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What I Watched Last Night: Berserk!

I was a little concerned when I tuned in to The U for Svengoolie at 9 p.m. last Saturday and ended up with the final hour of The Mask of Zorro, an overwrought 1998 piece of crap with Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones. It turned out Sven was just bumped back an hour, which gave me the time to interject plenty of silly Zorro commentary as The Great Cornholio and the talking bee on those Zyrtec commercials.

Sven's feature was the 1967 Joan Crawford star vehicle Berserk!, which is like saying a Yugo is a star vehicle because a major Hollywood star imploding into itself happens to be driving one at the moment. It's also one of the few Svengoolie features where playing The Svengoolie Drinking Game of Death has the real potential to kill you within the first 15 minutes simply because it's a Joan Crawford movie.

Berserk! was a nice surprise because I thought Crawford had hit bottom in the 1964 film Strait-Jacket, where she plays the exact same bitter, creepy, decrepit old bag of bones looking to bed a handsome guy less than half her age. But I was wrong - way wrong - because in living color, Joan Crawford was 1) was skin-crawlingly creepier than I thought, and 2) proves that becoming a famous and powerful actress doesn't automatically mean your taste in fashion becomes any less hideous. Even worse, Crawford spends the entire film with her hair dyed a shade of copper and painfully swept up into a crown of something resembling a loaf of monkey bread.

Had the hairdo been cinched any tighter, her skull would have burst through its skin.

The observant might notice that in every scene where Crawford has a close-up, there's always a long shadow cast across her face as if someone was messing with the lighting guy by holding up an I-beam. You'll also see shadows from people off-camera moving around on background walls. At any rate, I'm pretty sure Berserk! represented a major case of consternation for the film's director and the poor sap who got stuck having to edit this piece of work.

Berserk! finds Joan playing Monica Rivers, a woman who has inherited The Great Rivers Circus from her dead husband. As the circus goes about its business of touring the British countryside, it becomes clear that her husband was no tightwad. The help travels in well-apportioned trailers called caravans (Monica's stretches from here to Saskatchewan), and the meals are cooked and served by actual chefs. The performers seem to be well-paid, well-fed, and fairly well-dressed, and the acts extend to the usual assortment of family-friendly fare such as elephants able to navigate a line of lying-down showgirls without squishing their heads, big prancing poodles, and lions in need of taming. The fact that Berserk! was filmed on location at England's Billy Smart's Circus was probably why the place didn't have the same air as the traveling white-trash deathtrap carnivals we're used to here in the United States, but still. The place is unmistakably first-class all the way, even with some cold bitch running the show.

The Great Rivers Circus would be an even-more awesome place to work if people Monica takes a dislike to didn't keep showing up dead in some horrific manner. The first to go is the high-wire walker (hung from the neck when the wire snaps during a performance), followed by her business partner who wants out (spike through the head), and a magician's assistant-in-the-box who gets power-sawed in half and leaves the cleanest crime scene in British history. Circus people ending up dead seems to be good business in England, since people really start packing the stands soon afterward. This ultimately catches the attention of a Scotland Yard detective, who is dispatched to travel with the circus and interview everyone half to death until he solves the whole gruesome mess.

As circuses go, though, Berserk! really doesn't live up to the same freak show level it could have for being a low-budget work. Sure, there's a really skinny guy, a strongman, a midget, and a questionably-bearded lady, but it doesn't come remotely close to the bad 1932 Tod Browning cult feature Freaks, which starred some of America's most famous real-life sideshow personalities.

As in Strait-Jacket, the suspicion falls directly on Crawford's character. And why not? Who better to look to first than a woman whose icy stare could stop clocks, charging rhinos, and your beating heart dead in their tracks? Just as likewise, though, there's the mysterious daughter. Here it's Angela, a troublesome blondie who suddenly pops up roughly three-quarters into the film after being expelled from boarding school and is put to work as the knife-thrower's assistant. Foreshadowing like this wasn't invented for nothing, so it comes as no surprise when replacement high-wire walker The Magnificent Hawkins (Monica's young lover, who blackmailed her out of a hunk of the business earlier on) gets a knife in the back and ends up impaled on a bed of bayonet spikes 60 feet below during his act. Angela blows the Scotland Yard detective's case wide open by screaming at her mother, "I had to kill him! I had to kill them all! I had to destroy your circus! It murdered my father and now it's taking you away from me! KILL KILL KILL, that's all I feel inside me! . . . I've got to kill you!"

How Angela figured that fleeing the tent only to get vaporized by a bolt of lightning was a good way to kill her mother - as opposed to flinging the big knife she's holding into her mother's chest from several feet away when she had the chance - was beyond me, but by this time I had given up on expecting anything in this movie to make too much sense. And there's plenty about it that doesn't.

Still, it's a campy-fun romp to watch and snicker to if you're one of those people with the ability to suspend your sense of disbelief or don't take your continuity too seriously.


Visit the What I Watched Last Night archives and see what else we've been watching. Submissions welcome.


Posted on February 16, 2010

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