Written by: Aben Kandel and Herman Cohen
Directed by: Jim O'Connolly
Starring: Joan Crawford, Ty Hardin, and Diana Dors
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďWe're running a circus, not a charm school."
Was there ever a more unlikely Hollywood starlet to become something of a horror fixture than Joan Crawford? One of the Golden Ageís biggest (and most profitable) actresses, Crawford eventually saw her star fade to the point where art imitated life when she assumed the role of a former A-list movie star in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the grandmother of psycho-biddy flicks that also charted the course for the actressís final working years, which found her teaming up with the likes of William Castle and Freddie Francis for various genre productions. Her penultimate screen appearance was in schlock master Herman Cohenís Berserk, an old school murder mystery with a faint hint of the burgeoning gore-laden sensibility that was cropping up in drive-in circuits across the nation.
Crawford is Monica Rivers, a pugnacious ringmaster with a flair for the dramatic. After a high-wire act goes horribly wrong, she doesnít recoil in horror or lament the tragedy but instead revels in the fact that itíll attract attention of a curious audience hoping to see another fatal accident. Like any exploitation showman, she knows that blood, guts, and death are a hot ticket. However, after she hires high-wire replacement Frank Hawkins (Ty Hardin), she may be getting more than sheís bargained for, as it soon becomes clear that her circus hasnít fallen victim to an accident at all. Rather, a psychotic killer has begun to stalk her employees as Frank attempts to seduce his way into her business.
If only Berserk itself had that exploitation mentality. Admittedly, it gets off with a bang when the ill-fated tightrope walker plunges and winds up being hung by the neck, dangling for a horrified audience while the filmís title is revealed. Considering the era, it might be easy to assume that Berserk would go on to become a trashy hack-and-slash, especially when the first explicit murder finds Cohen regular Michael Gough impaled right through the head. But itís a long haul between that and anything else thatís all that compelling because the film is a prolonged police procedural that shuttles in various detectives to uncover the identity of the murderer. Meanwhile, the circus troupe points fingers at each other while Rivers doggedly continues the tour despite all of the drama in her life, including her troublesome daughter (Judy Geeson) who was recently expelled from school.
Part police procedural, part high-strung melodrama, Berserk ultimately feels like an excuse to showcase an entire circus act on the big screen. Long, unbroken sequences show off the various bits, including dog shows and knife-flingers. Apparently, Cohen employed the Billy Smart Circus, a famous UK act that also popped up in other film productions. The result is an authentic portrayal, from the actual shows down to the performers themselves, so itís vaguely reminiscent of Freaks. Unfortunately, itís also more than vaguely reminiscent of The Greatest Show on Earth, Cecil B. DeMilleís overwrought 1952 production that served as less than a movie and more of a promotion for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. At least Berserk features literal backstabbings and impalements, albeit far too spaced out to maintain any sort of interest (it takes nearly an hour for the killer to finally reemerge in the final act).
It can also boast Crawford, here serving as an obvious red herring by playing of off of her psycho-biddy persona. Her performance is a tad overcooked and treads on camp, but itís also a bit more muted than her other efforts in similar fare. Monica Rivers is a tough old bird who gets her way, but thereís a hint of tragedy underpinning the way she carries herself. Sheís surrounded by a suitably bland cast thatís there to grease the wheels on the various drama. Hardin arguably gives the most interesting turn as the shady high-wire act who just happens to wander in just after the previous guy died on the job; that he seems to be only wooing Rivers in order to snake her fortune makes him even shadier. But thereís something earnest about him as well that keeps you guessing about him, which is just as well since the film doesnít line up a ton of suspects.
When the killer is unveiled, itís hardly a shocker but also feels correct; truthfully, it was hard to be too fussed with it since the film never commits to one mode or the other. As a character piece, it fails because it feels more committed to the circuit act itself, and, with such a paucity of gruesome sequences, it falters as a schlocky slasher. Instead, itís just a Technicolor mish-mash that serves as a forgettable appearance for Crawford, who would exit the business entirely after reteaming with Cohen for Trog, a film that can be hardly considered forgettable, at least. Predictably, Berserk was a latecomer to DVD, arriving only after Sony released it as part of its Choice Collection; as such, itís received a no-frills treatment, though the disc does feature a nice, vibrant transfer and an adequate mono track. Itís not as deliriously loopy as Crawfordís similar turns, nor is it much of a psycho-biddy flick at all; it is, however, a decent time capsule for the Billy Smart circus act, if nothing else. Rent it!
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