Saturday 2 April 2016

Franco Files:
The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus

OBLIGATORY VIEWING NOTE: Screengrabs are by necessity taken from the old DVD rather than shiny new Blu-Ray, etc etc.

La Mano de un Hombre Muerto (Spain), Sinfonia per un Sadico (Italy), La Bestia del Castello Maldetto (Italy), Hysterical Sadique (France).

The same year that he introduced us to The Awful Dr. Orlof, the young Jess Franco also brought another, somewhat lesser known, pejorative-prefixed evil-doer to Europe’s shadier movie screens, in the shape of The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus.

Watching this French/Spanish co-production, the reason for the Baron’s failure to achieve the same enduring popularity enjoyed by the good doctor soon becomes abundantly clear. Whilst ‘The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus’ is certainly notable for establishing several important ‘firsts’ within Franco’s cinematic universe (we will go on to discuss these below), it also serves as the first fully-formed example of a frustrating tendency that the director would go on to pursue throughout his career – namely, that of weaving a small handful of potent ideas and images into the fabric of a movie that is otherwise so excruciatingly boring it would challenge the eyelids of even the most dedicated Euro-cult aficionado.

That said, the film’s opening scenes at least betray little sign of the doldrums that await. In fact, they are remarkably cheery for what is ostensibly a gothic horror film, reflecting the breezy bonhomie of the same year’s La Muerte Silba un Blues, as a busy Alpine inn erupts with music, jollity and female pulchritude.

Here, a bearded vagrant blatantly defies conventional ‘show not tell’ wisdom as he gives us a lively run down of the movie’s back story – a familiar tale of the maleficent ancestor of a local aristocrat possessing the bodies of his descendants and periodically sending them out to commit sadistic (yep) outrages against the town’s womenfolk.

“It’s a tale for children, but certainly compelling”, comments a visiting doctor listening in on the conversation, thus inadvertently encapsulating the entire history of European horror filmmaking in a single sentence.

Next, we switch to, uh.. a city? .. where the editor of the indispensable sounding ‘Maidens and Murderers’ magazine has a new assignment for his chief reporter (because yes, in Jess Franco-world, publications with names like ‘Maidens and Murderers’ actually have reporters on their staff who are sent out to chase up stories). Thus, Karl Steiner (Fernando Delgado) – a lecherous, smirking bon vivant who is essentially interchangeable with the male protagonists in most of Franco’s black & white era films - is commanded to jump in his snazzy sports-car and pay a visit to the remote mountain town of Holfen (“..noted for its gothic mood, its trout and its crimes”), to find out what gives.

In true Franco fashion, both plotting and pacing here are extremely lackadaisical, lending TSBVK (if you will) a bit of an ‘off beat’ flavour that immediately sets it apart from its more somber British and Italian gothic contemporaries. The downside of this approach however is that the film soon becomes dominated by a hell of a lot of extraneous yakking, which, though initially rendered in a lively enough fashion to make it fairly entertaining if you’re in the mood, swiftly deteriorates into a hideous, numbing drag as the gears of the plodding police procedural/whodunit stuff begin to grind slowly through their over-familiar motions, meaning that by the time we’re halfway through the eye-watering 110 minute run-time of the full, uncut version, we’ve hit a slump from which the movie never quite manages to recover, despite some intermittent points of interest.

What thrills there are here are largely of the “dark, behatted stranger stalking pretty ladies” variety, with some looming, knife-wielding silhouettes and suchlike that will inevitably have modern viewers yelling “GIALLO!”, even as more contemporary audiences would more likely have associated such imagery with the krimi cycle that was all the rage in the West German film industry at the time. (Joining the dots here, it’s always worth remembering that Mario Bava’s pivotal ‘Blood & Black Lace’ (1964) was initially intended as a cash-in on the krimi trend.)

Actually, in many ways, TSBVK spends far more time being krimi-like than it does being gothic horror-like, despite a storyline and atmosphere that initially recalls the latter genre, with its unnecessarily large cast of suspicious, oddball characters, it’s decidedly realistic and non-supernatural crimes and it’s concentration upon investigative detail all echoing Rialto’s Wallace films. Perhaps we could interpret this as Franco cannily hedging his bets between two formulas currently saleable in different markets, or perhaps just an example of his tendency to throw together a pile of random genre elements and just ramble with them where he pleased - either way, the result is the same.

One of the best things about this film is the unusually lavish scope shooting ratio, which allows Franco to utilise some beautiful faux-Alpine landscapes for establishing shots, atmospheric cut-ins and the like. Although TSBVK was not actually shot in the Alps, Franco and his collaborators took the wise decision to relocate to a small town in the Spanish Pyrenees, which stands in for the picturesque Germanic setting quite well, meaning that no matte paintings or process shots are needed here. (Who knows, perhaps they even used real snow?)

This emphasis on location shooting also allows us to enjoy numerous examples of the young Jess honing the talent for making inspired use ‘real world’ locations that would of course help to define the style of most of his subsequent filmmaking. Most notable in this regard is one particularly impressive sequence that details the killer’s pursuit of the heroine through the shadowed town streets, incorporating a number of excellent, and presumably entirely off-the-cuff, bits of noir-ish style, culminating in an audacious high angle shot across a wide, deserted square that almost seems to join the dots between ‘The Third Man’ and Argento’s use of similar spaces in ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Deep Red’.

In fact, like many of Franco’s black & white films, TSBVK contains number of elaborately composed – almost gratuitously ‘stylish’ - pictorial shots that could well represent examples of the director cheerily taking the opportunity to recreate memorable moments from other movies. Whilst I’m too much of a lazy and half-arsed cinephile to get a positive ID on any of them myself, it is easy to believe that a viewer with a more encyclopedic knowledge of classic film could sit through this one dutifully ticking off nods to Welles, Lang, Bresson and so on.

Another plus for any Jess Franco film of course is the presence of Howard Vernon, and although the role of the titular Baron doesn’t give him a great deal to sink his teeth into (he’s basically the equivalent of one of the ‘obvious red herring’ characters essayed by Klaus Kinski in so many krimis), he’s nonetheless on top form, turning in a creepy-goofy performance that seems very much like a warm up for his “Uncle Howard” persona in ‘A Virgin Among The Living Dead’ a decade later.

Meanwhile, his nephew, Ludwig Von Klaus (Hugo Blanco) is a fresh-faced, serious-minded young fellow who looks as if he might otherwise be found playing bass in a moody post-punk band. Dressed from head to toe in black leather when he is initially introduced, he looks, well, kind of like a SADIST might look, perhaps..?

Ludwig may not have been responsible for the murders that took place before his arrival in town (who WAS responsible is a question that, in true Franco style, the movie never really bothers to address), but by the time Von Klaus Jnr is gazing in awe at the splendidly-appointed subterranean torture chamber that his mother entrusted him with the key to upon her death bed, any aspirations TSBVK might have had toward being a krimi-style whodunit are totally out of the window.

Though this early revelation may render the subsequent outbreaks of plodding investigative detail even more redundant than they might otherwise have been, worry not, for it is with the depredations of the younger Von Klaus that we finally get to the stuff that makes this film worthy of continued attention from Franco enthusiasts.

Aside from the film’s English language export title, the first giveaway vis-à-vis the director’s real intentions with this story comes via the extract Von Klaus reads from the diary of his much-maligned sorcerer/murderer ancestor. Herein, we learn of such things as “..the tragic eroticism of the senses, finally ending in death”, making it clear that, whilst the old Marquis is never mentioned by name, ‘The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus’ nonetheless represents the first of the many, many films Jess Franco would make inspired by the works of De Sade.

Whilst our Baron’s Sadean frolics are necessarily discussed and portrayed far less openly than they would be in Franco’s later films on the subject, TSBVK nonetheless goes some way toward demonstrating that, even in 1962, the director was determined to push the envelope re: acceptable sexual content in his films.

The references in the French language dialogue track to sexual assault as the police examine the bodies of the murderer’s earlier victims are certainly somewhat stronger than anything one would encounter in an English language film of this vintage, and Franco’s perennial obsession with the familial/incestuous aspects of DeSade’s work can be seen here too in the movie’s twist on the standard issue gothic horror “cursed family line” shtick, but really, this all pales in comparison to the central set-piece scene in which we finally get to see the young Baron having his wicked way with one of his victims – a sequence so extraordinarily daring that it seems to belong to a different film – and a different era – altogether.

The victim on this occasion is Margaret, the sultry bar-maid (played by the excellently named Gogó Rojo) whom hetero-male viewers will likely have had half an eye on since the movie began, and, rather than a random abduction, she had actually been involved in a consensual affair with the young Baron. Shortly before he shoves the ol’ chloroform-soaked rag into her face during a passionate make-out session in his car in fact, he tells her, apparently in earnest, that he “loves her to death”, and the suggestion that his crimes may be interpreted semi-sympathetically as ‘acts of love’ – as opposed to the mustache-twirling villainy more commonly portrayed in horror films of this vintage – helps make the scene that follows all the more transgressive.

The Baron’s stripping of Margaret’s semi-conscious form in his subterranean lair is immediately shocking in its voyeuristic directness – I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a film from this era that showed this much skin, let alone in such a grim context – and, as her body is slowly exposed and fondled by Ludwig’s hands, the vibe of kinky, aesthetically-inclined perversity is impossible to miss.

As things start to heat up, Daniel White – whose music is excellent throughout the film, I should note - lets rip with a nerve-jangling avant garde chorale that recalls the kind of thing Morricone knocked up for the giallos a decade later. Meanwhile, the camera executes an audacious vertical pan across a rotting drape curtain to a ceiling mirror in which the lurid action below reflected in full detail, shadows of dark cloth on the bed standing out almost like the eye-holes of a skull as the two bodies writhe upon them… by which point we’re really cooking with gas.

This is Jess Franco’s erotic / cinematic imagination suddenly emerging into full bloom, like some long-repressed fantasy exploding onto the screen as a burst of decadent Sadean freakery that goes way beyond anything contemporary viewers would have expected from a gothic-ish horror movie, even if Franco does at least bow to contemporary standards of decorum by cutting away when the Baron pulls a heated knife from a brazier with which to mutilate the chained girl - even whilst the ensuing shots of her writhing legs remain far more disturbing than some poorly executed gore effect would ever have been.

Strangely, this entire sequence seems to have been shot without direct sound, and, aside from White’s jolting music, it plays out entirely in silence. Add a few juddering, unnatural camera movements and hazy, soft focus photography, and, whether by accident or design, we’re left with the unsettling impression that we could easily be watching some lost fragment of twisted, silent-era pornography.

Starkly cruel, surprisingly explicit and – it must be said – shamelessly misogynistic, this scene is undoubtedly the biggest sado-erotic showstopper in Franco’s entire pre-Necronomicon filmography, a startling fever dream that seems to have emerged from an entirely different world from the comparatively dreary material that surrounds it, and a direct precursor to the sensually over-powering sex/murder sequences of Venus In Furs.

As you might imagine, all of this proved a bit much for the film’s distributors, and initial theatrical releases in both France and Spain saw this whole sequence replaced with a milder, ‘clothed’ version that Franco apparently filmed simultaneously, in an early example of a practice that later become ubiquitous in Spanish horror. The fact that losing the ‘meat’ of the full strength version would render the film an almost total waste of time for its audience was presumably not lost on potential American distributors, who consequently took a pass on it, meaning that, unlike the majority of Franco’s other early horror films, TSBVK didn’t reach English-speaking shores until the DVD era.

Dutifully restored to its full glory via the French re-release print used for the recent Kino/Redemption Blu-Ray, this brief sequence of erotic delirium makes ‘The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus’ a minor revelation for Francophiles, but, even in its unexpurgated form, the film as a whole is unlikely to win over more casual (or indeed, more critical) viewers. Following that one astonishing diversion in fact, the sad truth is that the tedium only increases during the closing twenty minutes, leading ultimately to an attractively shot but crushingly bland finale that ends proceedings on a profound shrug of indifference.

For all of ‘The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus’s kinky transgressions and impressive filmmaking chops, the dictates of conventional plotting and genre expectations hold it back as effectively as a sadist’s chains, consigning at least 75% of its excruciatingly over-extended run-time to a pit of fusty administrative pointlessness. As such, it can’t really be counted amongst Jess Franco’s better black & white pictures, even whilst it houses one solitary sequence that kicks up more sparks than any of them.


Kink: 3/5
Creepitude: 2/5
Pulp Thrills: 2/5
Altered States: 2/5
Sight Seeing: 3/5


All else aside, readers are invited to observe that this movie had some *splendid* posters;


1 comment:

Elliot James said...

I love the silvery production qualities of this film and as much as that of the Diabolical Dr. Z/Miss Muerte, Orlof's Monster and Awful Dr. Orlof. I feel it was Franco's best period.