“BARON BLOOD” (Blu-ray Review, Arrow Films)
Boutique British Blu-ray label Arrow have been very kind to lovers of Italian horror over the last few years, serving up heaping helpings of Fulci and Argento in pristine region-free HD packages. In 2013 they’ve finally turned their attention to the maestro who started it all: Mario Bava. After cranking out a definitive BLACK SUNDAY disc, the company has moved onto to some of his later, campier efforts. The latest Bava Blu-ray from the company is BARON BLOOD, a late inning horror hit for the director that’s been swallowed up by obscurity. It might not be the director’s greatest effort, but is certainly something of interest to Bava-hounds for its inspired no-budget gothic carnage.
Unfortunately, plot is not the movie’s greatest strength. Antonio Cantafora and his hefty 70s mop fly over to Austria to stay with his Uncle Massimio Girotto in a creaky old castle belonging to a notorious ancestor that couldn’t possibly have a creepy history, right? Well, not so fast because rather quickly, Cantafora meets and flirts with architect Elke Sommer, who is planning to renovate the rotting castle into a luxury hotel and starts to slide into the building’s mysterious history. Unfortunately, former owner Baron Otto von Kliest liked to torture and murder witches. That’s always a mistake and in this case those witches cursed him to return to life covered in grisly scars for a fresh round of murder if a certain incantation was read.
For reasons best known to them, Cantafora and Sommer decide to read said incantations and—surprise, surprise—the Baron returns with a Carlo Rambaldi designed chewed up face to murder anyone unlucky enough to spend a little time in the mansion. Deaths pile up and eventually the only solution is for a contemporary witch to reverse the curse. So, it doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense and the stunted dialogue only adds to the absurdity. Of course, that’s part of the charm of Italian horror from the period and much like LISA AND THE DEVIL, this 70s Bava romp has much joyous camp appeal as it does misty gothic horror theatrics. In a pleasant surprise Orson Welles’ best buddy Joseph Cotton pops up as a Scooby Doo villain wheelchair-bound philanthropist who offers a famous face to embody the titular baron of blood.
The joy of BARON BLOOD is how it bridges the gap between Bava’s early elaborate gothic horror and his more blood-splattered energetic 70s exploitation period. Crash-zooms pile up a plenty, while the production design is rich beyond its meager budget with many deeply evocative stone basements and creepy corridors that no one shoots better than Bava. It might not be the master’s most famous 70s creation, but it is his most grandiose from the period filled with lovingly crafted set pieces that slide under the skin (one Iron Maiden murder in particular ranks amongst the filmmaker’s most grisly).
BARON BLOOD, a gorgeously stylized romp of the brand Bava did best, arrives on Blu-ray in three separate versions. There’s the nearly identical (aside from some linguistic swaps) Export and Italian versions, as well as the AIP cut. The main difference is that the AIP version is 8 minutes shorter and features a more traditional genre score (i.e. lots of deep worrying tones signifying scariness). The International and Italian versions make slightly more sense with the extra running time and feature a buoyant score from Stelvio Cipriani (BAY OF BLOOD). Which version works best is more a matter of musical taste. Italian horror veterans will appreciate the strange contrast of Cipriani’s delightfully off kilter folksy compositions, while genre traditionalists will prefer the gothic hand-holding of the Americanized cut.
Regardless of which version you choose to consume, Arrow has provided another vibrant restoration. Bava’s carefully employed color palette bursts off the screen as intended. His movies are visual marvels above all else, so having additional bright splashes of primary colors or added depth to the dark n’ shadowy makes the movie that much more sumptuous. The transfers are all very film-like in appearance without any plasticizing DNR to detract from the expert compositions. On the special features front, the package is a little lighter than some of Arrow’s previous releases, yet no less fascinating. The three different versions is of course of great appeal to completists, as is a fact-packed carryover commentary from Bava expert Tim Lucas that’s been on previous DVD releases. On top of that are a collection of vintage trailers and radio spots filled with nostalgic appeal and a collection of amusing behind the scenes stills of Mario Bava working on various productions.
The strangest and most intriguing feature is an interview with Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato. The filmmaker admits he had only a few passing meetings with Bava, but shares amusing stories of their time together, the master’s disparaging relationship with critics at the time and is possibly the first person ever to compare Bava to Roberto Rossellini. It’s a strange interview and one destined to be eaten up by the Italian horror aficionados who the disc was made for. Enticingly a few special features show off a little footage from Arrow’s upcoming BLACK SABBATH Blu-ray that will have fanboys like myself rushing for drool cups with a tease of that masterpiece’s impending HD debut.