This four-feature set is the weirdest cinematic treasure box of the year, a sort of anti-matter film school. Three of the films are derived from a single Yugoslavian picture rejected by Roger Corman. His acolytes Jack Hill and Stephanie Rothman proceeded to add serial killings, supernatural hauntings, a goofy vampire, and an ending that could be called ‘Zombies In The Wax Museum.’ Tim Lucas tells the whole story in a fascinating feature-length extra docu.
Arrow Video (USA)
1963 – 1966 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 95 – 81 – 62 – 75 min. / 2-Disc Limited Edition / Street Date May 30, 2016 / 49.95
Starring William Campbell, Patrick Magee, Rade Marcovic, Miha Baloh, Irena Prosen; Marissa Mathes, Linda Saunders, Sandra Knight, Carl Schanzer, Biff Elliot, Sid Haig, Jonathan Haze.
Cinematography Nenad Jovicic, Dan Telford, Alfred Taylor.
Original Music Bojan Adamic, Ronald Stein,
Written by Vlasta Radovanovic, Vic Webber, Jack Hill & Stephanie Rothman
Directed by Rados Novakovic, Michael Roy, Jack Hill & Stephanie Rothman
Where to start? At first thought, the idea of seeing A.I.P.’s Blood Bath in any form would have little appeal had it not been for the pioneering research and insights of Tim Lucas back in 1990. His article ‘The Trouble with Titian’ sold me on the whole concept of his then- new magazine Video Watchdog — a resource that would excite and exhaust my curiosity about fringe fantasy movies, not all of which I actually wanted to see. I had skipped Blood Bath in more than one of its versions on TV countless times; the one time I tuned into a screening of Portrait in Terror (version #2 of four), I lost interest almost immediately. But that misses the appeal of this disc set to film-minded viewers. The bizarre evolution of Blood Bath expresses everything that was amazing (and trashy) about Roger Corman’s anything-goes approach to filmmaking, back in the 1950s and ’60s when he was pioneering new commercial paths and literally ‘making it up as he went along.’ Corman engaged in wildcat filmmaking, bending the rules by traveling to places where the Hollywood Guilds couldn’t reach him. He engaged film students as assistants and elevated them to director status so as to protect his own status as a DGA signatory. He found every possible method of ‘running away’ from normal Hollywood production expenses. Tim Lucas’s 70-minute video-essay on this disc set lays out the strange sequence of events and even stranger moviemaking decisions that turned one lackluster Yugoslavian murder mystery into THREE MORE marketable films. Well, marginally marketable.
Having all these versions of Blood Bath in one spot, with Tim Lucas’s field guide to its unlikely, almost absurd series of alterations, is a major study in real nuts ‘n’ bolts filmmaking. Every version was filmed for a practical reason, with Corman ordering changes to squeeze out a new theatrical product, or another TV sale. After being nickel ‘n’ dimed, tricked and short-counted for years by Sam Arkoff, Roger must have relished the notion of selling American-International the same damn film three times over.
I’m not going to get into too much detail on this, mainly because it’s all so complicated. After my one viewing, I know I haven’t gotten the whole story straight. It was just too much fun to let the insanity wash over me. But here’s a possibly faulty description of the four separate movies contained in this disc set:
Operation Ticjian (Titian), like Dementia 13, came out of Corman’s European romp for the filming of his The Young Racers, a Formula One racing epic with a quarter of the thrills of Grand Prix but made for 1/200th of the cost. Corman bought into a Yugoslavian production by supplying two actors in exchange for distribution rights. William Campbell and Patrick Magee from Dementia 13 star as a crooked artist and his murderous partner. The title comes from a dispute over a painting said to be by the classic artiste Titian. Campbell’s character is a descendant of a famous painter by the name of Sordi.
When Corman saw what his foreign production partners made, he was aghast. It’s not a horror film but a murder mystery with a few creepy stalking scenes. Much of the film is taken up with a tepid romance with actors that mean nothing to American audiences. There’s also a thick serving of travelogue material promoting the Dubrovnic location. Campbell and Magee are good, but at 95 minutes the show is overlong. Far more exciting foreign productions could not attract an American distributor. Corman is stuck with a dog.
Portrait in Terror is for the most part a straight cut-down of Ticjian. Surely following Corman’s instructions, the new editor dropped the travelogue opening and scenes involving one detective’s domestic situation and the other’s participation in a ‘Dubrovnic fishing Festival.’ The editing is very smartly done. Portrait was given a new Ronald Stein soundtrack. New scenes filmed in Los Angeles bring the film up to length (81 min) for a TV release. Corman’s assistants find locations that match fairly well, but actors hired to replace characters in the Yugoslavian film don’t match at all. One stupid, overly literal additional scene ruins the original’s single clever suspense surprise.
But Corman doesn’t stop there. The theatrical release Blood Bath is Corman’s most extreme movie makeover. It was almost completely reshot, which begs the question, why stick with the original story in the first place? Still wanting to earn some theatrical money from Operation Ticjian, Roger hired (or perhaps simply assigned) his ace film fixer Jack Hill to tackle the problem. Hill uses the film’s interesting Dubrovnik architecture and nighttime stalking scenes, but rewrites the show to take place in Venice, Italy. Campbell’s artist character doesn’t commit a couple of murders to cover up an art crime — he’s now a madman, a full-on serial killer of beautiful women. Sordi paints morbid portraits of women stabbed and bleeding, and then murders the models for sexual satisfaction. As in a Corman-Poe movie, Sordi is haunted by a lost love, seen in a secret portrait kept behind a curtain. Aping Corman’s beatnik horror comedies, Jonathan Haze and Sid Haig appear as coffee shop intellectuals. For the big finish, Hill throws in the freaky idea of bodies being dipped into wax (not blood).
Jack Hill’s version doesn’t exist as he cut it. The show was put on hold while Roger was busy in Yugoslavia, filming The Secret Invasion, I believe. When he got back, Roger decided that Hill’s film wasn’t extreme enough. For whatever reason, his other assistant Stephanie Rothman inherited the project and imposed her own set of outrageous changes. The released version of Blood Bath is a crazy hodge-podge. On top of Hill’s carefully matched new scenes, Rothman adds more characters and more mismatched victims. William Campbell’s killer artist is now a vampire. When he transforms, a different, dull replacement actor with fangs takes over the role. Because this vampire wears a cape and broad brimmed hat, some of the vampire’s nighttime skulking about uses footage from the original Ticjian, of Patrick Magee creeping in the shadows. The finished Blood Bath is an incompetent travesty, but it delivers elements that Corman and A.I.P. could use to make easy sales: a vampire, more gorgeous women in states of undress. Just 62 minutes long, it received a theatrical release supporting Curtis Harrington’s color sci-fi mini-epic Queen of Blood.
The full insanity of this process becomes apparent when we’re told that the final theatrical release contains only four minutes from the original production. Jack Hill went to extraordinary means to seamlessly deepen Operation Ticjian, and Stepanie Rothman camped it up with a lot of wince-inducing nonsense. Monkeying with an existing feature bit by bit must have been much cheaper than negotiating a new show from scratch. One gets the idea that the Roger Corman was driven to make every single project finish in black ink, or die trying. Had Corman given Jack Hill the budget for the two reshoots up front, he might have come up with something more commercial than a dumb vampire. This is piecemeal moviemaking: “Apply a few more dollars. Not too many. Is it good enough yet? It only has to be good enough.”
Finally, the fourth film Track of the Vampire is a version of Blood Bath padded for TV. A full seventeen minutes of NOTHING is added to reach a more appropriate running time for A.I.P.’s TV syndication arm. One eight-minute chunk is simply an endless foot chase through what looks like the hills of Griffith Park. The pursuit passes through the same locations more than once; it’s an exercise in audience abuse. We readily believe that after this cut was finished, it went straight to unsuspecting movie stations without anybody really looking at it. The first to encounter Track of the Vampire were probably insomniacs that thought they were having a bad dream. The show became yet another early morning TV ordeal sandwiched between car ads.
What makes this incestuous tangle of filmic insanity so interesting? I think it’s because it shows Roger Corman at the apex of his wheeling and dealing, making the most of filmmaking opportunities that the rest of the industry couldn’t see, or had decided were beneath its collective dignity. He tried every avenue open to him. A.I.P. imported a few Italian sword & sandal movies, so Corman bought up Soviet sci-fi pictures — possibly from intermediates, not the original producers. He even made his own ersatz Italo muscleman movie. His runaway Puerto Rico and South Dakota productions encouraged him to make saleable movies on the cheap in Ireland; the Dubrovnik connection made on Operation Ticjian seems to have inspired his own Yugoslavian productions. Meanwhile, Corman also stretched his personal directing career through more normal industry channels. In addition to the ‘A’ pictures he directed for A.I.P. and other minor studios, he was courted by Columbia and Fox.
Everything Corman produced made money save for one noble foray that expressed his political views on the Civil Rights issue. The Intruder was a flop, but it had more social-comment integrity than anything made in the industry that year. Perhaps Corman’s only fumble was to not fully copyright and protect his first ten years of personal productions. His efforts to avoid the Guilds left behind many films that he produced, yet that don’t bear his name in the credits.
Roger Corman was something of a renegade but never a crook, which set him apart from most independent producers of exploitation product. His deals could be rough but they were also honest, up-front arrangements. He reportedly always paid what he said he would. Jack Hill and Stephanie Rothman did not become big winners, as did some others from the Corman stable. Parts of Blood Bath look very much like student film work of the day — making literal the observation that Roger was running the real-world equivalent of a film school. It was an amazing, creative and prolific slice of filmmaking history.
Arrow Video USA’s Blu-ray of Blood Bath is a brave commercial product. Boutique disc companies are licensing obscure exotica from the studio vaults, but some just put the picture out there and let the fans figure things out for themselves. Arrow’s producers treat even the most marginal pictures as worthy of individual attention. By itself Blood Bath is a nearly negligible cinematic achievement, but in this context it is a revelation.
Portrait in Terror, Blood Bath and Track of the Vampire are all 2K restorations from original materials. They look and sound quite good, although none of the versions is pristine. I’d have to assume that Corman carried a dupe neg of Operation Ticjian back with him from Yugoslavia, and found a way to further dupe it without going too many more generations away from his ‘original.’ We’re told that the Operation Ticjian seen here is a reconstruction using standard-def video inserts for a few scenes. It mostly looks fine, but the audio has more distortion and sibilance.
For this reviewer the main attraction is a key video extra. The Trouble with Titian Revisited expands Tim Lucas’s original VW article into a seventy-minute documentary. It covers the production of the four films and a lot more; Tim has even gone to the trouble to find out how to pronounce all those Serbo-Croatian names. As usual, so much information is imparted that it’s difficult to keep up, and I didn’t take notes. When Tim offers a judgmental opinion, it’s always backed with a preponderance of evidence. He all but comes out and says that Francis Ford Coppola rode the wave of his ‘breakthrough’ movie Dementia 13, even though Corman found some of his work to be incompetent. Dementia’s most memorable scenes were actually Jack Hill’s reshoots. Tim doesn’t go so far as to denigrate Stephanie Rothman’s talent. But we are convinced that Jack Hill’s creative contributions to Blood Bath are an organic effort to make a coherent picture, whereas Rothman’s goofball scenes seem for the most part slapped on to inject a crude vampire into the proceedings. Lucas even nails an association I never made, that the active ingredients in Stephanie Rothman’s dreamy, somewhat lazy The Velvet Vampire are all but identical to the contents of Blood Bath, much of which is Jack Hill’s contribution. We’ll never know if Hill’s unfinished cut had serious drawbacks of its own, but he went on to make a string of amusingly creative genre pictures, some under conditions almost as dire as this one: “Here’s a few thousand dollars. Go invent an entire new movie on the skeleton of this turkey that I’ve already released to television. Consider it an opportunity.”
Mr. Lucas has had 25 years to rethink his assumptions about the Ticjian Troubles, and pull in new and corrected information. The docu’s only weakness occurs in a couple of passages where there’s no immediately relevant video to back up Lucas’s lecture, and the editor must default to showing random film clips. (I’ve been there far too often.)
The only new thought I’d add Tim’s analysis of Ms. Rothman’s alley scene, where one of the victims of the Sordi vampire is saved by the distraction of a group of costumed partygoers engaged in some serious drinking. As poorly filmed as it is, to me it seems inspired by the accidental alley rescue of Jacqueline Gibson by similarly partying actors in the Val Lewton picture The Seventh Victim. There I go — I didn’t quite follow the full tortured timeline of events that created Blood Bath, yet I feel compelled to add my two cents’ worth.
Other featurettes include a piece with actor Sid Haig and an archived interview with Jack Hill. Like Monte Hellman, Hill is always likeable in these interviews — candid and lucid about his experience and never bitter because his career didn’t take off to the extent that some others’ did.
The expected wealth of Arrow goodies includes a lot of outtakes: gee, let’s cut them into a feature! A fat illustrated booklet contains career overviews for William Campbell and Patrick Magee. The disc package artwork is reversible, with the original and newly commissioned ad art also offered on a folded two-sided poster. All four feature transfers carry removable English subtitles.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movies: Fair ++ but Excellent for reasons not related to quality.
Video: Very Good
Sound: Good, somewhat compromised on the reconstruction of Operation Ticjian.
Supplements: The Trouble with Titian Revisited — Tim Lucas’s feature length visual essay-docu; Bathing in Blood with Sid Haig, a new interview piece; outtakes from Track of the Vampire, scanned from original film materials; two-sided fold-out poster with original and newly commissioned artworks; reversible sleeve with original and new artwork by Dan Mumford; 38-page illustrated souvenir booklet with essays by Peter Stanfield, Anthony Nield, Vic Pratt and Cullen Gallagher.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Two Blu-ray discs in keep case with booklet in card sleeve
Reviewed: May 21, 2016
Here’s Jack Hill’s TFH commentary on Blood Bath
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson