Monday, June 6, 2016

Retro Review: BLOOD BATH (1966)

(Yugoslavia - 1963)

Directed by Rados Novakovic. Written by Vlasta Radavanovic. Cast: William Campbell, Rade Markovic, Patrick Magee, Miha Baloh, Vjekoslav Afric, Irena Prosen, Manja Golec. (Unrated, 95 mins)

(US - 1965)

Directed by Michael Roy (Rados Novakovic and Stephanie Rothman). Written by Vic Webber (Vlasta Radavanovic and Stephanie Rothman). Cast: William Campbell, Anna Pavane (Irina Prosen), Patrick Magee, Kerry Anderson (Manja Golec), Dante Gerino (Rade Markovic), Mike Astin (Miha Baloh), Al Astar (Vjekoslav Afric). (Unrated, 81 mins)

(US - 1966) 

Written and directed by Jack Hill and Stephanie Rothman. Cast: William Campbell, Marissa Mathes, Linda Saunders, Sandra Knight, Carl Schanzer, Sid Haig, Jonathan Haze, Biff Elliot, Patrick Magee. (Unrated, 62 mins)

(US - 1966)

Written and directed by Jack Hill and Stephanie Rothman. Cast: William Campbell, Marissa Mathes, Linda Saunders, Sandra Knight, Patrick Magee, Carl Schanzer, Sid Haig, Jonathan Haze, Biff Elliot, Manja Golec. (Unrated, 79 mins)

Out now in what's likely a contender for the Blu-ray restoration/box set of the year, the low-budget 1966 cult horror movie BLOOD BATH is part of a quartet of films with one of the most complex and labyrinthine backstories in all of cinema. At the center is the legendary Roger Corman, who was attending a film festival in Adriatic coastal city of Dubrovnik when he was approached by representatives from Avala Film, one of Yugoslavia's state-run film organizations, about the possibility of co-productions and distribution deals. Looking to test the waters of the Eastern European film industry, Corman agreed to be a silent partner on the Yugoslav crime thriller OPERATION TITIAN, under two conditions: the movie would be in English and some of his people had to be involved to make it an easier sell in the US. Corman sent American actor William Campbell and Irish actor Patrick Magee--both of whom had just been in the Corman-produced DEMENTIA 13 and the Corman-directed THE YOUNG RACERS--to Dubrovnik to star in OPERATION TITIAN, with young protege and DEMENTIA 13 director Francis Ford Coppola tagging along as a production supervisor to observe director Rados Novakovic's crew and make sure Corman's money wasn't being wasted. 

OPERATION TITIAN is a lethargic and draggy thriller about the heist of a priceless Titian painting and the murder of its owner, Ugo Bonacic (Vjekoslav Afric), by duplicitous Italian doctor Maurizio (Magee). Maurizio is working in cahoots with Bonacic's nephew Toni (Campbell), who believes the Bonacics are connected to the legendary Sordi family of artists. Toni is also pining for Vera (Irina Prosen), who's engaged to reporter Dzoni (Miha Baloh), who's working the Bonacic murder case with detective Miha (Rade Markovic). Novakovic stages several stylish sequences that owe more than a passing debt to both the German krimis of the era as well as Carol Reed's THE THIRD MAN and the directorial work of Orson Welles. OPERATION TITIAN is an intriguing-looking and visually interesting film that too often gets bogged down by its confusing storyline and lugubrious pacing (its 95 minutes feel like three hours), with Novakovic far too willing to let too many sequences play like he's making a Dubrovnik travelogue. Corman wasn't happy with the resulting film and saw no potential for it whatsoever on the drive-in circuit, so he shelved it until early 1964, when he found two uses for it. One involved having in-house production and editing assistant Stephanie Rothman rework TITIAN into PORTRAIT IN TERROR, an overhauled version of the film that trimmed a lot of the fat from the clunky early scenes that go nowhere, streamlined some of the meandering story, rearranged some scenes, and replaced the TITIAN score with AIP library cues. Other than Campbell and Magee (his name misspelled "Patrick McGee" in the new credits), everyone else was hidden by Americanized pseudonyms and revoiced. Miha is now "Miho" and Dzoni "Donny," and one key character's offscreen murder is now seen in almost real-time detail in a new L.A.-shot sequence clumsily edited into the Yugoslav footage, with doubles who look nothing like the people they're supposed to be (the victim has a completely different hairstyle to obscure her face in the new footage). This murder takes place in broad daylight with the killer carrying the body for what seems like a mile and leaving a trail of blood behind before rowing it out to sea and dumping it in the Adriatic. Rothman's work was enough for Corman to declare OPERATION TITIAN salvaged, and with director credit going to the non-existent "Michael Roy," PORTRAIT IN TERROR went straight to US television in 1965 as part of an AIP syndication package deal. 

While Rothman was working on PORTRAIT, Corman was determined to get his money's worth out of his botched Dubrovnik investment. Having taken bits and pieces of Soviet sci-fi films and working in new American footage in the past (like 1962's BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN being a reworking of a 1959 Russian film; Corman would also use Soviet sci-fi footage in 1965's VOYAGE TO THE PREHISTORIC PLANET and 1966's QUEEN OF BLOOD, both featuring Basil Rathbone in the new scenes, wearing the same wardrobe on the same sets in scenes shot in a day), the thrifty auteur decided to use the same approach with OPERATION TITIAN. In early 1964, he commissioned Jack Hill, who was called in for cleanup duty to shoot some gory axe murders when Corman wasn't happy with Coppola's cut of DEMENTIA 13, to take 30 minutes of footage from OPERATION TITIAN and create a horror movie around it. A production assistant looking to get into directing, Hill enthusiastically saw this bizarre assignment as a challenge, and TITIAN had enough stark Eastern European location work and imposing old-world architecture that it just might work. Hill came up with BLOOD BATH, and he would need Campbell to shoot additional scenes in Venice, CA. Campbell thought turning TITIAN into a horror movie was a terrible idea, so he made exorbitant salary demands on Corman than the producer reluctantly agreed to since he needed Campbell to match the TITIAN footage. In Hill's BLOOD BATH (handling sound on the BLOOD BATH crew was a young Gary Kurtz, who would go on to be George Lucas' Lucasfilm partner and producer of STAR WARS), Campbell was now playing Antonio Sordi, a crazed Venice Beach artist driven to kill his models and preserve their bodies in wax (an idea Hill got from the fate of Magee's Maurizio in TITIAN). None of the primary Yugoslav TITIAN cast--Markovic, Baloh, Afric, and Prosen--appear in BLOOD BATH. Hill pulls off one legitimately stunning, Antonioni-esque shot in the California desert and has some surprisingly bloody murders throughout (more proof that it was Hill, and not Coppola, who was behind some of DEMENTIA 13's more memorable moments). There's also some Cormanian callbacks to A BUCKET OF BLOOD with some beatniks played by LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS' Jonathan Haze and a young Sid Haig, but for whatever reason--Corman off shooting THE SECRET INVASION is usually the cited one--Hill's BLOOD BATH got lost in the shuffle and was shelved by Corman...for the time being. 

In 1966, Corman took another look at BLOOD BATH and while he still didn't like it, he wasn't done tinkering with it or squeezing every last nickel he could out of OPERATION TITIAN. Hill moved on to other projects (like the cult classic SPIDER BABY), so Corman assigned the BLOOD BATH revamp to Stephanie Rothman, who wrote and directed new scenes that now have Campbell's Antonio Sordi not only being a homicidal maniac artist, but also---wait for it---a vampire. An uncredited actor plays Sordi in the scenes where he metamorphoses into a bloodsucker, not for artistic reasons but because Campbell refused to do any more reshoots related to the now-two-year-old BLOOD BATH and even filed a grievance with the Screen Actors Guild against Corman for repeatedly reusing old footage of him in new movies and not compensating him for it (he lost, due to a loophole involving the source film--OPERATION TITIAN--being a foreign production outside of SAG jurisdiction). Combining footage from TITIAN and Hill's aborted BLOOD BATH with new footage of actors from Hill's shoot--Haze, Haig, Carl Schanzer as a Sordi rival, and Linda Saunders as a Sordi victim--plus scenes involving a new character, created by Rothman and played by THE TERROR's Sandra Knight, and a silhouetted double filling in for Sordi in a non-vampire scene, the revamped BLOOD BATH has Hill and Rothman sharing writing and directing credit, though they never collaborated and Hill has had nothing positive to say about Rothman's contributions. Considering it's a mash-up of three different productions dating back to 1963, it's amazing that it holds together at all, though it's sure to delight fans of rampant continuity errors. 

BLOOD BATH was released by American International in 1966 on a double bill with Curtis Harrington's QUEEN OF BLOOD, where new and quickly-shot footage of John Saxon, Dennis Hopper, and Basil Rathbone was mixed in with scenes from the 1962 Soviet sci-fi epic A DREAM COME TRUE. Unusual for 1966, BLOOD BATH was in black & white since it still had to match OPERATION TITIAN, and it ran barely over an hour at just 62 minutes. When it came time to package the film in a syndication deal, AIP realized the film was too short. As a result, it was tweaked yet again, this time as TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE, with some scenes dropped and new footage added by Rothman, including two of the most blatant examples of pointless filler you'll ever see: a long and profoundly unsuspenseful foot chase, and an almost comically belabored five-minute interpretive dance sequence on a beach, with Saunders unconvincingly doubled by someone else. When that didn't add enough time, an entire subplot involving Magee's and Manja Golec's TITIAN characters is introduced in the final act, only with Magee badly redubbed to make it appear that he's a jealous husband convinced his wife (Golec) is having an affair with Sordi. These additional scenes got the film to 79 minutes, making TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE long enough to fit in a 90-minute time slot with commercials. Unlike Campbell, Magee was never called back for reshoots on any incarnation of BLOOD BATH (the future CLOCKWORK ORANGE co-star is uncredited in BLOOD BATH and TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE, and though he has a sizable role with the introduction of more TITIAN footage in TRACK, his appearance in BLOOD BATH is limited to one brief shot as a wax figure in Sordi's workshop), so it's not known how he felt about not being paid for three additional movies (four if you count Hill's never-released first cut of BLOOD BATH) or if he was even aware of it. TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE has enough deviations from BLOOD BATH that it should be regarded as its own stand-alone work as opposed to simply "the TV version of BLOOD BATH." Some of the shocking-for-the-time violence is toned down for TRACK, especially in the early murder of the character played by June 1962 Playmate of the Month Marissa Mathes. It's not really any better or worse than BLOOD BATH, though the interpretive dance scene, which rivals any extended MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE driving scenes, has to be seen to be believed.

Though BLOOD BATH has a bit of a cult following and one of the more colorfully lurid one-sheet designs of the 1960s, neither it nor its three distantly-related cousins OPERATION TITIAN, PORTRAIT IN MURDER, and TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE are very good. Nevertheless, for any true cult horror fanatic, Arrow's Blu-ray box set is absolutely essential as the most thorough archiving of the complicated history of this particular Roger Corman project. The bonus features include interviews with Hill and Haig, but the big selling point is film historian and Video Watchdog big dog Tim Lucas' video essay "The Trouble with Titian," an 81-minute look at Corman in the early '60s and everything that went into the making of OPERATION TITIAN and its variant offshoots. BLOOD BATH is a Blu-ray package that's not really designed for the casual horror fan but rather, the hardcore obsessive who likely won't mind that the tangled and fascinating behind-the-scenes chronicle of the four films proves to be more interesting than the four films themselves.

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