Circus of Fear (1966), aka Circus of Terror (1966), aka Psycho Circus (1967), as it was known in the United States, is based on a novel by prolific writer Edgar Wallace, who, among other works, also wrote the novel that became the basis for the film King Kong (1933). Circus of Fear, directed by John Moxley, probably most remembered for his work on television, The Avengers, The Saint, Mission Impossible, Mannix, Hawaii Five-O, The Night Stalker, any much more, was also responsible for the film Horror Hotel (1960).
The film takes place in England, and starts out with the robbery of an armored car. Things are going smoothly, until one of the guards sees an opportunity to escape, and gets shot by the other guard. Ahhh...an inside job. Anyway, the men make a unique escape, and meet up later in a hidden location. A call to the anonymous mastermind of the heist, who none of the actual robbers have ever met, provides specific instructions with regards to the inside man and the rest of the gang. The inside man is told to take the money to a remote location, and the others leave, with the idea that they will get their shares later, but soon get caught by the police through an anonymous tip, as the inside man reaches the rendezvous, near the winter quarters of a local circus, only to meet with an untimely end. The money is taken, and the mystery begins to unfold. As the police continue their investigation, bank notes begin appearing in the area of the circus' winter quarters, and Inspector Elliot (Leo Gurn) suspects the person or persons involved in the theft may be hiding out at the circus. We soon meet various performers of the circus, which sets up a whole load of red herrings, as the performers are presented as a volatile lot, prone to acting like overgrown children. Among the performers is Gregor (Christopher Lee), the lion tamer who always wears a mask to conceal his horrible disfigurement due to a supposed accident involving a rambunctious kitty. The inside man's body is discovered on the grounds of the circus, and a performer is also kakked shortly thereafter, reinforcing Inspector Elliot's suspicions with regards to the killer and his/her connection to the circus. More and more clues (most useless) are thrown our way as histories are revealed, and the plot gets fairly convoluted. Klaus Kinski is listed as an actor in the film, but his role is limited as an original heist man who followed the money to the circus. I would say he has about five minutes of total screen time, and absolutely no development for his character is presented, making his role essentially useless. So who is the mastermind? Who is responsible for murdering various individuals throughout the film? What secret does Gregor hide behind his mask?
As others have stated, this would appear to be a horror movie on first glance, but it isn't. It's really a somewhat bloated mystery/drama, presenting, rather clumsily, a number of suspects. The way motives were thrown around so obviously will make you groan, and when you finally do discover the identity of the mastermind behind the crimes and his reasoning, you may be disappointed. There was little, if anything, that would have drawn the viewer to pick that individual as the criminal, other than that's how is was written in the script. I do like Christopher Lee a lot, but his role here seems to be more of the producers using the star power of his name more than anything else to sell the movie. Leo Genn provides a great performance as the harassed by his supervisor inspector, more or less riding out the plot threads until they produce the culprit. He does piece together the puzzle near the end, but given the information we had offered by the film, I am still unsure how he came to the conclusions he did, making the whole `mystery' element a little awkward and clunky. The film started out strong, but ended with a bit of a sputter for me. And I have to say, I kinda felt sorry for the animals shown, the lions and elephants, as they all looked rather tired and sickly, as is often the case of circuses and zoos, despite even the most well-meaning efforts to care for the animals.
Blue Underground provides a really nice looking wide screen print here, along with a number of special features, including a commentary track by director John Moxley, American and U.K. trailers for the film, poster, press book and still galleries for the film, and very detailed talent bios of actors Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski. The film here runs 91 minutes, compared to a meager 65 minutes on a previous VHS copy I saw, suggesting that maybe this is a truly restored version. In the end, I would say this is a three star release of a two star film. By the way, I really loved the tagline for this film, `The most horrifying syndicate of evil in history!' A syndicate, to me, at least, implies more than just one person...but okay, let's go along...'The most horrifying...in history'? Oh bruther...talk about `selling it'.