Jess Franco's 1962 film "The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus" is another one of those frustrating movies from the ultra-prolific director that has a whole heckuva lot of potential that never really crystallizes into the excellent film that could have been. This thriller in the gothic mold has a lot going for it, but overall, the film shares the aesthetic strength of Franco's "The Awful Dr. Orloff" though it lacks that film's compelling narrative and more aggressive pace.
A horrible legacy hovers over a picturesque Tyrolean town: once every generation, a series of fiendish murders of young women takes place that echo the deeds of a centuries-old Baron. There seems to be a curse on the male heirs of the Von Klaus estate that causes a simmering obsession with rape and torture. With two Von Klaus heirs present in the form of Max (played by Franco regular Howard Vernon) and Ludwig, it's not long before a battered female body turns up near the familial abode. When the murders begin again, it's up to crime reporter Karl Steiner (of the doubtless-respectable publication "Maidens and Murders") and police investigator Borowsky to unravel the true identity of the killer and put an end to the legacy of evil.
If all this sounds a lot like Mario Bava's "Baron Blood," well--you'd be spot on in making that comparison. In fact, comparing the two movies makes for an interesting study in the shadowy, nebulous stuff that makes one genre effort an engaging bit of entertainment while the lack of similar qualities leaves another film feeling... well, less-than-satisfying. "Baron Blood" is an altogether more fantastical story, embracing its supernatural roots to become a grisly modern-day fairy tale, while "Sadistic Baron Von Klaus" lingers on issues of morality, inheritance and compulsion. This is certainly an interesting avenue to pursue, but unfortunately for this film, the character development just isn't there. Interestingly enough, the most vividly-drawn characters are actually the protagonists in "Sadistic Baron Von Klaus"--the quirky relationship between Steiner and Borowsky, along with the offbeat characters they encounter while pursuing the murderer, are far more interesting than the icy Teutonic reserve of the Von Klaus family.
That's not to say that "Sadistic Baron Von Klaus" is a dud, because it's not. It's certainly a beautiful film to look at, skillfully employing crystal-clear cinematography along with moody use of darks and lights. About twenty minutes into the film, I realized how very much I was enjoying the style of the black-and-white and how evocative this type of film stock can be. There's some clever and expertly-executed depth-of-field work throughout the film that allows the viewer to see multiple character exchanges and reactions in a single frame. This evokes the work of Franco's early-career mentor Orson Welles. I swear to you I won't make a "Citizen Kane" comparison here, but if you've seen that movie, then you can dig what I'd be getting at if I did make that comparison. The stalk-and-slash setpieces feel like they're plucked from a grayscale reimagining of the aforementioned Bava film, with the black-gloved, be-hatted villain lurking in the shadows, sinister curved blade at the ready.
The sequence that gets the most attention--and understandably so--is a late-in-the-film murder sequence in the Von Klaus torture dungeon. Buxom barmaid Margaret (played by the awesomely-named Gogo Robins) winds up stripped, flogged, and bound in chains in a scene scientifically engineered by an evil genius to titillate the darker portions of the viewer's eros-brain. This direct and explicit link between sex acts and violence is something that would become popular over a decade later, but was rarely committed to celluloid prior to the 1970s.
There are several quieter moments early in the film that are equally striking, and my "Best In Show Moment" money's on the funeral of the Von Klaus matriarch. The way in which this almost dialogue-free scene is lit and photographed is so full of tension and eerieness that it shows the potential of how great this film could have been with a little assistance on the "pacing" end of things.
A skillfully-lensed, aesthetically-pleasing chiller, "Sadistic Baron Von Klaus" has enough to recommend it to fans of Franco as well as fans of gothic tales to make it worth a watch. Just be patient, and allow the mood and tone to work its spell. And then go catch some Bava flicks to get your full dose of high gothickry!