Monday, November 11, 2013

Baron Blood (1972)

Mario Bava is one of the undisputed masters of Italian horror cinema. Black Sunday (1960), Kill Baby Kill (1966) Lisa and the Devil (1973) and Black Sabbath (1963) are among his most famous films that show the master at his best. Baron Blood (1972) however catches the maestro on a not so great day.

Elke Sommer.....just looking gorgeous.
Peter Kliest has traveled to Austria to visit his ancestral family’s home. The castle has quite the reputation in the area as being the home of a “Baron Blood” aka Otto Von Kleist. The Baron was an evil man and tortured many a villager until the day he was burned at the stake for his crimes. While visiting the castle and researching his family’s gruesome heritage, Peter meets architect Eva Arnold (Elke Sommer). Eva is in charge of renovating the castle to turn it into a hotel. The castle comes with its own well stocked torture chamber, a lovely added extra for anyone wanting to visit Austria I’m sure.

All the comforts of home...we'll leave the light on for ya!
Peter comes across several papers which contain a magic spell that can resurrect the old Baron and coaxes Eva to accompany him while he reads it aloud. The invocation does indeed bring something into their realm as the atmosphere becomes tense and an unseen force attempts to open a door to gain entrance into the castle. Peter reads the second paper to send the presence back to where it came from and a paranormal disaster is adverted. Now you would think the story would end here right? Oh no! If it did the movie would have only lasted twenty minutes. Later in the film Peter decides to invoke the spirit of the Baron again but this time one of the papers is blown into the fireplace, destroying their chance at sending the evil force back. So now the Baron is back in the real world complete with cape and slouching hat and bad case of charred flesh from being burned at the stake. The Baron then goes on a killing spree and with each murder regains a more human form.
A time share? coaxed me the castle for this?

The murders have caused the renovations to take a nose dive so enter wheelchair bound Alfred Becker (Joseph Cotton) to save the day. The wealthy businessman buys the castle at auction keeps Eva on to renovate the castle. Becker’s plans however do not include a hotel but now the castle with be his own and to be restored to its original specifications.

Mr. Price go home you're drunk and in the wrong movie.
 Eva is quickly menaced however by the ghostly Baron and in a rather “House of Wax (1953)” inspired chase through the foggy streets escapes his clutches. Peter and Eva turn to a local medium Christine (Rada Rassimov) for help and through a spiritual invocation receive information on how to send the Baron back to the grave. Christine gives Eva an amulet which will help them in their cause.


Peter’s niece Gretchen (Nicoletta Elmi) has an encounter with the Baron on the way home from school but she escapes. Later she meets Becker at the castle and tells her father Karl (Massimo Girott) that Becker and the Baron are one in the same. Of course this is all revealed to be true when Becker lets the cat out of the bag himself. So now the Baron seems to be superhuman. Bullets cannot harm him and he takes everyone captive. While the Baron enjoys having Peter chained up and attempts to scar him with a hot iron, Eva finds the way to destroy the horrible Baron. The amulet she was given is dropped onto the body of one of the Baron’s victims and her blood from a wound also falls upon it. This resurrects the body and causes a chain reaction where all of the Baron’s victims show up and attack him, literally ripping him to pieces.

What's your sleep number?
There are three really good aspects of this film; Sommer’s beauty, Cotton’s acting and Bava’s vision. Take away any one of these aspects and I don’t think the film works. It’s not a great Bava film. There isn’t a lot of prowling camera work although the chase sequence is well done. The castle shots and atmosphere are well played and add much to the overall film. Still it is no Black Sabbath or Lisa and the Devil (also starring Sommer). Bava is able to achieve a nice mix of 1970’s European modernism and gothic spookiness however. One thing that bothered me through the film is that I felt like I had seen it before and sure enough it dawned on me while I wrote this blog entry. I had indeed basically seen the same storyline in the Antonio Margheriti film Horror Castle (1963) starring Christopher Lee. I am not sure if this is just a coincidence or not but if you have seen both take a moment and think about it.
Old pan n scan VHS release from Thorn/Emi...later HBO VIDEO.

Kino Lorber Home Video has released Baron Blood on Blu-Ray which is what I viewed. Considering that I had only previously seen this movie via the Thorn/Emi VHS release from the 80's, this release is a 120%  better experience. The high definition 35mm transfer is stunning to say the least. Sadly though there isn't much to get excited about in the extras department. The alternate title sequences is available in it's original language and there is audio commentary by Tim Lucas. The original trailer is included as well as some radio spots but that's pretty much it. A little disappointing but still worth the ticket price for being able to see this one in HD!


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Beyond the Door (1974)

If The Exorcist (1973) is the granddaddy of devil possession films then Beyond the Door (1974) is the granddaddy of Italian devil possession rip off films. Starring Juliet Mills (Nanny and the Professor[1970]), Richard Johnson (Zombie [1979]) and Gabriele Lavia (Deep Red [1976]), Beyond the Door is a pretty interesting little film that isn’t just an imitator of The Exorcist but more a mixture of Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). 

Well I was thinking of  Lou Cipher for a name doc but....
Jessica Barrett (Mills) is the wife of music producer Robert Barret (Lavia). She leads a pretty normal life in San Francisco and is the mother of two children Gail (Barbara Fiorini) and Ken (David Colin Jr.). Early into the film we get the impression that Jessica and Robert are two very free spirited parents, especially when they do not bat an eye to Gail’s everyday use of profanity. I’m not even going to go into the reasons why Ken has a penchant for sipping pea soup from a Campbell’s soup can with a straw! I have to assume it was a nod that other film that “inspired” this one.

U.S. home video release with cool devil spirit.
Jessica announces to Robert that she is pregnant. He doesn’t seem very thrilled but does accept that now they will be out numbered 3 to 2. Jessica is alarmed to find out by her doctor that she is 3 months pregnant and not a few weeks as she had calculated. Soon she begins to have violent outbursts in which she can’t explain. It doesn’t take long before she starts showing signs of demonic possession. In probably the best sequence of the film, Jessica finds herself in a trance of sorts upon awakening from her sleep. The bed covers are slowly pulled away by an unseen force and Jessica sits up and gets out of the bed. She then begins to levitate while in a standing position and floats across the room a good 2 feet above the floor. A rather convincing effect pulled off without a hitch.

The boat can leave now tell the cr....oh wait sorry.
As Jessica begins to have more aggressive episodes her husband becomes more worried especially after a meeting with her doctor and finding out that the fetus is growing at an accelerated rate. Robert then meets a man by the name of Dimitri (Richard Johnson). Robert recognizes him as the man he has seen following him for several days. Dimitri claims to know Jessica and tells Robert that he can help them. He insists that the baby be born even though Jessica has mentioned the idea of an abortion. Dimitri needs the baby to be born because the baby is indeed the antichrist. Dimitri had made a deal with the devil for saving his own life during a car accident. His mission is to aid the devil being born into human form.

Peeeeek a booooo!
Here is where the film begins to fall apart for me. The next half hour is dedicated to Jessica looking demonic with a somewhat Exorcist inspired makeup (that actually looks really good), spewing what looks like creamed spinach and hurling expletives to whoever enters the room. There is no real tension that is on exhibit in The Exorcist but this part is entertaining albeit a little plodding. Make sure to drink some coffee before this point. I found myself nodding off a bit. Through Jessica the devil speaks to Dimitri and turns the tables on him. The devil reveals that he is not keeping his end of the bargain and has tormented Dimitri for his own amusement. Dimitri is killed and the devil flees leaving behind a mouth less stillborn infant.

The final shot is of the now back to normal family on a ferry. Ken, who was given a boxed gift at the beginning of the film, is opening the box while on the ferry. The box contains a toy car, just like the one Dimitri drove during his fatal accident. Ken drops the car overboard into the water and turns to the camera. His eyes light up an eerie yellow giving us the notion that he is actually the devil child.
Chucky has nothing on this possessed play toy!

Beyond the Door isn’t a great film but it’s entertaining and has some really good moments. There is a head spinning scene that really is creepy and very close to being as creepy as Linda Blair’s moment on screen. There is also an attack on the children by their many dolls as the devil manipulates them in several different ways. Not a “tour de force” by any means but still an effective little film.

Director Ovidio G. Assonitis uses some good lighting techniques and some interesting audio effects that add to the creepiness of several scenes. His soundtrack is a bit odd because it uses a lot of disco/funk elements. With Robert being a record producer and the band featured in one of the early scenes it kind of makes sense but the film could really use some more tension filled orchestration. 

U.K. VHS release with some great artwork!
Beyond the Door faired pretty well at the box office taking in $15 million and finding itself in a lawsuit with Warner Brothers who felt the film infringed on their copyrights of the film The Exorcist. The lawsuit was dropped. Beyond the Door spawned a sequel in name only in 1979 via Mario Bava’s 1977 film Shock which was released in the U.S. under the title Beyond the Door II. Beyond the Door III was released in 1989 but again this was in name only and had nothing to do with the original film.
I viewed this film via the 2007 Code Red DVD release which presents the film in it’s original U.K. version under the title The Devil Within Her (not to be confused with the British 1975 Joan Collins film released in the U.S. under the same title…..and featured a demon possessed baby). The DVD boasts a very nice 16x9 1:85 Widescreen presentation. It also features commentary by Juliet Mills and Assonitis along with interviews with Richard Johnson, writer Alex Rebar and Juliet Mills. The release also includes the U.S. theatrical version under the Beyond the Door title which I think works better than the U.K. version on overall run time. A great disc to be had if you can find it for a decent price since it is out of print. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Sleepy Hollow FOX T.V. series.

One of my favorite spooky literary and film characters has always been the Headless Horseman from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. When I found out that a television series was going to be developed for FOX I was extremely delighted and hoped maybe, just maybe FOX would knock it out of the park. After the first episode I wasn’t quite sure but after the November 4th episode, I was quite sure that this series is a good one!

For anyone who hasn’t watched the series, I will do my best not to spoil anything for you. I just want to give a kudos to the writers and actors involved. In a nutshell, the Headless Horseman has returned to the little town of Sleepy Hollow. Also returned is Ichabod Crane from an extremely long dirt nap in a subterranean cavern specifically set aside to keep Crane alive for over 200 years. 
Mills and Crane.....the Cagney and Lacy of the supernatural.

Crane and the Horseman have an intertwined bloodline ever since Crane decapitated the Horseman on the battle field during the Revolutionary War. Confused yet? It gets more interesting so here goes. Crane was struck in the chest by the fiery blade of the Horseman’s axe at the same moment Crane’s sword connected with the Horseman’s neck. As the two lay dying their blood mixed and so their spirits became as one. 

Why you may ask is all this happening? I will tell you. The Horseman is actually one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Yes, the Biblical one.
The Horseman is a badass....with a head!
The Headless Horseman is actually Death and he indeed rides a pale horse. Crane is not what he would seem either to those familiar with the Irving story. Crane is not just a schoolmaster but a former Oxford University professor of history. He has joined the British army and come to America but in a turn of events has become a spy for the American army under the command of General George Washington. As Crane lay dying on the battlefield, his wife Katrina Crane (Yes Vantassle for those familiar) who is secretly a witch, casts a spell binding Crane and Horseman. Two hundred and thirty three years later the Horseman has been summoned and so Crane being bound to his spirit is resurrected as well. I should point out the spell cast on Crane has kept him in pristine condition, a state of suspended animation if you will.

The three amigos of the apocalypse.
Now in the present day, Crane bewildered of course, comes across Lt. Abbie Mills. Abbie is a deputy sheriff who has had an encounter with the Horseman after the Horseman has killed her boss Sheriff August Corbin. Abbie’s investigation leads her to the discovery of the Horseman who is associated with a series of murders in Sleepy Hollow. These murders bring Mills and Crane together. 

Ok so we got the Headless Horseman, Ichabod Crane and the coming apocalypse all intertwined and smack dab in the middle of modern day Sleepy Hollow, New York. So how is this series going to go beyond one episode? The Horseman can’t ride around forever right? Well, yeah you’re right. Here’s the deal. The Horseman is only one of the four, so with each episode more demons, occult groups and characters are introduced to keep things interesting. They are all bound together with the bringing of the apocalypse and/or preventing the apocalypse. A pretty nifty idea really when you think about it. 
Yep you are seeing that correctly.

Although there are some continuity slips here and there, A LOT has to get covered in an hour run time once a week, each episode brings plenty of excitement, action and spookiness. Of course six episodes in and Crane still hasn’t shed his 18th century clothing. The man needs some new duds if you ask me. There is also the air of skepticism that comes from the chief of police even though he has witnessed the Horseman himself. So while you have to kind of push all that aside, the show is still well done.

Damn spooky lookin' if you ask me.
 There is some great demon designs in the effects work, the acting is solid and cinematography is top notch. The “sleepiness” of a modern day Sleepy Hollow is captured pretty well. The catacombs located underneath the town are well made and filmed as well. I am really digging this series and like I said after a couple of episodes I was wondering if I was liking it or not. I am pretty much hooked though. I haven’t missed an episode and look forward to Monday nights on FOX!