Ten years ago, a plastic surgeon named Dr. Rossiter (Anton Diffring) considered himself a pioneer in his field, but one unauthorised operation turned out very badly when the woman in question (Colette Wilde) took her bandages off too soon and was left irreparably disfigured and completely insane. A manhunt was organised to track down the doctor, so he and his two associates, Angela (Jane Hylton) and Martin (Kenneth Griffith) fled Britain and headed to France, where he happened to meet Vanet (Donald Pleasence), owner of a travelling circus which had seen better days: could this be the ideal cover for the fugitive?
Well, no, obviously going into showbusiness is not so much hiding in plain sight as it was swanning around practically begging to be recognised even if you have shaved your beard off, especially when Rossiter moves about Europe offering plenty of chances for someone to twig who he is. Which is exactly what happens, but then screenwriter George Baxt had evidently been instructed to go for broke and craft as many lurid and torrid scenes as he could possibly pack into the movie, the censors be damned. This was of a piece with the Herman Cohen shockers such as Horrors of the Black Museum, which had found a moneymaking form in amping up the creativity when it came to the extravagant violence.
Circus of Horrors was also notable as director Sidney Hayers' big break, as it led to him directing a varied run of movies throughout the sixties and seventies, though it was safe to say his forte was in thrillers. Here he was simply delivering on the blood and thunder promise of that title, and few would be seeking any great skill in the talent department when it came to arranging the setpeices, but all credit to him, you could see why some buffs believe he was deserving of more attention as this barrels along quite the thing. Helping immeasurably was the charismatic Diffring's portrayal of the villain, not something that was much of a stretch for him at this stage, but he did it so well.
So when Pleasence exits the movie crushed by bear, sadly quite early and even sadder quite hilariously as that ursine menace is plainly a stuffed animal he is clutching to himself, Rossiter, after pausing to fix Vanet's daughter's face, takes over the running of the circus, seeing it as the perfect cover and populating it with scarred women who he cures of their affliction, making them beautiful, then improbably training them as acrobats. This curious mixture of the gruesome and the sexual was to define horror for quite some time after, and there's something pretty sick about this film's keenness to put ugly-face makeup on its otherwise glamorous actresses, not to mention its enthusiasm in bumping them off in bloodthirsty fashion.
You could say Circus of Horrors was groundbreaking in what it was prepared to show, trying to outdo then-current Brit holder of the terror movie crown Hammer by acknowledging what audiences really wanted to see was some terrible setpiece where some character loses their life much as the crowd at the big top secretly want to see an accident when the knife thrower is doing his act or the acrobat is suspended many feet above the hard ground below. As if that were not enough, Rossiter, now calling himself Schuler, is orchestrating those "accidents" himself whenever one of his staff voices the outrageous suggestion that maybe they could leave, though given the way the man in the gorilla suit acts up whenever he passes his cage we can discern a certain comeuppance on the cards. Needless to say, much of this in its endeavours to be as over the top as possible is now unintentionally funny, but somehow Diffring emerged from it with some style even as he was asked to be in scenes which were nothing short of ludicrous. The soundtrack includes the schmaltzy song Look for a Star at every opportunity.