Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Berserker: The Nordic Curse (1987)

Warning: I’m going to get a bit spoilery here; on the other hand it’s going to be one of the spoiled elements that’ll be the film’s main draw for most potential viewers (you know who you are).

A bunch of the usual young ‘un stereotypes go fishing and hut dwelling in your usual dark woods somewhere in the United States. George “Buck” Flower is playing a guy called Pappy Nyquist; a police man exists (John F. Goff). One of the kids (character and actor names aren’t really needed) – the Intellectual, obviously – reads from a book about the Vikings, because the local area had mostly been settled by Norwegians. From him, we learn a bit about berserkers, specifically a curse that opens up the descendants of berserker bloodlines to possession by berserker ghosts. Oh boy, history can be so exciting.

And wouldn’t you know it? There is indeed someone or something with a bear snout and paws going around killing people in the area. Is it a berserker, or the bear the film shows off from time to time?

In many aspects, Jefferson Richard’s Berserker is your typical middle-80s (the point just before the films became all “funny”) low budget independent slasher movie. There are the paper thin characters embodied by actors with little experience and not much of a future in that career, the oh-so-very-slow first half of the film that spends a lot of time on things like showing the cop and Flower playing chess, or people just goofing around in front of the camera for no reason of narrative, mood, or character.

However, despite these not very enticing elements, Berserker has that peculiar something – call it magic – that made watching it a more pleasant experience than I’d feared. Some of that is caused by some actual filmic achievements, for Richard, particular once the plot gets going, does know how to shoot an (improbably bright by night) wood with all the atmosphere mist, blue light and a primitive (in a good way) soundtrack made out of fake wind noises and random synth warbling can provide, which is an excellent way to make something out of the best production values nature (and cheap electronics) can provide. Done right, and it is done right in this case, watching kids creep through the woods and getting murdered can provide a lot of bang for one’s buck, and doesn’t ever get old to my eyes (particularly since the advent of corridor horror redefined true visual boredom, or horror). What I’m saying, I think, is that the later parts of the film show a bit of a sensibility all its own. Let’s called it individuality. For an example, just look at how creepily it realizes the old tacky chestnut of the sex scene intercut with a murder scene. It’s not exactly tasteful, but it certainly works better at making me uncomfortable than a lot of these scenes do in other movies; most probably because Richard even mirrors the camera angles of the two scenes appropriately, really making the old sex and death story work for him.

There are also some surprises to the script: the way the film takes elements of slasher, nature strikes back horror, and some survivalist thriller bits is actually pretty clever, and leads to some truly unexpected scenes. In particular, it’s the scene where our film’s killer in his partial bear cosplay costume gets to wrestle a bear, a scene that nearly gives Leslie Nielsen mud-wrestling a bear in Day of the Animals a run for its money. And that’s not even the film’s actual climax, because that somewhat later scene aims for a bit of 70s horror feel, with our heroine (more or less) screeching “shoot him! shoot him!” until the rather doubtful looking cop indeed does shoot our killer. In other words, what starts out as a very typical cheapo slasher turns into something unexpected. People get killed if they had sex or not, I’m pretty sure the survivors aren’t virginal, and the way the survival horror elements make their way into the slasher narrative does lead to a handful of minor surprises.

It’s still seat-of-your-pants filmmaking of course (this is a film whose big guest star is Flower, after all), with many a rough edge, and a lot of elements it’d be easy to point at to call Berserker “bad”, but to my eyes, this one’s got heart and personality, and a head of its own, and is therefore good.

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