Baron Blood / The Thirst of Baron Blood / The Torture Chamber of Baron Blood / Chamber of Tortures / Gli Orrori del Castello di Noremberga (1972) ***
As I remarked in my review of The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus, Europe in the 1960’s saw a prolonged contest for market share between traditional gothic horror and a newer interpretation of the genre eschewing old-fashioned spookery in favor of commonplace, contemporary settings, and “realistic,” psychologically-motivated villainy. (To be sure, a similar competition was playing out in America at the time, too, but the issue was complicated on this side of the Atlantic by the continued vitality of 50’s-style sci-fi horror, which never took firm root in the Old Country save in the form of increasingly eccentric rip-offs of Eyes Without a Face.) One especially interesting factor in the great tug of war between the ghosts and the maniacs is the central role which Mario Bava played in the development of both schools. Under the direction of Ricardo Freda, Bava had photographed The Devil’s Commandment, the first modern Italian horror film, then went on to make his own directorial debut with Black Sunday, a movie that would in many ways define the Italian gothic for the next decade. Equally definitive was Blood and Black Lace, the picture with which Bava effectively invented the giallo four years later. But contrary to what one might expect, Mario Bava’s career as a horror director cannot be comfortably sorted into a gothic period and a giallo period, for he worked in both modes throughout the 1960’s, enjoying considerable success in each. And it is because of that fact that I believe Baron Blood, generally regarded to be one of Bava’s least consequential movies, deserves a great deal more attention than it usually receives. Baron Blood, you see, is best understood as a gothic giallo, and gives every impression of being the film with which Bava attempted to close the book on both major currents of his career up to then, clearing the way for new approaches fitted to a new era.
Baron Blood’s first image seems incongruous in the extreme for a movie with that title, or indeed for a movie called The Horrors of Nuremberg Castle (Gli Orrori del Castello di Noremberga)— a Boeing 747 en route from the United States to Austria! Aboard that plane is Peter Kleist (Antonio Cantafora, from Sexy Sinners and Demons 2), a newly minted Master of Arts in search of a few months’ relaxation before forging on ahead toward his Ph.D. Peter has chosen Austria for his extended getaway because he has roots there; his ancestors had been the von Kleist family, a clan of considerable power, wealth, and renown before the upheavals of the 20th century. Hell, they even had their own castle. Of course, since that castle is known locally as der Schloss des Teufels— the Devil’s Castle— it should come as no surprise that the von Kleists weren’t exactly the most popular bunch around town. As Peter learns from Professor Karl Hummel (Massimo Girotti, from Duel of the Titans and The Giants of Thessaly), the uncle who picks him up at the airport, the family’s bad reputation stems from the activities of Baron Otto von Kleist, Peter’s great grandfather— remembered in local lore as Baron Blood. Otto fancied himself a witch-hunter, but really he was just a sadistic lunatic; by the time his subjects rose up and burned him alive in one the castle’s towers, he had tortured more than a hundred of the villagers to death. In an especially picturesque wrinkle to the story, the baron’s fate was purportedly predicted and in a sense ordained by one of his victims, a supposed witch who placed a curse upon him with her dying breath. The legend further stipulates that the witch’s curse didn’t merely provide for the baron’s death, but also for his subsequent resurrection, apparently with the idea in mind that his victims’ loved ones and their descendants would thus have it within their power to kill Otto von Kleist over and over again until they’d finally worked all of the hate out of their systems.
But time refuses to stand completely still, even in out-of-the-way Austrian villages, and legends, curses, and bad reputations have finally met their match in the form of the international tourist trade. Despite the tut-tutting of his more rustic constituents, Mayor Dortmundt (Dieter Tressler) has brokered a deal to have the Schloss des Teufels rehabilitated and converted into a luxury hotel, with the building to go up for auction as soon as the work is completed. (The von Kleist family presumably lost their ancestral claim on the castle somewhere along the line— possibly even as a result of the uprising against old Otto— because Hummel mentions that some of his relatives are hoping to scrape together enough money to compete in the mayor’s auction.) Being both the neighborhood’s resident historian and a collateral member of the baronial family, Uncle Karl has been placed in charge of the restoration effort, with many of the day-to-day decisions delegated to Eva Arnold (Elke Sommer, of Percy and Severed Ties), his most talented grad student. Peter meets up with Dortmundt, Eva, and the geographical embodiment of his family heritage when he talks Hummel into swinging by the castle on the way into town. The encounter between Peter and Eva is a fateful one, for Kleist is immediately taken with the girl, and gets it into his head to do something to impress her.
Now I’ve been a male for well over 30 years, so I speak with a certain amount of authority when I say that if you ever want to see a truly bone-headed stunt performed, there is no more certain way to bring it about than to find some man (the younger the better, although even octogenarians have proven susceptible on occasion) and suggest to him that a sufficiently impressive feat might catch the eye of a woman to whom he is attracted. As it happens, Peter has the wherewithal to perform a stunt more bone-headed than anything I’ve ever contemplated, for he has in his possession a certain antique parchment— the very document in which Otto von Kleist’s final victim is supposed to have recorded her curse. Furthermore, Peter’s parchment also contains what purports to be the incantation whereby Baron Blood can be raised from the dead to endure another round of reprisals for his hideous crimes. Wouldn’t it just sweep Eva off her feet if Peter took her up to the burned-out tower in the castle one night to recite the old witch’s resurrection spell? Incredibly, Eva goes along with the idea (so which is the more damning indictment— men’s aforementioned propensity for bone-headed stunts, or the fact that about three women in five apparently really are impressed by them?), and before you can say “nothing good will come of this,” the couple are chanting away by candlelight in the chamber where Otto died. The ritual is a resounding success, but luckily Eva is smart enough to freak out and demand that Peter recite the second incantation undoing the spell before the undead baron has a chance to do more than to rattle a locked door at them. Unluckily, Peter is a complete fucking idiot, and insists upon repeating the performance the following night, and this second time, a stray and probably supernaturally generated draft blows the parchment into the nearest fireplace before Eva can once again goad him into casting the counter-spell. Baron Blood is at large once more.
This is where the movie starts to get really interesting. Four decades worth of gothic horror films have us pretty well conditioned as to what to expect from resurrected European noblemen with endless torture-and-murder rap sheets. They might avenge themselves on the descendants of the people who brought them to justice, they might reclaim their ancestral castles and pick up more or less where they left off, or perhaps they might whip up some big and bloody ceremony of Satanic thanksgiving in order to repay the powers of darkness for permitting their reigns of terror to begin anew. And whatever else they may get up to, there’s a better-than-even chance that they’ll develop fixations upon girls who are played by the same actresses as the women they loved in life. What they do not do as a matter of course is go out on the town and start lurking in the shadows so as to ambush people more or less at random, and carve them into tiny pieces. Nevertheless, the latter is exactly how the reborn Otto von Kleist will occupy himself for the immediate future, starting with the local doctor (Gustavo de Nardo, from The Evil Eye and The Whip and the Body) and Fritz the town bug-eater (Luciano Pigozzi, of Five Graves for a Medium and All the Colors of the Dark). This killing spree triggers the involvement of the usual none-too-effective police inspector (Umberto Raho, from The Ghost and The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave), and leads in the fullness of time to an extremely stylish re-creation of House of Wax’s famous back-street stalking scene (with Eva playing the Sue Allen role). This is textbook giallo material, as is the effort by Peter and Eva to pick up the police force’s slack in catching the killer. The means by which they seek to do so is pure gothic, however, as they turn to a medium named Christina Hoffmann (Rada Rassimov, from Necropolis and The Cat o’ Nine Tails) to get them in touch with the spirit of the witch whose curse brought down Baron Blood three generations ago. Meanwhile, Dortmundt’s auction puts the castle in the hands of a mysterious tycoon called Albert Becker (Joseph Cotten, of Soylent Green and Lady Frankenstein). Those who recognized the film from which Bava was cribbing in the big stalking scene will become instantly suspicious when this hitherto unmentioned character rolls onto the scene like Vincent Price (or Lionel Atwill, for that matter) in his wheelchair.
I’m sure everyone reading this will have noticed by now that Baron Blood’s major story elements sit uneasily beside each other, and are held together by only the most fragile and tenuous bonds of logic. Most notably, it’s awe-inspiring how quickly the script loses sight of the fact that the sole reason why Otto von Kleist has become a problem again is because our hero, the Amazing Colossal Dumb-Ass, brought him back to life in a stunningly misguided attempt to get laid. One also has to ask where the resurrected Baron Blood got that wheelchair, how he learned about the auction in time to enter the winning bid, and whence he acquired the skills to create the false face he wears as Albert Becker. And while I don’t know about you, I personally have been doing a lot of snickering over the mental image of that witch frantically scribbling down her curse as the flames lick ever higher about her stake, finally folding the completed parchment into a paper airplane and tossing it clear of the all-consuming pyre. It is the surest sign of Mario Bava’s genius that this frankly idiotic movie works anyway, and that it is only afterward that the countless narrative weak points begin needling the viewer’s mind. Tightly cohesive storytelling was rarely the main attraction in Bava’s work, however, and those who come to Baron Blood looking instead for lush cinematography, nightmarish atmosphere, and canny reworkings of scare techniques that have been in the cinematic lexicon since at least the 1920’s will not be disappointed. Although the subject matter is undeniably somewhat threadbare, having been worked over in one way or another in everything from Black Sunday to Twitch of the Death Nerve (to say nothing of all the hundreds of times those movies were copied by other, generally inferior, filmmakers), Baron Blood shows Bava to be as masterful a visual stylist as he ever was. Von Kleist’s second, decisive resurrection deserves to be remembered as one of the definitive scenes of its kind, and Baron Blood’s reenactment of that key passage from House of Wax manages to improve upon its already very impressive model. And since the threadbare quality of the plot and premise looks to my eye to have actually been a large part of the director’s point in making this movie, I have to disagree with the conventional wisdom that Baron Blood is one of Bava’s minor films. Its overall quality may be unexceptional, and its best scenes may be riffs on earlier, more highly regarded pictures, but no movie in which a director of Bava’s standing appears to be writing the epitaph for the preceding twelve years of his career can justly be dismissed as “minor.”