• Berserker (Vinegar Syndrome) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Vinegar Syndrome
    Released on: October 29th, 2019.
    Director: Jefferson Richard
    Cast: Joseph Alan Johnson, Greg Dawson, Valerie Sheldon, Shannon Engemann, Beth Toussaint, George 'Buck' Flower, Rodney Montague
    Year: 1987
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    Berserker – Movie Review:

    Directed by Jef Richard in 1987, Berserker opens with a prologue where, in the 10th century, a Viking ship reaches the side of a lake. A man wearing fur and a bear mask jumps up and howls! Cut to the present day of 1997. Here a man named Homer (Oscar Rowland) and his wie Edna (Beverly Rowland) are slaughtered out in the woods by what appears to be a large bear. From here, we cut to the suburbs where a guy named Josh (Greg Dawson) and his pals – Mike (Joseph Alan Johnson), Kathy (Valerie Sheldon), Kristi (Shannon Engemann) and Shelly (Beth Toussaint) have stopped to pick up bookworm friend Larry (Rodney Montague). Why? To head out into the woods for a weekend of camping, pot smoking, drinking, bad metal and fucking!

    They get stopped on the way by Officer Hill (John Goff – who pops up in Isla She Wolf Of The S.S. and Ilsa Harem Keeper Of The Oil Sheiks as well as a few John Carpenter movies) who spies a beer can fly out of the truck window, but Josh talks his way out of an arrest and the cop sends them on the way, albeit with a warning – don’t litter, and watch out for wild animals. Upon their arrival at the camp site, they’re confronted by a squirrely old dude named Pappy Nyquist (George 'Buck' Flower putting on one of the weirdest ‘Scandinavian accents’ you’ve ever heard). He runs the place and while Josh is sure that Pappy will let them in with no trouble – his dad used to take him out here all the time as a kid, so he knows the guy – Pappy has other feelings about this. Thankfully, Mike and Larry talk the guy into letting them rent a cabin and off the go.

    The sextet gets setup and enjoys a night around the campfire as Larry regales them with stories of the area’s past and a local legend about a Viking berserker that still roams the woods. As they settle in for the night, it all hits the fan after one of the girls heads out to pee and Mike and his lady friend decide to find some privacy on a blanket under the stars. That thing that killed Homer? It’s still around, and it’s thirsty for blood…

    While Jefferson Richard might be better known as a producer – he worked on Maniac Cop, Get Carter, The Witch Who Came From The Sea and quite a few more – he does a good job directing this picture. The film is paced well, with the violence and horror kicking in just as you start to wonder when it’s all going to begin, and then not really letting up until the end. There isn’t a whole lot of character development here, however. There are sprinklings of it – Jeff talking about issues he had with his father, a conversation between Jeff and Larry about their friendship – but nothing substantial. The characters here are pretty much fodder, but hey, it’s a slasher movie, we don’t come to films like this expecting deep monologues about he meaning of life, we come to them for gory kills, gratuitous nudity and, if we’re lucky, some decent suspense. Berserker gives us all of that and makes some interesting creative choices along the way. Tying the story in to the Scandinavian legend and the roots of the area is a nice touch and the design work that went into creating the titular character is strikingly bizarre and genuinely intimidating. The movie also features real, live bear wrestling which, so far as I can tell, is a first for a slasher film, so bonus points for that.

    The performances are fine. Greg Dawson is effectively punchable. He has a punchable looking face. Josh drinks and drives, smokes and drives, makes crass jokes, blasts heavy metal music while his friends are trying to make out. It’s hard to say why anyone would want to hang out with him. Maybe it’s for his sweet truck. Anyway, Dawson plays the part as effectively obnoxious. Rodney Montague’s Larry is a nerd, but not unbelievably so. He’s a pretty regular nerd with an interest in Norse mythology. Fine, no problems here. Montague makes it work. Joseph Alan Johnson has a pretty great mullet and is the nicest guy in the bunch in a lot of ways. When it’s time to go swimming, his Mike doesn’t need a bathing suit, he just gets down to his tightie-whities and goes for it. Mike and Josh like to stand around shirtless and spray beer on one another. Hot stuff. As to the ladies? Beth Toussaint, who got her start in Bon Jovi’s She Don’t Know Me video and who had a stint on Dallas in the eighties and also appeared in Scream 3, is pretty decent. She gets very, very naked here, which is rad, but there’s something amiable about her character in this picture. Sexy but likeable. Shannon Engemann is decent here as well. Again, attractive and likeable. Valerie Sheldon as Kathy? Also, fine, and yes, nice looking and… likeable. Where the male characters are reasonably goofy, the ladies seem a little more balanced. Throw in none other than George ‘Buck’ Flowers in a supporting role and this all works out in our favor.

    Special mention absolutely must be made of the music used in this film. There are three songs in particular – King H., Stop/Cool Dude and Prisoner Of Rock N Roll that are written, arranged and performed by one Mr. Chuck Francour. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of information out there about him, but he also worked on a 1988 film called Dance Academy (also produced by Jefferson Richard) and on the 1989 film Sundown: The Vampire In Retreat (again, with Richardson producing). In 1980 he put out an album entitled Under The Boulevard Lights. It’s Cool Dude, however, which deserves your attention.

    Exhibit A:

    If that doesn’t sell you on the movie… just make sure you have the subtitles on when the music kicks in, the lyrics to this one are solid gold. Vinegar Syndrome, you’ve done vinyl releases for some of your titles before. If you’re listening, Cool Dude is a prime candidate for that treatment. Put Prisoner Of Rock N Roll on the B-side and call it done.

    Shot by Henning Schellerup (the same man that helmed Silent Night Deadly Night and The Boogens and did second unit work on A Nightmare On Elm Street!) the movie looks very good. Stretches of the film take place out of doors and at night, but the lighting is always good enough that we have no trouble seeing what’s going on. The kill scenes are handled very effectively, the film gets pretty gory in spots and the effects here are done well. There are moments when the bear is involved where you can clearly tell certain quick shots are done with someone in a costume but overall, for a film made on a modest budget, the production values here are better than you might expect them to be.

    Berserker – Blu-ray Review:

    Berserker arrives on Vinegar Syndrome freshly restored from a new 2k scan of the film’s original 16mm negative framed at 1.85.1 widescreen in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. Not surprisingly, given the 16mm source, this one is on the grainy side but the detail, depth and texture you’d hope to see from the new 2k scan is definitely there. Colors look really nice here and black levels are quite strong. The image shows very little print damage at all, the elements seem to have been in nice shape here, while skin tones look lifelike and natural throughout. There are no noticeable problems with any compression artifacts, edge enhancement or noise reduction issues – this looks like film from start to finish. All in all, a very fine transfer.

    The only audio option offered up is an English language DTS-HD 2.0 track. Although there is some noticeable sibilance in the mix, dialogue stays clear and easy to follow. Levels are properly balanced and there aren’t any other problems to note. Optional subtitles are provided in English only and thankfully they not only translate the dialogue but also the lyrics to all of the awesome songs used in the film (so you can sing along to Cool Dude if you choose!).

    Extra features start off with a ‘historical commentary track featuring Justin Kerswell and Joseph Henson of The Hysteria Continues! podcast. It’s a fun track with the two participants starting out by talking about how they first found out about the picture and their initial impressions about it before then talking about some of the video artwork and its comparison to the art from The Wall. There’s plenty of information here about the actors and actresses that appear in the picture, the film’s ‘enigmatic’ ending, how the film does and doesn’t conform to slasher tropes, comparisons between the sheriff and Crazy Ralph, how and why so many slasher films are set out in the woods, the Utah locations, who did what behind the camera, the use of a live bear in the film, the film’s use of local talent, the music featured in the picture and more.

    From there, we move on to the interviews, starting with A Family Affair, a new video interview with director Jefferson Richard that lasts twenty-five-minutes. He speaks about how he got into filmmaking at a young age, his love of cinema, how he wound up in Los Angeles doing theater which led to him getting into directing and producing. After that, he speaks about where the idea for Berserker came from, how they raised money for it, shooting the film in Utah and working with a lot of friends and associates to get the pictures done. He then speaks about shooting on 16mm, what it was like on set, getting his brother-in-law Buck Flower in the film, casting his best friend John Goff in the movie (which allowed him to have some cult actors in the film), why he chose the actors and actresses who played the campers, shooting the film in two weeks and how much fun everyone had on the project. He talks about moments in the film that were improvised, how he got the campground location, using the bear in the film and what that entailed, the film’s distribution and release, how it was received and how he just kept going in the business until he retired in 2006, only to jump back in once 2010 rolled around. Richard also offers up an optional eighteen-second introduction to the film.

    In Valley Girl we get to hang out with actress Shannon Engemann for eleven-minutes. She talks about how her agent in Salt Lake City got her the part after she’d been working as a model before then talking about the audition process and the film’s ‘loose’ script. She notes that it was hard work being on set and a very different experience from what she was used to, but she also talks about how fun it was and how she got along with the rest of the cast and the crew. She also talks about seeing the film on video as she can’t recall it getting a theatrical release, and her thoughts on seeing her own performance in the movie. From there she talks about her family’s background in the entertainment business and what she’s been up to since (including doing some potential work with Dolly Parton!).

    Beware Of Bears video interviews actor Joseph Alan Johnson that clocks in at sixteen-minutes. He talks about how the film came to be and how he came to be involved with it after meeting the producers while working in a night club that they started frequenting. He then talks about the script and the film’s low budget even if it was SAG authorized. He shares some thoughts on the cast and crew, living in Park City during the production, becoming friends with the other cast members, how he feels about the film looking back on it after all these years, having to learn how to drive an ATV for the film, heading to Italy for a spell to work on Fulci’s The Ghosts Of Sodom, what he’s been up to since getting out of film acting and moving to Florida, and, of course, the intricacies of working with a massive live bear!

    The disco also holds an audio interview with actor Mike Riley that runs ten-minutes and is conducted by Brad Henderson. They talk about how Riley landed the role in the first place when he just got out of college and was working for a modelling agency. He discusses auditioning for a role where all he really had to do was take his shirt off and roar, what it was like on set, having to wear a real bear snot, skin and claws as part of his costume, working with the live bear on the set, how it tended to be pretty cold during the shoot, befriending some of the other cast members, and how and why he never did any other film acting after this production because he had figured he would go to medical school and become a doctor but instead became a ‘computer geek.’

    Outside of that, the disc includes a still gallery, menus and chapter selection.

    As to the packaging, we get some nice reversible cover artwork that’s worth pointing out. If you purchase the disc directly from Vinegar Syndrome (which you can do here), the first 2000 copies come with a very nice limited edition slipcover from Earl Kesller Jr.. As this is a combo pack release, we also get a DVD version of the movie taken from the same restoration and featuring extras identical to those found on the Blu-ray disc.

    Berserker – The Final Word:

    Berserker is a pretty solid slasher. It’s well-made with decent production values, it features some quirky characters and some super rad music and it’s got some really good kill scenes and some bear wrestling too. Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray release is a welcome one, presenting the film in excellent shape, with decent audio and a nice smattering of extra features that detail its history. This one is a lot of fun and comes easily recommended.

    Click on the images below for full sized Berserker Blu-ray screen caps!