Bobbin’ Under the Big Top


The ideas some people can get.  I consider myself pretty creative as a writer, but never, ever, in the proverbial million years, could I have come up with the idea of a horror film that blends circuses and plastic surgery.  So kudos to George Baxt, the credited screenwriter of the 1960 circus-and-plastic-surgery flick Circus of Horrors.  Seems it was George who got that idea, to whip up these two subjects into a screenplay and subsequent film.  And then present that combo to an astounded world.

I’m not saying it’s a good idea.  But it does pique the interest.

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So how would, or could, such a setup work?  Setups in horror narratives are always an issue.  The problem is to come up with a premise that will not only pull audiences into the story but also get the ball (meaning blood, gore, and mayhem) rolling for 90 minutes or so.  Though once you do get it rolling, it’s just a matter of watching the bodies fall, in inventively gory ways.  (And inventive gore is the easy part…)

With Circus of Horrors, the setup gets a bit creative:  A plastic surgeon, Dr. Schuler (Anton Diffring), having botched one such operation in England, escapes to the Continent (“Somewhere in France,” per the title card), where he bargains for refuge with a drunken circus owner (an amusingly slimy Donald Pleasance), in exchange for patching up his scarred daughter’s face.  “I will give you anything and everything,” says the circus man, which happens to be just what Schuler wants.  And when Pleasance is helpfully mauled by an overly affectionate bear, Schuler can then take over the business—“as a child I once attempted to run away to join a circus,” he cheerily remarks—and that’s when the real story begins.

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I’m almost tempted, regarding Schuler’s reminiscing remark, to view the film as a story of redirecting one’s life to pursue the road not taken—in Schuler’s case, getting a second chance to live out his childhood escape dream.  But I’m aware his line is really a throwaway, an excuse to slip Schuler under the Big Top to get that mayhem ball rolling.  And once the film does get it rolling, it can slip in anything that’ll keep it so—sex, violence, crime, surgery, medical malpractice, high wire acts, a knife thrower, a bareback rider, a lion tamer, fake identities, Scotland Yard, bared bosoms, clowns—even a gorilla—all to get to the plot’s grisly gist:  Lots of disfigured girls being turned into beauties under Schuler’s surgical knife.

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You see, Schuler’s real purpose for running his circus—it serving, he says, as his “front”—is so he can operate on scarred women hiding out from the police, make them beautiful, and then capitalize on their transformed looks as they perform in various circus acts—while also serving as members of his private harem.  He also blackmails these women into staying put with his knowledge of their criminal past (he’s rather possessive of his creations), because he’s fearful they may reveal his own.  And if any woman persists in her desire to leave, Schuler arranges for a spectacular ‘accident’ to happen during her act.  Which not only gets rid of the would-be tattle-tale, but also boosts circus attendance and box office.

A win-win for Schuler, either way.

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2021-10-10 (47)Per Jeff Stafford at the TCM site, Circus of Horrors is today considered part of a “Sadean Trilogy” of British horror films made in 1959-60 (the other two being Horrors of the Black Museum and Peeping Tom), which amped up the blood, gore, sex, and horror to please a jaded postwar audience seeking more explicit thrills.  In that, COH doesn’t disappoint.  The film practically fetishizes the scarred, mangled faces of young women, their features twisted by makeup or coated with what looks like an uncooked mash-up of oatmeal, Elmer’s Glue, and Hamburger Helper.  There are also the progressively nasty methods used to dispatch Schuler’s troublesome lovelies, such as faulty timing when knife throwing, unsure ropes when high-wire twirling, and lapsed attention when lion taming.  Not to mention that small boa constrictor slipped into one lovely’s dressing room when she’s taking a shower—the actress obviously very naked in the shower stall.  I can imagine the audience torn here between which they’d prefer to see—a twining snake or a nude dame.  The film is pretty savvy, in its playing with audience desires, on just how delicately to twist that choosy knife.

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The above-mentioned naked female brings up COH’s other most prominent element.  And I don’t mean clown acts.  Schuler might use the circus as a front for his surgical experiments, but the film obsesses over some other fronts—namely, those of its bountifully endowed leading ladies.  Along with the murders, the filmmakers keep coming up with weirdly inventive ways to showcase those generously physical assets (it ain’t just the horse that bobs during the bare-back riding scenes).  Yet despite the film’s obvious exploitation of all that enlarged papillae—knocking us in the peepers with all those knockers, as it were—there’s a kind of crude innocence in this mammary display, as if the (male) filmmakers had dipped (knowingly or not) into the part of their minds that remains forever 14 years old.  More is being revealed than mere cleavage.

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And yet—what is the fascination with films combining beauty, boobs, and horror?  Edgar Allan Poe famously noted that “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”  Whether or not one agrees (and surely there’s much that’s questionable in his remark), what poetry can be patterned on a lovely woman’s death caused by snakes, knives, falls from great heights, or munching by lions?  Or when it’s mixed up with disfigurement and plastic surgery—exploiting a marked cultural anxiety about feminine beauty and the loss thereof?  COH in no way explores such topics (and lacks any poetical sense in what it does explore); though it’s inventively, even ghoulishly sadistic in how it uses plastic surgery to create horror—enough to make me wonder what part of his own mind did screenwriter Baxt, as well as his cohorts, dip into to come up with their film?

But that’s no reason not to watch COH, which, though schlock, is entertaining on its own schlocky terms.  (Per the TCM article, critics originally viewed COH as “unwholesome trash”—what more recommendation do you need?)  As Stafford notes, the film has a “pop art fantasy look” that suits its “tawdry” proceedings; its many scenes of mayhem are energetically shot and staged with comic-book panache.  A major asset is Diffring, hugely enjoyable as Schuler, whom he presents as an elegant thug; you sense the actor’s grasp of the story’s sadistic undertone while having fun with it.  If I have any quibble, it’s with the film’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink ending, which loses steam—what with the cops, the circus performers, a reporter, the victim of that earlier botched operation, and even the gorilla racing around to see who gets to bump off Schuler first.  Not even our good doctor can inventively slip his way out of that one.

Poor old Schuler.  Maybe he should have stuck to his original idea and just run away with the circus after all.

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Happy Halloween.

Bonus Clip:  Hurry, Hurry, Hurry!  And get your Ringside Seat of Terror when the trailer for Circus of Horrors comes to town!  “See It and Gasp!”:

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  1. George Baxt? I was just thinking I should check out the George Baxt books in the basement. If they are still there. Who knows what paperbacks I’ll find? Nothing too “tawdry” I hope.
    Donald Pleasence “amusingly slimy” – that’s a great description.
    Somehow, I don’t think COH will replace Charlie Chan at the Circus in my heart.

    • PLEASE check out those Baxt books and let me know what you find! To tell the truth, my own favorite circus film is still The Greatest Show On Earth, which has EVERYTHING a circus movie needs. And I never get tired of watching it. What a dynamo Betty Hutton was!

      • I don’t understand folks who don’t get The Greatest Show on Earth. A lost era and a chance to get lost in a big, loud movie. Who doesn’t like that?
        The Baxt books I have are his celebrity fiction series: Alfred Hitchcock, Dorothy Parker, and Tallulah Bankhead. He wrote more and I should check them out.

      • I agree completely regarding Greatest Show on Earth – it’s a fun film, it has great stars, and it’s absorbing to watch (like you said, you can get lost in it). I think the issue may stem from it being a ‘circus’ film, directed by Cecil DeMille; but DeMille was a great showman and he never pretended to be anything else. And his films always entertain.
        Those Baxt books sound interesting – maybe they could be a subject for a future blog post?

  2. Brian

     /  November 2, 2021

    I tried watching this for the first time when I was about 12, alone in the den in the basement, and I got as far as the end of the prologue scene where the woman is breaking all the mirrors in the house. Needless to say I got little sleep that night. (I’m sure it was heavily edited for broadcast TV, so that if I’d made it further into the movie, my 12 year old innocence about things other than horrific violence would have been intact 🙂 Later, I confused it with the Christopher Lee vehicle Circus of Fear, but eventually I watched the whole thing through. Diffring’s iciness was well suited for villain roles in these sorts of horror thrillers. There is just enough of a creepiness factor in circuses, beyond the natural creepiness of clowns, that inspires horror treatments — Joan Crawford’s Berserk is another example.

    • You’re right, Circus of Horrors does have a disturbing opening – and then when the woman’s scarred face is revealed … I’m sure when the film was released, more than 12 year olds would have jumped at the scene, though I gather it’s considered pretty tame today.

      There’s something about the overstuffed atmosphere of a circus that makes it adaptable for horror. Berserk does have a similar plot (people dying in ghastly ways while performing circus stunts) but Joan Crawford DOES have a different onscreen affect from Anton DIffring! He’s really very good in the film; he has this breezy attitude towards all the mayhem going on that I find rather appealing. It seems to undercut what’s happening but yet not make it campy (as happens in Berserk).


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