Mario Bava’s 1972 film Baron Blood was a surprise hit that bought him the opportunity to make 1974’s Lisa and the Devil, a movie that went virtually unreleased at the time. Ironically, the latter film’s reputation as a baroque, surreal masterpiece has now entirely eclipsed the former’s more modest and conventional virtues, but both films should give pleasure of some kind to horror aficionados.
At the time, Baron Blood would have seemed a departure, since it attempted to graft the Gothic horror elements of Bava’s earlier, very successful films, such as 1960’s Black Sunday and 1963’s Black Sabbath (both also available from Arrow Video) onto the fashionable, groovy settings Bava had exploited in Hatchet for the Honeymoon or Five Dolls for an August Moon (both 1970). In effect, the movie anticipates the swinging Gothics of 1972’s Blacula and Dracula AD 1972.
Oddly, this genre revolution doesn’t seem to have energized the director. Filming on location near Vienna, in a magnificent castle and its surroundings, Bava seems less inspired than constrained by his surroundings, though things get livelier as the film goes on: the early scenes are over-reliant on the zoom lens, but the camera starts to move about and there are some typically elegant visual explorations in the second half. Italian filmmakers have always moved the camera less to follow narrative than to investigate space and instill atmosphere, and Bava exemplifies this tendency.
It’s a good thing too, since the plot here isn’t one of the best he ever worked with, recycling as it does numerous horror tropes, both recent and old. The malign influence of the ancient torture chamber is borrowed from Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961). The hideously charred villain, who masquerades as an unscarred but chair-bound gentleman, is derived from House of Wax (1953). Both movies starred Vincent Price, who was the first choice for this one, according to Bava-expert Tim Lucas’s typically informative commentary. Price being unwilling to work with Bava after the miserable experience of 1966’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (I’d say not Bava’s fault, that one), Joseph Cotten took the role of Baron Von Kleist (a meaningless literary reference), which freshens things up a little.
Bava compliments the Frankenstein’s monster of a narrative with a magpie-like visual approach, exploiting the settings with a wide angle lens, but throwing in nods to everything from 1963’s The Haunting (an oak door bulges inwards as if made of India rubber) to 1943’s The Leopard Man (seconds later, blood flows under the same door) to House of Wax again, with a sustained chase sequence which shows, if nothing else, that Bava’s memory for shots, in those pre-video days, was extremely sharp.
In addition to Cotten, who has a great entrance scene, gliding through an auction like a phantom, until his wheelchair is revealed as the source of his locomotion, the film stars Elke Sommer, who also returned for Lisa and the Devil. She’s rather good here, with her odd line readings, broad-shouldered, busty Teutonic fortitude and forceful screaming. She does terror well, though her best depiction of that emotion in a film, for my money, is still her rising panic at finding herself trapped naked in a car alongside a nude Peter Sellers in 1964’s A Shot in the Dark – it’s almost too convincing to be funny. A footnote for fans: I believe on the Italian soundtrack, Miss Sommer’s voice is being provided by Arianne Ulmer, daughter of the great Edgar Ulmer, whose crazy noir Detour (1945) was a favourite film of several Italian horror maestros, notably Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. Also appearing is Rada Rassimov as a female psychic, the only really interesting character, and one who manages to mix the plot up a little and make things less predictable.
As always with Bava, the photography and special effects do conjure up some memorably lurid and exotic imagery, and if this isn’t his most enthusiastic job, it’s still a fascinating late work: one could say that while this film acts as a compendium of his influences in the horror genre, its spicier follow-up serves as a summation of his personal obsessions.
Alan Jones’s intro to the film hints that the theme of returning evil from the past might be a reference to Nazism and Hitler, citing the film’s Italian title, which translates as The Horrors of the Castle of Nuremberg, but I think that title owes more to the earlier, and rather similarly themed shocker The Virgin of Nuremberg (1963), than to any political subtext. Bava doesn’t seem to consciously explore politics in his films, and in the film itself the castle is known as Von Kleist Castle or Castle of the Devils. Thematically, the film might have been strengthened by the casting of a horror icon in the Cotten role, so that the movie could have had some self-reflexive fun with the idea of an aging horror star returning in the seventies: a little like Peter Bogdanovich’s use of Boris Karloff in Targets (1968).
Arrow’s two-disc set features both the European and American cuts of the film, with their contrasting soundtracks (Stelvio Cipriani versus Les Baxter), both of which have their advantages and disadvantages. Serious Bava fans are going to want to own this.