The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus / Le Sadique Baron von Klaüs / La Mano de un Hombre Muerto (1962/2001) **½
From the mid-1950’s to the mid-1960’s, horror films in Continental Europe were primarily gothics, most of them playing like the moody and anarchic doppelgangers of the more socially conservative Hammer horrors whose box office success did so much to inspire their creation. But as the 60’s wore on, the gothic’s leading role was increasingly contested by a more modernistic strain evolved from the murder mystery. The most familiar examples of the new breed were the Italian gialli, the earliest of which, Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, appeared in 1964, but a similar process was at work all across Western Europe. In West Germany, a new cycle of harsher and more violent Edgar Wallace adaptations gave rise to the Krimi, and even Hammer started leavening their established program of vampires and mad doctors with the occasional serial killer in the wake of strong returns on Scream of Fear. Expectedly, the old school of things going bump in the night and the new school of loonies with knives were generally an either-or proposition when it came to individual films, but every once in a while, you’ll come across an aberration like The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus. This was Jesus Franco’s second horror movie, intervening between The Awful Dr. Orlof and Dr. Orloff’s Monster, and in it the traditional gothic and the more modern psycho-horror mesh in an unexpected— and unexpectedly successful— way. There is a moody old castle on the edge of a swamp, a medieval torture dungeon whose present-day owner has found considerable use for it, a reviled noble family laboring for redemption under a centuried curse, an oft-whispered rumor about a malevolent ghost. Yet those gothic trappings are combined with such giallo-like elements as a black-gloved killer whose madness is very much a family affair, a cavalcade of lovely young women being stalked through empty streets in the dead of night, and a police force that just can’t seem to do anything right. Meanwhile, The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus gives us much more of the emerging Franco style than could be seen in The Awful Dr. Orlof, visible most strikingly in the obsessively eroticized climactic torture scene and in the inclusion, for no obvious reason, of a nightclub sequence a bit less than halfway through the film.
Come with me now to a little German village called Holfen, home of the von Klaus family. Clan matriarch Elisa von Klaus (María Francés) is on her deathbed, awaiting the arrival of her son, Ludwig (Hugo Blanco, of Dr. Orloff’s Monster), and his fiancee, Karine (Paula Martel). Meanwhile, in the village, two girls have gone missing. As local busybodies Hanzel (Serafin Garcia Vázquez) and Theo (Manuel Alexandre, from Life Size and Doctor, I Like Women— Is It Serious?) explain to Professor Kallman (Ángel Menéndez, from Night of the Skull and Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror), a psychiatrist staying at their favorite hangout, the Kamburg Hotel, the locals blame the disappearances on Baron von Klaus— not the current one, mind you, but his ancestor from five centuries back. The first baron was a notorious sadist, who tortured, raped, and murdered quite a number of girls before he was run out of the village to die in the swamps abutting his estate. Depending on which version of the tale you prefer, either the original baron returns periodically from his fetid grave to claim an additional victim or two, or he projects his spirit into the bodies of his male descendants, and makes them commit crimes after his old manner. At the very least, the current baron’s father had a criminal career that paralleled quite closely that of his infamous ancestor. He even met his end by drowning in the same patch of swamp. Kallman, who is apparently very interested in macabre folklore, takes Hanzel and Theo’s story under advisement, but he doesn’t believe that there’s actually anything to it. Hanzel and Theo certainly do, however, and their belief is only underscored the next morning, when they discover the body of one of the missing girls.
Shortly thereafter in some city I’m probably supposed to recognize, Karl Steiner (Fernando Delgado), a writer for Maidens and Murderers Weekly Magazine, receives his new marching orders from his editor. Word of the Holfen slaying has reached the city, together with reports of similar crimes occurring at intervals for hundreds of years, and Steiner is to head out to the little town and report on the story. Steiner arrives in Holfen just as Police Commissioner Borowski (Spotlight on a Murderer’s George Rollin) is going over the field where Hanzel and Theo found the dead girl, and Borowski is willing to let him hang around. Evidently the two men know each other. And while that’s going on, Ludwig von Klaus and Karine also make their appearance. Ludwig’s uncle, Max (Howard Vernon, from The Awful Dr. Orlof and Deadly Sanctuary)— the reigning baron— greets the travelers, and hustles them upstairs to see Elisa. Elisa, in turn, hustles everybody but Ludwig out of her bedroom in order to have a moment alone with her son. The old lady has no patience for Ludwig’s platitudes; she knows her remaining lifespan is best measured in hours at most, and she has important things to pass on before she dies. Elisa, you see, is herself a firm believer in the von Klaus curse, and she contends that the only way for Ludwig to be free of his ancestor’s malign influence is for him to destroy the contents of the chateau’s cellar and then make haste away from Holfen, never to return. This is because the cellar contains the dungeon where the first Baron von Klaus tortured and murdered his victims all those ages ago, and that chamber of horrors has been acting ever since as a storage battery of evil, afflicting the male von Klauses with its diabolical power. Elisa shows Ludwig where to find the key to the cellar, and swears him to do exactly has she has prescribed. Ludwig’s words of acquiescence are the last that Elisa lives to hear.
Well, either the old lady was out of her gourd or Ludwig hasn’t done a thing with the torture equipment in the basement, because the murders in Holfen have only just begun. Borowski and Steiner both devote nearly every waking minute to solving the crimes, and at first it seems like they’re on the right track. The murder of a touring lounge singer focuses the investigators’ attention on the Kamburg Hotel, and after a few false starts, the police commissioner determines that the most likely suspect is the man who signed in under the assumed name “Brenner” on the night the singer was killed. The evidence all points to Max von Klaus as the mystery man’s true identity, and Borowski has the baron arrested when he is unable to provide a satisfactory alibi for the evening. But then von Klaus’s clandestine lover (Ana Castor, of The Diabolical Dr. Z and Weekend Wives) comes forward to admit that the baron was staying with her. Meanwhile, another murder is committed while Max is in jail, and there is an unsuccessful attack on Max’s mistress the night after she has her talk with Borowski. Ludwig von Klaus, the natural fallback suspect, was apparently not even in town yet when the first murder was committed, which would seem to rule him out as well. Might the killer be Dr. Kallman? He is an outsider, after all, and he was among the last people to see the slain singer alive. Or what about Hanzel? Could his discovery of the first body have been a stratagem to deflect suspicion from the man who seems to have the strongest interest of anybody in the legend of the von Klaus ghost? Or maybe even Theo? Sure, the comic relief is almost never the culprit in these things, but if The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus has demonstrated anything so far, it’s that Jesus Franco isn’t playing by the rules. And finally, just in case, we might want to consider the possibility of multiple murderers, or even that it really is the first baron behind the killings— both of the living von Klauses have fairly convincing alibis for at least one of the murders, and it would be a terrible cheat if some member of the family didn’t turn out to be the guilty party.
The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus might win Franco a few new fans now that it’s finally been released in the English-speaking world after nearly 40 years of unavailability. It takes rather too long to get moving, and there’s significantly too much comic relief, but the final act represents some of the best work its director has ever done. Highlights include a wonderfully atmospheric chase scene terminating at the von Klaus mausoleum in Holfen’s reputedly haunted cemetery, some very effective stalkings that Franco would try (without much success) to replicate fourteen years later in Jack the Ripper, and the aforementioned torture scene, in which Margaret the Kamburg barmaid (Gogó Rojo, of Devil’s Island Lovers) learns just how bad her taste in men really is. Howard Vernon again gives some indication of why he was Franco’s favorite heavy, and Daniel White’s score comes very close to perfection in a number of scenes (not, as if this needed to be said, the ones in which it goes wandering off on one of its goofy jazz tangents). It could use some tightening up, and it displays some of its director’s famous inability to remain focused on the business at hand, but The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus is a far cry from the riotously inept movies that would make Jesus Franco a legend in later years.