Producer Herman Cohen bankrolled a whole tassel of extremely entertaining B flicks throughout the '50's, '60's and '70's. From I Was a Teenage Werewolf to the hilarious Thai Jaws rip-off , Crocodile, you could always count on tasty, cheesy fun when Cohen's name was attached.
One of the producer's strangest creative partnerships arose at the tail end of the '60's, when screen legend Joan Crawford signed on for two Cohen productions. 1967's Berserk! (don't forget that exclamation point) and 1970's Trog ended up being two of Crawford's final features. With titles like those, you know you're not broaching Merchant-Ivory territory, friends.
Trog is the most fondly remembered of the two. It features Crawford playing anthropologist/nursemaid to a Neanderthal man (sporting the sixth-most ridiculous ape mask in cinema history) who's been discovered in a subterranean English cavern. It's an absolute kick, fifty-thousand times funnier than Encino Man (largely because it ain't trying to be) and utterly essential to all fans of that most enduring of film genres--the Unfrozen-Caveman Movie.
Berserk!, on the other hand, remains the most neglected of the two beautifully ugly Cohen/Crawford cinema stepchildren. I first saw it at age ten on Nightmare Theater, Seattle station KIRO-TV 's Friday night Creature Feature show. Back then, the movie struck me as talky and dull, and most written evaluations over the years concurred with that opinion. So when my Crawford-craving spouse noted a late-night screening at the Grand Illusion this last weekend, my curiosity piqued at how Berserk! would play to my (slightly more) grown-up incarnation.
Seeing it afresh, I must humbly query to the gods:
"BERSERK!, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN FOR SO MUCH OF MY LIFE?!?!"
And, more importantly:
"Dearest BERSERK! and Trog, why art thou not yet on domestic DVD?!?!"
The skinny is as follows: A tightrope walker in an English circus dies horribly during his act (the tightrope snaps and wraps itself conveniently around his neck during his fall), and the police deduce foul play among the circus staff. Is the killer the tough-as-nails impressario (Crawford)? The square-jawed replacement wirewalker (Ty Hardin) with a shady past and sack time with the boss? Crawford's embittered accountant/business partner Durando (Michael Gough)? The circus magician's trashy, hooch-chugging assistant (Diana Dors)? Crawford's own perky daughter (Judy Geeson)? One of the elephants? Soon, more circus folk fall victim to extravagantly gruesome deaths, and everyone gets really damned testy.
I refuse to spill the final denouement, not because it's such a big shock, but because getting there is such a gas. Berserk! stirs together overwrought melodrama, absurd plot twists, brain-twisting coincidences (note to self: never lean against a wooden post when there's a railroad-spike-sized hole in said post at skull level...), gruesome deaths (see aforementioned note to self), an appropriately color-saturated and unsettling visual tableau, and endless circus stock footage into one heady, pulpy stew.
The actors sell Cohen's and Aben Kandel's script full-throttle. Even at this late stage, Crawford could still play a hardened battle-toughened dame like nobody's business. She's constantly purring out choice dialogue howlers ("You've got Durando on the brain!") to everyone in earshot, showing off her (admittedly still shapely) set of gams, and taking no prisoners. Hardin looks like a pulp novel cover painting come to life, and his stiff acting actually makes his shady Lothario a lot more fun. You can practically smell the cheap plonk on Dors's breath as she gnaws the scenery, and Cohen/Hammer Films stalwart Gough makes a reassuringly cynical and crinkly foil.
Geeson takes the prize for the most, well, berserk moments as Crawford's high-strung daughter. She gets expelled from her private school, rejoins the circus, and spews mommy-baby guilt at Crawford with British schoolgirl mewls that jab the eardrum in a glorious, outlandish performance.
In fact, the resemblence in mother-daughter dynamics to one of Joan Crawford's career highs probably isn't by accident. Berserk! is, at its lurid and tawdry core, a very fun, blood-stained, big-top-set variation of her Oscar-winning Mildred Pierce. Only with dancing poodles.