I think he got the point...
This isn't as complex or as successful as Circus of Horrors (1960) but it does have the hook of being a whodunit and an early serial killfest. Both familiar traits with other Herman Cohen productions (like Horrors of the Black Museum) and those German Edgar Wallace krimis. It was also one of the first late-night horror movie experiences that I had as a teenager, making quite an impression. So much so that, every Friday night, I have an urge to watch Berserk!
Berserk! isn't a 'must see' classic from horror history, but there's enough here to please fans of Joan Crawford horror (Straitjacket, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?), Michael Gough (Konga, Batman Returns), and sixties Brit horror. It's interesting to see a 'creative serial kill' horror with so little blood in it, considering what would happen a few years later...
The curtain opens on a huge circus that's down on its luck. That's until high wire act Gaspar the Great takes his last gasp and is hung by his own tightrope. (In the height of bad taste, his swinging body swings across the screen to reveal the title of the film!) Further accidents in the circus (involving knives, tent pegs and circular saws) prove morbidly good for business, so who could be benefitting from the murders?
There are two main elephants, sorry, elements that prevent this from any wider cult fame. Too many scenes of circus acts used to pad out the running time and reduce the intricacy (if I dare use that word in this context) of the plot. The footage, actually of the famous real-life Billy Smart's Circus, serves only to remind us of when circuses were all about rare, endangered species of animals doing silly tricks for laffs. This is great for kids, but really bad for an adult horror.
Then there's the bloody awful 'comedy song' from the circus 'freaks'. These freaks are unspectacular in both freakiness or acting ability, contrasting sharply with a coachload of British thespians, fronted by Robert Hardy, who can at least breathe life into the stilted and childish dialogue. Try not laughing as you listen to Crawford announce, "Phyllis Allan and her Intelligent Poodles!". An Oscar for OTT horror-acting should also be awarded to the murderer, for the fantastic final freakout - a shrieking schizoid performance that still reminds me that it shocked me as a teen.
Unintentional amusement comes from Joan Crawford's neck always being in shadow, no matter where she's standing. Ty Hardin keeps getting shirtless, a reminder of what passed for beefcake back then. This is balanced by young women in colourful corsets, no mean feat for an already chubby ex-starlet Diana Dors.
Joan Crawford is the star, but was winding down her acting career, dividing her time between lower-budget horrors for Herman Cohen and William Castle, and an increasing amount of TV (The Karate Killers, Spielberg's pilot episode for Night Gallery). Her next film with Cohen and Gough would be her last... Trog. This was my introduction to the films of Joan Crawford - a cruel way to start, considering she had started in silent movies and become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
Robert Hardy, as the police detective investigating the circus, is still acting (Cornelius Fudge in several films of Harry Potter). Joan Crawford's junior love interest Ty hardin was in I Married a Monster From Outer Space. Ex-saucepot Diana Dors plays a nosey troublemaker and later appeared opposite Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood. Young Judy Geeson became a welcome fixture of seventies TV and cinema (Star Maidens, Hammer's Fear in the Night, and the Alien rip-off Inseminoid).
Last released in America on VHS (above) and then laserdisc, Berserk! has recently been released on a region 2 PAL DVD in Spain (cover art below). Besides Spanish, it has an English audio option without any subtitles, but the aspect is still 1.33 fullframe (I was hoping for a widesreen aspect). A UK or US release would still be very welcome, if only as a rare chance to see Joan Crawford in colour, or as part of a perfectly horrible all-nighter with Trog, Circus of Horrors and the Black Zoo!
More Berserk! bits on HermanCohen.com.
A big thank you to Miles for the info and the Japanese poster art.