A British thriller set in a circus, which has traces of gialli, Berserk is far more tame than both the title and the setting promise. Joan Crawford stars as Monica Rivers, the owner and ringmistress of a travelling circus in England. Micheal Gough plays Dorando, the co-owner and business manager of the circus. Other stars include Diana Dors as one half of a magic act, and Judy Geeson as Rivers’ daughter, Angela.
The circus’s tightrope walker, Gaspard the Great, falls to his death but it appears to be more than an unfortunate accident. Frank Hawkins, played by Ty Hardin, joins the circus as the new high-walker. After this, murder plagues the circus. At first, Rivers mines the deaths, knowing they’ll draw in more crowds, but eventually even she is disturbed by the gruesome murders.
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.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact tonal shifts can heighten discomfort in this sort of film, but the circus performances go on for too long (not to mention being uncomfortable to watch for someone who hates animal circuses), though they are beautifully photographed and the song gave me too much secondhand embarrassment (but it’s strangeness fits far better with the film than the glossy performances). It feels a little too mish-mash-y.
The killer’s reveal is also quite anticlimactic, which is always disappointing in a murder mystery type story.
But Joan Crawford is fabulous and looks amazing in her Ringmistress getup. She, unsurprisingly, carries the film with a commanding performance that elevates this above the hammy mess* it could’ve been without her. That’s not to say her performance is restrained but she has the acting chops to make the role believable.
It has its merits, and it’s not the worst way to spend 90 or so minutes, but it could have been so much more!
*Though I do love me a hammy mess!