Joan Crawford goes to the circus…and it’s a grotesque treat for kids of all ages!
By Paul Mavis
Finishing off the second half of that fun Mill Creek Entertainment Blu-ray Psycho Biddy Double Feature: Strait-Jacket and Berserk! disc, let’s look at Joan Crawford’s penultimate big screen outing. Released by Columbia Pictures (headlining a double bill with Torture Garden), Berserk!, produced by schlockmeister Herman Cohen, directed by Jim O’Connolly, written by Cohen and Aben Kandel, and co-starring Ty Hardin, Diana Dors, Michael Gough, Judy Geeson, Robert Hardy, Geoffrey Keen, Sydney Tafler, and Philip Madoc, was a minor hit with audiences when Columbia Pictures released it in 1968, and later as a staple in TV syndication. With its quirkily attractive clash of giallo-lite murder mystery and wholesome family circus movie, Berserk!’s exploitation cred is only further burnished with a memorably outlandish late-career turn from Miss Crawford.
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Tightrope walker Gaspar the Great kicks off the evening performance at The Great Rivers Circus by getting hung on his own snapped wire. Popcorn sales immediately skyrocket. Or at least that’s what circus co-owner, manager, and ringmistress Monica Rivers (Joan Crawford) is planning on: she knows circus audiences enjoy spectacle…and love death. Her partner, in the office and under the sheets, Albert Dorando (Michael Gough), is frankly sickened by Monica’s cold-blooded venality—a prissy stance that disgusts the realistic businesswoman. Dorando wants Monica to buy him out, but she doesn’t have that kind of cabbage, so she has to keep him sweet… (I’m going to be sick).
Just by chance (sure…), American tightrope walker Frank Hawkins (Ty Hardin) is around, looking to score a circus gig. Monica is impressed by Hawkins’ nerve, his act (he walks the wire blindfolded, suspended over a bed of huge spikes), and his ratio of brains-to-you-know-what (like, 1-to-10). Soon, Frank is sharing Monica’s bed (I’m going to be sick), which upsets Dorando, who promptly goes out and gets a steel spike driven through his head by an unseen assailant. So…murder is definitely afoot amidst the Great Rivers’ sawdust and elephant dung. But whodunit, and whosdoinit? Maybe it’s one of the big top’s performers, like illusionist Lazlo (Philip Madoc), or his bosomy, slutty wife Matilda (Diana Dors)? Will the next victim be Monica’s trouble-making daughter, Angela (Judy Geeson)? And will foppish Detective Superintendent Brooks (Robert Hardy) be able to solve the mystery before the crease goes out of his trousers?
Most critics, back in ’68 and now, give Berserk! faint praise for isolated elements (Crawford’s performance, a few inventive kills), but knock the movie for its overall herky-jerky tone, padded out by too much talk and animal acts (I mean actual circus animal acts…not Joan making love to Ty Hardin). Perversely for me, Berserk!’s slow dreamy/boring/exciting/boring/dreamy structure is exactly why I enjoyed it as a kid, as well as now.
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Playing seemingly all the time on television when I was a kid, Berserk! was the perfect kind of “exotic-yet-safe” horror movie to watch on a Saturday afternoon, while you goofed around in your room (build your tank model during the adults yakking parts…and then look up in time when the music swelled, signaling some action). Now as an adult, I find all that exposition with Crawford and Hardin and Gough fascinating, not because it’s well-written or performed…but because it’s so deliciously awful and strange.
Berserk! is one of those movies I’ve written about before which play extremely well if you have half a bag on, or if you’re going in and out of consciousness. A foggy perception seems to mesh well with these certain movies’ languid, dopey rhythm, until you get a few shocks of violence to momentarily rouse you before slipping off again into dreamland. Berserk! plays like a strange nightmare you’re having because people are talking all the time but what they’re saying doesn’t register or seem all that consequential…until someone’s neck is stretched, or they’re ripped in half with a huge buzz saw.
So much of Berserk! takes place in Joan’s wonderfully square, boxy caravan (all vertical and horizontal planes, tastefully barren with a few chintzy mid-century modern pieces), that you begin to forget where the movie started or ended. About halfway through, after yet another dialogue scene with Joan, you start to feel—especially at 1AM after a few beers—that Berserk! has always been on…and that it will always “be,” if you get what I’m saying, on an intrinsic level (whatever). I love that, as much as most people hate that.
Addled perceptions aside, you can still enjoy these endless exposition scenes for what they actually are: vaguely hysterical low-grade trash amid the tacky giallo thrills. And that’s almost all down to Joan. Say what you want, but Joan in her ringmistress outfit looks sensational (the cut of the costume is extremely flattering, and those long, toned dancer legs of hers look like they belong on a 20-year-old). However, once she’s back in the caravan…hot creeping milk she’s something to see. Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson can only do so much to cover the fact that Crawford’s decades of heavy boozing and smoking have taken their toll. So it’s car-wreck fascinating to see her alternately act like a truck driver, a dominatrix, and a girlish coquette—all filtered through mannerisms she wore out 30 years before at Metro—while trying to sell us and Ty Hardin that she’s some kind of devastatingly attractive man-eater who can de-ball a lover faster than you can say, “Christina…did you see the Bon-Ami?”
I don’t know about you, but when Crawford runs the emotional gamut from steely, hard-nosed manager, to wounded lover, to condescending manipulator, all punctuated with flashing eyes and whip-snapped head-gazes…it just doesn’t get any better than that for this kind of ridiculous melodrama. Now that’s a movie star, doing her shtick long after it makes sense, long after it’s out of vogue with audiences…but in that stubbornness to not change, achieving a kabuki-like stylization that’s mesmerizing. Who else but late-term Crawford could spit out, “Oh you miserable, gutless adding machine!” to a spineless, weak lover, and make us laugh and believe the line at the same time?
There are many laugh-out-loud moments like that in Berserk!. 61-year-old Crawford (looking at times 10 years older) does a perfect impersonation of 24-year-old Crawford when she simpers up to Gough, inviting him to “tuck her into” bed…before she sneeringly dismisses him with a lit cigarette and a tilted-skyward stare. When pneumatic Dors slags off an absent Crawford, Joan brings down the house with her entrance line: “You slut!” She doesn’t even have to say anything to get our laughter: when spurned lover Hardin says—with a straight face, no less—“I know you like to let men dangle,” Crawford does a perfect 45 degrees to the left smirk that’s a wonder to behold (like a vampire, her energy noticeably goes up whenever she’s on-screen with decades-younger slab of beefcake Hardin; on-screen, Crawford always responded better to a stud, like Gable, who could man-handle her the way she liked it).
Take Crawford out of Berserk!’s equation (along with all her Pepsi product placement…), and I’m not sure what you have left, except a tawdry little murder meller set in a circus. I actually like the extended animal acts presented here (from Billy Smart’s famous U.K. circus), particularly Jodie the elephant carefully stepping inbetween those six stacked babes (it may be the movie’s most suspenseful scene), Ingamar the Fearless, lion tamer (go to hell, PETA—that guy’s got brass f*cking balls to do what he does), and Phyllis Allan’s adorable poodles (at a slightly tipsy 2AM in the morning, that little insane black one running around at lightning speed put me into fits of uncontrollable giggles). They could have been integrated into the storyline with a little more finesse, but when they cue up that dreamy 60s cocktail music as the aerialists slowly twirl around…frankly, who cares?
The cast of familiar U.K. faces do what they can with their thinly fleshed-out characters. Diana Dors, just starting to go to pot, is suitably overstuffed and horny, believably pawing our Bronco in an aborted petting party, before running out into the ring in a two sizes-too small sequined number, knocking out the viewers’ eyes (Hardin gets rough with her, calling her a “loudmouthed broad” before dumping her on her can…and before she has a cat fight with another carny while everyone laughs. Movies were so much more fun back then…). Favorite snub-nosed pixie Judy Geeson isn’t on nearly enough for my liking (although her sequined teddy is), nor is a sublime Robert Hardy, either. He’s hysterical as a Savile Row-loving fop detective, acting as if he’s in some arch Noel Coward-ish play, complete with bouncy walk, elegant double takes and his nose pointed up in the air for punctuation. He’s marvelously amusing (missed opportunity for a comedy mystery series there, I think…).
It’s not surprising that some critics feel Berserk!, with its bizarre deaths, ineffectual policemen, and a heroine menaced by an unseen assailant, has an early giallo feel to it: after all, the director, Jim O’Connolly, produced several of those Anglo-Amalgamated Edgar Wallace Mysteries features that were highly influential on the Italian genre. Critics of Berserk! say the murder mystery isn’t much of a mystery…but critics always say that after they see the picture. So they sound smart.
Here in Berserk!, the killer’s identity is revealed in such a weird, abrupt way, you don’t really expect it…even though you suspected it (an effect helped when a big character gets offed unexpectedly in the movie’s last minutes—another cool twist). As for the kills themselves…they’re inventive, but tame by today’s standards (and too infrequent, as well). Still, I don’t need much from Berserk!, other than Joan Crawford, in a bouncing Land Rover, wordlessly leering at Ty Hardin, who can’t help but start grinning out of character. Oh yeah—and that insane black poodle, too.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.