Eric’s Review: Berserk! (1967)

★★★ out of ★★★★★

A largely forgotten 1967 horror at the circus movie, starring the legendary Joan Crawford as the ringmaster trying to keep her show and her performers, alive during a spate of grisly deaths under the big top.
Directed by Jim O’Connolly

By 1967, Joan Crawford’s career was in decline. The last big movie she had done was her blood feud on the big screen, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane with Bette Davis, back in 1962; a prescient tale about fading movie stars. Joan gave it her all in this campy 1967 horror movie from Columbia Pictures, and she still owns the screen and devours every scene she is in. By this time, Joan was 61, and she still got to play the romantic lead. Good for you Joan! You’ve earned it!

She plays Monica Rivers, the ringmaster of the Big Rivers Circus, which is meandering its way through the English countryside, on their way towards London, when tragedy strikes. Gaspar the Great, the circus high wire act got killed when his high wire snapped and it snapped back and ended up hanging him. (If this were a more contemporary movie, I suspect Gaspar would have been decapitated ala Ghost Ship.)

Wouldn’t you know it? The tragedy got a lot of attention, and attendance is spiking! People enjoy a good bloodletting, apparently. Monica wasn’t phased a bit. The show must go on! And, take advantage of the sensational press accounts. Keep in mind, this is the circus circa 1967, and not 1880 or 1920, and the circus wasn’t necessarily the biggest show in town. Any boost in attention was welcome, however tragic.

Part of the fun of this movie is that it gives you a real circus show, courtesy of the with the real possibilities of somebody dying horribly during one of the performances… although the very entertaining trick poodle routine probably didn’t have a whole lot of risk. The elephants walking over their handlers was certainly nerve-wracking, as was the saw the lady in half trick. What could possibly go wrong? (wink!)

Into this environment steps Frank Hawkins (Ty Hardin), a brawny daredevil who has an incredibly dangerous routine involving a high wire, bayonets, and a blindfold. And he expresses great affection for Monica, despite their age difference (you go Joan!) but Monica is wise to him, and figures out that he wants more for his efforts… but that doesn’t stop her from falling for him.

Another wrinkle gets added when Monica’s daughter Angela (Judy Geeson) returns having been kicked out of school. Her estrangement from her mother is an odd attempt to add depth to Monica’s backstory, but Angela’s presence will have meaningful impact to the story.

This is an elevated B-Movie. Crawford’s presence ensures a certain level of credibility, but much like how Geena Davis, Nicole Kidman, and Glenn Close still have credible acting careers, they sometimes have to go to genre films to help prop up their careers. The life of the middle-aged female movie star has not changed THAT much since 1967. However, people still wanted to see Crawford, and the movie ended up earning quite a bit of money $3.15 million worldwide… equivalent today at $24,000,000. (Editorial note… I blew that earnings number WAY out of proportion on the Podcast, you can ignore that.) Not bad for a movie with an aging ingenue!

The acting surrounding Crawford is best described as wooden. Diana Dors, the would-be Marilyn Monroe, shows up here as one of River’s biggest agitators. There’s a reason why Dors never achieved Monroe’s stature, she doesn’t have much charisma or range. The dialogue often times seemed like everybody taking turns speaking lines… and then Joan would enter the scene, and class things up, as if a wave hit and the actors got a chance to hitch a ride on her lead.

The production design really reminded me of Batman 1966, in the colors, the costumes, and the sets being just this side of paper mache. Holy Clown Cars, Batman! Wouldn’t you know it… the Dynamic Duo apparently are part of the tour! They have a blink and you’ll miss it cameo in the parade of performers. Interestingly Michael Gough, who plays the circus business manager Dorando, would eventually go on to play Alfred the Butler in the Tim Burton Batman films; a nice circle of life, that.

Berserk! is not rated, having occured just before the MPAA came into being. It has some brief nasty bits of violence, and would probably earn a PG-13 rating today, but it’s probably no worse than Raiders of the Lost Ark. You can see this movie streaming on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

Here is the trailer… but I will warn you… it is FULL OF SPOILERS! Don’t watch this if you are spoiler averse.

ATMOSfx! Woo!
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