About 15 minutes into this film from 1960, Donald Pleasence gets mauled to death by a dancing beer.
Pleasence plays a character named Vanet. Vanet is an alcoholic who, circa 1947, owns a circus. He also has a daughter named Nicole (Yvonne Monlaur), whose face is scarred as a result of wounds that she received during Germany’s bombing of London. When a plastic surgeon named Dr. Bernard Schuler (Anton Diffring) operates on Nicole and manages to “take away” her scars, Vanet is so thankful that he signs over ownership of the circus to Schuler. Vanet then promptly tries to dance with a bear and gets killed. Poor Vanet.
It turns out that Schuler is a brilliant plastic surgeon but he’s also kind of insane. He and his associates (played by Kenneth Griffith and Jane Hylton) are on the run from the police. However, even with the cops after him, Schuler has to experiment. His plan is to use the circus as a front. He’ll recruit scarred criminals, operate on them, and then require them to perform in his circus. That plan doesn’t really make much sense but I guess a fugitive plastic surgeon has to do what he has to do. Still, it’s hard not to be amused by Schuler describing his plans for the circus as if he’s just come up with the most brilliant plan ever as opposed to just a bunch of gobbledygook. At no point do any of his assistants point out that his plan makes no sense so I guess he must pay well.
Anyway. the film jumps forward twelve years and what do you know! The plan worked! The circus is a hit! People from all over Europe come to Schuler’s circus. The circus is famous for featuring the most beautiful women in the world. The circus is also famous for several mysterious and fatal accidents. INTERPOL thinks that it’s possible that Schuler is intentionally killing his performers for the free publicity. When Schuler makes plans to take his circus back to the UK, Scotland Yard is given a call and a heads up about what Schuler’s been doing. A nosy reporter investigates while the murders continue unabated….
Circus of Horrors is odd. It’s as if someone reached into a bag and pulled out random cards that read, “Circus,” “plastic surgery,” and “Word War II subtext” and then did what they had to do to construct a plot out of those three elements. Of those three elements, the World War II subtext is probably the most interesting. The majority of Schuler’s patients were scarred as a result of the war (which Europe was still recovering from in 1960) and Schuler is played by German actor Anton Diffring. It’s easy to see Schuler, with his German name and his love for medical experimentation, as a stand-in for Nazi fugitives like Josef Mengele and Klaus Barbie. Schuler and his circus move across Europe and, in the end, it’s going to take Europeans working together to stop him. The shadow of World War II hangs over every scene.
Beyond that, Circus of Horrors is a flamboyant mix of horror and soap opera. The colors are bright, the blood flows freely, and the melodrama is definitely embraced. It’s like a Hammer film, just without a Hammer cast. Unfortunately, Anton Diffring is a bit bland in the role of Schuler. One could imagine an actor like Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing working wonders with the role but Diffring often seems to be bored with the whole thing. As well, the film sometimes get bogged down with footage of the circus performers doing their thing. For instance, do we need to see the clowns and the acrobats when what we really want to see is the murderous knife thrower? Circus of Horrors has its moments but, while watching it, it’s hard not to think about how much more fun it would have been if it had been a Hammer film.