Roger Corman’s name is synonymous with low-budget, independently financed b-pictures. He’s produced over 400 films in his career, most of which come with titles like Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda or Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. They almost always made money because he knows the basics of filmmaking and he has his finger on the pulse of what's going to sell. He also gave a great many A-list directors and actors their start in the business including folks like James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Jack Nicholson.
A famous bit of spurious trivia says that he filmed Little Shop of Horrors in two days and one night. His filmography is littered with similar bits of insanity including this new Arrow Video boxed set of four films (Operation Titian, Portrait in Terror, Blood Bath, and Track of the Vampire) all of which liberally borrow bits and pieces from each other.
It started in 1963 when Corman invested in a Yugoslavian film called Operation Titian. He insisted that it be filmed in English and he brought along some of his own people (including actors William Campbell and Patrick Magee as well as Francis Ford Coppola as an uncredited story editor). He kept much of the story and the picturesque setting of Dubrovnik. The film they brought back was no good (at least to Corman’s money-making sensibilities) so he sent Stephanie Rothman in to shoot some new scenes (and cut out a few old ones) to create a (somewhat) new film called Portrait in Terror. This still wasn’t what Corman wanted so he sent in a new director (famed exploitation auteur Jack Hill) who completely dismantled the thing (approximately ten minutes of Operation: Titian footage were left in the film) and built something new and called it Blood Bath. With a run time of just over an hour, they had to pad it out to create a ready-for-television picture this time going by the name of Track of the Vampire.
Sadly, the story behind these pictures is more interesting than most of the films presented here. For more info on those behind-the-scenes shenanigans, please see our own Luigi Bastardo’s review of this set.
For my money, Operation Titian is the one worth seeing. It's Blood Bath that gets more of the genre-loving praise, but Titian is by far the better film. Who knows what kind of wheeling and dealing Roger Corman did to make a movie behind the Iron Curtain (for Yugoslavia was very much under Russian control at this time), but it must have included a demand to show off Dubrovnik and its majestic beauty for we get plenty of it here. In fact, the film opens with a lovely shot of the city from the air that cuts to the interior of the plane where a stewardess informs of the cities many charms.
Director Rados Novakovic uses the city's ancient architecture, narrow streets and myriad sculptures to create a deeply atmospheric mood. With its off-kilter camera angles, deep use of shadows, and eerie musical score, Operation Titian is as much a European arthouse film as it is a low-budget horror flick. The plot, involving a murder mystery and art forgeries, is pretty basic stuff and there are far too many long expository scenes in which characters stand around saying nothing much, but it sure is interesting to look at. One can’t knock Corman for thinking a little editing might make it into a rather decent picture.
With Portrait of Terror, they did more than just a little light editing, slicing nearly half an hour from the original. They then shot some new scenes (without bothering to make the setting look anything like Eastern Europe) and anglicized all the funny-sounding foreigner names. It moves along at a much brisker pace than Titian, leaving in most of the fun while sacrificing any sense of an understandable plot and much of the artistry. My favorite piece of editing comes at the very beginning where they cut out all the character introductions (and stylistic looks at the city) and jump right to the striptease! Now that’s how you get the drive-in crowd excited over an opening credit sequence.
Great gobs were hacked off of the film to make Blood Bath by Jack Hill and in it place is an extended underwater sequence (with plenty of close-up shots of a scantily clad beauty), lots of good scenes with a bunch of art-loving beatniks (featuring cult film hero Sid Haig), a lot more murder, a little dipping of corpses in hot wax, and, inexplicably, a vampire. It's all a bit ridiculous and none of it makes a lick of sense, but it sure is fun to watch.
Lastly, there is Track of the Vampire, which takes the incomprehensible Blood Bath and muddles the water even more. It's essentially the exact same film with two completely useless (and extraordinarily long running) sequences tacked on. The first finds the vampire (presumably the same one from Blood Bath but very obviously played by a different actor) chasing after an unmade beauty. They run around the city for about 12 hours (or at least that’s about as long as it felt) before chasing each other underwater for another half decade or so. The other scenes involves one of the actresses (who can keep them straight at this point?) doing nothing but prancing around ballerina style on the beach. It goes on longer than I had the patience to keep from hitting the fast-forward button. Neither scene adds anything at all to the story, nor are they in the least bit interesting to watch, but I guess they filled the film out enough for TV station programmers to be happ .
Arrow does their usual spectacular job of presenting these films. Disk one features both Operation Titian and Portrait of Terror presented in a very nice-looking HD format. Disk two includes Blood Bath and Track of the Vampire plus a series of extras. Video and audio are well presented in all four films with the usual caveat about how old they are and originally cheaply made.
Extras include a new interview with Sid Haig and an archival one from Jack Hill. There are also a stills gallery and the usual well-done essays about most of the cast. The real stand-out, extras wise, is a feature- length “video essay” from Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas who goes into great depth about how the various films came into being. It's well worth watching and more interesting than about half the “real” films included here.
I can’t say that any of the films in this set are essential viewing, but the story behind them is absolutely fascinating. Arrow’s presentation remains top shelf and makes this release well worth grabbing.