Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Baron Blood (1972)

Baron Blood is generally regarded as one of Mario Bava’s lesser efforts. It’s not a movie the director particularly wanted to make. For one thing producer Alfredo Leone was insisting that the film be shot on location in Austria. Bava hated to travel and was horrified by the idea of making a movie outside Italy. Leone eventually prevailed and when he found  the extraordinary castle that was to be the setting for the movie Bava was won over - he could see that he was going to have a lot of fun with such a perfect setting for a gothic horror movie.

Of course by 1972 gothic horror was considered by many film industry people to be a genre that was past its use-by date. As a result Baron Blood adopts a similar strategy to Hammer’s almost exactly contemporary Dracula AD 1972 - both are gothic horror movies transplanted somewhat uneasily into the modern world.

Baron Blood, again like Dracula AD 1972, deals with an ancient horror accidentally brought into the world of the 1970s. Peter Kleist is a young man who is taking a break from his studies and is spending some time with his uncle Dr Karl Hummel (Massimo Girotti). His uncle lives not far from the castle that was once the home of Peter Kleist’s notorious ancestor, Baron Otto von Kleist, known popularly as Baron Blood. The castle is in the process of being converted into a hotel. A young architecture student, Eva Arnold (Elke Sommer), is employed on the project although she strongly disapproves of some of the proposed alterations.

Peter Kleist has obtained an old parchment that supposedly embodies a curse directed at the evil baron by a witch he had had burned at the stake. The parchment allegedly contains an invocation that can restore the infamous Baron Blood to life. Rather unwisely Peter and Eva decide it would be good clean spooky fun to go to the castle at dead of night and perform the invocation. At the last moment they hurriedly reverse the invocation, but then even more rashly they return the next day to repeat the invocation. This time, unfortunately, the parchment is accidentally destroyed meaning that the invocation cannot be reversed. This is particularly unfortunate since, as they will soon discover, they have been all too successful in restoring the baron to life.

While all this is going on the castle has passed into the hands of a new owner, a mysterious but wealthy man named Alfred Becker (Joseph Cotten). Becker has no intention of allowing the castle to be converted into an hotel - he is going to restore it to its original condition and he is going to live there. No-one seems to know very much about Herr Becker but Peter and Eva soon have cause to suspect that he is not what he seems to be.

The big problem now facing Peter and Eva, and Peter’s uncle, is that the revived Baron Blood seems to be indulging his old taste for murder and torture and there seems to be no way of stopping him. The one slim hope lies in a psychic named Christina Hoffmann (Rada Rassimov). She has the power to call up the spirit of the witch who placed the original curse on the baron but even assuming she can be persuaded to help the chances of defeating the baron seem unpromising.

This movie was for Mario Bava a return to his roots, a return to the gothic horror genre in which he first achieved success as a director. It is a very nostalgic kind of movie, filled with references to earlier Bava movies. Bava in fact is gleefully plundering his own back catalogue. Baron Blood is therefore in some ways a backward-looking movie although Bava fans will get a great deal of enjoyment from spotting the homages to both Bava’s own earlier films and to some of the great classics of the genre. 

Baron Blood might seem like a bit of an indulgent exercise in nostalgia but audiences did not seem unduly concerned by this and it did extremely well at the box office, proving that well-made gothic horror always has audience appeal. And while Baron Blood might not be one of Bava’s more original efforts it is unquestionably a very well-crafted movie.

Joseph Cotten gives an outrageously over-ripe but delightfully entertaining performance. Elke Sommer proves herself to be a very capable scream queen.

The British Arrow Video Blu-Ray/DVD release is a rather sumptuous affair, offering three different cuts of the movie - the Italian release (with English subtitles), the original International release in English and the shortened AIP version. The original English-language International release was in fact always regarded by both Bava and producer Alfredo Leone as the original version of the film. The three different cuts are offered on both Blu-Ray and DVD. The extras include the invaluable Tim Lucas commentary track originally recorded for an earlier DVD release.

Baron Blood might not be one of Mario Bava’s major films but gothic horror fans will find it to be thoroughly enjoyable, and visually it’s classic Bava. Highly recommended.

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