Bright Lights Film Journal

Mario Bava’s Baron Blood on DVD

This middle-range Bava looks better than ever on DVD

Baron Blood (original title Orrori del castello di Norimberga, Gli) is often written off as middle-range Bava at best, and with its plot incoherencies, Italian pop lounge music score, and cartoonish characters, that’s no surprise. The fact that it’s just recently (via laserdisc) become available in a decent transfer is another reason for its only middling standing between the unassailable brilliance of works like Black Sunday or Planet of the Vampires and the mindlessness of Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs or Beyond the Door II.

That said, this 1972 film’s appearance on DVD pushes it up several notches on the Bava-meter. The sharp widescreen transfer restores what it was renowned for during its first release when the prints were new: an almost Technicolor richness that encompasses a wide range of styles, from a kind of enameled hardness that recalls the work of Douglas Sirk to a luminous, painterly vividness based on Bava’s endlessly churning fog machine and shimmering color gels.

The plot, typical of this always narrative-challenged director, is just an excuse for a series of gorgeously fetishized set-pieces. It seems that Peter Kleist (Antonio Cantafora), the young descendant of Baron Otto von Kleist (a Vlad the Impaler style madman from 300 years ago), has finished his M.A. and come to Austria to look into his heritage. There he meets architecture student Eva Arnold (Elke Sommer), and the two of them decide to conjure up his ancestor. Happily, Peter brings along an ancient scroll telling him exactly how to resurrect this monster. Unhappily, the Baron indeed returns, wreaking havoc on the locals and trying to murder Peter and Eva, who unwittingly hold the secret to sending him back into the dustbin of history.

Bava’s murdering id-figures are always stylish, and the Baron, at least in the more evil of his two guises here, is no exception. When first resurrected, and intermittently throughout the film, he’s seen as a kind of hamburger-faced mock-Phantom of the Opera, with slouch hat and cape and rapid, elegant movements as he careens from victim to victim. (Visually he’s a twin of the masked, cloaked murderer of Blood and Black Lace.) Of course, he looks especially good next to “Alfred Becker” (Joseph Cotten), a mysterious cripple who’s in fact – in a point the film telegraphs instantly – the Baron. Cotten’s presence adds marquee value, in spite of a pretty dreadful, disengaged performance. Sommer, with her vinyl micro-minis and Carnaby Street hats, is one of the least convincing architecture students in cinema history; she spends most of the film running and screaming, which she admittedly does well. The other actors are mostly disposable and forgettable.

No one who knows Bava’s career expects (or cares about) such matters, and Baron Blood is ultimately a heady exercise in style, with several brilliantly mounted sequences; a convincing, insistent air of horror; and some unforgettable imagery. In one of the film’s most evocative scenes, Peter and Eva enlist the help of a local psychic, Christina Hoffman (Rada Rassimov), to get the Baron gone. Christina is one of a long line of Bava’s beautiful, powerful, but tormented beauties, a kind of magna mater whose connections to the world of the supernatural wreak havoc on her. (Think Barbara Steele in Black Sunday.) Christina’s invocation of a witch who has the power to destroy the Baron inspires one of his most exquisite tableaux, with Christina in the foreground on the left being slowly possessed by the witch, speaking in her voice, while the witch herself is seen in a funeral pyre in the background on the right. (Christina’s demeanor is reminiscent of another of Bava’s most resonant images – the masked Sibyl in Hercules in the Haunted World.) The Baron’s arrival later to murder Christina is handled with masterful ellipsis; the scene fades discreetly as Christina, aware of her killer’s arrival, stoically folds her arms over her face in a retreat into her dream world.

Bava is always at his best in chase sequences, and this film features a fine one when Eva is pursued through the quaint town by the evil Baron. Not surprisingly, the streets are deserted, but through the director’s sleight-of-hand, they appear to be teeming with nightmarish activity. He drenches them in his trademark mix of colored fogs and spotlights; a favorite shot shows Eva standing against one of these lights, which seems to emanate both from her and from behind her, as if she were now a part, however unwilling, of this creepy demimonde. The Baron’s skulking presence as a relentless pursuer, emerging from the miasma always a few feet from her, adds scintillating terror.

Another of the director’s treasured motifs is a kind of fetishized sadism, and that too is present here. Bava resurrects the spikes-in-the-face image from Black Sunday in the murder of the demented villager Fritz, who’s laid out in an iron coffin, a particularly nasty variation of the Iron Maiden of the Baron’s time. Of course, the director is egalitarian in his horrors; class and social standing don’t prevent the vicious dispatch of a kindly doctor via one of the Baron’s everpresent metal hooks.

Baron Blood on DVD offers a welcome chance to reassess the film. The redoubtable Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog contributes an insightful essay, and extras include filmographies of the major stars, a Bava biography and filmography, a posters and stills gallery, and an appropriately sleazy trailer that brings it all back for those of us who saw it in its natural setting, as horrific in its own way as Bava’s scary dreamscapes: the grindhouse.