Arts

Cult Movie: Crazy circus flick Berserk was a new low for screen diva Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford and Ty Hardin in Berserk
Ralph McLean

JOAN Crawford's star wasn't so much on the decline in 1967 as plummeting earthward like a clapped-out satellite.

Still trying to wring whatever fame she could from her late career comeback alongside her arch nemesis Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, she was floundering around in a relentlessly B-movie orbit going wherever the cheques cleared and taking on work that previously she'd have scraped off her shoes.

Her fearsome reputation as a full-blown diva ensured most American directors wouldn't work with her and as the so-called Summer Of Love played out she found herself in England making Berserk, a sad and sleazy circus-based film that marked a new low in her movie career.

This tragic slice of low rent psycho-thriller fare has just been reissued by Powerhouse/Indicator on Blu-ray and guess what? It's absolutely brilliant in a 'so bad it's good' kind of way.

It wouldn't be old Mommie Dearest's final big-screen outing – for that audiences would have to wait another year until the utterly insane man-in-a-monkey-suit madness of Trog lumbered into view – but it's certainly one of her most unforgettable.

Crawford is Monica Rivers, an ageing ringleader for a tatty circus that's been plagued by a glut of bizarre and rather gory murders. High-wire acts and suchlike are dropping like garrotted flies and no-one can work out why. If that sounds a lot like Circus Of Horrors, an earlier and just as seedy tale of big tent bad behaviour, then that's because it is pretty much the same story rehashed with shameless zeal buy producer Herman Cohen. The plagiarism is shameless but only adds to the fun really.

Director Jim O'Connolly handles all the gory death sequences with a suitably bloodthirsty aplomb, allowing the great Michael Gough, playing Monica's suspicious business partner here, to get a spike directly through his skull and buffed up beefcake Ty Hardin to come a cropper on the high wire.

There are supporting roles for legends of Brit B-movie heaven like Diana Dors, Judy Geeson and Robert Hardy amid all the buckets of fake blood and cheaply cobbled together circus footage, provided by the performers at Billy Smart's Circus, bizarrely enough. Whoever thought that a hastily knocked together little potboiler like this would provide good publicity for the company was clearly seriously deluded.

Crawford prances through this gory mess with her usual high and mighty superiority on full show and her eyebrows reaching back to almost the very top of her forehead (possibly due to the actress taping back her skin to deal with facial wrinkles). She looks mostly bemused but gives it all enough Hollywood melodrama to make it work.

Like the title suggests, Berserk is a mad and faintly unhinged journey from start to finish but it's also a ton of fun as well. With a glut of impressive extras – including a BFI interview with Crawford from 1956, period trailers and commentary tracks – this is the best way to enjoy the whole utterly insane experience in all its gory glory.

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