||The circus has fallen out of favour as a location for films, and not even those Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatic spectacles make much of an impact on the twenty-first century medium, aside from one aspect which has become associated with Hallowe'en: the clowns. But even the adaptations of Stephen King's mega-novel IT did not feature its lead clown villain Pennywise inviting his potential victims into the sawdust ring, as it was taken as read his painted-face ilk were sinister enough divorced from pretty much all association with the circus. Perhaps this was down to that event not being particularly scary in a horror movie style.
But looking back, the notion of a circus as a place of fear was not alien to the cinema, even if it was the surrounding carnival that would usually supplant it as the ideal location for the brusque carnies trying to fleece the innocent public out for a good time to spend their hard-earned pennies on coconut shies and aiming to win a pet goldfish. Tod Browning's 1932 horror Freaks was probably the most visible of that sort of affair, or it would have been had it not been banned for a while, so it was largely known of by reputation, but 1960's Circus of Horrors was one of two memorable British entries in the genre, the other being 1967's Joan Crawford vehicle Berserk.
There were lesser efforts like The Mutations to come, but the nineteen-sixties were ideal for exploiting the seamier side of the circus since this was the decade where there were ideas of family entertainment being threatened by the increasing loosening of censorship, and kids wanted to see the stuff that was being branded with X certificates rather than, say, going to watch trapeze acts or knife-throwers. That could be why Billy Smart's Circus, the most visible of its kind at that point, agreed to stand in for the baddie's establishment in return seemingly for lengthy sequences featuring the various acts performing; but those acts would go horribly wrong in the film.
Were Smart's capitalising on the fear that attendees of the actual performances they were staging would actually see a terrible accident? Words like daredevil and death-defying would be used by the ringmasters to describe these events, but was it the death or at least a really ghastly maiming that the audiences were eager to watch? Circus of Horrors served up a chance to view precisely that without the premise you would be so sick in the head as to admit a fatal accident was what you were there to view: it's a brave soul who would say they bought a ticket to a Formula 1 race because they really lusted after the sight of the race being stopped because of a spectacular crash.
Yet wasn't that part of the thrill of watching this entertainment? Here was a film that had a plainly ludicrous storyline, where German star Anton Diffring played a megalomaniac plastic surgeon who escapes justice after a botched operation (and mowing down a policeman while fleeing in his car) and somehow winds up in France in a region where there are plenty of scarred faces thanks to the then-recent World War II. Here he can perfect his services, but as the title suggests, he does so under cover of a circus he wheedles out from Donald Pleasance (not playing a villain) who meets his maker courtesy of a killer bear hug after trying to drunkenly dance with the creature.
As if that was not sick enough - and how this loved to taunt the audience with its eagerness to see the worst of humanity by crafting what looked like a grotesque parody of that unlovely impulse - ten years later Diffring has made a success of the show by training the women (a variety of Euro-starlets) he has restored as acrobats and performers (somehow - we're led to believe they're mostly ex-criminals and prostitutes, even murderers) and if one of them crosses him - oops! - they meet with an unfortunate incident. And yet this desire for that spectacle translated into horror movie terms as wanting to see those beautiful women mangled - was that also the desire of the circus?
Certainly the clowns had no part of that, which makes it strange they should be so associated with frights when the more obvious knife throwers or lion taming, surely fertile ground for horror setpieces, were neglected. But do not despair, sensation-seekers: in Circus of Horrors those two examples and more were given full permission to climax in gruesome death, and if that were not enough we had a bloke in a gorilla suit to menace from the sidelines, biding his time until he can give the surgeon-circus owner a comeuppance. This film has endured because it's a bit of a giggle, a camp slice of amusement at what passed for a shocker in the sixties, but also because its blatant nastiness offers a real frisson that stands out against the common conception of more genteel fare around at the time. When you examine Circus of Horrors, it really is horrible, and this is why it's a cult movie: it admits the worst of humanity is part of us all, and maybe that's why circuses waned, eventually there was too much health and safety.
[Circus of Horrors has been fully restored and is released on Blu-ray by StudioCanal in their admirable Vintage Classics line with these excellent special features:
New: Interview with critic and author Kim Newman
New: Interview with broadcaster Stuart Maconie
Behind the scenes stills gallery
Trailer - the original one, which has to be seen (and heard) to be believed.]