Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Three Rings of Danger

Film: Circus of Horrors
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

The “there are two types of people” idea is one that is pretty played out, but I think it’s also true in some cases. It’s kind of true or almost true when it comes to circuses. I think you either like them or don’t. I don’t in general. They’re hot and smell bad and always feel dirty on more than just the physical level to me. So, that being the case, Circus of Horrors was not an easy sell for me.

Beyond my dislike of circuses, though, I love the idea of this movie. We start with Dr. Rossiter (Anton Diffring), a plastic surgeon who is convinced of his own genius. He’s wanted by the police for a botched operation on a socialite named Evelyn Morley (Colette Wilde). Rossiter evades capture along with his assistants Angela (Jane Hylton) and Martin (Kenneth Griffith). They escape to France where Rossiter changes his name to Schüler. They meet a young girl named Nicole (Carla Challoner, then Yvonne Monlaur as an adult) scarred from WWII. Schüler performs plastic surgery on her, restores her face. When her father (Donald Pleasance) dies in an accident, Schüler takes over the circus that he ran.

Shortly thereafter, Schüler sees a prostitute named Elissa (Erika Remberg) kill a customer. She is also badly scarred, and Schüler comes up with an idea. He’ll fix her scars and she’ll become a performer in his circus. This becomes his pattern. He finds women in trouble for one reason or another, performs surgery on them to change their appearance, and then forces them to perform in what is billed as the most beautiful circus in the world. What the performers don’t realize is that if they attempt to leave, Schüler arranges an accident for them.

We see this in gruesome detail when equestrian performer Magda von Meck (Vanda Hudson) attempts to leave and dies in a brutal accident. This has happened multiple times in the recent history of the circus, which naturally raises a lot of eyebrows. When the circus comes to England, Scotland Yard takes an interest in it. Inspector Arthur Ames (Conrad Phillips) takes the lead in the case, and also develops an interest in Nicole, who is convinced Schüler is her uncle.

This should be enough, but there’s more. Schüler meets Melina (Yvonne Romain), a woman scarred by acid. He repairs her face and falls in love with her, much to Angela’s chagrin. Meanwhile, Elissa conspires to claim top billing at the circus just when Schüler wants to give it to Melina.

I really like the idea of Circus of Horrors. One of the reasons it works as well as it does is because circuses already seem pretty seedy in a lot of ways, and making all of the performers of a circus criminals in one way or another fits that overall vibe that I tend to get in the first place. The idea of creating this circus of beautiful performers who essentially become indentured servants to the circus is an interesting one as well. It’s dark and awful, and perfect for a movie.

Where this fails, though, is just how poorly it plays out. Schüler/Rossiter is dumb enough to just stage accidents for his performers, always with other people knowing that the person who dies was just about to leave the circus. When Magda is killed, it happens because the lights go out at the end of a knife-throwing act…and it’s Schüler holding the electrical cord that controls the lights, and he’s doing this in view of other people. If any circus (or any business) had a track record of deaths following it around like this one, it would be shut down immediately and subjected to rigorous and minute investigations. There’s no way it would continue to operate. And to top this off, near the end of the film, Schüler enacts yet another death literally in front of the Scotland Yard officer who is investigating his circus.

There has to be a way to tell this story better, because the base idea is a solid one. There are good movies to be made in this environment and good stories worth telling. This could have been a story worth telling, but it goes about the execution of things all wrong.

Why to watch Circus of Horrors: Great concept.
Why not to watch: It doesn’t really live up to the concept.


  1. All of this stuff about the circus and these acts remind me of the Jim Rose Circus back in the 1990s as they were known for doing crazy shit as they had a guy named Mr. Lifto who could lift things with his body parts including his penis.

    1. My only experience with Jim Rose is the X Files episode he appeared in in Season 2.