Although it does not really include fantastic elements, I consider CIRCUS OF HORRORS as my first film of this kind.
All the required ingredients are there. A baroque and flamboyant setting, troubled and dangerous characters, a threatening atmosphere and, last but not least, spectacular and horrific scenes. CIRCUS OF HORRORS was my entrance on the great circus ring of English fantasy cinema.
I always loved the circus world. I did not hesitate for one second before accepting this opportunity to share the life of travelling artists by playing the part of Nicole, adoptive daughter to the fiendish Dr Rossiter, played by Anton Diffring.
During the very first production meeting, I was introduced to director Sydney Hayers (1). He chose me for the only positive feminine part of that dark story. Hayers knew what he wanted. He was a talented and efficient man, although a little aloof. I would later regret that our professional relation was not as rich as it could have been as shooting progressed. I’ll come back to that.
Condemned in London by his medical peers, Dr Rossiter (Anton Diffring) pursues his plastic surgery activities in France, behind the façade of a circus, becoming its director after throwing the previous owner (Donald Pleasence) into the claws of a ferocious bear of the menagerie. Helped by two accomplices, he operates on disfigured women he saved from the gutter, in order to transform them into circus artists. When they try to free themselves from his domination, he kills them, making the murders appear as accidents in the circus ring. The dreadful reputation of the circus intrigues the police forces. Unmasked by inspector Ames ( Conrad Phillips ), Rossiter tries to escape. He his himself disfigured by a gorilla and succumbs under the wheels of a car driven by a previous patient, a disfigured woman prone on revenge…
CIRCUS OF HORRORS succeeds in part because some scenes of the film were shot in an actual circus. It was the Billy Smart Circus, in Clapham Common, a greater London area with, at the time, quite a bad reputation. That quest for realism led to a remarkable account of the atmosphere of the fairground world of the sixties.
The film crew was staying within the circus grounds.
As for me, I slept in a caravan, close to an Italian trapeze girl artist and Russian clowns. The make-up cabin had been set up near the menagerie, which led to funny situations. For my circus acts, I wore a splendid set of feathers, that the monkeys always tried to catch when I had to pass along their cages on my way out.
When I was not shooting, I was rehearsing my horse riding act, like any other artist of the Billy Smart Circus.
The fine technical team of Hayers (2) was shooting the evening performances in order to include them within the story. Although all security measures were, of course, taken, it was not always possible to predict how the animals would behave. One night, I almost got trampled by an elephant as I was entering the ring. But I never had any apprehension afterwards. I even posed on top of one of these pachyderms for set stills.
That year, winter was precocious and very harsh. Soon, it was so cold that the shooting crew had to plan for a hotel arrangement. In spite of our good spirits, we were not hard, seasoned travelling artists, capable of adjusting to any circumstance.
Therefore, every evening, I was leaving the popular surroundings of Clapham Common to go back to my hotel, in the more luxurious Grosvenor Square. My dear mother was sometimes accompanying me to the set, or we met again at the hotel. She was my secretary and my precious confident during that British stay.
We then spent the last week at Beaconsfield studios for continuity shots (interiors of tents and caravans, and attraction barracks).
Generally speaking, I have very good memories of my fellow actors. I particularly remember Diffring and Conrad Phillips.
Sometimes, professional acting relationships mimic those of the characters they play. Such was the case with Diffring, as charming and protective to me as Dr Rossiter was in the movie. It also happened with Erika Remberg, but this time I regretted it, because she was playing the circus artist who could not stand feminine rivalry… in the ring or real life !
Next : CIRCUS OF HORRORS last part
(1) Better known in France for directing several episodes of THE AVANGERS, Hayers directed a second fantasy film, this time about witchcraft : NIGHT OF THE EAGLE.
(2) The great cameraman of Losey, Polanski et Spielberg, Douglas Slocombe was our director of photography.