Written by: Jefferson Richard & Joseph Kaufman, Henning Schellerup
Directed by: Jefferson Richard
Starring: George 'Buck' Flower, John F. Goff, and Greg Dawson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
It's too late to run. There's no time to scream... Just close your eyes and pray to die.
Many slasher open with an obligatory prologue, set sometime in the past, sometimes even 20 or 30 years before the main action. This is typically where some inciting action happens: a child inexplicably murders his older sister, a prank goes awry, a mother exacts vengeance on the counselors that let her son drown, a solider returns home to murder the girl who wrote him a Dear John letter during the war. You know the drill. Jefferson Richard must have also known the drill when he hatched Berserker because you know you’re not in for the same old slasher shit when this one opens in the tenth century. There, a Viking makes landfall as a fog rolls in and a howling wind heralds his arrival in a distant land. Draped in bearskin beneath a full moon, he roars, ushering the audience into the strange, bold world of Berserker, a slasher movie that feels like it was beamed in from another dimension (which checks out once you learn it was shot in Utah, so close enough).
Likewise, our very familiar set up involving kids going out for a weekend of campsite debauchery has more than enough wrinkles to distinguish it from the slasher pack. An amateur power rock soundtrack supplied by Chuck Francour croons over shots of carefree, sun-splashed partying. “You're a cool dude,” Francour croons as the kids goof on three-wheelers and chug cans of Miller Lite. Buck Flower is the ominous campsite operator Pappy, who doesn’t have time to put up with these loud-mouthed city boys. With a thick, vaguely European accent, he warns them not to disrespect the grounds. He’d rather they left him to his own devices, to drink and shoot the shit with his cousin (John F. Goff), the sheriff who also doesn’t care much for these kids after he busts them for littering on the way in. Even the kids’ campfire tale doesn’t bother with the usual story about an escaped convict with a hooked hand; no, the dweeb of the bunch has brought along a book of local lore that includes the story of the "berserker” an old Nordic belief that an unrested ancestral spirit can inhabit a descendant’s body and wreak havoc. Maybe this explains why folks at the campsite keep turning up shredded like ground beef. Or maybe not. Could be a bear.
Berserker is not quite what you expect from a slasher, much less one released in 1987, when the genre had fairly well run its course and required increasingly supernatural injections to keep the formula afloat. You think you’re in for the typical woodsy slasher routine, where the only intrigue is just how creatively the killer will butcher the cast, especially when it opens with an old couple biting the dust by an unseen attacker. But Berserker obviously doesn’t give a damn about expectations. It features a lot of the silly chicanery often associated with the genre, but when it comes to bloodletting, it’s not a raucous, outrageous splatter movie like so many of its contemporaries. Rather, it takes a more disturbing approach that sees the victims being mauled for an agonizing amount of time. This isn’t your typical splatter movie that wants you to delight in outlandish carnage.
There’s a weird moodiness to Berserker, especially once it gets going. Fair warning: that takes about 40 minutes, which is likely to be a source of frustration for anyone expecting nonstop decapitations and splattered limbs. But if you go in expecting as much, it’s easy to allow Berserker to slowly creep over you just like the fog that rolls in and suffocates the campgrounds. Even a movie with the lowest of budgets--and this one definitely qualifies--are easily elevated with a well-placed fog bank, which in this case transforms the unassuming Utah backwoods into some ethereal twilight zone. The wilderness seems to sprawl on forever, the night becoming blacker with each passing minute as the fog becomes a shroud concealing reality beneath the veneer of an old myth come to life. Berserker belongs to that class of wilderness slashers that genuinely feels like it’s stranded you in the middle of nowhere: there’s just something impenetrably insular about the setting because we’re only afforded a brief glimpse at the outside world when the kids embark for the camp. Otherwise, we’re left among thick, disorienting forests and ragged old cabins until sunrise. Until then, it’s every man--and bear--for itself.
I don’t want any of this to imply that Berserker is some deadly serious affair, though. It certainly postures at it but can’t quite get there since the entire premise is a little too silly. Likewise, it’s hard to feel all that torn up about the characters when their distinguishing characteristics are “dork,” “horny,” and “asshole.” To his credit, ringleader Josh (Greg Dawson) does make for a memorable asshole, at least: still brooding because his old man (who used to bring him to the camp) skipped out on him, he takes out his frustration on everybody. It turns out to be a bad excuse, though: according to Pappy himself, Josh has always been rude since he was about “yea high.” Speaking of Pappy, Berserker is surely among Flower’s finest hours as a performer; so often relegated to bit roles, this one ostensibly makes him the lead--if it can even be said to have a lead when most of the runtime is spent meandering through death scenes and ominous shots of a bear. But the camaraderie between Pappy and his sheriff gives the picture a nice little texture: there’s a lived-in quality to this duo as they wistfully recall old times and ominously talk around the sordid history of the campground. You can practically see the seeds for the film’s twist ending being planted here right before your eyes, but it doesn’t make it any less outrageous when it flourishes with a hilarious final shot.
Say what you want about Berserker, but you can’t accuse it of just being the same old slasher movie shit, not when it spends most of the movie making a feeble attempt at convincing you a bear is causing all the carnage before revealing a much sillier (but somehow even more obvious truth): we really are dealing with a deranged Viking man dressed in bearskin mauling people to death. Even though you know this is where he’s headed, Richard still manages to blindside you with the reveal; it turns out that the bear isn’t so much a red herring as it is a riff on Chekov’s gun. Let’s just say that if you introduce a wild bear, you’d better have it at least wrestle with one of your characters in an ill-advised and utterly galling stunt. We gave Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar for pretending to fight with a CGI bear in The Revenant; I think everyone involved with Berserker probably deserves no less than that.
Then again, maybe we should just be happy Berserker even exists at all. What’s more, we should be eternally grateful to the folks at Vinegar Syndrome for unearthing this one and bestowing a quality release after years of enduring low-quality bootlegs. It’s amazing that even this late in the game--15 years into Blu-ray’s lifespan, 23 years into DVD’s lifespan, over 30 years since the slasher movie heyday--that something like this can still be turned up to delight even the most jaded of slasher enthusiasts. I’ve seen a lot of these things over the years, and I sometimes strain to distinguish some of the more nondescript efforts. Trust me when I say I will have no problem distinguishing Berserker as “the one with the absurdly ripped bearskin Viking killer who wrestles a bear.” You don’t see that shit every day. Well, unless you live in Utah. For all we know, Viking curses remain a plague on their land. How else do you explain it being so...Utah?
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