When 59-year-old circus ringmaster Crawford (a terrifying vision in her trim tuxedo jacket and fishnet stockings) introduces her world-famous high-wire soloist, the audience is definitely not ready for what happens next: the high wire snaps and coils around the performer's neck, leaving him dangling above their upturned faces. Oblivious to the human tragedy, a post-show Crawford busies herself with the night box-office receipts. "How can you be so cold-blooded?" asks her business partner. "We're running a circus, not a charm school," Crawford growls, going on to point out that the violent death will be good for business. Then she changes tack. "What can I do to cheer you up?" she queries. "I just may let you tuck me in tonight." God forbid! Even with Vaseline smeared on the lens and strategic shadows cast across her face, our star looks, at best, like a short, male senior citizen in elaborate drag.
The next day, who should turn up but a high-wire soloist in need of a job. The suspiciously useful newcomer is strapping studmuffin Ty Hardin, who is soon embroiled in a torrid affair with Crawford, despite the fact that he's 22 years her junior. The biggest scare in this whole movie is the appearance of a postcoital Crawford, done up in a negligee and a big-hair wig. "Long ago I lost the capacity to love," she purrs, very believably indeed. "If you want me to spell it out for you, I will. What we have is no more than a greeting card. Maybe not as friendly." Just as you're thinking that's not exactly what you'd say if you looked like an aging female impersonator and had somehow gotten Ty Hardin into bed, Hardin replies, "You're playing a dangerous game!"
When Crawford's business partner is murdered, the circus performers get agitated. The magician -- obviously the thinker in the group -- announces, "It is clear to me there is a killer loose." Enter blowsy, badly bleached blonde tootsie Diana Dors (who was at one time hailed as England's answer to Marilyn Monroe -- i.e., Jayne Mansfield with bad teeth). As the magician's new paramour/assistant, Dors expresses her view that bosswoman Crawford is the killer. Overhearing this, Crawford snaps, "You slut!" Whereupon Dors demonstrates the accuracy of this assessment by boozily coming on to Hardin. You may want to memorize Hardin's reply for your own future use: "You're peddling your merchandise at the wrong booth." When Hardin tosses Dors out on her rear -- literally -- a high-water mark in cinema cattiness is reached as an onlooking circus babe croaks, "You must be more careful, you'll damage your brain!" Happily, a nail-scratching, wig-pulling catfight ensues.
Enter Crawford's unhappy teen daughter (Judy Geeson) who's just been expelled from charm school. "Let me stay here with you," she pleads to her mom. "The circus is in my blood like it's in yours." Speaking of blood, the next big-top demise occurs when the magician saws Dors in two for real. Now even Crawford is afraid. "I've got the jitters!" she confesses to Hardin. "I'm not made of stone!" Actually, wax is what we were thinking.
Doing what anyone whose circus is being torn asunder by a psychopath would do, Crawford throws a gigantic party, at which she confesses to Hardin that she's made him her partner: "You'll have 25 percent of the circus and 100 percent of me." When charm school dropout Geeson appears to be sulking her way through the shindig, Crawford wonders out loud if the girl is spoiled. "You certainly never lacked anything," she points out. "No, except what I needed most... you!" the teen shrieks, bolting into the night. "I have an eerie feeling the killer will strike again at any moment," Crawford murmurs. Hmmm. Is this just a doting mom's wishful thinking? We don't want to spoil the ending for you, but suffice it to say that Berserk parallels its star's real life in some amusing ways. The on-screen Crawford often had her hands full with pesky teen daughters -- think Mildred Pierce, Strait-Jacket, Della -- but for cinematic subtext on the offscreen Crawford's doubts about her adopted daughter Christina, Berserk is unsurpassed.
Note: If you do happen to catch Berserk, be sure to note circus owner Crawford's special booth for Pepsi-Cola, a company in which the real-life Crawford was a major stockholder. Given the homicidal goings-on of the film, Pepsi's slogan on the booth -- "Come alive with Pepsi" -- is a brilliant touch.