Color, 1960, 91 mins. / Directed by Sidney Hayers / Starring Anton Diffring, Jane Hylton, Kenneth Griffith, Erika Remberg, Conrad Phillips, Yvonne Monlaur, Donald Pleasence / Written by George Baxt / Music by Muir Mathieson and Franz Reizenstein / Cinematography by Douglas Slocombe

Format: DVD - Anchor Bay (MSRP $24.98) / Letterboxed (1.66:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono

Usually lumped together with its equally disreputable Anglo Amalgamated cousins from 1959-60, Horrors of the Black Museum and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, this combination of surgical terror and big top mayhem is the most outrageous and pulpy of the bunch. Attractively mounted and undeniably executed with gusto, Circus of Horrors doesn't even attempt to artistically dissect the human psyche (like Peeping) and dress up its catalog of killings with mundane, posh settings like Horrors.

Instead you know you're in the hands of lunatics right from the opening scene, in which ambitious plastic surgeon Dr. Schueler (Anton Diffring) suffers the threat of jail and professional ruin after a botched operation on one of his female patients. Along with his assistant, Angela (Jane Hylton), the good doctor hightails it to the French countryside, where he goes into hiding by shaving off his beard and gaining the confidence of a down and out circus owner (Donald Pleasence), whose disfigured daughter, Nicole (Brides of Dracula's Yvonne Monlaur), stands to gain much from his skill with a scalpel. The drunken host winds up falling prey to his own circus bear, leaving the doctor to take over the circus. Flash forward a couple of years; the circus has become a rousing success under the supervision of "Dr. Rossiter," with the repaired Elissa now starring in a daring high wire act. However, things get sticky when the tempestuous Magda (Vanda Hudson), the more vulnerable half of a knife throwing act and Rossiter's occasional bedmate, decides to leave the show despite all he's done to make her beautiful and promote her career. Naturally her performance that night does not go smoothly. As the police investigate, bitchy starlet Elissa (The Lickerish Quartet's Erika Remberg) becomes the latest potential target of the doctor's wrath... and many more could meet violent ends under the circus tent, where every crouching lion and daredevil trick promises certain death.

Like other prime screen villains of the period like Michael Gough and Peter Cushing, Diffring has a field day as the wicked but all too human surgeon whose decent intentions never lead to positive results for his patients. The abundance of circus footage works better here than in similar efforts like Berserk!, mainly thanks to a pervading tone of perversion and depravity seething underneath the glossy surface. Ace cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (a veteran of all the Ealing classics) turns each scene into a riot of color and action, while the direction, writing, and editing keep things moving at a feverish clip until the appropriately delirious (and wholly improbable) finale. The unsettling juxtaposition of women prancing around in cheesecake outfits, sometimes with physically deformed faces for contrast, with gimmicky murders proves to be more than a basic exploitable factor; here it's the film's entire reason for being, and on this ignoble but efficient level it succeeds completely. Then of course there's the terrifically gooey Lawrence Welk theme song, "Look for a Star," which became something of a standard at the time and will spend many days afterward bouncing around in viewers' heads.

Yet another casualty of HBO's horror catalog acquired through Thorn/EMI, Circus of Horrors has fared terribly on home video thanks to an ugly, washed out transfer that could have only been worsened if the film had been cropped from a wider aspect ratio. This edition, available for years on VHS and even a double feauture Image laserdisc with the AIP cut of Mario Bava's Baron Blood, has thankfully been eclipsed by the Anchor Bay DVD. The vibrant and pristine source material makes for a much more enjoyable viewing experience, and the 1.77:1 framing looks fine. The slightly tight opening credits indicate a possible 1.66:1 presentation in Europe, but the Anglo Amalgamated credit still fits on the screen without any cropping. In any case, the framing of the film itself doesn't appear compromised. Incidentally, rumors have abounded for years about shots cut from the film, and Hayers confirmed on more than one occasion that the knife throwing scene was indeed filmed with a shot of the blade puncturing the actress' neck. However, this shot has never been included in any distributed prints at the behest of the British censor, leaving only an aftermath view which turns the audience's reaction and the editing of the scene into pure nonsense. Whether this footage still exists in a vault somewhere, of course, is anyone's guess. Otherwise the film, as lurid and violent as it may seem, isn't all that gory and derives most of its punch from the sheer weirdness of its visuals. The mono audio is also much more robust than the HBO version; just check out that opening circus fanfare.

Extras on the disc are limited but satisfying, all things considered. The strange British trailer (in color) is included, though oddly the wilder American one (prepared by AIP) is not, though it has surfaced on several PD compilations. However, you do get three TV spots (in B&W), a Diffring filmography, a poster and still gallery, and best of all, the complete, undiluted "Look for a Star" playing out in its entirely over the extras menu. So much for shelling out big bucks on e-bay for that out of print vinyl release...

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