Archive for October 17th, 2019

Circus of Horrors (1960)

by Jamie Uher
Spookies (B. Faulkner/T. Doran/E. Joseph… 1986)
I sometimes can’t believe how the trashy Horror of my adolescence has grow into a cottage industry as I approach 40. Most readily, I occasionally see the exorbitant prices VHS tapes go for, tapes that a half decade ago I unloaded for free to clear up space in rental units I suddenly found myself sharing. Suddenly fetching 20 to 80 dollars on mere kitsch value, buyers never realizing that often times the films sat in better DVD releases. But that wasn’t the point they (and me, only years before) would argue, that the blown out analog tape was the whole point, damn the film! At some point, the actual film became the whole point to me, and if I watched it once, or even twice, and its charm gone, the VHS, no matter how much hipsters deemed it worth, didn’t matter to me. That so many of the films were outright bad to unwatchable, only made me realize that I was decidedly in the right.
Spookies would have been one such film. I’d seen it arrive onto my radar this year when a site that releases 80’s Horror soundtracks on vinyl—that have never seen release previously on any form!—released its soundtrack. I’d never heard of it (or so I thought, upon finishing it, the ending recalled something I might have seen decades ago), but the description seemed interesting enough. But can you imagine an economy for such an item? Made even more insane when the film is actually put on, the images and soundtrack experienced for yourself. It’s the tale of two carloads of dickheads (male and female) being marooned near a large white estate that we quickly learn is inhabited by a ghastly collection of Horror cliches. The film, cheaply made but fun in bargain special effect, nonetheless only has enough plot for about 20 or 25 minutes, but we instead strain our eyes through dimly lit, barely distinguishable action for another 75 (for a total runtime eclipsing 85 minutes). It’s a cult movie now, for a cult who’s brains are about as dead as the zombies we see aping Night of the Living Dead at the films close.
It took me several pauses and attempts to get through this, a very short film by most standards. People love it, but those people are not me. Pass.

Horrors of the Black Museum (A. Crabtree… 1959)
Circus of Horrors (S. Hayers… 1960)

Anglo-Amalgamated Productions, the great rival to Hammer in late 50’s/early 60’s British genre cinema, has largely been absent from discussion when great works of the period are debated. Hammer had the heavies in front of the camera (Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley and Oliver Reed) as well as behind it (Freddie Francis, Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster) and, in the subsequent years, lucrative home video distribution deals, always insuring that their films were easily available in VHS or DVD packages across region. I wondered if that was why Hammer has so lapped AAP in genre fans opinions, as outside the two Corman UK Poe films made with AAP (Masque of the Red Death and Tomb of Ligeia) you don’t often hear the films uttered positively with the greats. Perhaps when you look through their catalogue you begin to see why: nearly half are Carry On films, the British version of National Lampoon; cheeky humor, often made solely to cash in on poking fun at prevailing popular movements and genres elsewhere (akin to ‘spoof’ movies). Then there are all the dramas: kitchen sink/angry young man films that they made about about a dozen of, many of which are masterpieces of their type, but decidedly not Horror. Criterion’s release of Peeping Tom (1960) more than a decade ago helped expose it to many American fans, myself included, but it was often stated on the back of Michael Powell’s shoulders, and not anything to do with AAP’s assistance. Taken all together, it’s not hard to see why they’ve lagged against Hammer then, Hammer was committed to one type of film and they poured out variations, some having more gore than others, all having a baseline in quality insuring they were the high-water mark (still) for British Horror. But AAP, at the dawn of the 60’s, managed three films in stark relief to Hammer’s supernatural hysterics and spooky period films. There’s the earlier mentioned Peeping Tom, one of Horror’s darkly subversive and perverse masterworks, and then there’s the two being considered today. Taken as a trio, remarkably, they’re nearly able to challenge the first wave of Hammer films that grossly outnumbered them.

It’s because they’re that different. Hammer initially made inroads by remaking the Universal Monsters canon, while AAP attempted lurid, pulp modernity. Horrors of the Black Museum, the tale of a horror writer and yellow journalist who, in so being enthralled with death and mayhem, begins committing murders on his own and with his understudy accomplice (who he’s drugged to become a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-type fiend) so that he can have fodder for his weekly crime columns. Similarly, Circus of Horrors posits a brilliant facial plastic surgeon who sees a case go bad and, in fleeing arrest must live undercover (via a facial reconstruction) as a circus promoter outside Britain on mainland Europe, stocking his show with single women who have no ties, but are suddenly made beautiful after his scalpel has done its brilliance. Both stories are fronted by British gentlemen of impeccable taste—Black Museum sees Michael Gough limp around as the astute Edmond Bancroft while Circus of Horrors has Anton Diffring’s debonaire Dr. Rossitor/Dr. Schuler—but who are also very clearly deranged psychopaths living both on the margins of perverted sensibility just as they travel freely amidst the wealthy caste elite. They’re modern monsters, and the violence both films illicit is at time nightmarishly brutal (certainly for its time) and sexually titillating in equal measure. Here is truly British giallo, but a decade before the party started in earnest a few thousand kilometers away in Italy.


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