Thursday, 8 April 2010
The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: B is for Berserk (1967)
Berserk brings us a clash of two international titans of camp. Visiting from Hollywood is Joan Crawford, while on home turf is our very own Diana Dors. Joan’s following in the footsteps of her What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? co-star Bette Davis, who had already been over to Blighty to make a couple of films for Hammer – The Nanny and The Anniversary, two of their classiest movies, giving outstanding performances in both. Crawford’s British horror efforts are a bit nearer to the bottom of the barrel, masterminded by producer/screenwriter Herman Cohen, who previously gave us two of Britsploitation’s most wonderfully lurid movies, Horrors of the Black Museum and Konga - I'll get round to both of those eventually. Her performance in Berserk is at least entertaining. As circus proprietor Monica Rivers she struts around in black tights and a ringmaster’s jacket, snarling, shouting and being generally unpleasant to everyone in sight (the prominent adverts for Pepsi that can be seen around the circus tent may or may not be connected to Joan sitting at the head of the soft drink company’s board at the time the film was made).
All is not well under Monica’s Pepsi-sponsored big top, with circus personnel being gruesomely killed off by a mysterious assailant. Not that she’s vastly bothered about this – in fact it’s doing wonders for her takings as rubbernecking punters flock to the show hoping to witness the next murder. ‘How can you sit here so calmly and check box office receipts after that major catastrophe?’ demands Cohen regular Michael Gough in a characteristically histrionic performance as Monica’s business partner. She calls him a ‘miserable, gutless adding machine’ and offers a reminder that ‘We’re running a circus, not a charm school!’ – just as well really, as that’s not a role she seems very suited to. Shortly afterwards Gough gets a tent peg through the back of his skull, paving the way for Crawford to be courted by high-wire artist Frank (the peculiarly named Ty Hardin), who goes by the thoroughly unexciting stage name of The Magnificent Hawkins. The idea of the sixtysomething Crawford being an object of lust for a musclebound younger man may seem faintly ridiculous, but as this sort of thing tends to be the norm with ageing male stars and young actresses maybe it should be applauded.
Could Monica be behind the killings? Dors, as mutinous magician’s assistant Matilda, thinks so. Somewhere between the Bombshell and Fishwife stages of her career, Dors has to make do with third billing after Crawford and Hardin (who’s not exactly a major name – I think he was mostly in TV Westerns). Practically the first words Monica utters to Matilda are ‘You slut!’ and later she refers to her as ‘attractive, in a common sort of way’ but unfortunately a full-on catfight between the two never happens. Dors does, however, have a major ding-dong with Marianne Stone as alcoholic knife-thrower’s assistant Wanda, seemingly for no particular reason other than that the sight of two women rolling about on the grass tends to liven a film up a bit.
It’s fair to say that the film can do with a bit of livening up at times – Cohen managed to secure the services of Billy Smart’s Circus for the film and obviously wanted to show it off as much as possible so the plot keeps stopping to make way for a series of circus acts. Admittedly Phyllis Allan and Her Intelligent Poodles (yes, really!)and Jodie the Wonder Elephant are pretty entertaining but a murder mystery tends to lose some of its tension when it’s interrupted by scenes of dogs dancing on beachballs and burly men prodding moth-eaten lions. Wonderfully, even though the film’s supposed to be set over several days in a number of different cities it still appears to be exactly the same people in the audience during the circus acts. The strangest of the circus interludes comes at a party toward the end, with the circus’s rather threadbare collection of freaks – bearded lady, dwarf, skeleton man (although it’s hard to tell how skinny he is as he wears a heavy coat throughout) and strongman – perform a jolly song about how frightening they all look. At the same party we're informed by the fortune teller that Monica 'will never grow old - she has the gift of eternal youth', a line you can't help feeling Crawford insisted on.
About two-thirds of the way through the film another Britsploitation mainstay, the lovely Judy Geeson, turns up as Joan’s wayward teenage daughter Angela, escorted by Ambrosine Philpotts (always the embodiment of upper middle class venom) in a wonderful cameo as the gleefully disapproving headmistress who’s expelled her – unfortunately the opportunity for the line ‘I’m running a charm school, not a circus!’ is passed up. Disappointingly, Angela's wicked ways seem to have consisted mainly of hiding in a wardrobe and giggling. She's desperate to join the circus and her mother grudgingly allows her to take the place of the permanently paralytic Wanda - arranging for her daughter to have knives thrown at her every night almost sounds like it belongs in Crawford's real-life parenting strategy. ‘What a shame you had to return at a time like this, when we have a homicidal killer among us’ comments Dors, possibly for the benefit of those whose minds strayed during the poodles. Geeson gives a really quite sincere performance which gets completely lost amid the silliness of the rest of the film.
Also in the cast is Robert Hardy, many years before All Creatures Great and Small, as the investigating detective – seemingly in disguise as Leslie Phillips. Dors' partner Lazlo is played by Philip Madoc, perennial cult TV guest star and ex-husband of Ruth. He doesn't get a huge amount to do, but it's quite fun trying to work out where his bizarre accent is supposed to originate from (there's a lot of strange accents going on among the circus acts). Most of the actors give at least slightly dodgy performances but worthy of mention as especially awful are the thoroughly wooden Hardin and George Claydon as the circus dwarf Bruno, managing to make lines like ‘I could always rely on him when I was short – I mean, short of money’ sound even worse than they look on paper.
I won’t spoil the revelation of the killer’s identity for you – suffice to say it’s as ludicrous as everything else in the film – but it’s worth quoting the exposed murderer’s motivation – ‘Kill, kill, kill! That’s all I feel inside me!’
Director Jim O’Connolly would later give us the spectacularly tawdry Tower of Evil, while the next stop for Crawford and Cohen was the even more insane prehistoric-man-runs-amuck funfest Trog. But those are stories that must be told another time…
P.S. if you're so inclined Berserk is currently available to watch in full on Youtube. Here's part one: