A stagey killer thriller released by Columbia Pictures in the second half of the 1960s fails to come up to scratch. Mark Fraser examines some of the reasons why.
WARNING: This review contains a spoiler or two.
Berserk! – the somewhat ambitiously-named 1967 murder mystery set in a travelling circus and starring Joan Crawford in her second last screen appearance – has a major problem.
In fact it has two – too much circus and not enough murder. This situation is well and truly compounded towards the end of the film with the inclusion of a musical number.
Although the movie starts off on the right note with the death of tightrope walker Gaspar the Great (Thomas Cimarro), who is hung mid-performance by his snapped high-wire after someone has obviously sabotaged it, the subsequent killings are few and far between.
To make up for this, director Jim O’Connolly and his writer Herman Cohen (who also produced the film along with Aben Kandel) fill in a good deal of screen time with big top activities, padding out these extended moments of spectacle with some second tier melodrama involving the bossy circus matriarch Monica Rivers (Crawford), her new suitor/wannabe business partner/replacement tightrope walker with a questionable past Frank Hawkins (Ty Hardin), and the Scotland Yard investigation being conducted by the dapper (and Leslie Phillips lookalike) Detective Superintendent Brooks (Robert Hardy).
Rivers’ life is further complicated when her sweet-as-honey daughter Angela (Judy Geeson) turns up on the scene after being turfed out of boarding school and insists on becoming part of Gustavo’s (Peter Burton) knife throwing routine when his heavy drinking wife Wanda (Marianne Stone) becomes too unreliable.
To be fair the circus acts are pretty impressive, with a few in particular – like the moment when an elephant walks across a line of showgirls lying on their backs – creating the kind of teaser tension one should expect from a thriller involving potentially grisly killings.
O’Connolly, however, is no Hershall Gordon Lewis, which means there’s not much brutality in the offing. Rather, in between scenes of the troupe members accusing each other (and Rivers) of being the killer and Brooks asking questions, Berserk! inserts a number of prolonged live show pieces like the self-evident “Phyllis Allen and her Intelligent Poodles” and “Ingmar the Fearless”, the lion tamer who cracks his whip at the growling giant cats to the accompaniment of John Scott’s score, which at this point sounds remarkably derivative of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. Even a montage of the operation being set up – a good portion of which includes actual footage shot on location – seems to take a little more time than it should. The fact neither Phyllis nor Ingmar appear in the end credits suggest that they too are part of the director’s real/naturalistic mise-en-scene.
Having said this, Berserk! has enough melodramatic mystery thriller in it to carry the viewer through to the final curtain, even if the ending is strangely unsatisfactory.
Following the death of Gaspar, Rivers cashes in on the tragedy when she realises his demise will help attract larger audiences as the circus makes its way across the English countryside before reaching its most lucrative market – London.
This does not sit well with her business manager Albert Dorando (Michael Gough), though, who simply doesn’t have the same ruthlessly opportunistic outlook as the owner.
Thus, when he is killed after having a tent spike nailed through his head, Rivers becomes a key suspect, especially in the eyes of the big-mouthed Matilda (Diana Dors), whose magic act involves being sawn in half by her husband Lazlo (Philip Madoc).
The busty blond bombshell’s ire is further flamed after she unsuccessfully tries to come onto Hawkins, whose eye is firmly set on the not-so-easy-to-seduce (and older) circus proprietor. Matilda’s murder accusations are eventually stifled, however, when hubby’s circular saw blade goes through her in what must be one of the most bloodless decapitations in colour cinema history.
Needless to say, had Lewis been at the helm instead of O’Connolly, the execution (pun intended) of this scene would have been something altogether different.
While Berserk! provides an unexpected twist at its conclusion, it’s undeniable the film – when looked at in a pseudo-slasher sense – ends up, like Phyllis’ poodles, being quite tame.
But as a circus story it scores some points, showing what it really would have been like to experience the thrill of witnessing traditional big top entertainment.
By using naturalistic sets and authentic costumes, O’Connolly successfully sets the stage for a film which should – given its exclamation-marked title – been full of more murder, mayhem, delirium and insanity.
Unfortunately these elements end up playing second fiddle to the spectacle of the piece.
Interestingly, the movie was originally going to be called The Circus of Blood which, while still somewhat ambitious given the final product, might have been a little more appropriate.
According to one time Dr Who Tom Baker, who described the film as “a colourful and rather gory horror picture which does its legendary star justice”, it was Crawford who insisted on the name being changed to Berserk!
In his Beyond Belief!* television show, he mentions how she told the press at the time: “I prefer to think of this film as a drama with moments of terror.”
“Real stars, after all,” Baker noted, “didn’t appear in horror films.”
Perhaps he forgot about William Castle’s 1964 movie Strait-Jacket, in which Crawford topped the bill?
Whatever the case, once again the leading lady got her way.
*This appears in the extras of Powerhouse Films Ltd’s Blu-ray issue of the film.
Words by Mark Fraser
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Berserk was released by Powerhouse Films on UK Blu-ray on December 17, 2018.