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.

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