Horror 365, Movie 149: Berserk!

How many of you out there like (or even remember) Circus Peanuts? You know–those big ol’ orange marshmallow monstrosities that don’t taste like marshmallow. Or orange. Or any other flavor of any living thing that grows naturally on this green Earth. Well they sell ’em at a local hardware store, so every now and again when I go in looking for implements of “persuasion” tools n’ such, I’ll grab a bag. Nostalgia you might say–at least until I taste one and remember why I don’t buy them. Still, this puts me in mind of the ol’ big top itself which is weird since I’ve never really liked the circus either.

For one thing, clowns. For another, people. But worst of all, it’s the plight of the animals. From my first trip to the circus as a wee lad, the circus always made me sad for all the furry critters. Even if they were treated splendidly (which has been demonstrated time and again to absolutely not be the case), it’s still a shitty life of confinement and exploitation.

Ironically, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, I love circus movies. No no I don’t mean Dumbo or The Greatest Showman. Sheesh. No I mean stuff like Freaks, Circus Of Fear, Funhouse, Circus Of Horrors. That’s probably why my favorite season of American Horror Story is Freakshow (well, that and Jessica Lange singing “Life On Mars” with that Joel Gray German Cabaret accent).

And speaking of AHS Season 4, I thought we might have a look at possibly its biggest influence after Freaks, and that’s Berserk! First, let’s talk about directors. I always think Berserk! is a William Castle movie. I’m not sure why. Maybe the fact that there’s a Blu-ray double feature release with this and Strait-Jacket.

At any rate, Berserk! is a fun watch despite the, oh let’s call it sober directing by Jim O’Connolly. Castle would have gone crazy-eight bonkers with this and would no doubt have promoted it with some kind of circus-themed gimmick. Maybe glow-in-the-dark circular saw blades or something.

You’ll see why. Stay with me.

Crawford is still every bit in total command at a svelte 63. Hell the movie was even changed from Circus Of Blood (in truth a better title) to Berserk! at her insistence. And her character, ringmistress Monica Rivers, rules the big tent with an iron fist while still reeling in the hunky new tightrope walker.

Why a new tightrope walker? Well (spoilers comin’) the previous one kinda dies, and it’s discovered that the accident weren’t very, uh, accidental. Much to the distaste of her business partner, Monica sees this as an opportunity. No publicity is bad publicity right? They argue about this and, wouldn’t y’know it, he ends up becoming the ultimate silent partner. In the midst of all this comes Monica’s daughter Angela (pixie-ish Judy Geeson). She’s decided to reconnect with her mother and join her show (conveniently after being dismissed from her upscale boarding school).

As whodunnits go, this one ain’t super-difficult to figure out. Murder and mayhem continue with suspicion being so constantly cast on Monica that there’s no way she can possibly be the killer. It’s still a good time, however, and wears some giallo and noir qualities on its sleeve quite nicely. For example, pretty much all these characters are despicable human beings, and all we really care about is who’s next in line to be sent off for a dirt nap by the unseen killer.

What does this have to do with AHS 4 you ask. Obviously it makes dozens of references to Freaks, but there’s a number of callbacks to other circus movies as well. There is of course the knife-throwing “accident” from Circus Of Horrors. But there’s also the venal, cavalier attitude displayed by both Joan Crawford and Jessica Lange. They’re both cold and calculating, and crossing them is definitely at one’s peril.

Also, both women are very concerned about drawing crowds and the finances of their attractions. To that end, they’re not at all above exploiting accidents and scandal to bring in the titillated patrons–bums on seats as the saying goes. They both have vulnerable sides as well and are not without certain fond attachments. Clearly though one of the big set pieces in Berserk! as well as well as one of the highlights of AHS 4 is the Sawed In Half trick that in both cases (though for different reasons) goes terribly, gloriously wrong. See? Circular saw blades. That’s what I’d hand out before showtime.

And so, members of the audience, children of all ages, kindly direct your attention high above the center ring…

BODIES- 5 onscreen
For rent on Apple TV, Google Play, Prime, Vudu, YouTube


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