Joan Crawford - Monica Rivers
Ty Hardin - Frank Hawkins
Diana Dors - Matilda
Michael Gough - Albert Dorando
Judy Geeson - Angela Rivers
Robert Hardy - Detective Supt. Brooks
Geoffrey Keen - Commissioner Dalby
George Claydon - Bruno Fontana
Philip Madoc - Lazlo
Genre - Horror/Thriller/Slasher/Mystery
Running Time - 96 Minutes
Monica Rivers (Joan Crawford) is a tough-as-nails ring leader of a circus troupe that is traveling through England. One of her high wire acts is killed during a performance, as his wife snaps and incredibly wraps around his neck to hang him. While something like this would normally stop the show, Monica sees this as welcome publicity and loves that people are now coming to the circus performances. Her loyal business partner, Dorando (Michael Gough), is disgusted by Monica's lack of sympathy and her greed, threatening to quit after the police get through their investigation of the murder.
Not caring what Dorando thinks, Monica hires a replacement - a good-looking, younger, and mysterious man named Frank Hawkins (Ty Hardin). Also a high wire act, he impresses Monica with his talent - and his half naked body. Cougar alert! Anyway, Frank uses Monica's infatuation for him to his advantage - making deals that will guarantee him more publicity and money. Dorando, jealous of Frank since he too wants Monica for himself, decides to stop their union before it gets more serious. Unfortunately, Dorando doesn't get too far since he's impaled by a black-gloved killer with a tent pole through his head.
Unlike the first murder, Dorando's death causes chaos amongst the circus performers, blaming Monica for what's been going on. While feeling a bit guilty, Monica is still pleased by the increase in box office numbers due to the deaths. Luckily for this morbid audience, the murders continue behind and on the stage. With the Detective Superintendent (Robert Hardy) watching her, and her daughter (Judy Geeson) returning from boarding school after being tossed out, a stressed Monica begins to realize that she could either be blamed for the murders - or be a victim herself.
- The campy tone. BERSERK! isn't a great film by any means. But if it wasn't because of the campiness of the material and the performances, one wouldn't have to bother with this film. I'll get into the acting and the murders later. But the situations presented in this film are just hilarious. The way people die is so perfect and convenient that you roll your eyes at it. The way Joan Crawford is lit [her neck and upper torso are always in shadow to hide her age] had me chuckling. Speaking of Crawford, her May-December [probably more like January-December] romance with Ty Hardin's character is somewhat embarrassing, but I think that's why I was entertained by it. And the reveal of the murderer had me rollin' due to the person's over-the-top performance. It's not as campy as STRAIT JACKET, a film BERSERK! wants to be but fails, but it still manages to keep your interest by not taking itself all that seriously for the most part.
- The acting. This area is probably the best part of the film because the actors really give their all in this one, which I appreciated. Joan Crawford, who was still capitalizing on her late-career success in 1962's WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? and 1964's STRAIT JACKET, is great as Monica Rivers. Even though the film isn't on the same level as her much earlier, and more respected films, Crawford still acts the hell out of the part and is quite the presence on screen. I find it funny she managed to play roles where her character was either much younger, or had to act younger, than her actual age [she was in her 60s at the time of BERSERK!]. I'm not sure if this was intentional on her part, but I think it makes these later films so damn funny. She doesn't have much chemistry with Ty Hardin, unfortunately, but the script doesn't really develop it with much substance anyway. So it's not all that big of a deal.
Everyone else is good as well, although Crawford is definitely the star and captain of this ship. Ty Hardin lets his looks do most of the acting as Frank Hawkins. He does pull off the conceited pretty boy quite well. Michael Gough is great as the jealous business partner, Dorando. He gets a cool death scene as well. A young Judy Geeson is bubbly as Angela Rivers, playing a neglected daughter pretty well. Diana Dors tries to up-bitch Crawford as Matilda. Dors has some great, funny scenes with Crawford. Everyone else, as well as the real circus performers in the film, handled themselves well. It was a good cast for sure.
- The murders. While not gory in any sense, the murders are quite inventive for their time and probably influenced a few slasher flicks many years later. Someone gets hung by a tightrope wire after it snaps, which is pretty implausible but quite cool to watch regardless. We get a tent pole murder through someone's skull, although it was pretty rehearsed if you watch the minutes prior to the act. We get a stabbing. We also get a woman sawed in half, although the camera cuts away from it, only showing the actress screaming during the act. It's pretty simple stuff that looks very tame compared to today's horror. But for 1967, I was pretty impressed and dug the variety of the murders here.
- The direction. I didn't think John O'Connolly's direction was terrible. It was just very pedestrian and generic, with its point-and-shoot technique. I had more of an issue with the flow, pacing, and tone of the film at times. There are some serious moments in BERSERK! that want to create tension and suspense, but are unable to because everything that comes before or after is pretty campy. For a thriller, it's not exactly thrilling.
Also, there are these circus scenes where real performers are doing special tricks by themselves, or usually with animals. I understand they're here to create some sort of realism when it comes to the setting, but they don't add much to the film other than padding its running time. Watching poodles do tricks is cute. Watching an elephant walk over six girls laying on the floor is nice. Watching horses gallop is okay, I guess. Hearing circus 'freaks' sing an awful song isn't exactly entertaining to me. One of these scenes would have been enough to establish what these characters do and are surrounded by. But having four or five of these scenes, which can be pretty long [like 5 minutes each], is pretty ridiculous. Instead of showing us what a circus looks like, the focus should have been on building suspense with the mystery of the killer and who his/her next victim would be. These circus scenes could have been done in a montage, or even edited to show the end of the act before it leads to something important, like a murder on the circus stage. The rest of the time could have been used for developing characters, relationships, and forming a credible mystery with a credible killer.
I did think the visuals were quite vibrant and the use of shadow with Joan Crawford was creative in order to make her look younger. But it's not visually interesting at all and O'Connolly is too focused on making the script look exactly how its described, rather than enhancing it a bit to hide the fact that the story was pretty weak.
- The flat story and mystery. Speaking of the story, it's not the greatest screenplay out there. The narrative is too focused on surprising the viewer with who the killer is. The screenwriters want the audience to continue guessing who the culprit is, but without really give anyone a real reason as to why that person could and would have possibly done it. For me, I figured out who the killer was the moment the character appeared on screen. Their behavior pretty much gave it away for me as well, as this person seemed to have the only genuine motive. But even so, it's impossible that this person could have done what he/she did if you really think about it. According to the story, this person couldn't have been around or near the circus troupe at the time of the first murder. There is an alibi that Plus I don't think this person would have been intelligent or clever enough to pull off elaborate demises for these victims. The revelation does make the whole thing more comical than it should be, so it works unintentionally at that aspect. But I honestly didn't buy it, even though I picked the person out. Because of this, the mystery is wasted because it's more of a guessing game than anything. It never feels genuine.
Also, there's the awkward love subplot between Monica and Frank. It just happens out of the blue and never really goes anywhere important once Durando is murdered [something that happens way too soon, in my opinion]. The subplot would have been a lot stronger as a triangle, as it could have given dimension and tension to the characters involved and the film itself. But Durando's jealousy never feels real. Monica and Frank never feel as if they're really having an affair, even though the characters dangerously flirt with each other. MISERY had a better love story than BERSERK! does, although it still trumps TWILIGHT. I just never bought it, only laughing at the thought of it.
I also think there should have been a bit more character development and more suspects. A good whodunit needs a believable selection of people who would have some sort of motive that's believable. BERSERK! doesn't really have that, really only focusing on a specific two or three people you know had nothing to do with it. It also doesn't help that the characters aren't really that likeable to begin with, so you don't really care who the killer is. All you care about is who will be next to die. This takes away from being a good thriller, a good mystery, and even a good slasher. With less scenes showcasing circus performances and more time focusing on what the film should have been about, BERSERK! could have worked and been more popular than it actually is.
THE FINAL HOWL
BERSERK! isn't Joan Crawford's greatest, or campiest, film one could watch. The mystery is pretty bland, numerous subplots are pretty ridiculous or lacking, and there's not enough focus on the thrills and too much focus on establishing where the film takes place and what the characters do for a living. Still, it does have many campy moments and Joan Crawford is great as always in stealing the spotlight from everyone else. Plus the film has some cool murder sequences. BERSERK! is a decent time waster but nothing more than that. Joan Crawford fans should check it out. Otherwise, stick with WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? and STRAIT JACKET if you want your Crawford horror fix.