Seriously, I don't know what happened to that guy. He started out working with Orson Welles in classics as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Too Much Johnson (the short film, not the porno), but the scandals surrounding Kane tainted everyone involved, and Cotten's career spiralled into mediocrity. At least, that's how I envision it happening. Point is, Joseph Cotten started out with a bang, and then quickly descended into television work (during a time when TV was Hollywood exile). Sure, he pops up from time to time in stuff like The Third Man and Touch of Evil, but by the early '70s he was showing up in low-budget horror and exploitation films. And I love me some low-budget horror and exploitation films, but Lady Frankenstein (for example) is a far cry from Citizen Kane, know what I'm sayin'?
Anyway, I'm probably getting ahead of myself here. You probably didn't even know who Joseph Cotten was until you read that last paragraph, and I imagine you're still kinda fuzzy. Sorry about that. I bring him up because he stars in Baron Blood, a 1972 film by Mario Bava. I've been meaning to watch this one for a long time, and I can't recall why; it may have been featured on a podcast or something. At any rate, sometime after I resolved to watch it, I forgot that it was a Bava film and decided, somehow, that it was a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie. Briefly, Lewis is the "Godfather of Gore," and pretty much invented the splatter film. It's worth checking him out to see what he's about and why he's famous, but none of his films are essentials (well, maybe The Wizard of Gore, or 2000 Maniacs, but I'm not linking to IMDB for you). I think I was confusing this one with his first horror film, Blood Feast. Mario Bava was a prolific Italian horror director who is generally credited with inventing giallo, which is a uniquely Italian genre of sexy, gory horror and mystery movies. Slasher films are descended from giallo, and Baron Blood is a gothic giallo film. And kind of a slasher film, if you squint a little.
Baron Blood begins with Peter Kleist, a young American who has recently finished college and is vacationing near the old family homestead in Austria. Long ago, Baron Otto von Kleist (or Baron Blood, as the locals called him) was known to be a viscious monster who used to impale the peasantry on pikes and suspend them from the castle walls. Basically, think Dracula in Austria. The castle is being remodeled into a hotel, but the locals aren't fond of it. Pete is staying with his uncle, Karl Hummel, and he manages to strike up a romantic relationship with the hotel owner's assistant, Eva. Eva is played by Elke Sommer, whom I tend to confuse with the much cuter Brit Eklund (just so you know). Peter, fascinated with the story of his infamous relative, has brought along a parchment which he found in his grandfather's house. The parchment was written by one of the Baron's victims -- a witch -- and contains two incantations: one to resurrect the Baron and make him suffer, and one to send him back to Hell. Peter convinces Eva to accompany him to the castle at midnight, where he reads the first incantation and accidentally allows the parchment to burn before he can read the second one. And in the meantime, blood is oozing from under the door. Pete and Eva get scared, run off, and don't know what (if anything) just happened.
And then the revenant baron starts attacking townspeople and leaving their abused corpses around the castle, which goes up for auction (presumably because of the murders, but I was getting bored by this point and missed the reason). The castle is purchased by Albert Becker, the Joseph Cotten character. Nobody knows anything about this fellow, other than that he's rich, American, and wheelchair-bound. He hires Eva to help him restore the castle. Anybody with eyes can see that Becker is the baron sans zombie makeup, but nobody notices because the only portrait of the baron is slashed beyond recognition, and the everyone who sees the zombie ends up dead soon after.
I'd found the movie pretty boring up to this point, and was debating whether to turn it off, but having passed the halfway point, I stuck with it. The police get involved but can't wrap their heads around the supernatural element, so Peter and Eva go out and find a medium who is able to channel the spirit of the witch who wrote the parchment and-- unexpectedly, the movie suddenly starts taking weird left turns and gets interesting.
It's not a great film, but in the end, I enjoyed it. It's not well paced or cleverly executed until the final act, and that's a mark against it. Giallo films tend to be that way, and you either like them or you don't. I guess I'm more on the "don't" side of that scale, but there are a lot of exceptions because there are so many giallo films. Italy's chief cinematic export has always been horror, and Bava rightly holds a place among the great horror film makers. My favorite Bava films are the ones he made in the early '60s. By the time he made Baron Blood, the film industry was in a weird, transitional phase. Content rating systems such as the MPAA's G/PG/R certifications were still pretty new, and filmmakers were still figuring out how to make use of the new permissiveness Re: sex & violence. Baron Blood is rated PG, and it's sexy and violent on a PG level, which doesn't work for me. If he'd made Baron Blood about ten years earlier, it would have been tamer and better. Or he could have waited a few years and made something more disturbing. Either way, it's not adult enough for effective horror, and not bad enough to be camp, but I didn't hate it, I just wish the pacing was better.
The casting and acting are both fine, if unremarkable. Joseph Cotten plays Becker as affable and good natured, which feels weird given his hobbies, but it's a good way to fool folks into thinking you're not a zombie sadist, hey? IMDB tells me that Vincent Price (wisely) turned the role down, and Ray Milland was unavailable. You're forgiven if you don't know who Milland was, but if you don't know Vincent Price, you're a genuinely mediocre person. Visually, the film looks like anything else Bava did; he has a distinct style which is a little jarring if you're unfamiliar with it (there's a murder victim! Extreme closeup on the gore! Repeat the same extreme closeup on the gore! One more closeup on the gore for good measure!), but he's a competent director and I have no technical complaints. The music that plays over the credits is extremely happy and inappropriate, which is either a giallo thing or an Italian thing -- I don't really know.
Here's the trailer.