You certainly get a lot of bang for your buck with Arrow’s limited edition Blu-ray of Roger Corman’s monochrome vampire flick Blood Bath. This is because the package contains not just the main feature itself but three other movies tracking the film’s evolution; from the Yugoslavian made Krimi style thriller Operation Titian (1963) and its patched together American TV revamp Portrait in Terror (1967), to its stretched for TV variant Track of the Vampire.
Now hang on tight and pay attention because the story of Blood Bath is likely to get confusing, involving at least three directors and one uncredited, but all-powerful producer. To understand what is going on you have to go back to the early 1960’s. At the time King of the bargain basement quickie, producer Roger Corman, was busy repackaging Russian Sci-Fi movies with a wee bit of extra footage and anglicized cast names and turning a handsome profit at the Drive-Ins. Wanting to break into the American market the Yugoslav state film industry offered Corman a generous American distribution rights and production deal on a Dubrovnik set crime thriller, so long as he provided an English speaking lead actor and heavy along with a dialogue coach for the local cast. Naturally this delighted the notoriously parsimonious producer, who already had a cast and crew in Ireland filming Dementia 13 (itself on spare capacity from another Corman flick The Young Racers). So as soon as Dementia 13 wrapped he promptly dispatched script editor Francis Ford Coppola, along with cast members William Campbell and Patrick Magee, off to Dubrovnik to make the first film in the Blu-Ray set: Operation Titian.
Operation Titian has a pretty daft plot; Campbell is Toni Soldi the crooked wax figure modeller of a Dubrovnik Museum, who engages with international art thief Mauricio Zaroni (Magee) to steal a Titian portrait that his uncle Ugo disappeared with in the confusion at the end of World War II. The burglary ends up with Ugo dead and the plot is further complicated by Soldi’s unrequited love for the girlfriend of the really thick copper investigating the murder. Now throw in a double cross, a stripper who pays the price of discovering too much about Mauricio and Soldi’s secret, the odd flash of daring (for the time) near nudity and the wax overcoat Magee gets to wear in the twisted conclusion, and Operation Titian might almost have been a decent thriller.
However the state run Yugoslavian film industry had also decided that Operation Titian was too good an opportunity to miss to big up Dubrovnik’s tourist industry, so the film kicks off with an aerial panorama of the city as Mauricio’s plane comes in complete with cheesy tourist commentary from the stewardess. This is followed by a whole load of irrelevant chit chat in the Airport before the real story kicks in. Sure, the cinematography surrounding Dubrovnik’s medieval city walls and old town is just stunning, being somewhat reminiscent of the work of Orson Welles with its low points of view and Dutch angles. However, the shoehorning in of the International Big Game Spear Fishing Championships created a whacking great lapse of logic in the film’s narrative on top of turning the movie into a travelogue. Oh yes, and there is an irritating Bojan Adamic hot jazz score too.
Not surprisingly Corman wasn’t really satisfied with Operation Titian for American release. So he handed it to his protégée Stephanie Rothman. Rothman hacked out most of the tourist promos, replacing the jazz score with a track lifted from Ronald Stern’s soundtracks for Corman’s Last Woman on Earth and Dementia 13. She also directed some extra footage to pad out the running time cut from the original film by these changes. This made Portrait in Terror, as the film was re-titled; a much tighter paced film than Operation Titian, even if the extra footage used stand-ins who didn’t really look anything like the original movie’s cast and also blew the secret of the twist in the tail conclusion.
Never getting a theatrical release Portrait in Terror debuted on American television in 1967, but Corman had decided there was even more mileage in the Titian footage, calling back leading actor William Campbell to do some re-shoots with director Jack Hill for what eventually became Blood Bath.
This time Campbell’s character Antonio Soldi becomes a painter famous for his Red Nudes. Now when Soldi has finished with his models he murders them and dips them in wax for future reference; a theme derived from Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and perfected by Vincent Price in House of Wax (1953) before being spoofed by Kenneth Williams and Fenella Fielding in Carry on Screaming (1966). However, in this case the idea has been lifted from Corman’s black comedy A Bucket of Blood (1959), where the beatnik murderer Walter Paisley encases his victims bodies in clay. Hill also co-opts the movies beatnik artist café that is central to Blood Bath’s plot
In Hill’s original vision Soldi takes up his little hobby because he believes himself to be the reincarnation of the painter Erno Soldi; who is outed as a sorcerer by his mistress Mellisand and executed. Naturally this also leads to other personality problems, like talking to Mellisand’s portrait and being unable to make love to his girlfriend Dorean (Lori Saunders). Being a high profile artist and model murderer will of course only lead to trouble and down at the café Soldi gets rumbled by beatnik artist Max (Karl Schanzer) when Max’s missing girlfriend Daisy turns up in one of Soldi’s Red Nudes. With the aid of Daisy’s sister, Donna, Max and his beatnik mates, decide to track Soldi down before he can kill again, but another more gruesome fate is in store for the artist.
So far so good, but not quite the full packet for Corman — who wanted a bit of vampire action to spice up the psychosis —, so Rothman was drafted back in to splice in new footage of Soldi transformed into a vampire, chasing down his female victims. Since Campbell had already fulfilled his contract an un-credited actor, who looked nothing like him, got the job of wandering around the streets of Venice California in a flamboyant hat and cloak. These scenes worked well with the spliced in Operation Titian material as Venice’s architecture matched that of Dubrovnik. Shame about the stand-in really with his dark Celtic looks, Campbell would have made a splendid vampire.
Despite all the filmed extras the finished Blood Bath only ran for just over an hour which was OK for a theatrically released double feature ( the film went out on a double bill with Sci-fi vampire flick Queen of Blood). While Blood Bath has its moments, the end result of cobbling together material from three directors; 37 minutes of Hill, 20 minutes of Rothman and just four of Rados Novovic’s original atmospheric Dubrovnik by night footage, the result forms a slightly disjointed structure with occasional continuity problems; just keep an eye on Lori Saunders’ bikini, Sid Haig’s beard and Schanzer’s fake moustache. Soldi’s Dali influenced surrealist nightmare sequences, shot by Hill in the California desert, are quite brilliant, as is Rothman’s balance of light and shade in the location filming of her sequences of the vampire being pursued by the beatniks. This is very reminiscent of Orson Welles’ classic A Touch of Evil (1958).
Needless to say Blood Bath’s meagre running time of 62 minutes meant it was too short for a regular American TV slot. Again Rothman was called back to pad out the running time for the final film in the set: Track of the Vampire (1967). Rothman inserted even more footage of vampire Soldi chasing his victims, one pursuit lasts an incredible eight minutes, and re-edited the Patrick Magee scenes from Titian so that instead of seducing stripper Linda Moreno and then confronting Soldi over the painting double cross, Mauricio leaves his wife Linda in bed to accuse Soldi of having an affair with her. Despite not making much contextual sense it still ends in an early wax bath for the now rather poorly dubbed actor!
While Blood Bath has achieved some status as a Corman cult classic the real interest in Arrow’s Blu-Ray package is being able to trace the films development from a slightly dull Euro crime caper to the full blown gonzo Frankenstein’s monster of a serial killer-vampire-House of Wax mash-up — with a touch of added arty surrealism and a bunch of beatniks for those crazy hep cat kids at the drive-in to relate to. An essential purchase for any fan of 1960’s exploitation cinema.
Blu-Ray extras include an interview with disgruntled director Walter Hill, an interview with Beatnik extra Sid Haig and a video essay about the four films by Tim Lucas