Welcome back to Terror Tapes; the weekly feature that would have served us well had we launched Horror Squad back in 1981. Each week I fly in the face of modern technology and submerge myself in a sea of videotape. My goal is to see any and all horror titles that were abandoned in the great format upgrade ... for better or for worse. Sometimes I will discover gems whose relegation to forgotten formats represents a true tragedy of technological advancement. Conversely there will also be occasions when I wonder why anyone bothered to recommend a given title for home viewing in the first place; as audiences would have surely been adequately assaulted by the film in theaters. Since the commencement of this project, my record for quality versus dreadful films stands at 2-1. Let's see if today's selection, Berserk, strengthens the lead for quality or dismally evens the score.
Berserk is the story of a circus gone haywire. By all appearances it is a terribly ordinary circus, but it is slowly garnering a reputation as the deadliest show on Earth. It begins with a trapeze artist whose final performance traumatizes a packed crowd. From there, the corpses pile up and the ringmaster/proprietor of the circus must find the killer before the police shut her down for good.
That's the basic premise. Essentially what we have here is a paint-by-numbers whodunit story. The fact that most of the actors were British, and dry as burnt toast, made this film smack of an Agatha Christie novel brought to life. The suspects are rolled in one by one and their motive for killing is introduced just as quickly as their names. They even have several "lineup" moments throughout the film; as in "the killer is someone in this very room!" Dun dun duhhhh!! All of this sounds like praise, and with any other film I'm sure it would be, but unfortunately Berserk is no bueno.
Berserk has a great exploitation-style opening with the body of the trapeze artist swinging broadly across the red letters of the title card. I was on board for a great murder mystery from the get go, but steadily I came to realize just how lacking this film really was. My biggest problem with the film? It is incredibly boring. The conversations are just two steps removed from those in the notoriously awful British melodramas that are often parodied but seldom endured. The only thing that saved it from being a total wash in this department was the fact that many of the lines are uttered by bearded ladies, knife throwers, and little people. There was a also a really silly, superfluous song from three of the sideshow performers that completely negates tension of the (alleged) mystery.
Berserk makes it clear at various points during the film that they were a little thin on actual story content. What do I mean? There are extended scenes of actual circus act performances interrupting the story at random intervals. This drove me ... berserk? No, we'll go with crazy. It completely dilutes the horror element to have a murder mystery interrupted with poodle racing or elephant walking. I kept fast-forwarding through this filler but it made the story very choppy. As I said, it seems like they just didn't have enough to fill a minimal running time so they tossed in these moments to vamp. Either that, or the filmmakers were concerned that the audience would be unfamiliar with the concept of a freaking circus!
Far more disturbing than any of the killings in this film are the romantic entanglements of the lead characters. The ringmaster / owner of the circus is played by the legendarily insane Joan Crawford. Much as you would expect, she rules over this circus with an iron fist, and a phantom dick. At one point, a handsome, young trapeze artist with a sensational act is added to the bill. For some ungodly reason, he falls hard for ringmaster Crawford. Now I don't want to seem shallow, and I'm not opposed to May/December romances, but I am opposed to the immoral union of a young man and a prehistoric mummy. Seriously, Crawford looks like an old man at her best and a tightly-rolled leather sleeping bag at her worst. I was positively nonplussed by this young man's desire to bed Tutkan-Crawford. It's enough to simultaneously give you the heebies and the jeebies.
Ultimately, despite some rather cool on-screen demises, Berserk lacks any kind of authoritative punch. The most brutal kill is a spike driven through a man's head, which is awesome, but all the bite is removed from a scene like that when it is immediately followed by five minutes of stock footage of dancing elephants. The big reveal at the end is also kind of goofy. It is set up well in the story so it doesn't feel like a cheat twist, but it just falls flat of having the effect for which it is clearly striving.
Shucks, looks like I'm batting .500 on this feature so far. Hopefully next week's will put another win in the good film column. And actually next week's will be later this week since I was late on this this one. So hopefully I'll be able to wash the taste of Berserk out of my mouth much sooner than anticipated.