After the enormous Oscar-nodded success of WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? in 1962, aging Hollywood legend Joan Crawford was being associated with the horror genre, and she soon landed roles in several of sclockmeister William Castle’s films. Towards the end of the decade, Herman Cohen, an American exploitation producer working mostly in England, contracted Crawford for what was probably her campiest role yet for another macabre thriller, this time shot in color and set under the Big Top for a change of pace. BERSERK would become Crawford’s second-to-last theatrical feature, with Cohen hiring her for one more monstrous big screen triumph: TROG.
The Great Rivers Circus is owned and operated by ringmaster Monica Rivers (Joan Crawford) who tends to want things done her way, and her way only. After her high-wire walker succumbs to a freak “accident”, a new one conveniently enters the scene in the shape of hunky Frank Hawkins (American TV western star Ty Hardin). He applies for the job, but he's also vying for the attentions (as well as the wallet) of the much older businesswoman. Monica’s business partner and assumed lover Albert Dorando (Michael Gough in his fourth and most understated appearance for producer Cohen) becomes the second murder victim, as a spike is driven right through his skull as he tries to enjoy his cigarette. Scotland Yard is called in when the smartly-dressed Brooks (Robert Hardy, DEMONS OF THE MIND) arrives to stay on the circus grounds, interrogating the various clowns, acrobats, bearded ladies, dwarves, skeleton men and strong men before the next killing occurs. Unexpectedly, Monica’s teenage daughter Angela (Judy Geeson, FEAR IN THE NIGHT) arrives after being expelled from school, and soon becomes part of a dangerous knife-throwing act, much to the dismay of dear old mom.
With its opening pre-credit sequence showcasing a high-wire performer hung by the neck, swinging back and forth to unveil the different colored block letters of the title, “BERSERK”, it seems that the audience would be in for a roller coaster ride. Unfortunately, the script (by Cohen and veteran writer Aben Kandel) is underdeveloped, resulting in a whodunit with handful of showy murder scenes, quarreling red herrings and family-friendly filler via authentic (and admittedly entertaining) performances by Billy Smart's Circus (a lion taming act, some very talented poodles, graceful elephants, etc.) which is at least far better than stock footage. The murder scenes (especially Gough’s premature head spiking, which was made no secret on the film’s one-sheets and ad mats) are pretty well done, but modern audiences will probably find the film too slowly-paced and talky, despite the captivating color cinematography by Desmond Dickinson (HORROR HOTEL, KONGA, THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR, etc.).
But fans of British horror, as well as the latter-day career of Miss Crawford will find enough to like here. If Joan’s performance is campy, it’s not because of her acting (though she still chews the scenery, its rather restrained when it could’ve been completely over the top) but the fact that the 60 plus actress is seen with her hair up in a vise-like bun and tight black leotards, along with a number of soft-focused or darkly lit close-ups which attempt to conceal her advanced years. Third-billed 1950s bombshell Diana Dors (still shapely, as this was right before she became a “plump” character actress) plays the unscrupulous half of a “saw a women in half” act, and she does her best to out-bitch Joan in the handful of scenes they have together. BERSERK also features quite a few competent British character actors, many who are familiar faces to any seasoned classic horror fan and include bald Milton Reid (NIGHT CREATURES) as a strongman, Marianne Stone (THE CREEPING FLESH) who has a cat-fight with Dors, Geoffrey Keen (TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA) as a chief inspector, dwarf actor George Claydon (unforgettable in THE DEVIL WITHIN HER) and Golda Casimir (TROG) as the bearded lady.
Director O'Connolly would go on to do THE VALLEY OF GWANGI, which featured the amazing stop-motion effects of Ray Harryhausen, as well as the gory early 1970s lighthouse horrors of TOWER OF EVIL/HORROR ON SNAPE ISLAND for producer Richard Gordon. It’s interesting to note that there’s some subliminal product placement for Pepsi Cola in the film — Crawford was still on the Board of Directors at Pepsi, as her late husband Alfred Steele was the company’s former president and CEO. Cohen can be seen briefly as a spectator in the crowd. When Columbia Pictures released BESERK stateside, they paired it up with the second Amicus omnibus TORTURE GARDEN for what must have been a suitable night of Britannia thrills and chills.
Previously available on VHS and laserdisc, you'd think BERSERK would have made it to DVD years ago. Recent re-mastered airings on Turner Classic Movies’ “TCM Underground” brought up suspicions that the new transfer would translate to a digital release, and here it is as an MOD (manufactured on demand) DVD, available for sale online. Sony’s edition of BERSERK looks marvelous, presenting the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, and transferred from flawless vault elements. Colors are distinct (especially during the circus crowd scenes) and detail is sharp, with only hints of grain in a few scenes. The mono English audio is also rendered exceptionally well. There is no proper menu or trailer on hand, but chapter stops can be jumped ahead at ten-minute intervals. (George R. Reis)
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