But horror fans finding Berserk! to be a little tame and slow-moving by American Horror Story: Freak Show standards would do well to turn a viewing of this circus-set whodunit into a drinking game. As Crawford was still on the Board of Directors of Pepsi-Cola at the time this was made, so the film fairly overflows with Pepsi-related product placement. May I suggest taking a shot of 100-Proof vodka (Crawford’s much-preferred beverage of choice) every time there’s a Pepsi sighting?
Or perhaps you can take a swig each time a mysterious band of shadow materializes out of nowhere to provide our star with dramatic framing and flattering neck shade whenever in medium shot or closeup. But be aware, should you choose the latter option, you’re likely to find yourself plastered to the gills long before To Sir, With Love’s Judy Geeson makes her mid-film appearance as yet another in Joan Crawford’s long procession of troublesome onscreen/offscreen daughters.
|Joan Crawford as Monica Rivers |
"We're running a circus, not a charm school!"
|Ty Hardin as Frank Hawkins|
"In this world, you only get what you deserve. No more, no less."
|Judy Geeson as Angela Rivers|
"I was shunted around from place to place like a piece of luggage with the wrong address pasted on it!"
|Michael Gough as Albert Dorando|
"How can you be so cold-blooded?"
|Diana Dors as Matilda|
"The next time she puts her arms around you, make sure those lovely hands aren't carrying a knife!"
|Britain's Billy Smart Circus plays the role of Berserk's The Great Rivers Circus|
Smart's Circus (note the BS emblems) was also used in 1960s similar Circus of Horrors
In contrast to the usual abasement heaped upon the typical hagsploitation heroine, every effort in Berserk! is made to make Crawford look good. Not only is she the center of the drama and propels the narrative, but she's also the only character afforded an active love life or much in the way of a backstory ("Long ago I lost the capacity to love..." she intones at one point; her words instantly making me aware of the weight of my eyelids). Unfortunately, due to the film’s obviously sparse budget and perhaps an over-determination on the filmmakers’ part to make its sexagenarian leading lady’s age into a non-issue (one of the more conspicuous Crawford-mandated script additions is a character voicing the opinion, "Your mother will never grow old, she has the gift of eternal youth!" ), the sheer amount of attention paid to showcasing Crawford’s three-ring matronly glamour actually results in a kind of inverse-derogation.
|"Find your happiest colors - the ones that make you feel good." |
Joan Crawford - My Way of Life 1971
Joan in her happy colors (given her expression, I guess that's something we'll have to take her word for)
Even if you'd never seen a movie before in your life, you could probably guess the plot of Berserk from its setting alone. A traveling circus plagued by a series of grisly murders finds the deaths have a gruesome side-effect: a boost in attendance. This turn of events means the shadow of suspicion falls (usually across the neck) upon hard-as-nails, cool-as-a-cucumber circus owner, Monica Rivers (Crawford). Especially since, some six years prior, Monica’s husband died in a mysterious trapeze accident. Since that time, Monica has been “comforted” by dour-faced business partner Albert Dorando (Gough). Meanwhile, Monica's only child, Angela (Geeson), has been stowed away at a hoity-toity boarding school.
As the body count rises, within the ranks of the circus’ motley troupe of performers, low levels of British panic reigns, motives are plentiful, and red herrings abound. Figuring prominently amongst those most likely to have "dunit" are Bruno (George Claydon), the circus' dwarf clown/toady who’s a tad over-enamored of his leggy employer. Then there’s brassy Matilda (Dors), the in-your-face, peroxided two-thirds of a sawing-a-woman-in-half illusionist act. She's skeptical of Monica from the start, but this may have more to do with Monica's habit of addressing Matilda as "You slut!”. And finally, there's the circus's most recent arrival, high-wire walker Frank Hawkins (Hardin); a six-foot-two hunk of flavorless beefcake with a sketchy past, hair-trigger temper, and a thing for women old enough to be his mother. Especially if they own their own circus.
Still, thanks to Joan Crawford’s sometimes baffling acting choices (“You’re crrrrazy!”) and the always-welcome presence of British bombshell Diana Dors, Berserk!’s 40-minutes of plot padded out to 96-minutes of movie flows painlessly enough to its abrupt, highly-preposterous conclusion. One in which the surprise-reveal killer has to utter the great-granddaddy of unutterable, self-expository outbursts:
|Trog co-star Michael Gough braces himself while a frisky Joan Crawford moves in for the kill. |
As a side note, is there anything more terrifying than a clown painting?
Berserk! Began life as Circus of Terror and Circus of Blood before Crawford vetoed those crude, cut-to-the-chase options in favor of the infinitely more marketable, Psycho-friendly single name tag (see: Homicidal, Hysteria, Repulsion, Paranoiac, and Fanatic [the British title for Tallulah Bankhead’s loony masterwork, Die, Die My Darling!]).
Coming as it did on the heels of the double-barreled horror blitz of William Castle’s Strait-Jacket (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965), Berserk! may have further distanced Crawford from her glory days at MGM in the mind of the public, but it did serve to indelibly cement her status as Hollywood’s then-reigning scream queen. A reputation reinforced by her appearances on supernatural-themed TV shows like Night Gallery and The Sixth Sense. And while rival Bette Davis may have appeared in a couple of slightly more upscale UK features at this time (The Nanny -1965 and The Anniversary-1968), Berserk! and Trog gave Crawford what she needed: employment (at a time when many of her peers had been forced into early retirement), leading lady status, and above-the-title billing.
The aforementioned Trog (1970) was the second vehicle in Crawford’s contract with Herman Cohen and her last feature film appearance. In the 1994 book, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers by Tom Weaver, producer Cohen refutes claims that Crawford was ever subjected to the kind of on-a-shoestring treatment his low-budget films suggest (namely, the oft-repeated rumor that Crawford had to dress in the back of a station wagon while making Trog).
At this stage, it didn't matter to Joan what her name appeared on,
just so long as it appeared on SOMETHING....preferably in big letters
|Diana Dors, about to be sawed in half as magician's assistant to Philip Madoc in Berserk! 1967|
|Diana Dors, about to be sawed in half as magician's assistant to David J. Stewart |
in the unaired 1961 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Sorcerer's Apprentice
“That’s JUST whadda mean!”
“Want me to spell it out fuh ya?”
“He’s just mah business partner!”
|With dinner over, Hardin's ready for dessert|
|Ted Lune, Golda Casimir, George Claydon & Milton Reid|
Berserk! grinds to a screeching halt in order to accommodate
the cutesy musical number, "It Might Be Me"
Contractual show-biz pairings are nothing new. If you hired TV personality, Steve Allen, you had to take Jayne Meadows. British director Bryan Forbes never worked without his wife Nanette Newman. And, pre-split-up, getting Tim Burton always meant Helena Bonham Carter was not far behind. In the 60s, Joan Crawford and Pepsi were an onscreen pair made in product-placement heaven.
I was ten years old when Berserk! was released in theaters, and I recall how disturbing I found the TV commercials and newspaper ads that prominently featured the image of a man about to have a stake driven through his head by a hammer. I was actually too afraid to see the movie at the time, but I wonder what I would have made of it. As silly as it seems to me now, I might have actually gotten into it then.
|This is one of several different "Shock-Limit" quiz teaser ads that |
appeared in local newspapers in January 1968
|Joan and Ty adopt a pose ripped from countless vintage movie posters|
(not to mention paperback romance novels)
|"And what about your Christmas card list?"|
|"Because I'm not one of your FAAAANS!"|
|"You know, Christina, flirting can be taken the wrong way...."|
Perhaps a stronger film than Berserk! could surmount these distractions, but Berserk! has so little going for it that's really compelling; one can't help but welcome every self-referential, over-acted, self-serious moment the great Miss Joan Crawford provides. So, for fans of the best that camp has to offer...Step right up!
The original (spoiler-filled) Berserk! trailer that scared me as a kid.
|George Claydon, who played Bruno the clown in Berserk! appeared as the |
first Oompa Loompa on the left in 1971's Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Diana Dors was not only quite the bombshell in her youth, but in later years became one of television's most articulate, witty, and charming talk show guests. Here's a clip of a 1971 television interview.
Wikipedia biography of actor Ty Hardin referencing his 8 marriages and eventual descent into right-wing, nutjob, ultra-conservatism.
Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2015