When Circus of Horrors writer George Baxt (Tower of Evil , Night of the Eagle ) was first commissioned by producer Julian Wintle, his only brief for the film was to come up with something that had 'lots of women with big tits' in it.
This is the world of late-Fifties, early-Sixties British Horror cinema. The recently introduced 'X' certificate had paradoxically loosened the constraints on that which could be legitimately referred to in films aimed at adults (if not what could be explicitly depicted) and while forerunners in the Horror boom, Hammer Productions, continued on their relatively restrained course, making Period 'adult fairy tales' throughout the Sixties, smaller companies occasionally exploited the new liberal atmosphere with a much keener sense of brio -- no doubt hoping to make a fast buck before any mooted clampdown could spoil the fun.
A trio of films produced by Amalgamated Pictures in the late Fifties exemplify the full range of exploitative possibilities available at the time: Horrors of the Black Museum (1958) was a campy piece of trash fun, impossible to take too seriously despite the incipient sadism implied in scenes involving a woman having her eyes poked out by spring-loaded spikes attached to binoculars, or another being guillotined in her own bed! The second film created much more of a stir while refraining from the heightened gory high jinx of its partner: the film Peeping Tom (1959) has become legendary for destroying its director, Michael Powell's career because of the hyperbolic strength of critical reaction to its sympathetic portrayal of a voyeuristic serial killing cinephile.
The third film in Amalgamated Pictures' 'Sadian trilogy' took the bad taste, exploitation aesthetic about as far as it could be taken at the time -- somehow, without attracting too much in the way of contemporary critical vitriol. All three films revel in their garish yet attractive Eastman colour hues, lending them a strange unity of appearance despite their vastly differing status today.
Circus of Horrors wastes no time in staking out its stall at the seedier end of the Horror market. Exploiting the plastic surgery sub-genre already discreetly tackled in Terence Fisher's genteel Hammer outing Stolen Face (1952), director Sidney Hayers has equally little time for the artistic Gothic atmospherics of Georges Franju's Les Yeux sans visage (1960). The opening scene, set in 1947, sees well-to-do Evelyn Morley Finsbury (Colette Wilde, The Day of the Triffids ) going stir-crazy in her small English cottage bedroom after a botched attempt at plastic surgery performed by megalomaniac surgeon Dr. Rossiter (Anton Difffring, Faceless ). Evelyn's Father and husband arrive just in time to find her sitting at her bedroom mirror, her face reduced to a grotesque shambles, laughing in hysterical madness!
Rossiter escapes across to the continent accompanied by his surgical assistants: devoted brother & sister team, Angela (Jane Hylton) and Martin (Kenneth Griffith), both of whom will apparently do anything he asks -- Angela out of devoted love and Martin out of a submissive personality. While driving through the war-torn French countryside, trying to come up with a plan that will allow him to continue his work while escaping the notice of the British authorities, Rossiter spots a small girl by the roadside, her face scarred because of a bomb blast during the war. 'There are many like me all over France', she claims — a statement likely to be music to the ears of a renegade plastic surgeon!
And so it proves to be. The girl turns out to be the daughter of the owner of a failing circus. After changing his name to Dr. Bernard Schueler, Rossiter buys the circus from Vanet (a young, Donald Pleasence) and is not too worried about intervening when the drunken ex-owner angers "Bosco the Dancing Bear" during one of his alcoholic stupors, and is mauled to death — apparently by a giant rug! — as a result! Ten years later and Valet's daughter Nicole (Yvonne Monlaur) has grown up into a beautiful young woman (after Schueler has learned to perfect his plastic surgery techniques) and the circus is flourishing -- and full of lots of curvaceous beauties, although all sport faint scars around their necks if you look closely enough.
This is because Schueler/Rossiter has combined his surgical skills with economic good sense: he has combed the streets of France for war-scarred criminals and prostitutes, restoring them to former beauty, in return for which they are only too happy to join his circus troupe. Much to the lovelorn Angela's distress, the surgeon-owner takes more of an interest in his patients than medical ethics strictly allow. These affairs naturally tend to come to an end once a new subject comes along, but Rossiter cannot allow anyone to leave his troupe lest they reveal his secret, so the circus has an unenviable reputation for fatal accidents involving beautiful women!
Strangely enough, no one seems ever to blame Rossiter for any of this; but when he risks bringing his Circus back to England, the redoubtable boys at Scotland Yard voice a few common sense suspicions. When petty criminal jealousies over billing, and yet another infatuation, this time with a lion-taming, acid-scarred beauty called Melina (Yvonne Romain, Night Creatures , The Curse of the Werewolf ) provokes the fury of Angela, the bloody deaths come thick-and-fast leading to a histrionic climax full of rampaging gorillas, gruesome mutilations and revenge attacks galore.
Although likely to be viewed as almost quaint by today's audiences, this is uncharacteristically lewd and bloody by the standards of the day, knocking its two stable mates into the shade with it profusion of half-naked, big breasted females; hideously deformed female features; and what must have been one of the goriest sequences in British horror at the time, involving a woman being knifed in the neck -- complete with loving close-up of the wound oozing glistening red blood! It makes the Hammer product of the time look like tame stuff indeed! Sexual deviancy is never far below the surface of the most restrained of British horror films, but Anton Diffring's obsession with caressing rancid scar tissue is sure to leave a queer taste in the mouth, and the film's blatant association between surgery and sexual violation is so upfront it make one wonder if the film wasn't a massive influence on Jess Franco, who cast Diffring in his 1988 remake of The Awful Dr Orlof (1962) -- another tale of a plastic surgeon who develops unwholesome sexual inclinations towards his patients. The film leaves no room whatsoever for subtext: it's all there in front of your eyes in crude, colourful, but enjoyable form. The DVD from Optimum Releasing gives us a fairly nice anamorphic widescreen transfer, which despite some grain and reel change damage, is more than adequate. A grainy-looking trailer is the only extra.