A delightfully daffy freak show on the surface, underneath Berserk! could play as a 1940s Woman’s Picture: Hard-as-nails female circus owner stops at nothing to get business for her show. Also, the garish Technicolor, cast of circus freaks, and blood-and-gore theme make it an exploitation film at its best.
And who’s being exploited? Joan Crawford as a 60-something ring mistress in fish-net leggings, getting romanced by a 20-something tightrope walker with a granny complex played by Ty Hardin – who has the most sexually suggestive name I’ve ever heard (and a sexy enough physique to go along with it).
Co-star Diana Dors packs a powerful wallop as Matilda, the tough-talking, cat-fighting stuntwoman. In fact everyone’s given stabbing dialogue to snarl at each other. Crawford, for one, gets to spit out lines like, “I’m running a circus, not a charm school!” and calls Ms. Dors a “slut,” quipping, “She’s attractive in a common sort of way.”
I loved Crawford’s costumes: lots of blinding green suits, a blood-red cape, and the aforementioned fish-net stockings. Oh, what legs! The ones that held her up for a “helluva long time.”
Not to give away the plot, in Berserk! we’re supposed to suspect that Crawford is behind some pretty gruesome activity for publicity purposes. “Murder is good business,” someone says. But don’t forget that the ring mistress has a rotten daughter not too far away. In one scene the kid gets expelled from a private school (Chadwick, perhaps?) for disobedient behavior. “You’ve always had a knack for causing trouble,” Crawford admonishes her.
And don’t miss the best act presented by The Great Rivers Circus: The sideshow performers singing an ominous little ditty called “It Might Be You.”
Personally, I think this is one of the best movies Joan Crawford made after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). But be prepared to fast-forward through all those boring circus acts. Watching poodles jumping rope could make anyone go berserk!
© Danny Fortune
Berserk! (1967). Director: Jim O’Connolly. Screenplay: Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel. Cast: Joan Crawford, Ty Hardin, Diana Dors, Michael Gough, Judy Geeson, Robert Hardy, Geoffrey Keen.