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Circus Of Horror (1959)

It's England, 1947. After the discovery by police of an insane, badly disfigured woman who had previously been one of his patients, plastic surgeon Doctor Rossiter (a bearded Anton Diffring) makes his escape, but crashes his car and badly injures himself in the process. After crawling, covered in blood, to the home of his two accomplices, the three make plans to escape to France.

So begins Circus Of Horrors, barely giving its 1959 audience chance to draw breath. And things don't slow down much for the next hour or so, either.

Now "somewhere in France" (or possibly Hertfordshire), the tricky trio stop and ask a disfigured child for directions. "At school… there was a bomb," she explains, as she tells them her name is Nicole. "There are many like me now".

Touched by this, the icy Rossiter goes to speak to her dad (Donald Pleasance), who is running a circus nearby. Striking a deal with the slightly seedy slaphead, Rossiter announces that a circus will be "the ideal front" for their ongoing plastic surgery shenanigans (eh?).

Hardly stopping to transform the young Nicole's life with a quick spot of surgery ("I am beautiful! Papa… I am beautiful!" "Leave her be," says Rossiter as someone goes to give the annoying child a slap. "After all, it is my victory she is shouting to the world!"), Diffring announces to the joyous Pleasance that he plans to revive the fortunes of the circus.

But before the ink has dried on their ludicrous contract (after all, just how is a circus the ideal front for a rogue plastic surgeon? And why create a circus full of face-lifted ne'er-do-wells in the first place?), Pleasance gets savaged to death by his "best friend" Boscoe the bear, after failing to notice that someone has swapped the animal for a man wearing a moth-eaten fur rug.

Rossiter then spies a nasty prostitute stabbing a man to death, and on spotting a big scar on her cheek, tells her: "I can transform you…"

He's decided that such nutters will provide "willing subjects for my anxious hands", and before you can say "eh?" it's 10 years later, they're in Berlin, he's changed his name to Schuler and the circus is bursting with top-heavy lovelies.

Two of those strumpets go by the name of Elissa and Magda - Elissa wants Magda's top billing, but "Schuler" is not interested in changing the rota - even when Elissa attempts to blackmail him by suggesting that she knows just why every girl that threatens to leave comes to a sticky end.

"Quick - get the rope off her. And send the clowns in!"

It turns out that Magda is just one of those girls, and her sticky end proves to be particularly nasty as poor old "Chief Eagle-Eye" (with gripping hands and realistic hair, presumably) becomes Schuler's unwitting patsy during his knife-throwing routine. For a scene from a late 50s film, the image of poor Magda with a huge knife sticking out of her still-pumping jugular is a very nasty one indeed.

The circus, now known as "the jinx circus", makes its way to London, and as Schuler unveils his next ludicrous showstopper (a "temple of beauty" to show the world his true genius), Scotland Yard is on the case - in the libidinous form of Sergeant Desmond (who's investigation is basically just an excuse to snog as many of Schuler's creations as he can).

Things start to accelerate as Elissa discovers Schuler's true identity, and intelligently decides to tell him she's planning on leaving as well. With ever-more ludicrous deaths and some fantastic lines ("Quick - get the rope off her. And send the clowns in!"), Circus Of Horrors just improves as the running time moves on. There's even a fantastic pay-off for Rossiter/Schuler.

Circus Of Horrors is a beautifully shot (not gaudy, as you might expect), brilliantly entertaining 90 minutes with a fair amount of female flesh on show and some nasty deaths.

Other bits to watch out for:

The comedy way Sculer's female helper insists on walking in every time he's about to get his end away with his latest lovely;

The way Schuler always walks just too close to the gorilla's cage and has to beat it back with his cane through the bars: "Get back! Back!"

Schuler/Rossiter was the role the steely-eyed, Germanic Diffring was born to play, and it shows - it's his performance that stays with you long after the violence of the deaths has receded from your memory.

But the horror of the film is given an added buzz by the totally non-pc performing animals, the grotesque close-ups of the crowd and the dangerous (and nail-biting) stunts themselves - the horseback knife-jumping being a particularly hair-raising situation for any busty beauty to be in, let alone one who's just pissed off the psycho running the show.

Is it a horror film, or just a gored-up thriller? Whatever it may by, Circus Of Horrors is brilliant fun.

Last updated: February 17, 2010

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Circus Of Horrors 1959

Circus Of Horrors 1959

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