Tuesday, June 9, 2015
The Von Klaus Family History
Nowadays, one thing a person can get upset about is the use by the makers of, let's say, a television show of certain violent acts for, the assumption is, shock value. And many times shock value is the goal, I'll grant you, it's just that I'm never sure why this kind of moral fury is righteous, yet when we think back on a time when that same brand of fury was directed at slasher films and, before that, EC Comics, we find only hypocrisy, censorship, and an insidious, intrusive moralizing. The only thing I feel confident about is that, deluxe Tales from the Crypt reprint collections notwithstanding, William Gaines probably wouldn't find things going any better for him now than he did then. That Tales from the Crypt hasn't been grandfathered into this new system of finger-wagging is because, I think, most of the men who wrote and drew those stories are safely dead and can no longer harm us.
Also dead and therefore also exempt is Jess Franco, the Spanish horror/erotica/exploitation filmmaker who directed a ridiculous number of feature films, from black & white Gothic thrillers to hardcore horror porn, to everything within what you'd have to guess is the very wide variety of options in between. Broadly speaking, Franco belongs to the same strain of European horror as Mario Bava, Jean Rollin, and Dario Argento, falling along the spectrum of respectability somewhere between classic Argento and the somewhat less elegant Lucio Fulci. That last bit is clearly a "depends on who you ask" situation, but Franco could be wildly sleazy, and while I don't mind sleaze -- I even, er, kind of like it -- in my experience the sleazier Franco got the less engaging his filmmaking instincts became. My own instinct is to contrast this with Rollin (he also directed porn on occasion) who had an unparalleled talent for combining marketable prurience with breathtaking horror poetry. Then again, my eyes were recently opened because Franco's catalogue is having one of those years -- recently there's been a mini-flood of his films released to Blu-ray, including the long hard-to-find Vampyros Lesbos, a film that I found both less sleazy than I'd anticipated and far more Rollin-esque. Yet I also found that it went in one eye and out the other. I'm frankly stumped.
On the plus side, today sees the release on Blu-ray and DVD of another Franco film: The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus, from 1962. Along with The Awful Dr. Orlof, also from 1962, I'd have to say this is my favorite of the Franco movies I've seen, a fact which may say more about my tastes than anything else. But it's a strong, fun little mystery with a Gothic flair, which it could hardly avoid with a title like that. In a small German town, women are turning up dead. The locals are inclined to connect these deaths to the nearby castle home of the Von Klaus family, currently inhabited by an elderly matriarch (though not for much longer in her case) and her brother Max (Howard Vernon), who looks a lot like a portrait of a male ancestor known to have been a sadistic murderer of women. Also arriving on the scene, to see his mother off into the next world, is her son Ludwig (Hugo Blanco) and his fiancee Karine (Paula Martel). The villagers think the killer resides in that castle, but who is it? Looking to find out are a cop (Georges Rollin) and a crime reporter (Fernando Delgado) for the evidently, though surprisingly, legitimate publication Maidens & Murderers. So who did it? Or rather, who's doing it? And who's next?
I'll be honest, anyone who correctly predicts the identity of the killer should feel not special pride for having done so, but that doesn't matter to me. I've said before that for all the talk about how the Western is a largely dead genre, just as dead, it seems to me, but strangely unlamented, is the murder mystery. Oh you have twist endings and such, but the structured mystery barely exists now, and watching The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus I realized how much I miss it. And predictable or not, it's a good film. It's well shot, it's eerie, and it has nice touches here and there, such as when Karl, the crime reporter, stops the men from the coroner's office who've come to remove a murder victim from the crime scene, so he can take a picture of her face. They stop and let him do it, but Steiner plays it as a man slightly ashamed to be doing his job at the same time that he's determined to do it.
Furthermore, Franco gets to be sadistic in the way that would make him famous, and which he couldn't get away with now, save out on the far fringe of movie-making. It's a brief scene and not all that extreme, given lots of different factors, but because it's effective it is therefore kind of shocking. And why shouldn't sadism be shocking? If not that, what should it be?