In 1962, the cult mainstay Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? launched a genre of campy horror films starring actresses who were best known for their classic Hollywood films of two, three, or even four decades earlier. Joan Crawford was one of the queens of this new genre and starred in several B-grade horror flicks. Berserk (1967) was her fourth — fifth if you count Della — and one of her most glamorous.
Joan is Monica Rivers, owner and ringmaster of a financially struggling circus. During a matinee high wire act, a cable snaps and the tightrope walker falls, only to be caught by the snapping cord… unfortunately, it catches him around his neck. The movie shows this with tasteful subtlety, using the hanging dead man as a wipe-transition across the screen while revealing the wacky, colorful title:
Thus begins a spate of alternately boring and campy scenes depicting a series of gruesome murders at Monica’s circus, murders that just happen to be drawing more attendees and more money to her business — precisely as she predicted. Soon after the tightrope walker dies, Frank (Ty Hardin) just happens to arrive, just happens to be a tightrope walker himself, and just happens to want to work for Monica. He also just happens to wind up in her bed, upsetting her lover Alberto (Michael Gough).
Alberto is not the only one upset, as evil-sexy magician’s assistant Matilda (Diana Dors) has disliked Monica for years and is now jealous of her boss’ newly acquired side of beef. When Alberto and others conveniently turn up dead, both Monica and Frank are suspected of the crimes. A final complication arrives in the form of Monica’s teen daughter Angela (Judy Geeson) who has been expelled yet again from an expensive school.
The film cannot shake off its B-movie budget look despite some undeniable cleverness in cinematography; the padding with circus footage and the hairstyles truly give this movie away. Between Joan’s pinned-in wiglet braid, Ty Hardin’s brush-in grey to make him appear as a more age-appropriate lover for Ms. Crawford, and Diana Dors’… er…
I don’t even know what that is. A fringed helmet? A stray hay bale that fell on her head? All I know is that hair does not work that way. The atrocity on Diana’s head reminds me of Julie Christie in post #1 of my “Wigging Out” series, only not frosted.
Significant time is spent watching circus performances in their entirety, and while it’s occasionally entertaining — I personally harbor a secret love for the intelligent poodles — it is undeniably padding. During the boredom that will ensue after too many minutes spent watching elephants mosey around, I recommend you start picking out easy-to-see individuals in the crowd shots. If you’re quick, you’ll notice the editor didn’t bother to match up the crowd shots, resulting in people with easily visible striped shirts moving from seat to seat during the act. Also, spend time pondering just how Joan managed to always have the Mildred Pierce light on her no matter where she stood.
A bland and typical motley crew of circus performers round out the cast, acting moderately goofy when called for, until it’s time to perform an embarrassing song to “honor” their boss Monica. It is so awful I cannot describe it.
The love story is relatively insipid, but not because of the age difference between Crawford and Hardin. Many consider their romance to be part of the camp, usually with something dismissive like “Joan still had nice legs, but no guy Hardin’s age would want to sleep with her.” Yet this rather pedestrian complaint was handled well by the film, strangely enough, in part by making both Frank and Monica the type of person willing to use sex to get what they want.
Crawford’s performance is a delight, and am ashamed to admit I mean that in a subtly mean hipster ironic way. She glowers a lot, emphasizes odd words, acts like she’s trying to orchestrate a hostile takeover of a Fortune 500 company rather than make a few bucks with her low-rent circus. Both she and Dors seem either angry or drunk throughout the film, possibly both. Gough, bless his heart, puts in a very good acting performance, as does Judy Geeson. Ty Hardin is Super Bland Man in a lackluster performance rivaling Mr. Bland himself, Donald Woods.
Berserk achieves its meager reputation by being a brightly-colored Joan Crawford film, a Hammer horror knockoff with too little substance to balance the moments of high camp. The camp, when it happens, is well worth the watch, and a reasonably high body count make the film worthwhile, especially for those who enjoy 1960s cheesy British horror.
Note: Keen-eyed readers will notice that I have broken my own rule and posted screen captures from other websites. The first three screencaps are mine, the rest borrowed; I had technical problems and simply could not salvage most of my own.