AKA GLI ORRIRO DEL CASTELLO DI NORIMBERGA, THE HORROR OF CASTLE NUREMBERG
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 98 min/ 92 min [US version]
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
American student Peter Kliest travels to Austria to find out about his great-grandfather, the infamous Baron Otto Von Kliest, who tortured and murdered over a hundred people before being cursed by a witch and himself being tortured to death. He finds an incantation which, if read after midnight, can supposedly bring the Baron back to life, and with Eve, a woman who works at the Baron’s castle, he goes to the castle and recites it. Realising what they have done, they try to recant the incantation using an alternative spell but a wind blows it into the fireplace. The Baron, who is hideously disfigured, is now loose to torture and kill again. The following day at an auction, a mysterious wheelchair-billionaire called Alfred Becker buys the whole castle and sets about restoring it….
Baron Blood is really a lesser film by the great Mario Bava, and sees him doing his very best to make up for a pretty shoddy script. That he, at least in part, succeeds in making a solid film out of it is a good indication of his talent. The story, despite the screenplay being rewritten, is full of holes, even if you accept that, in part, the film is a throwback to horror movies of a much older vintage, all the way back to the 1930’s, and Bava even seems to be rehashing things he’d done earlier, while he probably wasn’t very emotionally invested in a tale where his favourite themes weren’t much in evidence. However, he clearly decided to create a picture of some worth, and, while there isn’t as much stunning use of colour as in the very best Bava’s, the striking camerawork and weird touches combine to create a film with a rather strong, almost dreamlike, atmosphere, while there’s also a rather subtle tongue-in-cheek element which shows that Bava was aware of its shortcomings and often just decided to have fun, and indeed the film is fun, if not really making much of a lasting impression.
Baron Blood came to Bava with its screenplay already written, by Vincent Fotre and William A. Bairn, who altered parts of Fotre’s script so it would appeal more for the American market at the behest of US distributors AIP. Bava asked Vincent Price to star, but Price, unlike it seems most actors, didn’t have a good time working for Bava on Dr. Goldfoot And The Girl Bombs, and refused. Ray Milland was asked but was ill and couldn’t travel very far. Producer Alfredo Leone suggested Joseph Cotton but Bava was surprised when he accepted after jokingly asking him. Unusually for a Bava film, Baron Blood was shot mostly outside of Italy in Austria just on the outskirts of Vienna. The first choice for the main castle location was Hohenwerfen Castle where much of Where Eagles Dare was shot, but Bava couldn’t do everything he wanted there so Burg Kreuzenstein was chosen instead. Shot in six weeks, finishing three days ahead of schedule and under budget as well, Baron Blood lost six minutes of dialogue and one gory shot in the US, and, as had happened before, the original score by replaced by a more bombastic new one from Les Baxter. In Italy, the film was Bava’s first money maker for some time, while in the US it was a big hit. Its success led Leone to tell Bava that he could do exactly as he wanted with his next film, leading to the great tragedy of his masterpiece Lisa And The Devil.
The jaunty, sunny music theme over the credits doesn’t really set the scene very appropriately, and, come to think of it, how many Italian horror films and thrillers open with somebody arriving somewhere [usually Italy] in a plane? Baron Blood doesn’t take at all long to get going – in fact it has a pace that is rather faster than is usual for Bava. Very soon there’s a creepy moment when Eve is accidently locked in the castle’s old torture chamber and sees a human face amongst all the instruments of cruelty – only it’s the silly housekeeper Fritz who likes to play jokes. Soon after, she and Peter show their complete stupidity by deciding to resurrect the baron, which seems to occur over two nights in montages that are illogical in places – we seem to ‘become’ the Baron walking about before we actually see him climb out of his coffin [not quite as good as the similar scenes in Black Sunday and Planet Of The Vampires but still quite effective], and what on earth is all that blood seeping under the door?- but which do conjure up a surprising feeling of fear. The Baron, who greatly resembles the killer in Blood And Black Lace with his long black coat and hat, doesn’t waste any time in murdering and torturing, the best bit out of these bits being when one guy is knocked on the head with a poker and you think he’s dead, but he actually wakes up in a coffin with spikes on the inside of the lid, and the Baron slowly closes the lid on him!
As the story progresses, it’s impossible not to be bothered by all the bits that haven’t been thought through, such as how the wheelchair-bound form of the Baron [it’s obvious it’s him from the start, so this is hardly a spoiler] gets from one level to the other in the huge, sprawling castle? And how on earth does he manage to put his tortured victims where they are, hanging outward from the roof of the castle on spikes? The dumbest bit is when Eve takes an antique, presumably extremely fragile tapestry and just folds it up like it’s a towel for the guest room, while some of the plotting feels very forced, like the introduction of a medium who conjures up a spirit from the netherworld for information about the Baron and his resurrection and gives our idiot couple a magic amulet which will help them, before being killed by him a few minutes later. Some of the more random things seem to actually help the movie though, enhancing the strange atmosphere, like when Eve, for no apparent reason, goes into a trance and the image ripples, or the discovery of an unsettling painting where a face has been painted over except for the eyes, or a typically uncanny appearance from little Nicoletta Elmi who had just been in Bava’s Bay Of Blood. At one point we think the Baron’s killed her, but for some unexplained reason he hasn’t. Unfortunately the climax, even if we appreciate that Bava wished to stay clear of graphic torture scenes, is rushed and half-heartedly staged.
Fortunately Bava and his cameraman [or rather co-cameraman] Antonio Rinaldi shoot this film in an unusual way which make it both visually interesting and almost hallucinatory in places as the camera seems to be often looking up at the air or the ceiling of the castle as it circles round and round, providing a slight dizziness for the viewer, but in a good way. The uses of a fish-eye lens and the zoom lens [the latter being something Bava fell in love with for a period of four or five films] are perhaps excessive, but at least it means that Baron Blood has style to burn. Four really rapid zooms into the Baron’s disfigured face transmit Eve’s fright well at one point, while Becker has a great introduction where, after winning the bid at an auction, you just see his face floating forward behind those in attendance, and only later realise he’s in a wheelchair. While the general colour scheme seems to be brown, there’s a terrific chase sequence, probably inspired by a similar one in House Of Wax, through a maze of foggy streets illuminated by green, blue and yellow. Also well achieved is the overall tone of the picture, which seems to be entirely aware of its own absurdity without really providing any overt comedy. Bava, though he was probably prevented from being allowed to alter the screenplay so it would incorporate more of his concerns, certainly doesn’t seem to dislike the material even if he wasn’t actually that interested in it.
Baron Blood is helped quite a bit by the acting. All Elke Sommer needs to do is look pretty and scream, but Joseph Cotten is really suave and sinister as Alfred [of course in his guise as the Baron he was mostly played by his stuntman Franco Totti]. He plays the part with conviction and certainly doesn’t give the impression that he was maybe slumming it! Everyone else is solid and, although dubbing is never really convincing, things are aided by the fact that most of the cast do actually sound Austrian. Stelvio Ciprini’s score cleverly manages to be brooding and slightly lyrical at the same time in places, such as the resurrection music which just has a touch of sadness to it. Some cues are genuinely unsettling too and along with that cheerful main theme makes for a good listen on CD. Perhaps Baron Blood is overall not an especially good film, but it has just enough things in it of interest, and has a few very notable aspects to make it worth recommending for undemanding horror fans after an entertaining, very old fashioned flick, even if it’s a considerable a let down from this director. I’ve watched it more often than some of Bava’s better [of which there are many] pictures.