Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Circus of Horrors (1960)

Courtesy of Canal+ Image UK Ltd

Main image of Circus of Horrors (1960)
35mm, Eastmancolor, 91 mins
DirectorSidney Hayers
Production CompaniesLynx Films, Independent Artists
ProducersJulian Wintle
 Leslie Parkyn
ScreenplayGeorge Baxt
PhotographyDouglas Slocombe
MusicFranz Reizenstein
 Muir Mathieson

Cast: Anton Diffring (Dr. Schuler / Dr. Rossiter); Erika Remberg (Elissa); Donald Pleasence (Vanet); Jane Hylton (Angela); Kenneth Griffith (Martin); Yvonne Romain (Melina)

Show full cast and credits

A plastic surgeon finds temporary shelter from flight in a travelling circus, and finds that it makes an excellent environment for his experiments.

Show full synopsis

The circus has long been a popular setting for horror films, as demonstrated by Tod Browning's early obsession with it in films like The Unknown (US, 1927) and Freaks (US, 1932). Circus of Horrors takes full advantage of the location's potential to exhibit voluptuous women in skimpy costumes meeting nasty deaths in front of a horrified audience. This voyeuristic aspect qualifies it as an early British example of exploitation cinema, in which horror is associated with sexual titillation.

The use of colour contributes to this feeling of passion and excess and is key to the atmosphere of the film, although the bright sequinned costumes fail to hide the tawdriness of the circus backdrop. Much of the film was actually shot at Billy Smart's Circus, erected on Clapham Common.

The lurid circus scenes are in stark contrast to the film's opening, which depicts a Europe scarred by the devastation of wartime. Vanet (Donald Pleasence) believes his circus has failed because "it is too soon to try and make people laugh". Rossiter wants to 'restore beauty' through his plastic surgery; his impulse is to do good but misunderstanding of his work by the scientific community forces him to go underground and his obsession drives him mad. While the First World War spawned many horror films featuring maimed and limbless characters - reflecting the injuries suffered in the trenches - the figure of the mad doctor has a particular resonance after the Second World War because of the horror of the inhuman experiments carried out by the Nazis. The casting of German actor Anton Diffring as Rossiter is therefore poignant; Teutonic performers often played villains in British films of the period.

Circus of Horrors was distributed by Anglo Amalgamated, which also released Peeping Tom (d. Michael Powell, 1960); in fact the two films were on in London at the same time. Both share themes of sexual perversion and feature a central character driven to murder through obsession, but while Peeping Tom is a very dark exploration of madness, Circus of Horrors is aimed squarely at entertainment and escapism.

In an unusual spin-off for a horror film, Elissa's (Erika Remberg) theme tune, 'Look for a Star', was released as a single and reached no. 16 in the American charts.

Jo Botting

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. 'I can help you' (1:31)
2. The knife thower (2:59)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Peeping Tom (1960)
Vampire Circus (1971)
Mills, Reginald (1912-1990)
Pleasence, Donald (1919-1995)
Slocombe, Douglas (1913-)
Anglo-Amalgamated Productions