But horror fans finding Berserk! a little tame and slow-moving by American Horror Story: Freak Show standards might do well to turn a viewing of this circus-set whodunit into a drinking game. Since Crawford was still on the Board of Directors of Pepsi-Cola at the time, may I suggest taking a shot of 100-Proof vodka (Crawford’s preferred beverage of choice) every time there’s a Pepsi sighting or moment of Pepsi-related product placement.
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 hagspoitation 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, 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 amount of attention paid to showcasing Crawford’s three-ring matronly glamour results in a kind of inverse-derogation.
|"Find your happiest colors - the ones that make you feel good." |
Joan Crawford- My Way of Life
Joan in her happy colors (given her expression, I guess that's something we'll have to take her word for)
Even if you've never seen a film before in your life, it’s likely you could guess the plot of Berserk from its setting alone. A traveling circus is plagued by a series of grisly murders; when the deaths have the side effect of boosting circus attendance, the shadow of suspicion falls (usually across the neck) upon hard-as-nails, cool-as-a-cucumber circus owner, Monica Rivers (Crawford). Some six years prior, Monica’s husband died in a trapeze accident, since which time Monica has been “comforted” by dour-faced business partner, Albert Dorando (Gough), while only daughter, Angela (Geeson), remained stowed away at a hoity-toity boarding school.
Of course, 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 "dunnit" are faithful Bruno (George Claydon), the dwarf clown/toady who’s a tad overenamoured 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, who's skeptical of Monica from the start (maybe due to Mrs. Rivers’ habit of addressing Matilda as "You slut!”). And finally, 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're in possession of 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 and entertainingly to its abrupt, highly-preposterous conclusion. One in which the surprise-reveal killer has to utter the great-granddaddy of unutterable, self-expository outbursts:“Kill, kill, kill! That’s all I have inside me!” And if you think that line reads ridiculous, wait until you hear someone actually try to say it with a modicum of sincerity.
|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!]). As Crawford’s first film in a two-picture deal arranged by personal friend/producer Herman Cohen (the man who gave the world I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla), the British-made Berserk! was undertaken when Crawford’s reputation as a heavy drinker rendered her an unacceptable insurance risk, stateside.
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 cement her status as Hollywood’s then-reigning scream queen. A reputation reinforced by appearances on TV shows like Night Gallery and The Sixth Sense. And while rival Bette Davis may have appeared in a few slightly more upscale UK features during this time (The Nanny and The Anniversary in 1965 & 1968, respectively) Berserk!, bargain-basement as it is, at least provided Crawford with the all-important employment she craved and gave her a leading lady role and above-the-title billing at a time when many of her peers had been forced into early retirement.
Crawford’s second starring vehicle for Herman Cohen, which was also her last feature film, was that unforgettable cave-man opus, Trog (1970). 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 (such as the oft-repeated rumor Crawford had to dress in the back of a station wagon during Trog).
According to Cohen, Crawford insisted on being treated like a major star, and to make her happy, for both Berserk! and Trog, he was glad to stretch their budgets to accommodate the expense of a Rolls Royce and driver, an apartment with maid and cook, and a large location dressing room caravan. Anything to make Miss Crawford feel like the star she was (or used to be). Cohen also relates that it was important he never use the term “horror film” when talking to Crawford about their professional collaborations. Joan it seems hated the idea of horror films and considered her films for Cohen to be dramas with “…some horrific moments.”
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
Harriet Craig (1950); Joan Crawford in the '50s transmogrified into a being of her own creation. A being who was not so much an actress as the human embodiment of the combined characteristics of hard work, determination, discipline, and self-delusion. Joan was no longer just a star; she was stardom triumphant. A larger-than-life entity so committed to giving her fans The Joan They Knew And Loved, her final film appearances took on the quality of grand opera. A quality blissfully ignorant of things like camp sensibilities, drag queen aesthetics, or modulating her performance to the scale of the film at hand.
|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
but not-at-all-confessional 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; director Bryan Forbes never worked without 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 which 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. Then I had no preconceived notions about Joan Crawford to distract me from the story at hand.
Watching the film today, the plot, such as it is, really fades into the distance, and the entirety of my enjoyment is centered exclusively around Crawford and the Crawford mystique. Like a solar eclipse, Joan Crawford and all she has come to represent as a gay icon and camp godsend blots out everything else. Every aspect of Crawford and her life has been parodied and talked about for so long it's hard for me to even see her as a human being, much less a fictional character she plays pretty much as herself. As is the case with all of Crawford's late-career films, watching Berserk! is like being given a tour of a Joan Crawford tribute museum. And I honestly wouldn't have it any other way.
There are scenes infused with near-confessional references to her real-life failed romances and dedication to work over all else. Plus Crawford's outmoded acting style lent interest to scenes with younger performers.
|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.
Circus of Horrors (1960) - Although it lacks Joan Crawford (and that's quite a lack, indeed) this feature film release is similar (and in many ways superior) to Berserk!, but is not nearly as much fun.
|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