1966 vampire film Blood Bath surely has one of the most convoluted production histories in cinema. Produced by the king of schlock himself, Roger Corman, the film started life in 1963 as Operation: Titian, a dull-as-dishwater crime thriller about the theft of a priceless painting in Dubrovnik. Corman was unhappy with the result, and so after re-shoots, a new edit and dubbing, it was released as a television film under the title Portrait in Terror.
Still unhappy with the results, Corman scrapped the crime angle, hiring director Jack Hill to retool the film as a horror about an insane artist named Sordi (William Campbell) who murders and preserves his victims in wax. This version was titled Blood Bath and with extensive additional material was virtually unrecognisable from its previous incarnations. Corman, however, remained unsatisfied, ordering still further re-shoots and hiring yet another director, Stephanie Rothman, to retool the serial killer premise into a vampire film. This was complicated by the fact that the film’s exasperated star refused to return for the final re-shoot, meaning that an entirely different and uncredited actor had to be cast as Sordi in the vampire sections. This is the version that was released theatrically, despite Jack Hill’s version by all accounts being the superior film. Incredibly, after its initial run the film was re-edited again with a padded-out running time as another TV movie, this time entitled Track of the Vampire.
Arrow’s impressive release of the Blood Bath saga includes Operation: Titian, Portrait in Terror, the Rothman version of Blood Bath and Track of the Vampire, though sadly the Jack Hill version of Blood Bath remains unreleased. Even the shooting script is now lost, though Tim Lucas’ illuminating documentary on the film’s insane production history does partially make up for this shortcoming.
It’s telling that Blood Bath‘s production history garners more discussion than the film itself, and indeed, Operation: Titian and Portrait in Terror are interesting primarily as historical documents, but are otherwise tedious, with a rote plot that fails to deliver high stakes, imaginative twists or even cheap thrills. Blood Bath fares far better as a film in its own right; director Hill’s additional footage vastly improves on previous versions’ unspectacular visuals with gorgeous chiaroscuro cinematography – presented here in pristine 2K definition – to rival that of The Third Man. The recurring bell-tower motif works much better than in Titian, and a new subplot with beatniks is largely inconsequential but very amusing.
Undoubtedly, the film’s biggest flaw is its tacked-on vampire – a cardboard cut-out villain entirely disconnected from Campbell’s entertainingly creepy Sordi. Indeed, one can’t help but wish that it was Jack Hill’s more coherent and mature version that was in this release. Instead, what we are left with is a meticulously-presented mess, by turns confusing, tedious and highly entertaining. Amazing that it works at all as a cohesive film, for horror fans and Corman aficionados alike, Blood Bath is an indispensable and bizarre saga in cinema history.
Christopher Machell | @MagnificenTramp