Psychotronic Ketchup: Berserk! (1967)

Director: Jim O'Connolly
Herman Cohen/Columbia, 1:36, color
Cinema 4 Rating: 4

"I had to kill him! I had to kill them all! I had to destroy your circus! KILL, KILL, KILL! That's all I feel inside me!"

In the interests of not "pulling an Ebert" (i.e., giving away the end of a movie almost immediately within a review), I'm not going to reveal which person says the statement above. You will, upon watching the film, figure out who the killer is once this appears for the first time. This still means just about anyone in the film could be the revenge-bent murderer who wreaks happen upon the Great Rivers Circus, which appears, through the use of footage of an actual circus, to be a rather extensive big-top affair even though the small cast gives it the initial appearance of being nothing but small-time. And when this line is delivered -- badly, so very badly by a performer who should clearly no far better given their experience -- you will find the only moment in the film where you haven't wasted your time. To hear the line delivered so badly is to wish that more of the film, directed by the same man who directed around Harryhausen's bits in Valley of Gwangi (a personal obsession of mine), were just as campy as the extraordinary sound of this swiftly spat out, verbal mania.

Unfortunately, most reviewers of this film, nearly to a person, make immediate mention of having to endure the hideous sight of a then sixty-plus-years old Joan Crawford pitching woo with a man a full quarter century her junior. I say, since the man in question is former TV star and rumored anti-Semite Ty Hardin, the jerk gets his just desserts. Here's the deal: yeah, we can go "Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwww...." and puke everywhere over the nightmarish vision of a nightie-clad Crawford (in soft-focus, 'natch) having every guy in the film swooning over her affections, when there are clearly much hotter girls working all over the circus. Taken in context with the film, though, the combined stance of dopey Hardin and his predecessor in the film, the overacting as usual Michael Gough, makes sense, since they are basically in it for the money. None of them really think she's the -- uh, what would be the term from the time when she was actually young? -- the bee's knees. And here's the main thing regarding Joanie Baby: she actually gives it her all in this one. She seems to be having a good time, even when doing what is mere exploitation, and however deluded she may have been in her real life concerning her fading beauty, I actually think she's quite arresting in this one.

Too bad the rest of the film can't match her in willpower. Too bad that Berserk! falls apart almost from the first moment, with a ridiculous murder that, even in the most extreme of circumstances, would not have occurred the way it does. And it only does so for the sake of an interesting title sequence, with the victim swinging back and forth, causing the title to wipe on and off the scream with each wave of the body. One could write forever about how ridiculous most slasher movie murders actually are when committed, and so it seems ridiculous to have to point this out about the second murder, especially concerning such factors as timing, murder weapon of choice, the strength of the killer to actually cause an event to happen in the way that it does, and even something so simple as having the right weapon for the right place and the right props when the killer couldn't possibly know exactly where the victim would actually stop to light up a smoke.

But let's put this all aside and discuss the third murder, where the film creates its greatest disappointment -- and you will not hear this from me very often, as I normally prefer implication and subtlety -- by not showing enough blood and gore. The first murder is a mere hanging, but the second is at the very least a good, gruesome sight, and the mood is that the murders will grow increasingly profane as the film progresses. The build is there... but the follow-through is not. Given the chance to saw a woman in half, where there is even a closeup of the magician's face to imply, at least partially, that we will see some blood spatter upon his tuxedo shirt, there is but a scream, and then a cutaway to the next scene, where there is but a discussion regarding the aftermath of the murder. Not even a quick and satisfying spray for half a second. At this point, even the casual viewer will know that this is about it as far as Berserk! goes. And they would be right...

...except for that revelatory line, which is uttered in the final minute of the film. It almost can convince you that the long wait through rote murder action and the make-out moves of an increasingly wrinkly circus matriarch was worth it. If only it were true...


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