THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS Blu-ray
(C) Robert Monell
Somber, haunting and brimming with Gothic atmosphere, this beautifully composed black and white murder mystery is more GIALLO than horror but provides Jess Franco a perfect format to demonstrate his directorial skills. “I love you to death” the killer tells his targeted victim, and that is the essence of the film. Let’s begin with the rarely seen Spanish language version of this film, LE MANO DE UN HOMBRE MUERTO. That version has superior dubbing of the Spanish language dialogue, the French dubbing of Rene Sebille’s French adaptation is sometimes distractingly out of synch. It is missing the Sadean horror y sexo set piece where the killer sexually arouses Gogo Robins (Gogo Rojo) before viciously whipping her and finally torturing her with a hot iron. Robins in just about nude during the scene and Franco’s fetishistic focus is on her bare legs as she squirms under the white hot iron. This sequence was of course omitted due to the Spanish censors of that era. Missing from the French version is an equally effective scene which opens the film wherein two women are trapped in an isolated house by a black-clad, white masked killer (a la BLOOD AND BLACK LACE). The camera slowly approaches the house, representing the POV of killer, a terrified woman’s face, hands tearing at curtains, a woman lying a bed, frozen in terror, reaching up to plead for her life, the killer slipping a noose around the other woman’s neck, a startling overhead view of the killer over the woman lying vulnerable on the bed, a final close-up on the crooked bladed knife coming down. Each image has a highly stylized quality and it plays more like a series of macabre freeze frames that a normally flowing cinema sequence, making it all the more unique. It’s a mini-masterpiece of terror-cinema and one of the best things that Franco has ever done. Unfortunately that scene is not in the version on the new Blu-ray, which does contain the full, later sex-torture scene described above.
As it stands, the French version illustrates Jess Franco at the height of his powers in his second horror film, after GRITOS EN LA NOCHE (1961), and following several mainstream musical features, LABIOS ROJOS (1960) and his debut with the inventive coming-of-age comedy, TENEMOS 18 ANOS (1959). LA MUERTE SILBA UN BLUES, also made in 1962, a jazz-noir with numerous outstanding sequences and a memorable jazz score, is equally well composed and deserves restoration in HD at a future date.
VON KLAUS… stands as a superbly crafted, deliberately paced thriller which introduces the theme of a cursed family into the Jess Franco filmography. The pacing is set by the stately, slow, classical piano piece (played on a Steinway by the hands of frequent Franco composer and associate, Daniel J. White). As the classical piece ends (the score later morphs into a fast paced jazz style) the hands are drawn ever so gradually away from the piano keys, a chilling touch in itself. The tale is set-up by two Shakespearean style poachers, amusing vagrant-commentators who discover a woman’s body as they scrounge for food. The setting is the Alpine town of Holfen, Austria, a place known for its cuisine, Gothic architecture and history of unsolved brutal murders. The legendary baron of the title is reputed to have kidnapped, tortured and murdered women 500 years before. His male descendants are believed to be subjected to his curse, which will take over their will, commanding them to follow in his bloody footsteps. It’s the kind of familial diabolical possession which plays out in such later Franco titles as A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD and LORNA THE EXORICIST.
Max Von Klaus (Howard Vernon), an ill-tempered, anti-social aristocrat, is suspected of the being the killer by the local Inspector (the superb Georges Rollin, who was also impressive in the films which bracketed this one, LA MUERTE SILBA UN BLUES and EL LLANERO)). But the real killer turns out to be his nephew Ludwig (Hugo EL SECRETO DEL DR. ORLOFF Blanco), a sensitive, disturbed young man who spend his time playing melancholy classical music on a piano. The case is broken by the inquisitive Steiner (Fernando Delgado), a reporter working on the sensationalist zine, MURDERS AND MAIDENS. Before Ludwig finally walks into the swamp to join his ancestor we are treated to several outstanding stalk-and-kill sequences which will satisfy any fan of later Italian giallos. The killer wore black gloves, literally, in this one, perhaps helping to ignite the trend.
VON KLAUS is the antithesis of Franco’s later obsessed-with-the-telezoom aesthetic, each and every shot is carefully calibrated to create unease and suspense, featuring many stylish Dutch angles and ominous Wellesian set-ups. If the film lacks the verve and edge of GRITOS EN LA NOCHE, it has considerably more depth of character and more complex characterizations.
The new Redemption Blu-ray of this film is a striking, detail-rich transfer with welcome grain and deep blacks. It also considerably brightens the image (although the horror y sexo sequence still is a bit on the dark side, suggesting it was taken from a different element, but we’re glad it’s there), which has always been on the dark side in previous VHS and DVD releases. It’s a gorgeously shot and impressively directed film and this is its best yet presentation. Godofredo Pacheco’s often stunning 2.35:1 monochrome compositions can be seen in their full measure in this 1080p HD transfer. The French audio track is also very good, despite the technical limitations of the problematic French dubbing. It should also be noted that words to the ballad sung by Ana Castor in the opening scenes are not offered on the subtitle option. According to the review in OBSESSION: THE FILMS OF JESS FRANCO (p.137) that music is also used in the 1979 THE SADIST OF NOTRE DAME, in which the director himself plays a serial killer whom is similar to the one here.* Apparently the song is also presented in French language in the Spanish version.**
The French language track with easy-to-read option English subtitles and the 4 minute original theatrical trailer, which does contain some of the pre- credits murder scene footage from the alternate Spanish version, are the only Special Features offered.
This Blu-ray is a recommended HD upgrade of the previous 2001 IMAGE DVD.
Notes and images:
*Reviewed in OBSESSION: THE FILMS OF JESS FRANCO by Lucas Balbo
**Special thanks to Francesco Cesari
ABOVE: the killer is pursued a “journalist” for a sleazy publication which anticipates the zine in EXORCISM (1974) which specialized in “Sadomasochistic Melodrama” and published the writings of artist-killer Mathis Vogel, played by Jess Franco.