Sunday 28 October 2007

Berserk! (1967) Jim O'Connolly

All the great Hollywood leading ladies seemed to end up in grand guignol horror movies in the sixties and Joan Crawford had a number to her name. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was the first and probably best, but I saw Strait-Jacket recently, now I'm getting to see Berserk!, made in colour no less, and soon I'll work my way up to Trog, which is apparently truly awful.

Here she's the bitchy Monica Rivers, who co-owns a circus with Dorando, played by
Michael Gough. He wants her to buy him out but she can't afford it yet. However the crowds are about to cram in given that tightrope walker Gaspar the Great was hanged by his own wire in the opening minutes of the film. Luckily Ty Hardin is quickly on hand as Frank Hawkins, a replacement wire act and he soon works his way into Rivers's attentions.

Crawford looks old and scary here and it's truly bizarre to see Ty Hardin flirt with her, given that she was 62 (and looked like 70 plus) and he was 37, greying hair notwithstanding. Then again he was hardly the standard leading man, even though he looked a little like Lee Majors and apparently got to bare his chest in a lot more movies than just this one. This was 1967 and he spent the seventies as an evangelical preacher, tax protestor and leader of the Arizona Patriots, an anti-Semitic group who stockpiled weapons and harboured bomb plots.

Anyway, soon Gaspar isn't the only death on the circus ground, as Dorando gets a metal stake through the skull. As the troupe, led by Diana Dors and George Claydon the dwarf, bicker among themselves, a maniac sets about his or her task of increasing the death toll. A young Robert Hardy, long before his days as a prolific small screen Churchill, let alone the Harry Potter films, is a young and well dressed superintendent of police tasked with investigating the murders.

The chief plus point this film has is the fact that many of the cast are obviously real circus performers with real acts to display for us, courtesy of Billy Smart's Circus, whose initials appear on the head dress of the elephants, even though they're supposed to be performing for the Great Rivers Circus. Those are real lions being tamed, real poodles doing a charming routine and real acrobats doing real spins high up in the air. It's authentic and the film benefits from that authenticity.

Crawford was apparently an active diva on set. She supplied her own wardrobe, save the ringmaster's leotard; obviously provided a prominent Pepsi advert to boost her own company; changed some of her own dialogue to make it sound more American; and even turned up early every morning to cook breakfast for some of the cast. She's enthusiastic in the role but pretty wooden. She's completely believable in the bitchy and tough scenes and she's believable too in the scenes that call for more artistic depth, but she's mostly acting with her voice and her face. Unfortunately she looks very old and the static camera generally highlights her static acting.

Her material is pretty dismal too. The script isn't great and the direction isn't much better. The director was Jim O'Connolly, who I've never heard of, and he just about does enough to get by here. He only directed nine films, of which this was the fourth, pus a few episodes of The Saint. Without the circus scenes there really wouldn't be much to watch at all. And yes, there's that romance which the scariest thing about the film. Oh, and it's a remake too, of The Shadow, a 1937 film with Rita Hayworth and somewhere further down the cast list, Dwight Frye.

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