Psycho-Circus (1966) review

Psycho Circus Circus of Fear Christopher Lee in mask
With a title like Psycho-Circus, not to mention the presence of two Count Draculas (Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski), fright fans will probably expect this to be some kind of lurid horror-thriller filled with circus acts gone horribly wrong (lion tamers mauled, knife thrower’s assistant stabbed) along the lines of 1960’s Circus of Horrors (stock footage from which appears here). Unfortunately, Psycho-Circus is horror-in-name only; though it features a circus, there is nothing psychotic about it. Based on a story by Edgar Wallace, the film is more of a mystery-crime-melodrama, more accurately represented by its original title, Circus of Fear. Taken on its own terms, the film is a passable time-waster, though just barely.
The plot kicks off with the nicely staged robbery of an armored car in broad daylight, abetted by one of the security guards. The stolen loot is hijacked, however, when one of the robbers is killed while trying to deliver the money to an accomplice at the circus. This sets up two mysteries: (1) Who was supposed to get the money; and (2) Who actually got the money? Unfortunately, the film is concerned with the mechanics of its gimmicky mystery plot that it forgets to ask, let alone answer, the most important question: Why should we care about the answers to Questions 1 and 2?
Psycho-Circus Misleading artwork for the re-titled version of the film.
This is a consequence of a typically fragmented script by producer Harry Alan Towers (writing under his Peter Welbeck pseudonym), which follows different characters in different plot threads, without ever winding them into a tight skein. There’s no central protagonist or point of view, and the interesting bits must fight for attention with scenes that drag the pace to a crawl: the police attempts to solve the crime are interrupted by criminal attempts to track down the loot, which in turn must give way to behind-the-scenes melodrama at the circus. Though the anticipated circus carnage never takes place, eventually suspects and witnesses start showing up with knives in their backs, but that’s so obviously a red herring for the knife-thrower that you almost wonder whom the film thinks it’s fooling.
Credit the scattershot approach to a combination of convoluted mystery plotting and more pragmatic concerns: a British-West-German co-production, Psycho-Circus is proto-Eurotrash cinema, a genre in which the need to satisfy investors from different countries outweighs the needs of the narrative. German money? Get German actor Klaus Kinski in there for a few scenes, whether or not he adds anything to the plot.
One intriguing bit involves Lee’s character, Gregor, the lion-tamer, who goes through most of the film wearing a mask, supposedly to hide scars inflicted by one of the beasts in his act – or is he really a criminal hiding his identity? Is he the man to whom the loot was supposed to be delivered, or did he purloin it to finance his escape, now that a dark secret in his past seems to be catching up to him? There might have been a fascinating film to be made that focused on these aspects; instead, these tiny threads are twisted and knotted with less interesting strands.
Despite star billing, Lee is just one of the ensemble. At least his voice is distinctive enough to register while his face is hidden, and when he is finally unmasked he manages to generate a little pathos for a character who is a bit shady. Leo Genn is decent as the Scotland Yard detective on the case, but Kinski gets little to do except skulk around suspiciously.
Circus_of_Fear_FilmPosterProduction values are okay; direction is competent but unremarkable. The film could have benefited from more robust handling to push it out of the German krime territory and into the giallo genre; a little stylized violence would have gone a long way toward enlivening the drab plotting. The story winds up with one of those scenes in which the detective assembles the suspects to reveal the murderer’s identify. If you’re a fan of that kind of who-dunnit hijinx, it might be worth your while to sit through this one to the end.


Though the revelation of Gregor’s face is withheld until late in the British film, the trailer gives it away.
Credits: Produced by Harry Alan Towers. Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey. Screenplay by Harry Alan Towers (as Peter Welbeck) based on Edgar Wallace’s novel The Three Just Men (uncredited). Cast: Christopher Lee, Leo Genn, Anthony Newlands, Heinz Drache, Eddi Arent, Klaus Kinski, Margaret Lee, Suzy Kendall, Skip Martin. 90 minutes.

The Avenger: A Celebration of 1960 Review

The Avenger (a.k.a. DER RACHER, 1960)That THE AVENGER (Der Racher) is perhaps mostly a footnote in the history of the West German krimi* film can be attributed to its production circumstances. Rather than being part of the Rialto or CCC series, it was Kurt Ulrich Filmproduktion’s only contribution to the cycle, one that they were not able to follow up on account of Rialto’s proven ownership of the film rights to the Edgar Wallace source novels.
The film nevertheless proved influential in other ways. No fewer than three krimi regulars made their genre debuts: Heinz Drache, Siegfried Schurenberg, and Klaus Kinski. Each also plays the type of role in which they would thereafter typically be cast: the detective, the old duffer, and the general-purpose villain, victim, and/or red herring.
THE AVENGER also features one of the classic Wallace monsters in Bhag (Al Hoosman’s), identified as a giant mute servant from the jungles of Borneo. Variously referred to in the English-language version under review as a “negro”, “a demented creature”, “an animal from the jungle”, and “the best servant in the world: he doesn’t think, he doesn’t speak, he doesn’t answer”, the character also inevitably dates the film as the product of earlier, less politically correct times.
By contrast the film’s self-reflexivity feels modern: The investigation takes place amidst the making of a film, leading to the incidental recording of an apparently insignificant detail that actually prefigures Antonioni’s modernist anti-thriller BLOW-UP by a good half-dozen years. During the shoot, director Jackson also tires of the diva antics of his leading lady, prompting him to promote ingénue and extra Ruth Sanders into the role in a move that recalls Argento’s OPERA over a quarter-century later; it is, as Jackson remarks, the sort of incredible thing which only happens in the movies.
Mostly, however, it’s pretty familiar stuff and, as such, holds up about as well or badly as any of the early 1960s black-and-white krimis: even at the time they presented a curiously anachronistic vision of England that was probably more 1920 than 1960. Paradoxically, however, this means that today they haven’t dated anywhere near as badly as their later colour counterparts, which tried to be swinging and hip – with, for instance, a Scotland Yard man called Sergeant Pepper.

Bag, one of the film's suspects
Could Bhag - a classic, though politically incorrect Edgar Wallace monster - be the maniacal Avenger?

We open in media res. A maniac known as The Executioner has struck on no fewer than 12 occasions. The first eleven victims were career criminals, but the most recent was a gentleman apparently beyond reproach – exactly the thing to spur the authorities into real action in the Wallace universe.
The crimes have at least given special investigator Michae Brixan (Heinz Drache) some clues to work with: The killer is extremely strong, having beheaded his victims with a single blow from a heavy blade; uses a typewriter on which a couple of the keys are distinctively out of alignment, and posts cryptic messages in the newspaper under the name of “the Benefactor”.
Posing as a journalist sent to cover the making of the film within the film, Brixen soon has a number of suspects, including Bhag – albeit probably only as the instrument of his white master Sir Gregory Penn – and Kinski’s neurotic screenwriter, Voss, whose typewriter appears to have been used for writing the Benefactor’s messages.
In the usual fashion, this surfeit of suspects only serves to complicate things. So too do the typically quirky supporting characters, like harmless old eccentric Longman and a swordsman who seems to have stepped out of a Chinese wuxia film (one especially ‘what the!’ moment here is vaguely reminiscent of Juan Piquer Simon’s PIECES, of all things). There is also the inevitable romantic subplot-complication that develops between the investigator and the ingénue.
The severed head of one of the Avenger's victims (Klaus Kinski)
The severed head of one of the Avenger's victims (Klaus Kinski)

THE AVENGER’s director Karl Anton was a veteran whose career dated back to the 1920s. If this implies a certain competence and familiarity with the expressionist idiom, his style also comes across as somewhat old-fashioned in the main, though he does use the zoom lens to augment the shock of finding a severed head in a box on a couple of occasions.
In sum, THE AVENGER is perhaps not the prime example of a 1960 krimi film – that surely remains DEAD EYES OF LONDONG, which also showcases the talents of Alfred Vohrer, a more prolific krimi director – but THE AVENGER certainly deserves to be better known and given the restored DVD treatment.
THE AVENGER (Der Rache, 1960). Directed by Karl Anton. Screenplay by Gustav Kampendonk & Rudolf Katscher, based upon the novel by Edgar Wallace. Cast: Heinz Drache, Ingrid van Bergen, Benno Sterzenbach, Ina Dusha, Ludwig Linkmann, Siegfried Schurenberg, Kalus Kinski, Rainer Brandt, Friedrich Schonfelder, Al Hoosmann.

  • “Krimi” is a German word used to denote the literary and cinematic genre dedicated to , stories of detective work and crime-solving, often with lurid, melodramatic, or horrific overtones. It is roughly analogous to the Italian giallo.