Blood Bath (1966) Blu-ray Review: Alternately Bloody Good and Awfully Bad Stuff

Within the grand scope of filmmaking, there is perhaps no greater force than that of editing. If you take a peek at some of the deleted and alternate scenes from George Lucas’ original Star Wars, you may bear witness to some truly dreadful moments which were, thankfully, excised during a frantic last minute editing session ‒ as overseen by people other than Mr. Lucas himself. You see, sometimes even the main driving force behind a feature really doesn’t know what to keep and what to snip out. On the flip side of the coin, there have been more than a few instances in the history of moving pictures wherein overseeing parties financing or releasing a feature have interfered in the production or editing of a film in order to make it more “marketable” for the times.

In the early ’60s, prolific independent producer/director Roger Corman permitted a young protégé by the name of Francis Ford Coppola to shoot his own gritty black-and-white thriller Psycho-oriented Dementia 13 on location in Ireland. When footage from the film made its way back to the U.S., Corman was unhappy with the ebb and flow of the feature, and hired another young director, the great Jack Hill, to shoot additional footage ‒ namely the grisly axe murders which the then-novice Coppola had originally sold his mentor on in the first place! It paid off in the end, of course, with Dementia 13 earning itself a nice little spot on the seemingly endless mantle of horror movies. It also paved the way for a web which would become even more tangled.

Around the same point in time, Corman himself agreed to co-finance a (then-Communist) Yugoslavian production, Operacija Ticijan (Operation: Titian), to be made ‒ in English, at that ‒ in that legendary (then-Yugoslavian) “Pearl of the Adriatic” itself, Dubrovnik (recent home of location shooting for Game of Thrones and Star Wars: Episode VIII). In addition to his $20,000 investment, Corman agreed to provide two lead actors (and an uncredited Coppola as script supervisor), promptly plucking American William Campbell and Irish actor Patrick (A Clockwork Orange) Magee straight from the shoot of Dementia 13. For his efforts, the director who brought us cult classics such as A Bucket of Blood would receive the American distribution rights for the film, to do so with as he saw fit.

And boy, did he ever do just that.

At first glance, Radoš Novaković’s 1963 film Operation: Titian is a decidedly atmospheric but nevertheless fairly messy art heist/murder mystery which primarily serves to promote tourism to a proud socialist state. (International underwater fishing competitions, anyone?) Here, William Campbell is a lovelorn USA-born Dubrovnik museum employee who believes he is the descendant of a legendary (murderous) artist. A professional thief/assassin, venerably played by Patrick Magee in a vein that only Jack Nicholson could pull off today, comes to town at the behest of an unknown party to steal a valuable Titian painting, which causes several genuinely oblivious local detectives (played by “local” performers such as Rade Marković, Miha Baloh, and Dragomir Felba) to go out and get a clue.

Its main story highly predictable at the very least, Corman knew the feature was not the sort of thing to release as-is back in the USA. So, Roger hired yet another apprentice ‒ this time, one Stephanie Rothman ‒ to make Operation: Titian something more “marketable” for American audiences. Its foreign cast and crew obscured behind vague, anglicized pseudonyms, the re-edited, re-scored second incarnation of the tale was christened Portrait in Terror. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 minutes wound up being removed by Ms. Rothman, who also filmed a good 10 minutes of new footage featuring unconvincing stand-ins for one scene’s assailant and his victim, Yugoslavian actress Irena Prosen (or, “Anna Pavane”, perhaps) performers; the timeless gothic landmarks of Dubrovnik magically morphing into much younger, less-atmospheric parts of Southern California.

Alas, Portrait in Terror still really wasn’t what Roger Corman wanted. Undaunted, the King of B Movies once again sought the assistance of Jack Hill, whose recently completed Spider Baby was presently sitting on the shelf due to the bankruptcy of that film’s producer. This time, rather than re-editing the original film and adding a new scene or two, Hill wrote an entirely new feature around roughly nine minutes worth of footage from Operation: Titian (excluding all principal cast save for William Campbell), turning the project into something “marketable” for the current American film industry: that of a horror movie. This time, Corman managed to lure William Campbell in to do a few “minor reshoots” ‒ something that turned out to be an entirely new movie (with sound by Star Wars‘ Gary Kurtz, nonetheless!), which prompted the angered actor to demand further compensation!

Hill’s original (should I even be using that particular adjective at this point, all things considered?) 1964 vision of what was next known as Blood Bath featured the most drastic changes of all. Campbell, a few pounds heavier in the kisser at best, is still an artist here, serving as the brains behind a series of gruesome paintings the art snobs of Venice Beach have nicknamed “Dead Red Nudes.” But this time, he’s also a psycho killer who murders his subjects (note the striking similarities between Marissa Mathes’ death by hatchet here and Luana Anders axing in Dementia 13) before dipping their lifeless bodies into a vat of boiling wax via a block and tackle and storing them in his (presumably foul-smelling) bell tower studio which bears a resemblance to Campbell’s Titian workshop.

Hill’s new storyline also paid homage to Corman’s A Bucket of Blood, with Campbell being the secret envy of local beatnik coffee-shop bums Karl Schanzer (Dementia 13), Sid Haig (who had previously co-starred for Hill in Spider Baby, as did Mr. Schanzer), and a strangely hot, bearded Jonathan Haze (The Little Shop of Horrors). All of the aforementioned are too caught up in creating “art” to realize Campbell’s horrific masterpieces reflect actual murders themselves (something Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1965 splatterfest Color Me Blood Red coincidentally explored), while Hill himself apparently didn’t notice a crewmember plainly visible onscreen during the otherwise tense climax! Campbell’s much more manic character also woos young ballet dancer Linda (Lori) Saunders ‒ the apparent reincarnation of both muse and tormentor of his artist ancestor, whom he believes he is current incarnation of!

Look, it’s only going to get more confusing from here on in, kids, so strap yourselves in, kids.

Assuming Roger Corman would be pleased with the (almost entirely) new film, Hill turned Blood Bath over to his employer ‒ only to have Corman once again hire another filmmaker to re-shoot and re-edit the whole bloody picture! And so, staying true to the classic idiom “The fourth time’s the charm,” Stephanie Rothman once again boarded the increasingly convoluted production (please observe that two years had already passed up to this point) to add whatever it was Roger Corman felt was obviously missing. Retaining Hill’s title, Rothman’s Blood Bath ‒ the only version of the two to ever surface, unfortunately ‒ takes the unbelievability factor to the nth degree by having Campbell’s demented artist shapeshifting into a short, doughy, water-friendly vampireplayed by an awkward (non-)actor who has never been identified!

With William Campbell flat-out refusing to go through the on-set horror of yet another reshoot, Rothman did manage to bring back Lori Saunders, Karl Schanzer, and (a now furrier) Sig Haig, incorporating them into new scenes with Jack Nicholson’s wife at the time, Sandra Knight (whom audiences had previously avoided seeing in Corman’s legendarily maligned 1963 horror picture, The Terror). Rothman tries to blend her new footage in with the previous variation as subtly as can be (check out the William Campbell stand-in, seen only as a silhouette, and whose voice was provided either by another actor who successfully mimicked Campbell’s voice, or via audio outtakes from Hill’s earlier cinematic draft of Blood Bath). In the end, however, Rothman’s scenes stick out like her unconvincing vampire’s phony fangs.

And yet, despite the strange underlying feeling that Blood Bath is little more than several movies edited together (which it is), Rothman’s bizarre 62-minute cut was the version of the film which would finally be unleashed upon an undoubtedly very perplexed public in March of 1966, once again boasting most of the “new” score from Portrait in Terror (itself culled from several of composer Ronald Stein’s previously collaborations with Corman, including cues from Dementia 13) and an ad campaign completely devoid of the work’s weird vampiric subplot. Corman even credited Hill as producer of the mess, jointly attributing the writing and directing to Hill and Ms. Rothman: something I’m sure neither party truly appreciated. In fact, Jack Hill himself has gone on record as being less than pleased with the outcome of what was supposed to be the final edit.

And that’s all fine and dandy, save for the fact it still wasn’t the last edit to be made to the flick! Soon after Blood Bath‘s limited theatrical release, Corman commissioned even more new footage to be scribbled down on a cocktail napkin and subsequently filmed the next afternoon. Presumably executed by Stephanie Rothman once again (though no one is really certain anymore), the new new footage was made for a new television version of Blood Bath ‒ or, as it was called now, in its fifth incarnation, Track of the Vampire! Now, if you’ve ever seen the TV versions of other Corman films (Creature from the Haunted Sea comes to mind for me, which expands a mere novelty into an entire subplot), you’ll know the added network footage can be somewhat extraneous.

That said, calling Track of the Vampire‘s new scenes as “extraneous” reminds me of a memorable quip from a classic episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (a series that regularly lampooned Roger Corman films), wherein host Mike Nelson’s encyclopedia set was so outdated, it described Adolf Hitler as “a fairly stable veteran of the Great War.” Here, the inexplicably insoluble in running water bloodsucker ‒ once again played by an entirely different person who bears no resemblance to any of the other three (or is it four?) men who donned a wide brim flat top black hat and overcoat ‒ stalks an olive-skinned lass through a Southern Californian spot sporting “No Trespassing” signs before dragging and drowning her under the surf in broad daylight, complete with gratuitous underwater bikini-clad crotch shots.

Did I mention Blood Bath was released on the bottom half of a double feature along with another Corman production derived from two other (this time, Soviet) pictures, Queen of Blood? Seriously, I’m not making a single bit of this up, folks.

Amid this, a hefty, shirtless bald man with earrings walks around the beach, supposedly searching for the woman in distress, but who ultimately looks like he’s looking for his mark. It doesn’t help matter much when you realize this scene goes on for a small eternity. Sadly, that is the least absurd addition to Track of the Vampire. Another sequence ‒ this time with either Lori Saunders or a stand-in ‒ takes both “extraneous” and “gratuitous” to previously unexplored depths of ridiculousness: it’s a several-minute intermission of the actress dancing on the goddamn beach. Nothing more. It’s even more ludicrous than a simple mystery/caper that somehow managed to become a horror film about a possessed artist who is actually a shapeshifting vampire impervious to running water.

Incredibly, Track of the Vampire does manage to redeem itself slightly, in as much as it utilizes footage from Jack Hill’s project: specifically, that of the re-inclusion of Patrick Magee. Granted, Magee’s character has now, thanks to some fancy editing, become the jealous husband of Irena Prosen’s stripper character from the first two films (to say nothing of being uncredited: other than its title, Track of the Vampire features the same credits as Roger Corman’s Stephanie Rothman’s Jack Hill’s Blood Bath); his inimitable Irish brogue proving to be just that ‒ inimitable ‒ as he is dubbed here by an American actor (and poorly at that). But it’s interesting to see how the absent for re-shoots Magee was to have met his demise in Jack Hill’s Blood Bath.

Hell, the whole damn history of Blood Bath is interesting. Much like Dementia 13, the extensive (but cheaply done) reshoots paid off for Roger Corman in the end. Not only did he sell the padded-out version of Blood Bath to television stations across the U.S., he also included the shelved Portrait in Terror version in a TV package deal, too. 40 years after Blood Bath‘s theatrical debut, Arrow Video has pulled no punches creating the ultimate home video release of a motion picture that was both beget from and later gave birth to completely different films. Disc One of the 2-Disc box set offering includes the original Operation: Titian, reconstructed from both High-Def and Standard Definition sources, as well as the re-edited Portrait in Terror in HD, both with LPCM Mono audio and English (SDH) subtitles.

Disc Two features the double pairing of the “meatier” offerings, Blood Bath and Track of the Vampire, both served up in glorious 1080p High-Definition presentations. While a portion of Blood Bath was culled from several sources as well (although, essentially, when you get right down to it, every movie here was culled from several sources in one aspect or another!), it is worth pointing out Arrow’s rescuing of Track of the Vampire resulted in the discovery of some additional outtakes, which have been added back into the feature. (Wait, does that make this the sixth variation of the film?!) Disc Two also contains the set’s special features, including a feature-length visual essay of Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas’ obsession with the making-of the film(s), which is a damn good viewing in itself.

Disc Two’s bonus goodies conclude with a new interview with Sid Haig, who has a few words to say, followed by another (archival) chat with Jack Hill, and finally, a gallery. Arrow Video’s handsomely packaged and sturdy set features several essays on the subject (and on the subject’s subjects); the whole sordid affair wrapped up with a double-sided, fold-out poster featuring newly-commissioned artwork. All in all, a double Blu-ray box set that offers up four different versions (and eviscerations) of one mediocre foreign-made flick is a pretty bold step for any home video distributor, whether it be from Arrow Video or anyone else. But then, the wild and weird history of Blood Bath & Co. is too fascinating for cult movie aficionados to pass up ‒ which is probably the reason why it is so “marketable” today.

If nothing else, it makes for some damn good Six Degrees of Separation fodder.

Highly recommended.

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Luigi Bastardo

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