A decent story should have a beginning to hook you, a middle that fills your stomach, and an ending for you to savor long after the metaphorical meal ends. This logic applies to all storytelling formats, but most aptly in recent decades with the embrace of film as the primary storytelling model. However, what can make or break a story is how that middle hits you. Is it just empty calories that you feed the audience in hopes to convince them that it’s a meal worth following through on? Is it so packed that it hits the stomach hard and sits there waiting to be digested? In the case of Jefferson Richard’s BERSERKER: THE NORDIC CURSE, the spicy kick at the beginning quickly fizzles into a flavorless, plodding plot that drags more lifelessly than the bear in this film.
The premise of the film itself holds a lot of promise. Taking considerable inspiration from the Nordic legend of the Berserker, the first 10 minutes of the film shows a Viking man making its way to the shores of North Amerca before the berserker rises up within him. Clips back and forth between the man and the actual bear provide plenty of fun for folklore nerds before launching us forward to the ’80s in Rainbow Valley, Utah. We are introduced to some kind of threat when an adorable senior couple gets slaughtered after getting lost near their campsite. Cue the segue to us catching a group of young adults heading up to a campsite to have a fun weekend of partying in the woods. We meet Josh (Greg Dawson), who you will grow to hate by the time the action picks up, Mike (Joseph Alan Johnson), Mike’s free-spirit girlfriend Shelly (Beth Toussaint), Kathy (Valerie Sheldon), Kathy’s not-so-thrilled-by-camping friend Kristi (Shannon Engemann), and the nerdy Larry (Rodney Montague).
Far more interesting characters are introduced when we encounter John F. Goff as Officer Hill and the late George “Buck” Flower as Pappy Nyquist. These seasoned veterans bring more depth to their characters in their brief time onscreen than the entire young cast to their own characters. Seriously, though, that also has a lot to do with the writing too. While too much time is spent on the campers partying it up, something far more sinister arises when nighttime arrives. It isn’t long before the campers start to figure out that something or someone is killing people around their camp area. While we don’t get too much time with them onscreen, in the time we do get them, enough character development is established by Goff and Flower when the climactic final reveal occurs that it almost saves the movie. However, a far more enriching tale could have been told if the focus had been on John F. Goff’s Officer Hill and George “Buck” Flower’s Pappy Nyquist. As it is, by the time you get to the film’s end, there is no emotional payoff and you’re glad to see the credits roll.
At first, BERSERKER: THE NORDIC CURSE had me hooked. The opening 10 minutes really snatches you with its editing, with the back and forth between the berserker and the bear until it becomes difficult to tell what is what. However, the excitement dissipates once we get to the campsite with the young adults. Too much time is spent focusing on the fun the campers are having that, by the time we finally get to the part where maybe something slasher-esque might happen, you almost forget that you were initially watching a slasher. I say this while also acknowledging that the first major kill with the young campers is decently edited. You have the back and forth between the sex scene that prompted Germany to ban the film from playing in the country to the screaming girl begging for her life. This scene finally prompts the movie to move past its deadened pace, but the execution of the horror falls flat.
Speaking of the horror, a lot of the horror of this film relies on the audience trying to figure out whether the murders are being carried out by a roaming bear (played by Gentle Ben the Bear) or by the berserker that is rumored to have settled in Rainbow Valley. Unfortunately, what could have easily been a great mindfuck falls flat due to an overreliance on that back and forth. This story element drags out a little too long that, by the time we get to the final act, the great bear-off between the bear and the berserker (Mike Riley) doesn’t have the same ah-ha punch that it could have had. Adding to that underwhelming reveal is the fact that in the kills onscreen, there are rather puppet-like bear claws that get utilized, which takes away from the believability of the murder scenes themselves. How can you take the breaking of a neck seriously with the swipe of a paw when that paw looks like something off a stuffed animal? It’s little details like these that take a viewer out of the moment, especially when they have to suffer through such a painfully boring middle act.
BERSERKER: THE NORDIC CURSE fulfills its promise of being a curse, a curse on a person’s ability to stay interested. While the premise itself holds a lot of promise, it’s hard to miss the lack of plot and character development while trudging through all 85 minutes of this film. And, for someone like me who absolutely loves seeing wildlife, when a horror film’s only positive is the frequent cuts over to a roaming bear being all bear-like, it makes you sit back and reconsider some things. Would it have been better to force myself to try to make it through this film or would my time have been best spent watching bear videos on Youtube instead? I think I would have been better off with the latter.
Think I’ve been too harsh and want to go check out the film for yourself? You can still buy a pass and check it out as part of the virtual Chattanooga Film Festival HERE.