Ever buy one of those “50 HORROR MOVIES FOR $10” dvds? And then you feel stupid because the very next week they have the “200 MOVIES FOR $5” offer, eventually followed by the “16 QUINTILLION MOVIES WHICH IS ACTUALLY THE ESTIMATED NUMBER OF STARS IN THE UNIVERSE AND WE WILL PAY YOU 10 SILVER DOLLARS TO TAKE THIS OFF OUR HANDS” deal. Anyway, what all of these DVD collections have in common is: (a) a total lack of any extras, up to and including the cardboard box; (b) transfers that make the visuals look like they were run through an electromagnet strong enough to pick up trains; and (c) Blood Bath, or Track of the Vampire, or both.
If you ever wondered why the same movies are always included — White Pongo, looking right at you — it’s because the producers allowed them to fall into the public domain. Since that means they didn’t think the film was worth the investment of a stamp, you can guess at the perceived quality of the films involved, though some surprisingly great movies also got treated this way.
For the thrifty filmmaking whizzes at American International Pictures (AIP), it was a common strategy to employ expensive looking special effects from obscure foreign films to add dynamic visuals and precious minutes of running time to their more modestly produced epics. Watching a movie like Queen of Blood on TV as a child, I would be struck by how ordinary the sets looked when the English speaking actors were front and center — either those who had seen better days like Basil Rathbone, up and comers like Dennis Hopper, or Forrest J. Ackerman like…well, there is no one like Forrest J. Ackerman — and how amazingly great the scenes suddenly became when everyone was safely obscured by space suits. In retrospect, it was obvious what was up, but Young Detective Mulligan never caught on to the subterfuge.
It’s no easy task to swipe space footage and cool planet sets and use them to turn Planeta Bur into Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women; nor to take Nebo Zovyot, a Soviet propaganda film extolling the superiority of the People’s Space Program, and rearrange it so that the commies lose and there are monsters that look like sex organs (I am not making this up). You may be thinking, “Boy, the guy who came up with THAT idea must be flipping burgers somewhere,” which he may well be, under the shelf that holds his five Oscars. It can be fun to try to spot all the little tricks the filmmakers did to make the inserts seem as seamless as possible. And then…there’s Blood Bath.
God bless Tim and Donna Lucas and Arrow Video. Tim Lucas, whose Video Watchdog magazine, co-published with wife Donna, has been THE indispensable chronicle of fantastic cinema for the past quarter century. Some of the very first issues were used to solve the long and complicated story of Blood Bath/Track of the Vampire’s origins, an endeavor that took three issues. What seemed like a simple (?) story of a piecemeal production and subsequent expanded TV version, became a maze that involved not two, not three, but five separate films. The four surviving features have been, for the first time, released together in a beautiful 2-disk collection by Arrow, along with an absolutely fantastic 80-minute video expansion by Lucas of his original article that is at least as equally rewarding as watching all four films and is significantly shorter.
So settle in for a story…
Roger Corman, who would squeeze a quarter so hard that both the eagle and Washington would cry for mercy, managed to shoot some car racing movie in a way that left $22,000 of it’s already meager budget unspent. This is Corman we’re talking about. When The Raven finished early, he didn’t tell Boris Karloff, “Hey, go take a few days off!” No, he just reused the sets and made The Terror with a script that was whipped up in a few days. So faced with some unexpected pocket change, he took the 22K and handed it over to Francis Ford Coppola to see what Genital Monster Boy could do on his own.
Coppola promised him a rip-off of Psycho and delivered Dementia 13, a cool, little, gothic thriller starring William Campbell (perhaps best known for Star Trek’s “Squire of Gothos”) and Patrick Magee, a well known character actor who was in everything from Clockwork Orange to Die Monster Die!
Corman hated it. He got director Jack Hill (who had already proven his bona fides by adding 20 minutes to The Wasp Woman for a TV version, without having access to any of the original cast) to do some reshoots. Corman may not have liked Dementia 13, but he must have appreciated Coppola’s ability to work fast and cheap, because he hired him for his next great idea, investing another $20,000 in a Yugoslavian crime thriller named Operation Titian. By providing money, the American actors, and Coppola, Corman was trying to make sure the final result would be something he could use.
But the result was something Corman could not use. Presented here for maybe the first time ever, was the next iteration, Operacija Ticijan, directed by Rados Novakovic, who never became a big name but clearly knew his shit and was a film historian. The movie opens with a wonderful shadowy sequence that evokes the best of the German Edgar Wallace Krimi genre, and has fine performances by Magee as a hitman and Campbell as a mad painter, but is hindered by too much scenery (the old world sets are wonderful but too often it looks like it was financed by the Yugoslavian tourist bureau) and a second act that spends too little time with the bad guys and too much time with the investigators.
By meticulously taking cribbed footage from the High Def subsequent edits and SD elements from wherever the hell they found them, Arrow created a cut that is pretty good looking –miraculously good looking in fact, considering nobody thought this version existed!
But again, Corman was not happy (a continuing theme). American audiences were unlikely to care much about plots involving Titian paintings and would doubtlessly pronounce it “Tit-ion,” like I did for 20 years. So he had it reedited into 1965’s Portrait in Terror, which managed the neat trick of tightening up some of the flab and padding…and still ended up longer! That’s some serious TARDIS time/space distortion right there. Besides reediting sequences, there was clearly some additional footage shot with not the greatest amount of quality control. An understated murder sequence becomes far more graphic, but any possible improvements in the scene are undercut by the too bright cinematography — all the worse looking in a film that contains brilliantly moody set pieces — and the fact that the actress turns into a completely different woman halfway through the scene. It also kills any suspense over who the murderer is, although even the Scooby Doo gang would have figured that out long before the big reveal. It is unclear who was responsible for the reshoots, though Lucas makes a good case for Stephanie Rothman, one of the few women in Corman’s organization with the skill to do it, as a likely suspect (Rothman’s absence among the DVDs’ extras suggests she is not talking). Portrait in Terror went straight to television and that should have been that. But, you know, Corman.
He turned once again to Jack Hill with the directive to scavenge at least 30 minutes of the good stuff from Operation Titian and come up with a more exploitable horror movie plot to go with it. He was given the ludicrous sum of $900 and a few weeks of reshoots. He was also given the chance to shoot more footage with William Campbell, who wisely knew he had Corman over the barrel and got some serious money in return for coming back, which is no small feat. Hill came up with Blood Bath, an entirely new movie about a lunatic painter who uses blood for his paintings, becoming a hit among the beatniks. Basically, he ripped off Corman’s own A Bucket of Blood with Campbell’s nutty artist dipping his victims in hot wax (inspired by Magee’s fate in Operation Titian). In a scene that may have inspired William Lustig’s Maniac , the wax covered corpses come to life and give their killer a taste of his own medicine.
It seems like a pretty good idea and Hill did a great job of emulating the Yugoslavian background with some stylish set pieces of his own, but he only used about five minutes of Operation Titian and Corman was still not satisfied. The film needed still more footage, but Hill went off to make his masterpiece, Spider Baby, and his cut of Blood Bath is apparently lost forever, though Lucas does an excellent job in his documentary of describing what that film would have looked like. Stephanie Rothman came in and reworked the film into the version of Blood Bath that finally made it to the theaters by keeping most of what Hill had made…and adding a vampire.
Now, not only was Campell a lunatic murdering artist, he was also a shapeshifting vampire, said shapeshifting being forced on the plot by the fact that Campbell was no longer available and since he had sued Corman for reusing his performance in other movies, Corman may have been in no rush to pay him again. Rothman made the wise choice to have the vampire look much like a character from the original Operation Titian film, allowing more footage to be used. New characters got added. Patrick Magee’s role ended up being little more than his big death reveal. The whole thing is a glorious, mishmash mess that cannot possibly work, but largely does. Three directors, three plots, one baffled viewer. I love it. If, for example, you wanted to play a drinking game, you could do worse than to just take a shot when, during the opening scene, they switch directors. Novakovic! (drink) Hill! (drink) Rothman! (drink). You’ll be dead before the 15-minute mark.
Little of it makes a lick of sense. Hill’s original story would have likely held up had it been completed, but Rothman’s addition of the vampire elements defies all logic. I may not know much but I do know that if I’m being chased by a vampire, I do NOT go on a merry-go-round. Bumper cars? Sure.
But…this is still not the version most people have seen. The film went out on a double bill with Queen of Blood, yet another AIP hybrid film, to some success. But when it came time to release it to TV, the movie was too short, and Rothman provided even MORE footage, adding 15 minutes to what would be titled Track of the Vampire. More stuff from Operation Titian was put back in, including a scene with Campbell and Magee that hilariously redubs their confrontation into a fight between an angry husband and his unfaithful wife’s lover. Magee still ends up dead and covered in wax. Poor sap never could catch a break. There is also a new and interminable chase scene and worst of all, an interpretive dance on the beach by some woman. Who is she? Why is she dancing? What is her purpose in the movie? I can answer that last question–she adds another four minutes of time.
Wow. That’s some crazy stuff right there. The story behind the movies is actually more interesting than the movies are. That fact provides Arrow Video’s shining moment, the 80-minute essay/documentary, The Trouble With Titian, Tim Lucas’ illustrated video version of his 3-part article, now updated with more information (he had not seen Operation Titian when he wrote it and neither had anyone else). There is no more entertaining film historian than Lucas and Arrow gave him total freedom to tell the tale. If you are not the kind of lunatic who has to watch all five of the features provided (I regret nothing!), you should probably watch Blood Bath and then the Lucas essay and call it a night.
A few other extras round out the package: brief interviews with Sid Haig and Jack Hill, a stills gallery, and some fine liner notes. The 2k scans of all but Operation Titian are as good as the films will ever look and even Operation Titian looks pretty good. Just a solid job from start to finish.