Director: Jim O’ Connolly
Script: Aben Kandel & Herman Cohen
Cast: Joan Crawford, Ty Hardin, Diana Dors, Michael Gough, Judy Geeson, Robert Hardy, Geoffrey Keen, Peter Madoc
Running time: 96 minutes
Monica Rivers (Joan Crawford), along with her business partner and sometimes lover, Dorando (Michael Gough), run the Great Rivers Circus. When one of their high-wire acts falls suspiciously to his death Dorando is angry at Rivers for being so cold and for exploiting the publicity surrounding the potential murder. Not long after the row he turns up dead, with a large tent peg smashed through his skull. The rest of the circus team start to suspect that Monica might have something to do with the deaths, and one of them might be next to sport a toe-tag.
Around the same time a new high-rise act, Frank (Ty Hardin), turns up and impresses Rivers with his audition so he starts to work at the circus. He also seems to have ambitions to become Monica’s latest business partner and lover. His close proximity to Rivers and clear ambition lead him to becoming a key suspect in the eyes of the rest of the circus troupe.
Investigating all these shady shenanigans is Superintendent Brooks (Robert Hardy), of Scotland Yard, who’s been sent to stay with the circus in order to investigate the murders. His questioning of the circus members causes animosities to rise to the surface and soon after another performer is killed; literally sawn in half in front of a paying audience. Archaos have nothing on the Great Rivers Circus!
As the bodies start to stack up and the list of suspects grows, Berserk! starts to resemble some kind of UK set giallo murder mystery, with its black gloved killer and sizable amount of red herrings.
Berserk! is a film that I’ve wanted to catch up with for many years after seeing some rather gruesome looking stills from the film in various horror publications over the years. By today’s standards the film is quite tame, but I’d imagine it was fairly shocking at the time, especially Gough’s gory murder.
The first thing to say about Berserk! is that it’s very much actor Joan Crawford’s film. She’s in most scenes and is every inch the star, whether you like her or not. And I have to say that for a 62 year old, she had a very fine pair of pins on her, probably due to her early dancing career. The rest of the cast are very capable too, with Diana Dors and Robert Hardy, in particular, really standing out.
Director Jim O’ Connolly does a reasonable job, although I have to say there’s probably a bit too much circus footage spliced into the movie, (probably in order to pad out the running time), for my liking, although much of the footage of the animal acts makes for fascinating, if somewhat disturbing, viewing. It took me back to going with my parents to see a circus as a young kid and being quite frightened by the lions and elephants I saw performing there. The human performers are all pretty good though, and the film is always entertaining, even when the main plot takes a back seat to the circus acts.
The story holds together pretty well, even the twist at the end, and there’s some amusing lines mixed in such as when the ‘living skeleton’ says: “I’m so scared; I can hear my nerves rattle!” All in all, Berserk! is a vibrant slice of circus horror hokum with some excellent performances that raise it up to a higher level of respectability.
Powerhouse Films is distributing Berserk! on Blu-Ray as part of its on-going Indicator label. As per usual with Powerhouse there are some decent special features including:
- Audio commentary with Lee Gambin & Eloise Rors;
- The shop girl’s delight (15 mins) – Pamela Hutchinson talks about Joan Crawford’s career and reveals that, although she could be something of a diva at times, she was very caring and was always nice to the crew and was known to have helped them out, sometimes paying their medical bills, amongst other things.
- Circus of Blood (32 mins) – Jonathan Rigby discusses the film. He reveals that Crawford hated the original name, Circus of Terror, so the producer, Herman Cohen, changed it to Circus of Blood, which she also hated!
- Didier Chatelain on Herman Cohen (13.5 mins) – The Head of Advertising for Herman Cohen talks about the legendary producer’s career. We also see some great behind-the-scenes photos.
- In the ring (14 mins) – Focus puller Jim Alloway talks about what it was like to work on the film. Apparently during location filming they had to wait until the circus was finished for the day before they started shooting at around 10pm.
- Tom Baker’s ‘Beyond Belief’ introduction (5 mins) – The best Dr Who, in my opinion, introduces the movie in a mocked-up cinema booth with the following rules laid out behind him: ‘No spitting, coughing, swearing, scratching or naughty stuff in the auditorium’.
- Tom Baker’s ‘Beyond Belief’ outtakes (21 mins) – Not really a bloopers reel, just a fuller version of the shoot itself.
- Trailer (2.5 mins) – This focuses on the death scenes and we see a shot of a dead body impaled on some bayonet blades; a scene which isn’t in the actual film.
- Image gallery – 38 stills, including posters where we see that the film was on a double bill with Amicus’s Torture Garden.