Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The Legend of Blood Castle (1973)

Erzsébet (or Elizabeth) Báthory has been the subject of quite a few horror movies. The infamous 16th century countess may well have been one of the most prolific serial killers in history. Or she may have been merely the innocent victim of a politically and religiously inspired conspiracy. Whatever the truth of the matter, she remains a legendary figure of evil. The Legend of Blood Castle (Ceremonia sangrienta) presents an unusual twist on her story.

It isn’t actually the story of the notorious blood countess herself, but of a descendant of hers a couple of centuries later. This descendant bears the same name as her ancestor. And she shares her ancestor’s morbid fear of growing old. She also has a more immediate cause for concern. Her husband is growing tired of her. If only there was a way she could regain his love, and avoid the horrors of ageing as well. Her sinister elderly maidservant suggests to her that there is indeed a way of doing both these things. The methods used by her ancestor worked, and they will work again.

The countess needs an accomplice if she is to obtain sufficient quantities of blood from beautiful young virgins. This accomplice is to be none other than her husband Karl.

Karl, as the lord of the extensive territories surrounding the castle, has been involved in an unusual criminal trial. The defendant (a doctor of medicine) is present in court, but he is dead. He is confined in his coffin, and accused of vampirism. It is claimed that a medallion he was wearing has strange occult powers, powers that will bring inevitable death. Karl is sceptical, and volunteers to wear the medallion himself. Soon after this the report spreads that he has died suddenly. The countess discharges her servants except for the elderly maidservant, but as they leave the castle one of the servants is certain she can see the deceased count watching from an upstairs window.

Young woman start to disappear mysteriously. Erzsébet has begun the process of trying to regain her lost youth, and her need for blood must be met.

There’s another subplot involving the local innkeeper’s daughter Marina. She has considerable ambitions, her principal ambition being nothing less than to snare the affections of the count. She makes use of a magical charm, and this combined with her considerable physical charms soon attracts the count’s attentions.

Spanish director Jorge Grau handles the interlocking subplots with considerable skill. This is fairly typical eurohorror, but it’s representative of the more conventional variety of eurohorror. There’s none of the extreme visual flamboyance of a Bava or an Argento, or the surrealism of a Rollin, or the jazz-fueled weirdness of a Jess Franco. In fact there’s a coherent linear plot. On the other hand it does have a certain air of decadence and depravity, and a suggestion of sexual kinkiness. And while Grau’s style isn’t spectacular his direction is more than competent. The cinematography is equally skilled.

It’s also fairly well acted. Ewa Aulin is adequate as Marina. Espartaco Santoni is very charismatic as Karl, and Lucia Bosé is weird and creepy but also a little pathetic as Erzsébet. Her performance is the key, and she carries it off with great success.

Grau doesn’t rely on buckets of blood, but there’s still a fair amount of blood that gets spilled in this film. The atmosphere is more important though, and it’s suitable gothic and highly effective.

Like many Spanish genre movies in the early 70s this one was made in both a “clothed” and a “nude” version. The DVD (from Mya Communications) gives us the clothed version, this being the best surviving print. The alternate scenes included from the “nude” version suggest that it was almost as tame as the clothed version. I’ve heard varying reports on the quality of DVDs from this company, but I have to say that this one was extremely good. Unfortunately it’s dubbed in English (Italian and Spanish soundtracks are provided as options but they lack English sub-titles). Both the sound and the picture quality are exceptionally good.

This is really a very fine example of eurohorror, well-made and with an intelligent and complex script that comes together very satisfactorily. While my personal preferences run to the more bizarre varieties of eurohorror I can still recommend this release very highly.

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