Berserk (1967)

“It’s a good thing you’re inhuman.”

In the tawdry thriller, Berserk Monica Rivers (Joan Crawford) owns the Great Rivers Circus. Business isn’t booming, but when circus performers start dropping like flies, the crowds start flocking in for a repeat performance. Soon Scotland Yard assigns a policeman, the dapper Superintendent Brooks (Robert Hardy) to question the circus employees, and stay on site until he’s solved the case.

Joan Crawford was in her mid 60s when she made Berserk, and she isn’t shy about slipping into her circus costume and showing off those terrific legs. Monica Rivers is a powerful, cold-hearted businesswoman, and while she has lovers amongst the circus crowd, she doesn’t let her dalliances interfere with the running of the circus. Business manager, Dorando (Michael Gough) is jealous of the strapping new trapeze artist, Frank Hawkins (Ty Hardin). Hawkins is quick to curry favour with Monica Rivers. While she isn’t averse to his hunky attentions, Monica still manages to keep Hawkins on a short leash. Monica’s mothering instinct is revealed when her daughter Angela (Judy Geeson) arrives after being expelled from her boarding school.

Berserk is cleverly sequenced. Horrible, grisly murders–with close ups of the victims’ faces–occur as various circus acts are rigged for disaster. With acts such as the high wire trapeze, knife throwers, lion tamers, etc, the opportunities for disaster are great. The tension runs high as the circus acts open, and harmless and charming acts take place (the Intelligent Poodles, for example). Then high-risk acts commence, and we wait for the next murder to occur. The circus audience (which has grown larger with the news of each death) waits with baited breath and anticipated ghoulish delight as each act opens. It’s a wicked, dark sense of humour indeed that creates grisly murder scenes within the magical anticipation of the circus

Berserk is very cheesy and has a moderate camp appeal. There’s a bearded lady at the circus, and the sexy Matilda (Diana Dors) gets into a girl fight with slaps exchanged and some great name-calling. On the negative side, the plot introduces a couple of red herrings that are never explained, and after the film’s sensationalistic conclusion, the red herrings remain unexplored. Also some of the circus act scenes drag on interminably. Joan Crawford fans won’t be able to resist, but Berserk is only moderately entertaining

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