e-mail:Smokey X. Digger
1972, Dir. Mario Bava
Say the name Mario Bava to any aficionado of Eurohorror and you'll hear of atmospheric films loaded with majestic camera sweeps and rich colors. You'll hear of his influence on films such as Friday the 13th and his profound influence on the work of director Dario Argento. Say the name Mario Bava to me and I'll tell you that Baron Blood is my first Bava experience, barring hazy memories of seeing Black Sabbath on TV as a child and thinking; "Who is this creepy old guy?" (no less than Boris Karloff). I'm no Eurohorror expert, nor do I pretend to be. My knowledge of the genre is basically limited to the first two Blind Dead films, Fulci's Zombie, Suspiria, a handful of Hammer films, and Baron Blood. I promise to work diligently to fix this deficiency.
So my own shortcomings aside, through my limited experience and through correspondences with those more knowledgable than myself, I've figured this much out: these Italians can sure shoot movies, but they can't write 'em. Baron Blood is no exception. The sets are marvelous and the camera work is masterful, but the script is weak and borrows heavily from House of Wax. The acting is mostly average, with Joseph Cotten and Elke Sommer (and her collection of ridiculously short skirts) heading the cast. But as I find myself saying more and more often; "That's not what we watch these damn things for!" (the mediocre acting, I mean).
In the opening scenes, the dialogue isn't exactly subtle. Peter Kleist lands in his family's homeland of Austria and meets his uncle Karl at the airport. He immediately starts barking up the wrong tree about his "ghoulish Baron" of an ancestor. His references to "conjuring up an ancestral ghost or two" and "scaring up family history" leave little doubt as to what lies ahead. Peter and Karl go to the still standing Castle Von Kleist which is being restored for use as a hotel, and meet Eva. She repeatedly gets the chance to let her vocal cords shine, here when the lunatic caretaker Fritz plays the Marty Feldman "head trick" from Young Frankenstein. She also becomes the requisite romantic interest as Peter quite obviously makes eyes at her. She dines with the Kleists that night and Peter reveals that he has a parchment written by Eilzabeth Holley, a witch who was killed by the Baron. The parchment contains incantations that will resurrect and send back the Baron. As is expected, Peter and Ava go to the castle at night and invoke the curse, reversing it when Eva gets cold feet. The next day they discover that the incantation will only work in the room the Baron was killed in. They promptly find said room and try it again, this time successfully. The parchment containing the incantation to send the Baron back blows into a fire and is burned to a crisp. My question is this; if the incantation only works in the one specific room, why did the same phenomena occur along with it in both rooms, and why was the reversing of the spell necessary the first time? Anyway, enter the resurrected Baron Otto Von Kleist, and he immediately embarks on a bloody rampage.
You would think so wouldn't ya? The Baron's first stop is the doctor's office. Actually a logical decision, considering that after a 300 year dirtnap one can't possibly be in the best of condition. Apparently the stench of the grave doesn't bother the doc who admits the Baron and treats him (in addition to not stinking, he's still bleeding after 300 years) before catching a pair of scissors in the throat. The Baron takes out a few more people, leaving one body hanging in the castle as a warning. He gets Fritz in an iron maiden type device, providing a nice gore shot of Fritz bits all over the spikes when he lifts the lid. Then at an auction to sell the castle (so much for that whole hotel thing), the winning bid is placed by creepy wheelchair bound American Alfred Becker, who has seemingly come out of nowhere. Eva meets with him in the castle and discusses the renovations. She leaves Becker and encounters the Baron who chases her throughout the castle until Peter shows up. Peter then brings her to her student dormitory where the Baron lies in wait. He chases her through the streets in a scene that mimics the chase scene from House of Wax almost shot for shot. The Baron's sillhouetted appearance is close to that of Henry Jarrod, the heroine calls for a taxi that doesn't stop, and there are several other similarities. This scene is beautifully lit and makes excellent use of shadow, transforming the streets into a maze of corners and fog. The influence on Argento is quite evident.
Our heroes begin to suspect that they have actually raised the Baron and contemplate how to send him back without the incantation. They enlist the help of a local medium called Christina Hoffman. She initially declines to help, citing indignance over the death of a witch and the resurrection of a murderer. She relents and channels the spirit of Elizabeth Holley. The witch gives them vague advice and seems to be glad that the Baron has been resurrected in order to suffer again, claiming that he can only be destroyed by those that he himself destroyed. Our heroes leave, and the baron comes for Christina. After visiting a police inspector (the scene seems superfluous, but better than the usual nonexistence of the police in these kinds of films) Karl realizes that his young daughter Gretchen passes by the castle on the way home from school. Sure enough, she encounters the Baron, and Bava creates a scene of palpable suspense. As Gretchen runs down forest paths away from the Baron, Karl, Peter and Eva race back to the castle in their car. Bava's quick cuts between the running girl and the speeding car make one wonder what has a better chance of getting Gretchen: the murderous Baron or the car.
Gretchen manages to make it back to her bike, and our heroes find her with only a skinned knee from "falling off her bike". They decide to warn Becker and go to the castle. He tells them that the restoration is complete and invites them all back for a tour. At home, Gretchen is convinced that Becker is the Baron. Karl, Peter, and Eva go for their tour and see that Becker has made some grisly restorations including bodies impaled on the turrets and a torture chamber complete with soundtrack. The wheelchair bound man showing them depictions of torture makes me again recall House of Wax, but perhaps I'm just being nitpicky. Our trio makes to leave, but stops to discuss wether or not Becker is the Baron. He makes the decision easy for them by showing up walking (a definite nod to House of Wax) and impervious to both the amulet and bullets. He tosses them around a little bit, knocking them out. Eva awakes to find Peter and Karl strapped into torture devices and Becker / Baron heating a blade in a fire. She also notices Fritz doing his swiss cheese impression in the opened iron maiden next to her. Becker / Baron gives Peter a few punches, missing by at least a foot each time. Eva then drops the amulet on Fritz, which causes Becker / Baron to scream in pain and thrash about when he was previously impervious to the amulet (perhaps some of the scenery he was chewing got stuck in his throat). Then several zombies (ostensibly past Baron victims) burst in and sic on the Baron. Karl, Peter, and Eva escape, cue ridiculous music, the end.
IN CLOSING: This film gives one the feeling that Bava found a magnificent locale to shoot around and hurried out a script, borrowing from House of Wax when the next step wasn't apparent. The holes in the script are many and apparent, such as the castle being renovated into a hotel, and then being auctioned off. The perturbation over having lost the reversal incantation is unwarranted, because both incantations are essentially the same. To summon the Baron, Peter says "kunic sator oman", to send him back he says it once forwards and once backwards, and then just kinda improvises. That can't be any harder to remember than "klaatu barada nicto", can it? A little fine tuning would've created some mystery around the Baron and the murders. For example, Peter's seeming obsession with raising the Baron could've been parlayed into suspicion that he was somehow behind the murders. The Baron is never given any attributes that would suggest he can change his shape, so when Becker comes under suspicion the viewer simply accepts it because the Baron just can't be anyone else. This movie's also plagued by the silly music present in many Italian flicks, although not to the extent of those of '80s vintage. The opening plane sequence works with its silly tropical music, but repetition of that theme is unnecessary. Even Becker's ominous pipe organ music degenerates into cheesy, baseball park music. But what makes this film worthwhile is Bava's cinematography. We are treated to many sweeping shots of the castle and its battlements, some so good, Bava shows them twice. So my final conclusion was that Baron Blood is basically a piece of eye-candy with mediocre acting. What makes that alright is that in this case the eye-candy is someone's talent, someone's camerawork, not computer graphics. This film, and others like Suspiria are weakly scripted, but satisfying enough based on the artistic direction and moods of suspense and terror they create. If you can jive with that, you would be doing yourself a favor by indulging in the world of Eurohorror.