|Yes indeed, that's Joan Crawford (!) there in the sunset of her career, in a classic slasher movie from '68. Find Joan Crawford movie posters, along with other classic movie posters, movie memorabilia and more, all on the Internet.|
What place could be more dangerous? Sinister freaks, wild animals (including a troupe of performing poodles!), a psychotic killer and Joan Crawford stalk the night at the circus of fear!
Crawford plays Monica Rivers, the hard-as-nails ring-leader of her own circus troupe which is currently traveling England. She is delighted by the free publicity that arises from the macabre death of one of her own performers (a hire wire act, whose wire snaps mid-show and hangs him from the neck like a brightly coloured pendulum swinging across the screen during the opening credits). Her business partner, Dorando (Michael Gough), is outraged by her devil-may-care attitude and threatens to quit the troupe but is forced to stay when the police order that no one should leave the vicinity.
Typically, Rivers wastes no time in arranging a replacement act. The show must go on, after all. A mysterious stranger makes himself known: Frank Hawkins (Ty Harden), who, somewhat suspiciously, also performs a hire wire act. He promises that one look at him performing his daring-dos (he walks the line, blindfolded above a sea of razor sharp swords) and Rivers will want to hire him on the spot, which she does (also with an eye on his heaving torso, no doubt).
Dorando, who is not only infuriated with Rivers but also infatuated with her also, is further piqued by this new competition for her charms. However, late one night he finds himself alone in the big-top with a black-gloved killer who hammers a tent pole through a hole in the scenery and into the back of his head (which, somewhat hilariously, means he has to stand in exactly the right place at the right time for this murderous deed to be pulled off!).
This second murder causes a wave of panic to run throughout the circus. After the discovery of Dorando's body many of the performers gather to discuss what to do, before turning on each other and throwing accusations around. However, it is Matilda, the trampy glamour girl (Diana Dors with a really unflattering hairdo), who points the finger (not unreasonably!) at Rivers, who continues to be delighted as the blossoming box office as punters turn up hoping to catch some real gore in the sawdust. Rivers marches in and breaks the group up, chiding them, "Just remember, I was the one who gave you all a home!"; before turning her real bile on the treacherous showgirl, "That Matilda the Mouth!", she spits.
Not surprisingly, the murders continue apace (and in the dangerous circus setting there's certainly plenty of room for inventive deaths). Not even the arrival of a Detective Superintendent from Scotland Yard (Robert Hardy), nor the appearance of River's wayward daughter, Angela (( a young Judy Geeson) thrown out of a posh boarding school - mirroring the real life events of Joan's real life adopted daughter?) can halt the horror.
Now, I must admit I'm a bit of a sucker for the trash classics that emerged in the wake of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) (which co-starred Crawford with arch-nemesis Bette Davis), when once great Hollywood actresses attempted to revive their careers with Grand Guginol shockers (see also Veronica Lake's FLESH FEAST (1970), Gloria Grahame's BLOOD AND LACE (1971), Lana Turner's PERSECUTION (1974), amongst a whole cavalcade of others). However, BERSERK!, sadly, is not one of the best (to see Crawford at her scenery chewing, axe swinging best check out William Castle's wonderful STRAIT-JACKET (1964) (a film which BERSERK! cheerfully borrows from)), but at least it isn't quite as bad as the abysmal TROG (1970), where she co-stars with a prehistoric cave man! To give her her dues Crawford is the consummate professional, acting in this as if she were back in her MGM heyday (although it's arguable as to whether this was due to ambition or to self-delusion). She also looks good too, showing off her shapely legs in a revealing ring-leader's outfit, despite the fact that she was a matronly 63 when she made this. However, even she can't pull off an achingly embarrassing romantic sub-plot with Ty Harden (over twenty years her junior).
Crawford battles on gamely but BERSERK! is doomed by Jim O'Conolly's pedestrian direction (he later went on to direct the much more entertaining British low budget proto-slasher TOWER OF EVIL (1972)). Much of the running time is made up of circus acts doing their stuff, which is fine when it's something quite as deliriously camp as the performing poodle troupe, but it means that the narrative comes grinding to a halt for minutes at a time, without even a cut-away to the action behind the scenes. Also, curiously, the main group of actors don't put in an appearance until after the second murder; most of these (bar Diana Dors) appear to be real circus performers and 'freaks'. Unfortunately, despite adding a thin air of authenticity to the proceedings most of them can't act for toffee and give jarringly stilted performances (this ain't no FREAKS (1932)), although their oddball musical number is a trash wonder to behold.
Despite some pleasingly Grand Guginol death scenes (one involving a circular saw and a magic trick that goes wrong), and a deliciously loopy W-T-F final five minutes (when a ludicrously rushed unmasking of the killer occurs), BERSERK! doesn't really work as a straight-ahead thriller/slasher flick. It is worth a look, though, for fans of trash; Crawford is always fun to watch, even when she's in relatively restrained form as she is here (yes, even with such quotable lines as "We've eaten caviar, and we've eaten sawdust." this is one of her subtler later performances!). There are moments of genuine camp genius to keep fans of bad movies enthralled, but those in look of genuine thrills better look elsewhere.
BODYCOUNT 5 female:2 / male:3
1) Male falls from high wire and strangled on the rope
2) Male has tent pole hammered into back of head
3) Female sawn in half with circular saw
4) Male has knife thrown into his back and impaled on bed of swords
5) Female electrocuted