Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, Jules is at it again in March, treating us to a chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.
You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.
Starring: Joan Crawford, Michael Gough, Ty Hardin, Diana Dors, Judy Geeson
Director: Jim O’Connoly
Circuses and carnivals are always great settings for horror movies, offering a ready-made slightly creepy location and a cast of colourful characters before you even get into the plot.
Unfortunately Jim O’Connoly’s 1967 entry into the genre here weirdly gets too hung up on the actual circus itself and often seems to forget it’s meant to be scaring or intriguing the audience. That’s not to say there aren’t a good few garish murder set-pieces in here, but they’re spread fairly thin. Luckily though, the always-commanding Joan Crawford is on hand to fill the void.
Ringmistress Monica Rivers (Joan Crawford) and her reluctant business manager Dorando (Michael Gough) own a travelling English circus currently working its way through Europe.
When a fatal accident befalls a tightrope walker, foul play is suspected and Dorando wants out, but Rivers sees it as an opportunity for some good PR and hires a new highwire act, Frank Hawkins (Ty Hardin), who works without a net over a bed of knives.
Soon after, Dorando himself is brutally murdered, drawing the entire circus into a web of paranoia and accusations, while Monica’s burgeoning relationship with the new man and the arrival of her estranged daughter Angela (Judy Geeson) only adds to the complications. One by one, the killer’s victims begin to mount up, but who is responsible and what is their motivation?
For a supposed murder mystery, Berserk! really allows itself to get sidetracked. There’s a huge focus on the circus folk and their relationships with each other, which is fine in itself, as it makes you care more what happens to them (or be glad when they get offed), but as the film goes on you realise that they’re showing each act in its entirety in a showcase for the real-life Billy Smart’s Circus.
Now don’t get me wrong, Phyllis Allan and her Intelligent Poodles are immensely entertaining (seriously, they’re loads of fun) but do we really need to see so many full acts and even a complete song by the bearded lady and chums?
The ongoing personal drama between Monica and pretty much everyone else (Dorando, Frank, Angela and even an uber-vampish Diana Dors as the wanton Matilda) takes up the bulk of the screen time, but it’s carried masterfully by a wonderful star turn by the legendary Joan Crawford. Her star was almost burnt out by this point, typified by her very presence in a low budget Brit shocker like this, but that immense talent and extraordinary screen presence that made her so popular in her youth doesn’t seem to have dimmed any and she’s simply magnificent here. Icy and callous on the surface, there’s a vulnerability under the surface that’s only hinted at in the script, but Crawford brings it out beautifully. Not only that, but she still looks absolutely stunning in her fishnets and tailcoat at 61, so there’s no doubting even the younger men of the circus all being drawn to her obvious charms.
The murders themselves are nicely done, with no small amount of on screen nastiness, particularly the nail through Dorando’s head that wouldn’t look out of place in a Friday The 13th film years later.
There’s no real big clues as to the killer’s identity or motivation, what with everyone suspecting each other, which leads to some genuine nail-biting tension during Angela’s knife-throwing scene near the end, as you genuinely don’t know if she’s safe or not. Equally, the final murder is a real shocker that is as brutally effective as it is graphic.
Sadly, the revelation itself and the final denouement are dropped from a great height in literally the last two minutes and it’s not entirely satisfying, though it does make enough sense.
By the end of Berserk!, you feel almost like you’ve been watching a very British giallo, what with its dramatic death set-pieces, useless police and cunning women, but it’s all very polite and avoids being too trashy. What it really is, is an enjoyable if not essential shocker, with a great central performance from one of Hollywood’s greats. And a pack of funny poodles.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy