**Please note that there may be spoilers throughout the blog**
I loved the circus when I was younger and I think that I was lucky enough to experience the last end wave of the circus as displayed in these films. This is when the circus was larger than life; a genuine big top of excitement filled with thrills and chilling terror! Who knew what went on behind those three rings?
From Big Top of Horror! Here are 5 Scary Circus Films:
5. Pyscho-Circus (aka Circus of Fear) (1966) - After a daring robbery, Mason is instructed by his mysterious boss to take the money and bring it to an old farmhouse. Mason does has he's told and when he arrives at the farmhouse, he is murdered by a throwing knife in the back. The police are on the case though, Inspector Elliot has rounded up most of the crew but Mason, a strange loner called Hart and the boss. Also, he has traced some of the bills that have been spent and has discovered that the trail ends at a circus storage area where the Berberini circus is getting ready for their winter season.
Unfortunately, there is more drama at this circus that can fit in three rings. The Lion tamer, Gregor where's a mask because he was in a accident a few years ago. He works with his niece, who's father killed another performer there and he has escaped from prison. There is a little person, who's blackmailing Gregor but we don't know why. Mario the knife thrower, his girlfriend may be sleeping with the killer, who is she trying to protect? Bodies are turning up right left and center and the Carl the ringmaster doesn't know what to do. They need Jerry Springer more than the police. Can Inspector Elliot find the killer before this big top goes under?
This is seems to be more of a crime thriller than a true horror movie. The police play such a large part in the story that it gets in the way of the circus element of the story. I enjoyed Leo Genn (Frightmare, Die Screaming Marianne) as Inspector Elliot but we didn't need to see him reporting ever new piece of information to his superior. I would have rather spent more time with Christopher Lee (Dracula, The Stupids) as the masked Gregor and his subplots with his daughter and why he was being blackmailed. Again the story is a decent heist type story but the murders are too pedestrian to really call them horror. This is a passable whodunnit at best and is worth a watch if you like the sound of Christopher Lee's voice.
4. Circus of Horror (1960) After completely botching Evelyn Morley's plastic surgery, Dr. Rossiter tries to make a run for it from the local authority. Unfortunately, on the way to meet his assistants, a brother and sister duo, Martin and Angela, Dr. Rossiter runs down a police officer at a roadblock and ends up crashing his car off a cliff. Yes, he has a fiery crash off a cliff but he is still able to drag his carcass to the hotel room and have his assistants perform surgery on his face. He also changes his name to Schuler, so he can start a new life away and not go to jail.
After a couple of days recovering, the trio decide to high tail it out of there and on the way through "somewhere" in France, they come a across a 10 year old girl, Nicole, who has hideous scares from the war. Her father owns the shitty circus and Dr. Schuler begins to develop an evil scheme, well kind of evil. He speaks to Nicole's father, Mr. Vanet, the owner of the circus and offers to work on Nicole's face if he can be a silent partner in the circus. He promises to not only restore Nicole's beautiful face but to turn the circus into the best Big Top ever! Vanet agrees, what does he have to lose? Dr. Schuler performs the surgery and it's a success but just as everything is looking up, Vanet drunkenly decides to dance with a bear and is murdered! By the Bear! Now, Schuler can hatch his kind of evil plan, which is to find other people who commit crimes and change their faces so they can escape the police but will have to work in his circus or he'll turn them in. It's a little convoluted but...
Ten years later, Dr. Schuler has the best circus in the world! Unfortunately, his star performer wants to leave. Dr. Schuler won't have it and murders her like all the other performers that have tried to leave. This brings around a nosy reporter, who starts dating a number of the lady performers to get the dirt on Schuler. Can Dr. Schuler keep his surgically altered poker face or will it fall apart when the heat is turned up?
This was okay, there are a lot of good aspects to the story. I like the idea that these criminals can create new identities just by running off with the circus. I really don't think it's realistic to think that their scars can heal that fast and that they can become these incredible circus performers in such a short time. It's a bit of a streeeeeeetch, but it's a movie. With that aside, I think Anton Diffring (Fahrenheit 456, Where Eagle Dare) does a good job playing the evil mastermind, Dr. Rossiter. Even this cohorts, Jane Hylton (The Manster, Dear Murder) and Kenneth Griffith (The Prisoner(TV), Revenge) are good in this as well. Hell, Donald Pleasant (Halloween) shows up for a little bit as Vanet. The violence is pretty tame and the accidents aren't anything to right home about. There are some good special effects on the criminal faces before surgery, especially the Melina character whose face was burned by her husband. The ending is a little drawn out but definitely satisfying and you don't want to miss a big top come crashing down on this villain.
3. Freaks (1932) - Cleopatra, a gorgeous trapeze artist likes to flirt with Hans, a sideshow little person and have him buy her things like flowers and Champagne. This infuriates Hans's fiancee, Frieda and she goes to Cleopatra's trailer to tell her to cut it out. While there, she spills the beans about Hans has inherited a lot of money and gets Cleopatra's evil brain working. Cleopatra and her strongman boyfriend, Hercules decide that she should marry Hans and then kill him for the money! Fortunately during the wedding reception, Cleopatra shows her true colours by mocking and insulting Hans and his sideshow family. Can they stop Cleopatra and Hercules from killing Hans and what kind of retribution will they receive from messing with the code of the circus?
This was such a controversial film when it was first released and was the beginning of the end for Tod Browning's career. Originally 90 minutes the studio cut it to just over an hour after some horrible screen tests, one woman was going to sue the studio because she claimed that the film caused her to have a miscarriage. Browning used real circus people, instead of using make up and effects, which to me makes the movie more real and enjoyable. I like the movie and I think that it's disappointing that almost 30 minutes of this film has been lost and will never be seen. The story is simple but there are so many interesting characters that it's hard not to like this film. Unfortunately, most of the gory scenes were cut, like the castration of Hercules or Cleopatra's feet melting but there are some very intense moments near the end. The original ending is good but the suits at MGM wanted something a bit "Happier" so they tacked their own ending as well. Still a great film for any fans of Browning, for people who like classic films or for any folks who love the bizarre. Gooble Gabble!
2. Berserk (1967) - During his tight rope act, Gasper the Great's tight rope snaps and somehow wraps around his neck, which hangs him! To Death! Ringmistress and part owner of the circus, Monica Rivers has him cut down and the police come to question her later in her trailer. Later on, her business partner, Dorando can't believe how callous, Monica is behaving towards Gasper's death. She says that it is tragic but this disaster will put more asses in their seats.
Coincidentally the next night, Frank Hawkins has come to speak with Monica about working for her. He is a tight rope walker from Canada with an act that will knock her socks off, eh. After seeing his act, she hires him and gives him top billing! Dorando is furious with Monica for how much she is paying Hawkins and lets them know. That night, Monica sneaks into Dorando's office and burns her agreement with Dorando, which dissolves their partnership. Just as the papers start burning, Monica is called to the tents, where she discovers that Dorando is dead.
The other performers are terrified, the police are finding out secrets about Monica and her daughter, Angela has just been kicked out of boarding school! What's Monica to do! Will the police be able to find the killer before anymore performers fall prey to "accidents" or will the killer continue to decimate the circus until he or she gets what she really wants?
This was better the second time I saw it. Joan Crawford is really good as Monica, the ringmistress and I wish Michael Gough (Horror Hospital, Batman) was in this a little bit longer as Dorando. He and Crawford made a nice team and played well against each other, watch Trog! The film drags a little bit and the story sometimes loses focus. Director Jim O'Connolly ( The Valley of Gwangi, Horror of Snape Island) fills a lot of lag time with circus footage of dogs dancing, elephant acts and my favourite a parade that includes Batman and Robin. This mystery should have been solved quicker with those two. Anyway, there are a few death but nothing gory or out of ordinary. The ending is the only thing that comes out of left field and I don't know if it actually makes sense. Not the best Joan Crawford horror film but it's better than Trog.
1. Vampire Circus (1972) - It's a beautiful day, Albert Muller is relaxing outside when he sees his wife, Anna abducting a child and bringing her to the castle of the evil Count Mitterhaus. He chases her there but it's too late and he can't get in. So he rallies the town together to help him save the child! Unfortunately, the townsfolk spend way too much time bickering about whether to save the child or not and by the time they decide to go, Count Mitterhaus has already killed the girl and has had sex with Anna. When they finally arrive, they realize the Mitterhaus is a vampire and after an awkward battle, Muller puts a stake through Mitterhaus's heart with the help from the town's Burgermeister. Before he dies, Mitterhaus puts a curse on the town and tells them he will return from the grave via the blood of their children. Anna escapes with the corpse and retreats to a cave, where the not quite dead Mitterhaus tells her to talk to his cousin, Emil because he'll know what to do.
15 years later, the village is ravaged by a plague and the townsfolk think that this is the Mitterhaus's curse. Dr. Kersh assures them that it's not the curse and if he could get past the barricades, (the village has been barricaded so the infection cannot spread across the country) then he could get the proper medicine. The Burgermeister and Muller agree to send the doctor to get find a treatment for the town sickness. While the doctor is gone, a circus comes to town and sets up shop to entertain the disheartened villagers. Unfortunately, it's Mitterhaus's cousin Emil's circus and he has come for revenge! Will the village survive another vampire attack or will Emil resurrect his cousin and destroy his enemies and their children and their children's children... !?
This was an interesting Hammer film. It has a lot of the Gothic elements that we've come to expect from Hammer but I was surprised at how far they would push the elements of the story. There was a surprising amount children killing in this, which is different because even though children are threatened and in harms way, most of the time they survive, no matter how annoying. Also, there seemed to be more sexy scenes than I remember in most Hammer films but I'm not complaining, I was just surprised. Lots of good vampire kills and I liked the twist at the end. If you like old school vampires than you should definitely check this one out.
Compared to the circuses of today, these films seem like relics from another time or place. Cirque du Soleil and even the new school Ringling Bros have little or no animals and most of the thrills come from trapeze acts performing incredible feats of choreographed wonder. And although the sawdust and smells have been sanitized, who knows what evil lurks in the backstage of a circus tent eating cotton candy spun on a cone of terror.