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Pity the poor ex-glamour queen. One day the toast of Hollywood, a sex symbol among stars, the next-well, old. In an industry that prioritizes youth over talent, especially for women, being an actress of a certain age is fairly synonymous with "retired."
But in the mid 1960s, the never-say-never world of low-budget horror filmmaking found a new use for the glamour queens of yore. Roger Corman, Bill Castle, the team at Hammer, and others making genre product could use any promotional gimmick or marketing hook they could find. In the big leagues of Hollywood, the purest marketing gimmick of all was the stars themselves, whose marquee value justified their salaries. Low-budget horror cinema could never afford top stars, but were more than happy to take leftovers. The washed up, the has been, and the rejects of Hollywood all found open arms in the realm of B-horror.
Robert Aldrich's arch What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 pointed the way. Recycling Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as Gothic horror mavens gave these two actresses a whole new career path. In the next few years, Davis went to Hammer studios for The Nanny (1965) and The Anniversary (1968); Crawford starred in William Castle's Straight-Jacket (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965), and in Herman Cohen's Berserk! (1967) and Trog (1970); Joan Fontaine and Tallulah Bankhead joined the party too. Mainstream critics and those with an investment in "Serious Hollywood" clucked their tongues at how these once proud stars had fallen into such slums, but you wouldn't find them lifting a finger to change the economics of the system that denied these older stars much of an alternative.
George Cukor shook his head at how Joan Crawford defended the merits of her horror films: "Of course she rationalized what she did," Cukor told himself, "You could never tell her they were garbage. She was a star, and this was her next picture. She had to keep working, as did Bette. The two of them spawned a regrettable cycle in motion pictures."
What should they have done, simply faded away discreetly?
Crawford had it particularly tough. Unlike Davis, her career had started in the silent era, playing opposite Harry Langdon and other silent stars. Audiences in 1960s thought of the silent era as the Dark Ages; there was no way for Crawford to credibly pretend to be younger than she was. Moreover, she was a tipster. Not to hear her tell it, of course - she maintained that a sip of vodka now and again helped calm her nerves when put into stressful circumstances, such as appearing on camera, or interacting with others. But the studio moneymen had decided that her habits were a bad risk, and wanted nothing more to do with her.
With work in the mainline studios a dead letter, she had no choice but to turn to independents-and they in turn saw a marquee name at firesale prices. After toplining William Castle's Straight-Jacket, Crawford found her way to producer Herman Cohen. It was a marriage of convenience, sure, but Joan knew her way around marriages of convenience by now.
Cohen's name is not as well-remembered today as that of his contemporaries like Roger Corman or William Castle, but he was in his own way a horror visionary. Horror in the 1960s was dominated by the Hammer paradigm: gothic dramas that traded in suspense and grand themes dressed up in colorful gore. Cohen alone saw where horror was headed: just the gore, skip all the rest. His films are threadbare on the stuff one normally watches films for-but they serve up memorably outrageous murders in Technicolor grue. The mad slasher flicks of the 1980s and modern day torture porn all owe a debt to Cohen, sometimes even copying scenes outright from Cohen movies over half a century old. If Cohen were alive today, he'd be making Saw.
In 1966, Cohen and his co-conspirator Jim O'Connolly were mounting what was then called Circus of Blood--no, not the 1960 Circus of Horrors (on which Cohen served as an uncredited advisor), and not the 1967 Circus of Fear with Christopher Lee. Then again, all three films share the same plot: a series of grisly murders at a circus result in unprecedented crowds, rubber-necking in hopes of seeing something awful. Many commentators would criticize Cohen's film for failing to develop this theme, but they missed the point. Catering to the bloodthirst of audiences was Cohen's business, and he was no more likely to decry their baser impulses than a rancher would complain that people eat too much beef.
Eventually, Circus of Blood would be retitled Berserk! to piggy back on the still lingering Psycho (1960) craze. Anything to bring in the punters. It was Joan Crawford, however, who stole the show, and gave the film its truest value. Many priggish reviewers complained that Crawford, although remarkably well preserved, was still too old to play hunky Ty Hardin's lover. Again, critics have missed the point. Today's world may have a slang term for older women sleeping with younger men (cougars) but still has a distaste for depicting such relationships onscreen. Hollywood never bats an eye casting twenty-something starlets as love interests for wrinkled geezers like Harrison Ford or Clint Eastwood, but it takes an archeologist to find a movie with a sixty year old woman in bed with a handsome thing young enough to be her grandson. Crawford and Hardin's love scenes are played straight, with no comment about the age difference or any acknowledgment that some in the viewing audience might find it creepy. It simply is.
And, let us not forget, it is as casual a sexual dalliance as movies were capable of depicting at the time. Serious dramas of the late 1960s and 1970s would take on issues of free love but only when these subjects were the central point of the movie, to be agonized over and dissected as a social and moral phenomenon. In Berserk! the thing that would in anyone else's movie be the main dish is here matter-of-factly dropped in as garnish so that Cohen can concentrate on the next murder: a trapeze artist strangled by his own tightwire, a daredevil impaled by knives, a magic act of sawing a woman in half that goes predictably astray...
In the Hardin-Crawford relationship, it is Hardin (playing highwire artiste Frank Hawkins) who is searching for true love, while Crawford (as circus owner Monica Rivers) bluntly rejects anything romantic. Think of it-a film where the man is the emotionally needy one, the woman the player! And she's more than twice his age!
When Monica quips, "Long ago, I lost the capacity to love. Let's enjoy what we have-it makes this crazy circus life more bearable," these words come so credibly from Crawford's lips. The woman was weather beaten by her own failed love affairs, and around the time Berserk! was made had come to peace with her romantic misadventures. Life in Hollywood put one under public scrutiny and among emotionally needy egotists, not factors designed to aid in true emotional commitment. The best she could hope for was to be happy day to day, to not be lonely. For a time, Herman Cohen helped fill that void. Theirs was never a passion, but at least they weren't lonely. This is what you want, this is what you get. Cohen took Crawford as she was, but drew boundaries to keep her in line. No drinking without his permission, no drinking at all before noon. To keep her to her agreement, he kept her flask in his jacket pocket.
She behaved herself throughout the shoot, and even treated this ragged little B-movie as if it were one of her glamorous Hollywood epics of old. She arrived on set early to cook breakfast for the crew, as if inspired by the party her character throws for her employees in the film. Curiously, whether intentionally or not, the script of Berserk! seems to borrow liberally from its own off screen drama. Along with the nods to Crawford's bruised love life and Cohen's line of work catering to his customers' bloodlust, the story also points out a performer whose drinking has eroded her ability to be trusted by her employers. Off screen, Crawford rankled at what she saw as costar Diana Dors' low-class sexpot image: in the film, Monica calls Dors' character "a slut."
And then there is the relationship between Crawford's character and her defiant daughter Angela, played by Judy Geeson. Crawford's actual daughter Christine had long wanted to break into her mother's field, and very much wanted the role. Not very taxing or extensive, yet with the possibility of juicy scene-stealing moments, it would have been ideal for a novice actress, yet mommy all but prevented her from getting it. Why? In various interviews, Joan offered conflicting explanations, but taken together they form the true answer. Had she appeared side by side with her daughter, inevitably people would be compelled to draw comparisons, to vet which was better, or prettier. Although neither would really benefit from such comparisons, clearly the older established actress had the most to lose. And, privately, Joan remarked that Christine was "too old for the part." That is, putting her on screen would show just how old Joan would have to be to be this girl's mother. Raw nerves prevailed, and Joan Crawford performed alongside the unimpressive Miss Judy Geeson instead (and then made catty remarks about her behind her back).
Berserk! is undemanding Saturday afternoon fare, with simple pleasures on offer. The sight of Michael Gough getting a spike driven through his skull, for example. Or, more impressive and indeed inspirational, the sight of Hollywood legend Joan Crawford in the fifth decade of a world-class career, undaunted by age. She plays a complex, uncompromising woman of many strengths and stunning legs-because she was all of those things. She ennobles this tawdry film, because in this disrespected backwater of the film industry Herman Cohen gave her the chance to do so. Save your pity, this glamour queen doesn't need it.
Producer: Herman Cohen, Robert Sterne
Director: Jim O'Connolly
Screenplay: Herman Cohen, Aben Kandel
Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson
Film Editing: Raymond Poulton
Art Direction: Maurice Pelling
Music: John Scott
Cast: Joan Crawford (Monica Rivers), Ty Hardin (Frank Hawkins), Diana Dors (Matilda), Michael Gough (Dorando), Judy Geeson (Angela Rivers), Robert Hardy (Supt. Brooks).
by David Kalat
Andy Boot, Fragments of Fear
Shaun Considine, Bette and Joan
Lawrence Quirk and William Schoell, Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography
Jonathan Rigby, English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema
Bob Thomas, Joan Crawford: A Biography
Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia