‘If we don’t dig him, we’ll ditch him.’
An Austrian castle that once belonged to a sadistic 16th Century nobleman is being converted into a hotel for American tourists. One of the aristocrat’s thrill-seeking descendants raises the long-dead Baron from his grave using a witch’s spell, and the resurrected man begins a new reign of terror in the district…
Another exercise in terror from Italian horror maestro Mario Bava. Here, the director leaves his native Italy for Austria to deliver his usual masterclass in visual imagery and atmosphere. Classic-era Hollywood heavyweight Joseph Cotten and 1960s IT girl Elke Sommer help to provide the chills.
After completing his academic degree, Peter Kleist (Antonio Cantafora) prefers to stretch his wings rather than dive back into his books. He seeks out a branch of his family in Austria, specifically the uncle he has never met, Dr Karl Hummel (Massimo Girotti). However, Cantafora has more on his mind than just a friendly visit; he’s keen to hear about his infamous ancestor Baron Otto Von Kleist. He was a 16th Century nobleman whose charming habits of torturing peasants and impaling enemies on stakes high above the castle walls earned him the nickname ‘Baron Blood’. On their way from the airport to Girott’s home, they pass the castle in question and Cantafora’s keen to drop in for a quick look around.
The conversion of the castle into a luxury hotel is happening under the watchful eye of new owner, Mayor Dortmundt (Dieter Tressler). However, it’s not all smooth sailing, thanks to pretty architectural student Eva (Elke Sommer). She’s working for the Commission for the Preservation of National Monuments, and she isn’t happy about some of the changes he’s planning to make. After she gets a fright, courtesy of eccentric castle caretaker Fritz (Luciano Pigozzi), Girotti invites her back for dinner at home with his family and Cantafora, who’s already got her firmly in his sights. Talk at the table turns to the bloodthirsty Baron and Girotti’s pre-teen daughter, Gretchen (the wonderfully creepy Nicoletta Elmi), cheerfully informs them that she regularly sees the Baron at the castle windows on her way home from school. No one takes her seriously, of course.
Cantafora has a surprise up his sleeve, however; two old parchments that he rescued from his grandfather’s attic many years earlier. One is an original floor plan of the castle, the other a resurrection spell left by a witch named Elizabeth Hölle, who the Baron burned at the stake. Girotti advises against dabbling with the occult, but Cantafora and Sommer head to the castle and try out Hölle’s spell. A bell tolls, a window rattles in a sudden gust of wind, and someone tries the chamber door. In a panic, they use the incantation that reverses the summoning.
It all seems a bit silly in the cold light of day, of course, and it’s easy to believe that it was just Pigozzi fooling around. They try again the following night, but the wind blows the parchment into the fire, and they cannot reverse their spell. Later that night, a doctor is murdered, and a couple of local men disappear. Then Tressler is found dead in the castle, and police inspector Umberto Raho isn’t buying that it’s a suicide. With the new owner dead, the castle goes up for auction and is purchased by mysterious businessman Alfred Becker (Joseph Cotten). He has no interest in turning the place into a hotel and plans to live there, restoring the building to its original condition.
It goes without saying that with Bava in the director’s chair, the film is often visually stunning. The real-life Kreuzenstein Castle, located a few miles north of Vienna, provides him with a rare opportunity to shoot a movie primarily on location. Although this environment was probably not conducive to extravagant camera movement (apart from some ill-advised zoom shots), it hardly seems to matter as Bava uses his genius for lighting and colour to present a gothic world that seemingly exists out of time. The interior of the ancient building is wreathed in shadows; the exterior draped in billowing fog. The sparing use of Stelvio Cipriani’s score also helps heighten suspense, and the double murder on the spiral staircase is an outstanding sequence. Similarly, the Baron’s pursuit of Sommer through the fog-bound streets of the town is also remarkable, especially given the high likelihood that this sequence was shot in a small studio with the scale provided by Bava’s usual genius sleight of hand.
Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. The script is credited to Vincent Fotre, Willibald Eser and Bava himself, although most commentators agree that Fotre was the principal author. Some suggest that Bava’s credit may have been for quota purposes, but he was also known on occasion to rewrite during shooting. Whatever the case, it often feels as if the script never got beyond a first draft. Its shortcomings are particularly noticeable in the film’s second half, with a couple of developments occurring with no foreshadowing whatsoever. When Cantafora and Sommer fear they have brought the Baron back to life, they consult Girotti, who apparently conducts studies in ESP as part of his lecturing work at the local university. One of his test subjects, Christina Hoffmann (Rada Rassimov), exhibited such phenomenal results that he suggests they get her opinion. This somewhat random suggestion turns out to be a real winner as not only does Rassimov know all about the situation, she has Elizabeth Hölle’s original amulet in her possession and can channel the witch using an occult ceremony! Good call, Dr Girotti!
It’s also established early on that his daughter passes the castle on her way to and from school, but it takes him a good 20 minutes after he’s bought into the Baron’s reappearance before he realises that she might be in danger! Stellar parenting, there. The child’s uncanny foresight and better understanding of events than anyone else are unexplained, although psychic characters, sometimes children, were not unknown in Bava’s work. Elmi is superbly unsettling in her small role, which led to appearances in Paul Morrissey’s ‘Flesh for Frankenstein’ (1973) and Dario Argento’s ‘Deep Red’ (1975).
Elsewhere in the cast, Rassimov is easily the standout, suggesting complexity and depth in a character that could have easily descended into caricature. Her screentime is far too brief. Cotten brings a sly arrogance and black humour to his role, which is appropriate, even if it was unlikely to have been much of a stretch for the veteran star. The script doesn’t give Sommer much to work with, but she does play ‘frightened’ very well, and it’s pleasing that her character is more than just a helpless victim. She also looks fabulous in a series of chic fashions, a new one for every occasion, which is very admirable, considering the character is on a student budget!
Often the character of the hero can be a problem in genre cinema, coming over as bland and failing to make much of an impression on the audience. However, the opposite is the case here. Peter does make an impression, but it’s not a favourable one. He’s not loud or offensive, but his arrogance is undeniable. Not only is it his idea to attempt to resurrect the Baron – twice! – but he shows no remorse for his actions later on, despite the escalating body count. He also tries to get Sommer to recount details of her encounter with the Baron when she’s obviously still traumatised. In the film’s closing moments, he’s still prattling on about how wonderful it would be to talk to a man from the 16th Century, even as the Baron closes in for the kill. Cantafora’s performance is neither here nor there; it’s how the character is written. The audience can’t invest in him, and Sommer’s romantic interest is hard to believe.
The film marked Bava’s return to US theatres with his old partners at American International Pictures, who had passed on his more recent projects. As on previous occasions, the company cut the film for the American market, but the trims weren’t radical and tightened the plot a little. The most significant change was a new musical score by ‘in house’ composer Les Baxter, which leans more heavily on familiar horror film motifs. It does not distract from the visuals, nor does it particularly enhance them.
Cotten’s Hollywood pedigree is undeniable; a debut in Orson Welles’ ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941), the leads as ‘Uncle Charlie’ in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ (1943) and Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’ (1949). He began working increasingly in television from the 1950s onwards, alternating such projects with appearances in films outside the United States. These included Spaghetti Westerns, bonkers Japanese sci-fi mash-up ‘Latitude Zero’ (1970) and opposite Vincent Price as ‘The Abominable Dr Phibes’ (1971). Both Price and Ray Milland turned down his role in ‘Baron Blood’ (1972).
A must for Bava fans, of course, but a weak script prevents inclusion with the best of his work.