"Baron Blood", Mario Bava's follow-up to his seminal "Bay of Blood", seems a strange choice for the director to have taken on. While his previous film helped forge a template for the modern body-count movie - with it's bloody killings laced with wry, cynical humour, "Baron Blood" seems to hark back to the more innocent pleasures of Bava's early Gothic-horror pictures. It contains numerous blatant references to his past work (as well as other gothic genre pieces), but these classical trappings now find themselves uneasily relocated and placed quite out of context in a garishly "modern" 1970's setting. The end product is a prime example of the director's particular brand of gloriously baroque style over substance. The story is largely quite trivial and derivitive, but the film is frequently beautiful to look at -- and interest is held throughout by several of Bava's most brilliantly orchestrated set-pieces and some clever optical effects.
Young Peter Kleist (Antonio Cantafora) travels to Austria for a holiday and decides to take the opportunity to research his colourful family roots. One of his ancestors from the area was a notorious 16th century aristocratic sadist who made the lives of his poor subjects a total misery by torturing, killing, and being generally beastly towards them for fun - thus earning himself the nickname "Baron Blood". Kleist is staying with his uncle - Karl Hummel (Massimo Girotti), who shows him around the Baron's castle, which is being remodelled as a tourist attraction after having been bought by a local entrepreneur by the name of Herr Dortmundt (Dieter Tressler).
Dortmundt has an assistant called Eva (Elke Sommer), who has been assigned the job of making sure his modernisation plans don't ruin the castle's architecture. Peter invites her back for lunch with himself and the Hummel family where they continue to discuss the Baron and the legend that surrounds him. Hummel's young daughter Gretchen (Nicoletta Elmi) amuses everybody by claiming to have seen the Baron in the nearby woods, and Peter suddenly produces an ancient parchment containing an incantation which, when read aloud at midnight in the Baron's castle, is supposed to resurrect the nasty nobleman. Peter flirtatiously dares Eva to go with him to the castle that night to read the incantation -- and they do just that! After reading it they hear footsteps outside, and blood oozes beneath the door. Eva begs Peter to retract the incantation but before he can do so the parchment gets blown into the fire by a gust of wind.
The Baron has indeed been resurrected! He first visits a local doctor to have his wounds treated. However, the hamburger-faced Baron repays the doctor's professional kindness by brutally stabbing him to death! It seems Peter's ancestor has lost none of his sadistic tendencies. More deaths follow, including Herr Dortmundt -- which leads to the Baron's castle being auctioned. This time it is bought by a mysterious, wheelchair-bound millionaire named Alfred Becker (Joseph Cotten).
How can the murderous Baron Blood be stopped, and who is the mysterious Alfred Becker? It turns out to be Hummel's daughter, Gretchen who holds the key...
This film was Bava's second collaboration with American producer Alfredo Leone; he acquired funding from an Austrian company who stipulated that the film be shot in one of the scenic castles around Vienna. Bava very rarely left his native Italy, but the chance to shoot at the Korneuberg museum seems to have been the reason for him accepting this project. He certainly makes the most of it -- almost all of the film is shot on location around the Korneuberg castle and the result adds an authentic feel to an otherwise fantastical story. Bava seems to emphasis the incongruity of having his Gothic-horror fantasy set in the midst of a castle that, as well as it's antique furnishings, contains coke-machines in the hallways to tempt the tourists!
Bava and Leone were also lucky to acquire the services of Joseph Cotton who throws himself into his role with relish. In fact, the film benefits from universally strong performances from the cast; and although Elke Sommer isn't called upon to do much here but wear some outlandish seventies fashions while screaming a lot, she has a presence which lifts what otherwise could have been a rather pedestrian role: the scene where she is stalked through backlit foggy streets by the Baron is one of the most memorable scenes Bava ever shot in his career.
Image have presented the film in it's original Italian cut, with scenes removed from the AIP version restored, and Stelvio Ciptiani's original jazz score reinstated. The picture quality isn't all one would hope for -- with heavy grain apparent in the title sequence for instance -- but it is still better than the film has looked before; it's a shame that the disc isn't anamorphic though. Although no classic, "Baron Blood" is a good example of Bava's ability to create something out of virtually nothing but his technical skill and bags of enthusiasm -- it's well worth a look for Bava fanatics, but those seeking an entry point into the man's work would be better off starting with "Black Sabbath" or "Blood and Black Lace".