The convoluted mystery of one of Roger Corman's most obscure productions is mostly elucidated via Arrow Video's limited edition two-disc Blu-ray BLOOD BATH.
While in Dubrovnik for a film festival with twenty-thousand dollars left to spare following completion of THE YOUNG RIDERS for American International Pictures, Roger Corman greenlighted the Irish-set thriller DEMENTIA 13 with two of its stars as the directorial debut for Francis Ford Coppola (THE GODFATHER). Noting the untapped Eastern European resort scenic backdrop, Corman subsequently underwrote the Yugoslavian thriller OPERATION TITIAN by providing stars William Campbell (THE SECRET INVASION) and Patrick Magee (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) along with Coppola to supervise the English language dubbing. The original cut supervised by the Yugoslavian studio lacked a commercial hook as a rather ordinary thriller with a heavy emphasis on promoting tourism. The closest thing released stateside that resembled the original film was PORTRAIT OF TERROR for television in 1967, a cut that not only shaved away the problematic aspects (languid pacing and tourist-board imagery) but also expanded for the worse one murder scene. Although Corman found OPERATION TITIAN unreleasable, PORTRAIT IN TERROR was exploitable as part of an AIP television package; however, before that time, Corman had already hired Jack Hill (SPIDER BABY) to create an entirely different horror feature utilizing at least a half-hour of footage from OPERATION TITIAN on a $900 five-day shoot. Hill's cut went unreleased as Corman was overseas and brother Gene Corman did not have the authority to let Hill move forward on additional shooting and lab adjustments to match the footage; however, when Corman returned he pulled in Stephanie Rothman (GROUP MARRIAGE) – the first female Director's Guild fellowship winner – who had already worked uncredited on a number of Corman's films to take a stab at it, which resulted in the film BLOOD BATH that played in double billing with QUEEN OF BLOOD. This version was vastly different from Hill's concoction as described below, and the later AIP-TV expansion TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE even more so.
Unseen in the United States, OPERATION TITIAN – presented here in a reconstruction utilizing the 2K master of PORTRAIT IN TERROR and standard-definition inserts – finds Campbell as Toni Bonacic, an intense American artist working as an assistant curator at a museum in Dubrovnik. Thanks to a look-alike portrait and the obsession of his aged uncle Ugo – Toni believes himself to be a direct descendent of town rector Vlaho Sordi whose wife posed as the Madonna in a Titian painting called "Sacred Conversations". When Sordi discovered his wife was unfaithful, he poisoned her and shut himself up in his palazzo with the painting (stained with his tears) for thirty years. The painting was then placed in a local church but subsequently disappeared during the war. Italian criminal Mauricio Zaroni (Magee) arrives in Dubrovnik to steal the painting which is in the possession of reclusive Ugo, killing the man in the process. Toni tells investigating criminologist (and champion fisherman) Miha and reporter Dzoni – fiancé of Toni's unrequited love Vera – that the painting was actually a bad reproduction. When Zaroni discovers this, he comes after Toni in search of the original, but his plans are further complicated by stripper Linda who hopes to cash in on Zaroni's art "collecting."
Long on Dubrovnik scenery and tourist factoids and low on suspense despite a relatively diverting plot, OPERATION TITIAN sidelines shifty Campbell and Magee for long amounts of time in favor of its dull investigative duo, with Vera less compelling than stripper Linda until the film's last twenty minutes when she shows some initiative and discovers facts that have eluded her brother and fiancé. Director Novakovic and his cinematographer summon up a Wellesian atmosphere with low and titled frames, the scenic architecture, and the bell tower climax reminiscent of THE STRANGER, but Campbell and Magee are given few and far opportunities to shine in between scenes of local color and out none-too-compelling protagonists. The TV version PORTRAIT IN TERROR (running 81:23 versus TITIAN's 95:22) improves in some ways by trimming the tops and tails of scenes but also drops the introductions of Toni, Vera, Miha, and Dzoni in favor of starting with Linda's striptease; with Toni less effectively introduced (drunk and told to go home) and Vera's brother and suitor almost non-entities until after Ugo's murder. The recut version was rescored with Ronald Stein tracks from DEMENTIA 13 and THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH, but a most damaging addition was an extension of Linda's murder featuring obvious doubles, flat photography (stateside in what looks like Griffith Park), and running just over five minutes. The discovery of her body underwater during the fishing championship is also extended by five minutes of underwater diving outtakes, meaning that there is actually twenty-five minutes missing from PORTRAIT rather than the just under fifteen suggested by the running times.
BLOOD BATH and TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE are not further recuts of OPERATION TITIAN; rather, they are examples of the Roger Corman school of pulling scenic or effects footage from more expensive foreign films and building a story around it. Jack Hill's BLOOD BATH recast Campbell as Antonio Sordi, a Venice, California artist considered commercial by beatnik rival Max (Carl Schanzer, SPIDER BABY) for the popularity of his "Dead Red Nudes" series. Obsessed by a painting of Melizza, a madwoman who believed Sordi's artist ancestor Erno Sordi had captured her soul in the canvas and accused him of witchcraft, causing him to be burned at the stake along with his canvases, Antonio can only silence the mocking laughter of Melizza by butchering models and spreading their blood across his canvases. In love with Melizza-lookalike dancer Doreen (PETTICOAT JUNCTION's Lori Saunders), Sordi will not make love to her or let her see his studio for her own safety. When Max's lover/former model Daisy (1961 Playmate Marissa Mathes, THE PHANTOM PLANET) goes missing and appears on Sordi's latest canvas, the nature of his inspiration comes into question.
With seemingly only thirty minutes of Hill's concept surviving in the theatrical release of BLOOD BATH as finished by Stephanie Rothman, one can admire the humorous nods to the BUCKET OF BLOOD-esque beatnik settings, the attempts to combine Venice, California architecture with the OPERATION TITIAN Dubrovnik shots into compelling suspense sequences, Hill's realization of Sordi's creepy studio/dungeon, Sordi's murder of Daisy (not unlike the ax murders he shot for DEMENTIA 13 when Coppola's footage came up incomplete), the surreal flashback sequence of Sordi's ancestor in the desert tormented by Melizza, and Al Taylor's chiaroscuro photography and its attempt to blend in with the original film. What Rothman did with her take on the project was flat-out bizarre, turning Sordi into a vampire and padding the film out with flatly-shot stalking sequences featuring an entirely different actor, suggesting that Sordi transforms into his non-lookalike ancestor – Campbell having been thoroughly cheesed off by Corman's business practices – to kill by way of a book of legends that tells of vampiric killings following the burning of Sordi. Rothamn's cut also introduces Sandra Knight (FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER) as Donna who occupies the middle of the film searching for her dead sister Daisy with little encouragement for Max who is too proud to ask Sordi about her whereabouts and does not believe there is any connection between the myth of Sordi's ancestor and the local spate of disappearances. Donna is the centerpiece of an eight minute set-piece in which she tails a transformed Sordi but ends up exposed when the two run into Mardi Gras revelers before the girl's fatal run-in with the vampire on a merry-go-round. This sequence was the best of Rothman's contribution with the finale unfolding (after another Rothman-added sequence in which Max and the vampire fight on the support beams of a bridge) as Hill intended. Biff Elliot (I, THE JURY), Sid Haig (SPIDER BABY), and Jonathan Haze (THE TERROR) appear as beatnik residents of a local coffee shop/gallery. The film is once again scored with more cues from DEMENTIA 13.
The 62:04 running time of BLOOD BATH was ideal for double-billing theatrically but insufficient for a ninety-minute block of time on television when AIP sold the film as part of a package that also included PORTRAIT OF TERROR. TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE was a 79 minute, 23 second expansion of BLOOD BATH – like the theatrical film, dually attributed to Hill and Rothman – that was mind-numbing in its addition of a seven-and-a-half minute scene in which the vampiric killer chases a woman through the woods and Dubrovnik fortress in broad daylight and drowns her in the sea, and a three-and-a-half minute sequence in which a double for Doreen dances on the beach while waiting for Sordi. More interesting was the addition of eight-and-a-half minutes of footage from OPERATIN TITIAN, restoring Linda's striptease and recasting Magee's Zaroni as her jealous husband who confronts Sordi after seeing Linda visit his studio – her visit no longer includes discussion of the Titian painting – and meets a different fate than alluded to in TITIAN. The most seen of the various incarnations of OPERATION TITIAN thanks to heavy television rotation and availability on the PD circuit, TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE is the least satisfying as an individual film but more educational in the context of Corman's school of film re-making.
Unreleased stateside or anywhere else in its English export version, OPERATION TITIAN is presented here in a reconstruction utilizing the 2K scan of PORTRAIT IN TERROR and standard-definition video inserts (with noticeably video sharpening and one or two bits of tape damage). The 1.66:1 image is as good as the element for PORTRAIT IN TERROR during the HD sequences, although that film element was not free of damage with a noticeable splotch on the first frame of the striptease sequence also evident at the start of that separate presentation. The LPCM 1.0 mono audio can be a bit hissy even in the film-sourced sequences but the English-dubbed dialogue is always clear, and optional English SDH subtitles are also included. PORTRAIT IN TERROR was released on VHS by Something Weird Video and was presumably the source for Alpha Video's soft-looking DVD. The soft 16mm TV presentation was cropped enough on all four sides for Tim Lucas to suggest it was an anamorphic film in his three-part article on the film. The 2K scan of an uncropped 35mm element is a gigantic improvement over the earlier unwatchable mess. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included for this version in which Vlaho becomes Vlado.
The theatrical version of BLOOD BATH went unseen after its double-billing with QUEEN OF BLOOD and had its home video debut via MGM's Limited Edition manufactured-on-demand DVD-R line in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer. The 1.66:1 framing of Arrow's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC encode suggests that the 2K scan is not the same master as used for the earlier release. Opening with the AIP logo, the presentation is as patchwork as the original feature with the TITIAN/PORTRAIT footage sometimes looking a shade lighter in its shadows than Taylor's footage for Hill while Rothman's footage stands out in terms of flat photography as much as for its lax editing rhythms (only Rothman's night stalking and chasing scenes come close to matching Hill's and Novakovic's footage). Released on VHS by Sinister Cinema, TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE has been available on PD DVDs from labels like Madacy in the expected digitized VHS quality. Arrow's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 transfer is both a visual improvement on the previous transfers but also reveals a different cut with the first stalking sequence extended by three minutes and all of Magee's scenes moved to the hour mark and placed one after the other (the striptease sequence originally occurred roughly a half-hour in while the rest of the footage occurred in its current position). The LPCM 1.0 mono tracks are cleaner than TITIAN/PORTRAIT and optional English SDH subtitles are also available.
The major special feature of the set is the feature-length visual essay "THE TROUBLE WITH TITIAN Revisited" (81:23) in which Tim Lucas expands and updates his three-part article from the early issues of Video Watchdog. He covers the circumstances that found Corman in Dubrovnik while Coppola, Campbell, and Magee were involved with DEMENTIA 13, and how the producer roped them into working on OPERATION TITIAN. Lucas provides us with biographical information on Novakovic, points out the film's Wellesian touches, and provides some behind the scenes stories about the state-funded "vacation" (a three week shoot that expanded to nine weeks without an absent Corman to rush them or bankrolling it), Campbell meeting his third wife Tereza Pavlovic who was script girl and assistant to the director on the film, and reports of Coppola's incompetence on both TITIAN and DEMENTIA 13 (which Corman discovered for himself when looking at the first cut of the latter film which he then hired Hill to finish). Lucas discusses the revisions made to PORTRAIT IN TERROR, including the rescoring and how the expansion of Linda's murder is ruinous to one of the film's twists. He then covers the changes made to BLOOD BATH by both Hill and Rothman, providing a sussed-out synopsis of Hill's proposed version and delineating the contributions of both directors. He also conveys Hill's reaction to Rothman's footage (as well as letting us know that Hill was not flattered by Rothman's homages to him in her subsequent THE VELVET VAMPIRE for Corman's New World). Lucas also discusses the TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE additions and calls into question whether Rothman did supervise the editing of the version (noting that the first stalk and kill scene features a different stand-in vampire actor).
"Bathing in Blood with Sid Haig" (4:36) is a short interview with the actor in which he mistakes the film as another one of Corman's foreign pick-ups in which he paid off lab fees for delinquent productions for source footage. He speaks warmly of Hill and less so of Rothman. Hill appears in an archival interview (3:06) in which he speaks briefly of Corman's recruitment of him alongside Coppola as UCLA film students and of what Rothman did to his cut of the film, basically reiterating Lucas' account in the visual essay. The disc is closed out by a stills gallery, but the set comes with a double-sided fold-out poster featuring original and newly commissioned artworks, a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Dan Mumford, and a limited edition booklet containing new writing on the film and its cast by Anthony Nield, Vic Pratt, Cullen Gallagher and Peter Beckman (the latter three not supplied for review). (Eric Cotenas)
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