‘The motion picture that pits steel weapons against steel nerves!!!’
Berserk is a 1967 British horror thriller feature film starring Joan Crawford (Trog; Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?; Strait-Jacket) and Judy Geeson (Inseminoid; Goodbye Gemini) in a macabre mother-daughter tale about a circus plagued with murders.
The screenplay was written by Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel, and the film directed by Jim O’Connolly (Tower of Evil; The Valley of Gwangi; The Night Caller – script). It was Joan Crawford’s second-to-last big-screen appearance before Trog (1970). Columbia Pictures promoted the film as Berserk! on a double-bill with Torture Garden and it also later released as Circus of Blood.
In North America, the film grossed more than $1,100,000 and ranked #85 on Variety’s list of top moneymakers of 1968. Box office receipts overseas nearly doubled that amount, coming in at $2,095,000. This made Berserk the most successful film Herman Cohen ever produced.
Monica Rivers (Joan Crawford) and Dorando (Michael Gough) own a travelling English circus. Monica acts as the ring mistress, and Dorando is the business manager.
When tightrope walker Gaspar the Great falls to his death, it appears that his tightrope might have been purposely weakened. Monica’s unemotional reaction to the tragedy alarms Dorando. When she suggests it will be good for business, he asks her to buy him out, which she refuses to do.
Monica hires a new high-wire walker, Frank Hawkins (Ty Hardin). Not only is he handsome, he is daring, doing his act over a carpet of sharp bayonets. Monica is impressed, especially by his physical appearance. Shortly after an argument, Dorando is found gruesomely murdered.
Suspicion of Monica’s guilt grows. Frank, in particular, suspects her, having seen her leaving Dorando’s trailer before the body was discovered. He confronts Monica, demanding a share in the circus for his silence.
Monica’s daughter, Angela (Judy Geeson), having been expelled from school, shows up at the circus. Not knowing what to do with her unruly daughter, Monica pairs her with Gustavo the knife thrower (Peter Burton). Another member of the circus company, Matilda (Diana Dors), attempts to seduce Frank, which Monica discovers.
During Matilda’s act, a magician’s trick involving the illusion of being sawn in half, there is a malfunction in the equipment and she is killed. And during his next high-wire performance, Frank falls onto the bayonets and is killed.
It was not an accident. Angela was seen throwing a knife into him before he fell. She confesses having hated her mother for years as a result of being ignored, now “removing” those who take up her mother’s time. She then unsuccessfully tries to kill her mother. As Angela attempts to escape, she is electrocuted by an exposed wire during a rainstorm. Monica sobs inconsolably over her daughter’s body.
“Berserk! isn’t a ‘must-see’ classic from horror history, but there’s enough here to please fans of Joan Crawford horror (Strait-Jacket, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?), Michael Gough (Konga, Batman Returns), and sixties Brit horror. It’s interesting to see a ‘creative serial kill’ horror with so little blood in it, considering what would happen a few years later…” Black Hole Reviews
“Berserk achieves its meager reputation by being a brightly-colored Joan Crawford film, a Hammer horror knockoff with too little substance to balance the moments of high camp. The camp, when it happens, is well worth the watch, and a reasonably high body count make the film worthwhile…” She Blogged By Night
“O’Connolly pads the thing out interminably with endless circus routines, performers and animals parading on and on past the camera. See: Milton Reid sing a big production number! See: Judy Geeson hit by lightning! See: Michael Gough with a tent spike hammered into his bonce! See: something else, for Christ’s sake.” SM Guariento
“The biggest issue with Berserk seems to be that it doesn’t know what kind of film it is. Yes, it’s certainly a thriller but the moodiness and grim deaths interspersed by dancing elephants, prancing poodles and an awkward, bizarre song make it tonally inconsistent.” Andi B. Goode, The Sofa Cinephile
“Much of the film in between is padded with real-life circus footage. Unless one wants to see circus performances back from the era when animal acts were not protested by the animal rights people, these prove fairly uninteresting to watch. Certainly, the film does have the benefit of its lurid appeal – there is Joan Crawford dominating the show, along with 1950s British sexpot Diana Dors doing her stuff and turning every line into a bitchy taunt…” Richard Scheib, Moria
“The murders are, inevitably, the most fun aspect of the film, though Crawford’s fan base gets its money’s worth by way of a game performance confirming her late entry into genre roles…” Steven West, The Shrieking Sixties: British Horror Films 1960 – 1969
” …despite its Grand Guignol trappings, it’s a glorified whodunnit, ably directed by Jim O’Connolly…” John Stanley, Creature Features
“But the capable Mr. O’Connolly is no Hitchcock. And what drains the picture of merit and real persuasiveness is the round-up of bloodless characterizations, a petty and conniving gang of meanies. Even a last-minute, mother-love injection doesn’t thaw Miss Crawford’s portrayal of a ruthless iceberg who, one feels, gets what she deserves.” Howard Thompson, The New York Times, January 11, 1968
Herman Cohen (centre) with stars of Berserk
Cast and characters:
- Joan Crawford as Monica Rivers
- Ty Hardin as Frank Hawkins
- Diana Dors as Matilda (Craze; Theatre of Blood; Nothing But the Night)
- Michael Gough as Albert Dorando (Satan’s Slave; Horror Hospital; Konga)
- Judy Geeson as Angela Rivers
- Robert Hardy as Detective Supt. Brooks (Dark Places; Psychomania; Demons of the Mind)
- Geoffrey Keen as Commissioner Dalby (Taste the Blood of Dracula)
- Sydney Tafler as Harrison Liston
- George Claydon as Bruno Fontana
- Philip Madoc as Lazlo (Spine Chillers; Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde; Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.)
- Ambrosine Phillpotts as Miss Burrows
- Thomas Cimarro as Gaspar
- Peter Burton as Gustavo
- Golda Casimir as Bearded Lady
- Ted Lune as Skeleton Man
- Milton Reid as Strong Man
- Marianne Stone as Wanda
- Miki Iveria as Gypsy Fortune-Teller
- Howard Goorney as Emil
- Reginald Marsh as Sergeant Hutchins
- Bryan Pringle as Constable Bradford