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Back in early 1973 I was an usher at the (now gone) National Theater in Westwood. The manager asked me if I wanted to go to a trade screening of a movie called Baron Blood being held up the street at the Westwood Theater. It was in the morning and I had a class, so the answer was no. A few months later the theater chain would be showing rip-offs of the Exorcist like Beyond the Door and happy to get them, but in the pre- Lima bean soup days Baron Blood wasn't considered worthy. I didn't catch up with it until a laserdisc was released, about twenty years later; by that time I was fascinated by Mario Bava movies, most of which were inaccessible in decent versions.
By 1972 Mario Bava's variety of film subjects had extended beyond gothic horror, with costumed warrior pictures, westerns, and even a sequel to American-International's "Dr. Goldfoot" spy comedy. His A Bay of Blood pushed far beyond the limits of Giallo horror, upping the ante for heartless violence. In a way Baron Blood is an about-face, a lively but not overly gory return to straight gothic horror with an eye on the American market -- stars Elke Sommer and Joseph Cotten still looked good on theater marquees.
Taking place in modern-day Germany, Baron Blood is a fairly simple story of a monstrous ancestor brought back to life by an 'unspeakable' curse. Handsome Peter Kleist (Antonio Cantafora) and beautiful Eva Arnold (Elke Sommer) study Kleist's hereditary castle, and stumble across a written incantation. In addition to his habit of decorating the castle battlements with hanging corpses, the ancient Baron Otto von Kleist tormented and executed a suspected witch. She apparently did have black magic powers, for her incantation has the power of raising the dead.
Even in the shorter American-International version Baron Blood always seemed too long and predictable. Bava does wonders with a tired story by the writer of the old Sci-Fi turnip Missile to the Moon, elevating old-fashioned chills by sheer talent and storytelling willpower. We like Elke Sommer's mini-skirted student but Antonio Cantatora is uninspiring as the Von Kleist heir who accidentally resurrects his evil ancestor. As pointed out by Tim Lucas, the rest of the movie plays out much like House of Wax. Velvet-throated Joseph Cotten is a welcome presence, although his villainy is obvious to everyone except the leads. Viewers will probably need Tim Lucas to identify most of the supporting actors, but even casual Euro-horror fans will spot Luciano Pigozzi (aka Alan Collins) in a brief role. Pigozzi was known as the Italian Peter Lorre.
Dressed in some truly garish costumes, Sommer is chased through misty streets for the film's best scenes. After the mod trappings of some of his previous thrillers Bava gives us another big helping of his gothic lighting When Bava stages nocturnal corridor or crypt- stalking in depth, with backlit mist and unmotivated but deliriously expressive rim lights, the magic works every time. Baron Blood isn't as lush or as accomplished as, say, Black Sabbath, but by the early '70s most Italian filmmakers were feeling the stress of tighter budgets. The atmospheric effects share screen time with conventional arrivals and departures in automobiles, etc. At 98 minutes, Baron Blood is Bava's most leisurely paced gothic horror.
Kino Classics' Blu-ray of Baron Blood is quite an eye-opener. Previous DVDs were fairly good looking but we're once again impressed by what a good transfer can pull from Mario Bava finely wrought images. The HD enhancement brings out color shadings and fine detail that previously fell into darkness. Bava's insistent zoom shots aren't improved, however. The zoom lens was the low-budget director's answer to short shooting schedules, and it's a shame that Bava overused it in some of his work, like Hatchet for the Honeymoon. Nothing debases Euro filmmaking of this period worse than Spastic Zoom Syndrome.
Some new reviewers have complained about the opening title sequence, which is less sharp and has more scratches and dirt than the rest of the film. It is definitely not a flaw of this new transfer. The shots of passenger jets are almost certainly free airline stock footage, an extra generation or two removed from original photography. As did all producers of international movies Alfredo Leone had to make several sets of titles for different language markets, so they were probably contracted out at a bargain rate at the kind of lab that didn't re-do work for things like hairs in the gate or misspelled actor's names.
Kino's extras take a smart first step by retaining Tim Lucas' earlier feature commentary. Baron Blood seems much more interesting as we learn how producer Leone had to pry Bava loose from his home turf to make a movie in Austria. The great director liked making movies his way, in locations in or near Rome. With Lucas pointing the way, every scene reveals new background information. Lucas identifies many walk-through extras as people attached to the production, a producer's relative or Bava himself.
An alternate Italian title sequence is present, so we finally get to see what Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga (Horrors of Nuremburg Castle) looks like spelled out on the screen. The only track on the disc is the original English, with Elke Sommer and Joseph Cotten's voices. Also on view are trailers for this film and other Bava attractions, and even some radio spots.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Baron Blood Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.