Saturday, June 25, 2016

#234: Baron Blood (Mario Bava, 1972)

Baron Blood is Mario Bava in a minor key, lacking most of the baroque visual splendor of Black Sabbath, Black Sunday, or Planet of the Vampires and the visceral intensity of Twitch of the Death Nerve or Shock, but it's far from a misfire. Bava here has delivered a satisfyingly old-fashioned horror film with a few of his trademark touches, a slightly irritating overuse of the zoom lens, a reliably creepy setting, and an awesomely weird performance from legendary actor Joseph Cotten. I enjoyed it.
Baron Blood opens in mid-air. American Peter Kleist (played by Italian Antonio Cantafora) has just finished grad school, and he's taking a break from the academic life to see his parents' homeland of Austria. When he lands, he's greeted by an uncle he's never met from his mother's side of the family, scientist and college professor Karl Hummel (Massimo Girotti). The two men get along right away, but Peter is also interested in exploring his father's more terrifying lineage. A distant relative on the paternal side, Baron Otto von Kleist was a torturing, serial-killing sadist in the 16th century who was known as Baron Blood. His imposing castle is in the process of being converted into a hotel in a project overseen by the town's mayor, Dortmundt (Dieter Tressler). Karl takes Peter to the castle to get an eyeful of medieval weirdness, and Peter also gets an eyeful of architecture student Eva (Elke Sommer) who in turn gets an eyeful of Peter. I'll stop writing "eyeful" now.
Peter and Eva hit it off right away and are soon in the castle at midnight, invoking incantations from an ancient parchment Peter found in his parents' things and brought back to the old country. You know, pretty normal shit. The parchment was a curse inflicted on the Baron from a witch he burned at the stake. The witch's curse decreed that the Baron would feel 100 times worse pain than that of his victims and that he would be summoned from hell in the future to experience this pain all over again if anyone invoked the parchment's curse in the room where he died.
Long story short, our two crazy kids summon the rowdy son-of-a-gun back to '70s Austria, where he goes on a whole new murdering spree. The killing spree halts the hotel plans, and the township sells the castle to the highest bidder, a creepy rich old American weirdo named Alfred Becker (Joseph Cotten), a wheelchair-bound omnisexual with a very unsettling giggle. Can our attractive young couple reverse the curse before the Baron kills them even though a gust of wind blew the parchment into a fire? And what's Alfred Becker's deal? And what exciting outfit will Eva wear next? These questions are all answered.
Bava is pretty laid-back by his standards in Baron Blood, but the film is still loaded with weirdness and macabre good times. A scene where the Baron chases Eva at night is filled with the incredible color palette and expressive use of shadows and bright lighting that the Italians were so great at from the mid-1960s until the early 1980s and that no one is that good at anymore. We also get a classic creepy little girl with long, straight red hair, which is one of my favorite Italian horror movie traditions. In this film, she's the daughter of Peter's aunt and uncle, but nothing else about her is explained, which I salute. I like films that leave certain weirdnesses unexplained.
Other highlights: The Austrian castle is a perfect location for the film's Gothic foreboding, and one of my favorite shots is the Coke machine the work crew has installed in the castle, so bizarre in its incongruity. The actors find that sweet spot between realism, horror cliche, and over-the-top ham. Some of the English dubbing is a little stiff, but any Italian horror fans have seen much, much worse. Cotten is a particular delight in a part that was written with Vincent Price in mind. Cotten channels Price while adding some weirdness of his own. If you only know Cotten through Orson Welles or Hitchcock, this is a whole new side of him. Vincent Price turned the film down. Bava then offered the part to Ray Milland, who accepted before backing out when he didn't want to travel to Austria. Bava then asked Cotten, though he expected the veteran actor to turn him down. To Bava's joy, Cotten thought it would be a blast and said yes. Baron Blood is also the first film to shoot scenes inside a 747, if any of you are keeping stats on that kind of thing. This is not one of my favorite Bava films, but it's pretty damn fun and '70s horror fans should check it out.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

#233: The Bells (James Young, 1926)

The Bells is a visually impressive quality entertainment with a few great scenes and performances and an enjoyable story and setting. It isn't a neglected classic, but it's really good and a fine example of the visual confidence and sensuality found in the late silents before that awkward period of transition to sound (roughly 1929-1932) when things got rough and clunky again.
Based on a play by Alexandre Chatrian and Emile Erckmann and its successful stage adaptation by Leopold Lewis, The Bells is similar to Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" in that a good person does something terrible to get out of a jam and is then hit by severe pangs of conscience brought on by a particular sound. In this case, our sinner is also visited by the ghost of the aggrieved party.
Mathias (Lionel Barrymore, great-uncle of Drew) and his wife Catharine (Caroline Frances Cooke) own a popular tavern and adjoining mill in a small Austrian village and should be doing great. Much to Catharine's chagrin, Mathias, while a kindhearted soul, is a pretty godawful businessman. He lets the townspeople pay for their food, drinks, and mill supplies on credit, and the townspeople take tremendous advantage of this kindness. Making things even worse, Mathias refuses to collect on any of this credit because he is running for burgomaster and thinks it will hurt his chances. He is heavily in debt to a bitter old creep named Jerome Frantz (the incredibly named Gustav von Seyffertitz) who will assume the tavern and mill if Mathias doesn't pay up by the agreed-upon date. Frantz offers to forgive the debt only if Mathias gives him his daughter's hand in marriage, which Mathias honorably refuses.
On a snowy Christmas night shortly before the debt is due, a Jewish man from Poland named Koweski (E. Alyn Warren) stops at the tavern for a drink and a bit of relief from the snow before trudging back out again. Mathias and Koweski bond over a bottle of fine booze until Mathias discovers the other man is wealthy and traveling with a pouch full of gold. In a moment of drunken desperation, Mathias grabs an ax and follows Koweski when the Polish man leaves. Mathias murders him, steals his gold, and disposes of the body in his mill's lime kiln. Koweski clutches some bells as he is killed, and the sound continues to haunt Mathias after he's used the gold to clear his debts. Though it's just a plot point, an Austrian Christian murdering a Polish Jew can't help but take on a greater resonance considering what would follow in the real world a decade later. This is made even more chilling by the emphasis the movie places on fortune telling and hypnotism.
What follows is not surprising, and the storyline was already well-trod ground in 1926, but director James Young tells it with visual beauty, style, and a quick pace. The film has a graceful elegance in its movement and a warm, polished-wood visual style that drew me in to the story of a close family running a small business in a European village. The only real misstep is its abrupt, too-pat ending that wraps things up too neatly and too quickly without exploring any substantial consequences.
The cast is mostly excellent, with Barrymore playing Mathias in a realist minor key without the grand gestures and melodrama that sometimes signifies silent film acting. Lola Todd as Annette, the daughter of Mathias and Catharine, is a subtly charismatic mixture of the girl next door and silent film star glamour, and the great Boris Karloff plays The Mesmerist, a role I haven't even talked about to avoid excellent surprises. I'll just say his costume is something to behold, and he is clearly having a lot of fun in the part.
Director James Young transitioned to the movie business after working in vaudeville and on Broadway. He acted in 60 silent films and directed 93 but got out of the business when sound films took over, though he would live until 1948. I haven't seen any of his other films, and he's not generally known as one of the greats, but The Bells is an excellent bit of entertainment.