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Circus of Horrors (1960)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

In post-war England, Rossiter, a plastic surgeon who is developing a new technique, has performed an operation on society woman Evelyn Morley, leaving her horribly disfigured. Fleeing the scene, he is hurt in a car accident and his two accomplices - Angela, who is in love with him, and her brother Martin - operate on his face to remove the scars. He changes his identity, calling himself Dr Schüler, and the three go to France. There, they meet the owner of a rundown circus, Vanet, whose young daughter Nicole is scarred from a wartime bombing. Schüler operates on her, ridding her face of the scars, and her father is so grateful that he agrees to allow them to stay on and help run the circus. The two men celebrate the partnership with a few drinks and, in an inebriated state, Vanet tries to dance with the performing bear, which turns on him and kills him.

Schüler decides that the circus will make an ideal cover for his experiments in plastic surgery, and he, Angela and Martin set about turning its fortunes around. Schüler goes to a bar in the nearest town and sees a prostitute stab a man and steal his wallet. He grabs her as she runs away and, seeing that her face is scarred, persuades her to come with him, promising to restore her beauty. Back at the circus, he explains his plan to Angela and Martin: he will continue his experiments in plastic surgery by operating on disfigured criminals. The patients will then become performers at the circus and he will guarantee their loyalty by keeping a dossier on them.

Ten years later, the circus is a huge success all over Europe. However, it has earned the nickname 'the jinxed circus', as several of its performers have met horrible deaths during their acts. The circus is in Berlin and Schüler's star attraction, Magda von Meck, has met a rich man and intends to leave the circus to marry him. However, Schüler has other plans and instructs Martin to sabotage the knife-throwing act during her final show. The wheel to which she is strapped stops spinning and Magda is killed when a knife plunges into her neck. The German police investigate but can't prove anything; however, they are suspicious and telephone ahead to warn the British police that the deaths may be murder. Inspector Ames, pretending to be a reporter, investigates the circus before its big opening in London and begins to suspect that Schüler is in fact Rossiter. When several of the bodies of the former circus stars are exhumed, it emerges that they all have scars around their chins, suggesting they have been operated on.

A woman called Melina comes to see Schüler. She has been scarred by acid, but he rebuilds her face and falls in love with her. Schüler's first creation, Elissa, is put out when his new protégée is given top billing over her. Uncovering his secret, she sets out to blackmail him. He releases a snake into her room but she survives; however, during her act that night, she plunges to her death from the roof of the big top. Later, while trying to pacify a gorilla, Schüler is attacked and his face badly scarred. He orders Angela and Martin to operate on him and then announces that he and Melina are to be married. Angela is devastated as she is still in love with him, despite the fact he has been consistently unfaithful to her with each of his stars.

Ames has persuaded Schüler to lend the circus for a charity event in London and has arranged for Evelyn Morley to be there. Although Schüler's face is bandaged, she recognises his distinctive ring and faints. Melina's first performance as lion tamer ends in tragedy as the jealous Angela and her brother have failed to sedate the lions. Furious, Schüler goes to their caravan, attacks Martin and stabs Angela in the back. Evelyn Morley, traumatised by her encounter with Schüler, drives back to the circus, where she runs over him and kills him.