HCF REWIND NO. 150: CIRCUS OF FEAR AKA PSYCHO-CIRCUS 
AVAILABLE ON DVD: Now
RUNNING TIME: 95 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
The daring daylight robbery of an armoured car on London’s Tower Bridge nets a gang of professional crooks £250,000 in bank notes. The plan goes down like clockwork until their inside man, Mason, panics and guns down the car’s driver. The group’s boss, whose identity is unknown even to his own henchmen, orders Mason to take his and Mason’s share of the money to an undisclosed location in the country. While the remaining gang members are arrested, Mason delivers the money but is murdered. The police lose the trail until some of the stolen money is reported to have been passed by personnel of Barberini’s Circus. Inspector Elliot starts an investigation at the circus compound as more murders begin to occur…..
Circus Of Fear is the latest ‘Edgar Wallace Presents’ release from Network, who are dedicated to releasing neglected treasures of British cinema and TV. Edgar Wallace was an extremely prolific thriller writer whose work has led to an amazing 160 film adaptations. I managed to miss the release of The Missing Million, but you can read my reviews of the highly enjoyable The Four Just Men and The Terror elsewhere on this website. Circus Of Fear, though not at all a well known picture, seems to have a minor reputation as a horror film, and I used to confuse it with the earlier Circus Of Horrors, meaning that when it turned up on TV I was disappointed that it wasn’t the lurid, sadistic chiller I had read about. Aside from that, I can’t remember what the hell I thought of it, which when you see as many films as I do does not automatically imply that the film is a dud, and welcomed the chance to see it again.
I’ll say right away, this isn’t a horror film, something which the distributors of the R1 DVD a few years ago seemed to imply when it was released as part of ‘The Christopher Lee Collection’. It’s a murder mystery with the odd hint of the macabre, and so long as you know that you should have a fairly good time. It’s no lost classic and is overall a bit pedestrian, but it’ll keep the attention of mystery fans and has its points of cult interest. Based on Wallace’s novel The Three Just Men [but nothing to do with The Four Just Men seemingly], the script was written by producer Harry Alan Towers under his occasional pseudonym Peter Welbeck. Amazingly, the US theatrical version of this colour production entitled Psycho-Circus was not only in black and white but only ran 65 min long. Though this was done to make the pace much quicker, I fail to see how this cannot have made the complex plot incredibly confusing. Network offer both the full 90 min version and a slightly shorter 83 min version. Though I watched the 90 min version in full, a spot of checking revealed that nothing of worth is missing from the 83 min version and might actually be the version of choice for a first-time viewer, as it retains all the plot but just moves slightly quicker.
Circus Of Fear is clearly an attempt to compete with the krimis that were coming out from Germany at the time. The numerous krimis were Wallace-derived thrillers with elements that would later help them morph into the Italian giallo. Watching this film, I was surprised that it wasn’t remade later as a full-blown giallo, because, as you can probably deduce from the ‘PG’ certificate, it’s a very tame production, but with violent and sexual elements which could easily have been made more explicit without harming the story. A major disappointment with Circus Of Fear is that it doesn’t really make full use of its primary setting [though it oddly has plot similarities with The Greatest Show On Earth], a setting which certainly inspired the likes of Alexandro Jodorowksy and Tod Browning, amongst others.The director here is John Llewellyn Moxey, not a prolific filmmaker but one remembered by all fans of antique horror for the stunningly atmospheric City Of The Dead. He doesn’t exhibit nearly as much style here, though he seems to have been seriously constrained by a very low budget which may explain why the odd stock shot from Circus Of Horrors appear every now and again.
The opening section is terrific nonetheless. Moxey begins his film on a shot of the amazing face of Klaus Kinski, then details the lead-up to and execution of the heist with real skill. With three and a half minutes before any music, and five and a half minutes before any dialogue, it’s down to the images to do it all, and they certainly achieve their purpose with well chosen shots and extremely precise editing. Soon after this we have a simple road chase involving a van and two cars turned into something approaching quite thrilling cinema due to the cutting and angles, like shots taken from just behind one of the front wheels. Somewhat unfortunately, it makes you think you’re watching a rather different, more action-orientated movie than what you eventually do get, and once we get to the circus, events proceed at a much more leisurely pace. This is partly because Insp. Eliot is one of the friendliest, most gentlemanly policemen I’ve seen on screen, and partly because he spends much of the time off-screen while various intrigues involving the circus folk play out before us. There’s a girl who may be sleeping around with a jealous boyfriend, a man being blackmailed, another man who is planning revenge on the killer of a family member, and so forth. Then there’s also a killer, whose point of view we often adopt. He’s sleeping with one of the female characters, and kills wearing black gloves. Giallo fans don’t get too excited though: the kills are very mild.
There’s not much in the way of thrills or even mounting suspense, any action being mostly replaced by the constant giving out of lots and lots of information. You really do have to concentrate with this one, though it all does make sense in the end, while the revelation of the killer certainly surprised me. Now you’re probably asking: where is top-billed Christopher Lee? He’s actually not in the film that much, but his role as a lion-tamer who stays masked due to an injury, is an interesting one. He does a Russian accent and proves what a good actor he can be in some scenes where he has to act with just his eyes and mouth. Sadly Kinski is reduced to lurking around in the shadows and is dubbed, though you still can’t understand all he’s saying due to constantly having a cigarette in his mouth. In such as easy-going film, some humour often fits in well, and here we have some amusing scenes with Eliot and his impatient boss who constantly has a go at him, plus some gags involving the circus accountant who has desires of becoming a clown, and tends to take it out on the obligatory circus midget.
Circus Of Fear is rather awkward, ambling slowly through a perhaps overpopulated tale until, with the end in sight, it suddenly feels like it has to wrap things up before the film runs out. Of course the hero decides to unmask the killer in front of everyone else! It has considerable charm though, and charm is something which seems to be in short supply in cinemas these days. It lacks the oomph factor, but it just about gets away with coasting along pleasantly.
* Two versions of the film
* Alternative German ending
* Image gallery