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Berserk! Review

From The Grindhouse Cinema Database

How can you go wrong with a movie whose title incorporates an exclamation point? Berserk! is a late-career starring vehicle for American film icon Joan Crawford (Strait Jacket, I Saw What You Did, Trog). British made, and featuring a cast of able performers, it’s an early serial killer film; a sensationally gory whodunit.

As Monica Rivers, the Grand Dame Mistress of Ceremonies and owner of the traveling Rivers Circus (footage of the real Billy Smart Traveling Circus is used as a backdrop) Joan Crawford is a leggy, leotard-clad, bun-head: an over the top chain smoker whose got a penchant for handsome men and a I-can-do-it-better-than-you work ethic.

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And her work ethic, we’re told, has kept her floundering traveling show afloat. Currently, there’s a problem at hand: circus folk are being met with unusual and violent deaths. As the film opens we see a tight rope performer’s rope snap. The result: the performer plummets thirty feet as the severed rope loops around his neck and hangs him in mid air! His dead body swings back and forth in front of a horrified live audience. Other unusual deaths follow. Circus manager Dorango (Michael Gough of Konga, Dracula, The Phantom of The Opera) gets a tent spike tapped through his skull. A dancer participating in a “Woman Sawed in Half” circus routine—really gets sawed in half. And a high wire performer gets a knife in his back and becomes impaled on a sea of strategically placed bayonets.

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So who is exacting these gruesome murders? Is it Monica? Some say she’s got the motive; after all, since the news of the murders, there hasn’t been an empty seat in the tent. Perhaps it’s newcomer Frank (Ty Hardin), a handsome and often shirtless tight rope walker who just happens to show up the same day the star tight rope act met his untimely death. Frank’s response to the accident: “Yeah, I saw him hanging around!” Or is it hard drinking party girl Matilda (Diana Dors of Hammerhead, Baby Love, Adventures of a Private Eye), a woman whom Monica dresses down memorably: “You slut! You miserable ingrate! I fetched you out of the sewer!” Others cowering under the Big Top include Monica’s devoted teenage daughter Angela (Judy Geeson of Inseminoid, Adventures of a Taxi Driver, It Happened At Nightmare Inn) and Superintendent Brooks (Robert Hardy of Demons of the Mind, Psychomania), the man charged with cracking the case.

The clever screenplay by Herman Cohen and Aben Kandle keeps you guessing and Director Jim (Horror on Snape Island) O’Connolly’s always moving camera works in perfect tandem with a group of carny performers—a dwarf, a bearded woman and a “skeleton man”—on the edge and constantly looking over their shoulders.

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Berserk! Is also high camp through and through. It’s not just the spectacle of seeing 64 year old Joan Crawford (an Oscar winner for Mildred Pierce) awash in form-fitting costumes, outre wigs and special lighting (always a shadow across her neck—no matter where she’s standing!), it’s the collection of snappy comebacks, improbable reactions, scenes fashioned for hoots and hollers (a hair pulling roll-around-in-the-mud catfight), and the haughty-voiced introduction of carnival acts with names like “Gaspar the Great” and “Phyllis Allan and her Intelligent Poodles.”

A surprise Final Act in which both the killer and Mother Nature rear their ugly heads, is worth the wait. Berserk!, definition: “Out of control with anger or excitement; wild or frenzied,” fully delivers on its promise.

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Josiah Howard is the author of four books including the seminal Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide. His writing credits include articles for The New York Times, Reader’s Digest and The Village Voice. A veteran of more than 100 radio broadcasts he is a regular contributor to Grindhouse Cinema Database and in 2014-15 made regular appearances on TV One’s award-winning documentary series Unsung. Visit his Official Website.
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