Blu-Ray Review – Berserk!

Berserk! was the penultimate film of Joan Crawford’s career, coming right before Trog. It’s all set in a circus that’s touring the UK, including a stop in Leeds (where i’m based). Crawford plays ringmaster Monica Rivers, and there’s a killer on the loose who is targeting the circus, resulting in grisly deaths.

It’s interesting, since one of Crawford’s first films was the Tod Browning film The Unknown, also set in a circus where perverse sexual stuff is going on. The Browning film has Crawford in a romance with legless knife-thrower Lon Cheney, but Berserk! has a twisted mother-daughter relationship at its core like most of the horror films he starred in during the ’60s.

It’s a good ‘60s horror film with quite a fine cast, including British actors like Diana Dors and Michael Gough. It’s marked by some good-quality colour cinematography by Desmond Dickinson, and mixes horror and whodunnit. Crawford definitely elevates what would otherwise have been a standard horror film, and the script adds some twists and turns. William Castle’s Straight-Jacket is a better Crawford horror vehicle, but Berserk! is worth a watch.

Apparently Crawford supplied most of her own costumes to save money. She certainly commands the screen, and her contract gave her a lot of power over the production and how it was cast. Supposedly she wasn’t drinking, although that’s called into question by one of the cast members interviewed. Nevertheless, she was apparently quite professional on set. She was somewhat stuck in these kinds of roles after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

There’s a bunch of extras, starting with a BFI interview with Crawford and an audio commentary with film historians Lee Gambin and Eloise Ross. Jonathan Rigby, author of American Gothic: Six Decades of Classic Horror Cinema, contributes an appreciation on Berserk!, plus there’s a Pamela Hutchinson essay on Joan Crawford. Didier Chatelain interviews with producer Herman Cohen’s assistant and business partner, Tom Baker’s Beyond Belief! VHS Introduction and outtakes are also included, as well as the original theatrical trailer and an image gallery.

★★★½

Ian Schultz

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