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Circus of Fear (DVD)

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1 Review

Genre: Crime & Thriller / Actor: Christopher Lee / DVD Release Date: 2005

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      06.08.2012 09:55
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      A fun thriller set in a circus

      A film-only review. A UK DVD was released, but is out of print, and goes for something like £20. A region-free US version can be imported for less than £5. I'm not sure if it has the same extras, though.

      The British thriller writer Edgar Wallace inspired lots and lots of German films in the early 60s. Although they were largely cop movies (they're apparently known as 'Krimi' in German), they often had elements of horror or espionage. Not many of them seem to be available on DVD in the English-speaking world. Circus of Fear (1966) was a UK/West German co-production, so might not count as a proper example of the genre, but whatever it is, it's pretty entertaining.

      The robbery of a lot of money (on Tower Bridge, no less) goes wrong when one of the gang panics and shoots a guard. Most of the gang are betrayed by their unknown boss, but somehow a suitcase full of cash ends up hidden at a circus. But someone at the circus is murdering people who seem to know too much. The police trace the money to the circus, but beyond that they can't seem to get a break.

      This is a sprightly little thriller. Although the film's name suggests a horror movie (like the similarly named Circus of Horrors made a few years earlier), it only has a few creepy trappings. Mostly this is a murder mystery with a bit of police procedural thrown in. But it's a good one. The initial heist is impressive, and there's a decent car chase early on. Later, it ratchets up the suspense quite nicely in the circus. Lots of shady dealings take place at night, and it seems that whatever anyone does, someone else is always lurking in the shadows watching them. I had no idea circuses were such hives of intrigue.

      It's set in an out-of-season circus, so we only see one performance, which was filmed at a real circus. It is very, very obvious that none of the actors ever appear in the same shot as any of the actual circus performers (this is especially glaring with the lion tamers). The film stock even seems to be slightly different for the circus footage.

      The plot is clever enough - I assume it's adapted fairly faithfully from an Edgar Wallace novel - and it just about manages to keep its twists and revelations surprising. Occasionally it gets a bit silly - why on earth does the killer keep using the same set of throwing knives when they're sure to give him away in the end? - and the red herrings are a bit too obvious. It also becomes very easy to guess who the actual killer is, because there are very few viable suspects left by the end.

      The other problem with the plot is that it keeps throwing weirdly inappropriate comedy moments in when just when the plot is getting nice and tense. The chief detective's relationship with his boss is played entirely for laughs, and a dwarf who works at the circus - the humorously named 'Mr Big' - keeps getting doused in paint or water when conjuring tricks go wrong. This adds a strange, uneven quality to the tone, although perhaps without that the film would flag a bit.

      Leading the cast is Leo Genn as Detective Elliott. Genn is a good actor who was in lots of quality films in the 1950s. He is miscast here, though - he's too old to be credibly still a serving police officer. His performance is whimsical, and although he's amusing and endearing, he would be better playing an Agatha Christie-style gentleman amateur than a policeman.

      There are several familiar faces among the circus cast, including Suzy Kendall and Margaret Lee, both familiar faces from Italian horror. Christopher Lee plays Gregor the lion tamer. He has to wear a full-face mask because of his hideous scars. This seems quite puzzling - why cover your most famous actor's face? I assumed it was so the character could interact with the lions without Lee himself having to go near them, but as mentioned, they're never in shot together. The problem with this is that it becomes obvious the mask is going to play an important plot function, and you'll guess what's going on with it pretty quickly.

      The rest of the circus folk are good. Skip Martin is excellent as the blackmailing dwarf; he is probably my favourite small actor of all time. Klaus Kinski turns up in a rather superfluous role as another member of the heist gang who lurks around the circus at night. I suspect he was just in there because he's in lots of Krimi films, but Kreepy Klaus is probably the last person you'd want skulking around your circus late at night. You'd probably wake up to find him humping an elephant's leg. The film was produced by Harry Alan Towers, and a lot of the cast, including Lee, Kinski and Genn - are also in some of the films Jess Franco directed for Towers.

      There are a few vaguely macabre scenes, but it's a safe PG with no blood and no nudity. The direction is sprightly, and the music very traditional, with plot points underscored by musical stings in a way that feels rather passé for 1966. It's in English and filmed in England, but some of the voices are dubbed, presumably because the actors were German.

      While this probably has a bit of cult interest because of Lee and Kinski in the cast, it's going to appeal to anyone who likes a good 60s thriller. It's enjoyable hokum.

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