Color, 1987, 85 mins. 13 secs.
Directed by Jef Richard
Starring Joseph Alan Johnson, Greg Dawson, Valerie Sheldon, Shannon Engemann, Beth Toussaint, Rodney Montague, George "Buck" Flower
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Consolidated (DVD) (UK R2 PAL)
You can count the number of slasher films that open with a metal-style depiction of a Nordic monster on one hand. In fact, you can count them on one finger... and that singular honor goes to Berserker (or according to the actual title card, Berserker: The Nordic Curse), a Utah-shot oddity that throws in bear attacks and lots of slashed faces to grab your attention. Barely seen in any theaters at all, Berserker managed to find a decent amount of viewership on VHS from Prism in the late '80s before dropping out of circulation for years until a very underwhelming British DVD came along in '04 culled from a dated tape master. Now it's back and growling in the woods thanks to a 2019 Blu-ray/DVD edition from Vinegar Syndrome complete with a fresh 2k scan from the 16mm camera negative. Anyone who squinted and scratched their heads trying to figure out what the heck was happening during those long nocturnal attack sequences will find a far different and more coherent experience here that deserves a place as one of the weirdest slashers of the golden era.
When a Viking ship pulls up to the North American coast in the 10th century and disgorges a musclebound man wearing a bear mask, the stage is set for a claw-slashed reign of terror in the wilderness passed down for generations. In the present day, an elderly couple are attacked by a bear - or are they? - that leaves their faces drenched in blood. Soon after, six party-crazed kids decide to head out of the city and hit the mountains for some "clean air" along with plenty of opportunities for sex and pot smoking. Mike (Johnson), Josh (Dawson), Kathy (Sheldon), Kristie (Engemann), Shelly (Toussant), and local scholar Larry (Montague) crank up the '80s rock music and hit the road only to get pulled over by a cop who warns them about the area. Finally they end up renting a secluded cabin, "the Miller place," from Scandinavian landowner Pappy Nyquist (character actor and smut veteran Flower) and settle in only to find themselves the target of a clawed menace that tries to rip off their faces one by one.
Complete with power anthems like "Cool Dude" and a very overripe performance by Flower complete with a quasi-Swedish Chef accent, Berserker certainly doesn't stick to the formula despite the basic body count setup involving city kids getting knocked off in the woods. Despite the fairly late date in the slasher run this one feels like it could have been shot much earlier with a nice, easygoing vibe that's only shattered at occasional intervals by people screaming and getting mauled for a minute or two. The actual nature of the villain is kept intentionally fuzzy (so to speak) for much of the running time, but it all pays off in an interesting reveal that puts this in horror territory that straddles a bit between subgenres.
As expected, the Vinegar Syndrome release looks quite beautiful all things considered with much richer colors than ever before and a great deal of clarity during those night scenes that left us all squinting before. The DTS-HD MA English 1.0 mono track is also much cleaner and crisper with the music (including those awesome songs) benefiting the most; optional English SDH subtitles are also included. The film can also be watched with a new "historical commentary" by 50% of the gang from The Hysteria Continues podcast, Justin Kerswell and Joseph Henson, who obviously have their work cut out for them filling almost an hour and a half of a film with minimal background info; however, they do a fine job covering the history of '80s horror, the role of hard rock and hairspray in the era, the tropes involved in some of the characters, and plenty more. A brief 18-second video interview with writer-director Jefferson "Jef" Richard precedes the feature itself, and he also turns up for the more substantial "A Family Affair" (25m46s) featurette covering his early days in L.A. in the late '60s, his time as an actor, his zeal to do just about any job in the industry, the mounting of this production via porno filmmaker money in Santa Monica, the use of family members in various capacities behind the camera, and his subsequent gigs on numerous Hollywood productions. In "Valley Girl" (10m46s), Engemann explains how she got the part while acting in Salt Lake City and got to show off her screaming skills while also touching on her ventures since then including some high-profile music work with Dolly Parton and channeling her inner Valley mannerisms for this role. The Johnson appears in "Beware of Bears" (16m20s) to explain how he got the role because of his job with the film's production company and getting to emote opposite the most famous ursine actor of the decade, Bart the Bear. Apparently this might be the only film whose set was landmarked by a dead cow skull, too. Finally Vinegar Syndrome's Brad Henderson conducts an audio interview with actor Mike Riley (9m56s), who plays the buff titular Berserker, about being cast thanks to his convincing audition roar and the experience of doing a bear wrestling scene that helped him find his limits as an actor. A still gallery (1m38s) is also included from the collection of Red Shirt Pictures' Michael Felsher.
Reviewed on January 3, 2020