The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   S H A N E   M .   D A L L M A N N

 
Between the first two entries in what became known as Jesus Franco's "Orloff" series, the writer/director (here, once again, working as "Jess Frank" and basing his script on a novel he probably never actually wrote under the name "David Khune") concocted this surprisingly potent "missing link." While not an Orloff film, The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus (now available on DVD from Image Entertainment) provides central roles for two important players in that series. Howard Vernon and Hugo Blanco played the title characters in The Awful Dr. Orloff and Dr. Orloff's Monster, respectively; here, they're cast as descendants of the film's namesake.

As the story begins, we learn that the contemporary people of Holfen (a German village located near the French border) are still haunted by the 17th-century legend of Baron von Klaus, a nobleman with a penchant for abducting and murdering innocent young women. After committing a series of trademark slayings (always with the same curved blade), the Baron, on the verge of being trapped and brought to justice by the townspeople, disappeared into the swamps adjoining his estate, cursing the villagers with the promise of his inescapable vengeance. And today, the people have legitimate cause for concern: the murders have, indeed, begun anew, and the new killings bear the unmistakable signature of the Baron. Holding the title now is Max (Vernon), the living image of his maniacal ancestor--and suspicion unavoidably begins to settle on him just as his sister (who shares the family estate with him) approaches death by natural causes. The imminent demise of his mother prompts a visit from Max's nephew, Ludwig (Blanco), who arrives in town with his fiancee Karine (Paula Martel) in tow. When Ludwig visits his dying mother, she presents him with the key to the von Klaus dungeon--and the responsibility of putting an end to the curse for all time...

This setup (and the potential for savage violence spelled out in the film's title) places Franco in familiar territory, indeed--and yet many significant differences in style and construction cause The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus to stand apart from Franco's other films of that time. (Compounding this distinction, of course, is the fact that this outing never received an American release--or, for that matter, an English translation.) While the Orloff films focused by and large on the activities of the various villains involved, the mystery format of The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus requires that the perpetrator be relegated to the shadows until the moment of revelation. This results in a far less intimate film. While we certainly spend sufficient time with prime suspects Max and Ludwig (Blanco enjoys the legitimate speaking role denied him in Dr. Orloff's Monster), attention is paid throughout to a variety of supporting characters (some of which ultimately have very little bearing on the story). Fernando Delgado is a crime reporter who finds himself on assignment in Holfen; Angel Menendez plays Dr. Kallman, a horror novelist who takes advantage of the local atmosphere (and the tales of two local tramps, played by Serafin G. Vasquez and Manuel Alexandre) for inspiration; and Gogo Robins is a popular barmaid. The broader scope of the story and character lineup is reflected in another variance from Franco's formula of the time: a luxurious 2:35:1 widescreen image.

The castle, the swamps, the shadowy streets of the village--all are given spectacular treatment courtesy of uncredited cinematographer Godofredo Pacheco. Local "color" (though this is a black-and-white film) is in abundance; but the setting could not accommodate Franco's traditional visits to smoky jazz nightclubs. This part of his cinematic signature proved impossible to abandon completely, however: the opening title sequence plays over a piano keyboard as a pair of hands plays a classical piece, and the film proper opens with a musical number set in a Holfen tavern (albeit a poorly rendered one--the post-synch sound is particularly unconvincing here, causing one to wonder if the on-screen singer is even meant to be the source of the untranslated song). And finally (and most deceptively), Franco's staging of the horror sequences is remarkably, uncharacteristically subtle. The first murder takes place entirely offscreen; the second is free of gory details; and a third attempt is interrupted, becoming an atmospheric chase scene. But the passive, unforewarned viewer is in for an incredibly nasty surprise before the ending: the "revelation" sequence turns out to be Franco's first full-fledged combination of sex, sadism, and horror. (The Orloff films, though strong enough to require "softening" for American theatrical and television release, were mere teases by comparison). Indeed, as the "alternate" footage provided as a supplement on this DVD illustrates, the sequence was too much for even European audiences of the early 1960s: Le Sadique Baron Von Klaus (as the French-language release was called) retained only a bit of nudity, thoroughly gutting the remainder of the film's setpiece and rendering it incomprehensible. The fully restored scene appears here courtesy of a 1967 reissue simply known as The Sadist.

It's not surprising, then, that The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus never made it to America. Potential distributors were confronted with a choice between a horror-mystery that didn't go far enough or one that went way over the line. Hence, The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus makes its stateside debut in its French-language edition (with easy-to-read English subtitles) on a handsomely rendered DVD, courtesy of Image Entertainment's "EuroShock Collection." And so, for the most part, viewers will take this film in as a fresh experience, instead of comparing it to a theatrical or television memory of the '60s or '70s. For those with a continuing interest in the work of Jesus Franco--particularly those who want to know how such extreme films as Female Vampire and The Ripper of Notre Dame could have come from the same man who brought them The Diabolical Dr. Z, Count Dracula, and The Castle Of Fu Manchu, this experience is not merely key. It's indispensable.


The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment. The disc includes a trailer and two minutes of alternate footage. Suggested retail price: $24.99 each. For more information, check out the Image Entertainment Web site.
 


 

Photo credits: © 1963 Eurocine. All rights reserved.