice and his eyes that are left to do all the work in his performance while the rest of his head remains completely covered. The story, including the labyrinthine red herrings, is all pure pulp melodrama and it’s difficult to believe that German audiences, accustomed by now to the more explicit Krimi series, would have been fooled for a second into thinking that this wryly sedate offering was anything other than British through and through, despite the presence of Krimi mascot Eddi Arent, who runs through his usual slapstick comic light relief routine at various junctures, playing Barberini’s lowly bookkeeper, a cloying little man who wants desperately to be a circus clown and accosts anyone he can find (usually the hapless Mr Big) so that he can draft them in to a demonstration of his latest ‘amusing’ magic trick. There is a nice symmetry pertaining to the eventual fate of the suitcase of stolen money, when the contents end up being scattered in a river (in true film noir style) during the death scene of a prominent character, which mirrors the opening sequence in which the robbers initially make their getaway with the cash across the river Thames. Ultimately, it is the performances and interplay between second tier character actors like Genn, Lee and Newlands that make this the entertaining spectacle it is. The content is dated but still has nostalgia value, coming as it does from the last days of the Hammer Bray operation, only months before the studio was vacated for good by its illustrious founders.

This new DVD release is part of Network’s British Film strand and features two versions of the film in a digitally restored and re-mastered transfer, retaining  lush Eastman colours and the original theatrical display aspect ratio. The ‘short’ and ‘long’ versions are included as options (Eddi Arent’s disappearing cabinet routine pads out the longer version, adding little of consequence to the much more streamlined 82 minute version) along with a rarely seen clip as an extra, featuring an alternative ending shot for the German version, in grainy 1.33:1 black and white, which adds a romantic coda to Carl and Natasha’s relationship. Black and white and colour trailers are included (under both “Circus of Fear” and “Psycho-Circus” titles) and a gallery of posters, production stills and lobby cards make apparent the differences in European and US marketing strategies. There is also a psychedelic Italian trailer (without sound), under the title “IL Lurigo o colfello di Londra” -- which makes the film look very giallo-esque, especially (given her future association with the genre) since Suzy Kendall features so prominently, despite having a limited role in the film.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night

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