Thursday, 21 February 2013

Berserk (1967)

Circuses and horror have always been natural bedfellows, and this combination works again in the British 1967 Herman Cohen production Berserk, one of Joan Crawford’s classic 60s horror movies.

And just look at the cast! Not just Joan Crawford, but Michael Gough as well. And in supporting roles Diana Dors and Judy Geeson, actresses more than capable of carrying a movie on their own. Plus wonderful British character actors like Geoffrey Keen, Robert Hardy and Philip Madoc. For cult movie fans this is an absolute dream cast.

Crawford plays circus owner Monica Rivers. The Great Rivers Circus is struggling financially until one of its major attractions, the highwire star the Great Gaspar, is killed during his act. The resultant publicity assures the circus of packed houses for the remainder of its British tour. Of course the Great Gaspar has to be replaced, but as luck would have it on the very night he is killed a highwire performer known as the Great Hawkins (Ty Hardin) turns up looking for a job.  He’s a complete unknown but Monica gives him one chance to prove himself. His act, working sixty feet above the ground not just without a net but above a forest of bayonets, and blind-folded to boot, is an immediate sensation. Soon Hawkins is not just one of the circus’s best-paid performers, he is also sharing Monica Rivers’ bed.

One tragic accident can be excused as just one of the risks that circus performers accept as part of their life, but when shortly afterwards a second death occurs Scotland Yard starts to take a keen interest in The Great Rivers Circus. For this second death was unquestionably murder.

These deaths have the effect of spooking the circus community badly. All the performers are wondering who will be next to die. The most outspoken of the performers are Lazlo (Philip Madoc) and his partner Matilda (Diana Dors), who do a magic act in which Matilda is sawn in half. They’re convinced that Monica Rivers is to blame, but they have no real evidence.

Scotland Yard sends a senior officer, Detective-Superintendent Brooks (Robert Hardy) to investigate. Monica Rivers isn’t thrilled by his presence but there’s nothing she can do. And Monica has her hands full dealing with her new lover the Great Hawkins (who wants to become her partner in ownership of the circus) and her wayward daughter Angela (Judy Geeson). Angela has just been expelled from school. She wants to be part of the circus, and she gets her wish when knife-throwing wizard Gustavo decides he needs a new partner. It’s a dangerous act but Monica realises that she can’t stop Angela from becoming part of the circus. It’s in her blood.

Director Jim O’Connolly isn’t exactly a name to be conjured with. His career as a director was very brief, although it did include another interesting horror film, Tower of Evil. Aben Kandel and producer Herman Cohen shared the screenwriting duties. They decided not to overdo the horror, relying on the magic of the circus itself to carry the film. It was a sound decision, giving the circus performers plenty of opportunities. George Claydon as midget clown Bruno Fontana has a field day. Bruno is an apparently insignificant figure but in fact he knows everything that goes on in the circus. Milton Reid as the Strong Man, Golda Casimir as the Bearded Lady and Ted Lune as the Skeleton Man all have lots of fun.

Joan Crawford is of course very much the star, but her performance is unselfish. She knows she’s working with good people and she’s content to let them shine in their supporting roles, confident that her star power will be undiminished. And of course she’s right. The supporting players take full advantages of their opportunities, with Diana Dors being especially impressive.

Ty Hardin (best-known to Australians for his starring role in the 1969 Australian TV adventure series Riptide) as the Great Hawkins is potentially the weak link amongst so much talent but he’s actually very good and holds his own pretty well.

Columbia’s DVD release is 16x9 enhanced and looks great.

With its circus setting and it’s superb cast Berserk could hardly fail to be entertaining, and it lives up to its potential pretty well. It’s solid entertainment with considerable camp value and I can’t see how any self-respecting cult movie fan wouldn’t enjoy this picture. Warmly recommended, and if you love circus movies or you’re a Joan Crawford then it becomes a must-see movie.

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