Back in 1963, Roger Corman was taking a busman’s holiday in Dubrovnik, then a part of Yugoslavia, now a part of Croatia. Apparently unable to keep himself from financing, producing, scripting, directing, et cetera, he ended up getting involved with a local production, Operacija Ticijan (Operation Titian), a thriller involving a forged Titian painting and a moderate Gothic ending, with an American scion of the family Sordi turning mad artist. Providing actors William Campbell and Patrick Magee, Corman also secured himself American distribution rights, which of course included final cut, and brought a young Francis Coppola on as script supervisor while he was at it. In 1964, he made his first attempt at re-editing the thriller into a horror that would play well in US drive-ins, and to that end brought in a young Jack Hill, who would go on to make the celebrated blaxploitations Coffy and Foxy Brown. Hill’s version, originally Blood Bath but also called Portrait in Terror, played up the macabre angle that was mildly present in the original, with Campbell now a full-blown murder artist.
That version was never to see release as, still unsatisfied, Corman realised that what was keeping the picture from working was a lack of vampirism, and brought on a young Stephanie Rothman, who would go on to make several acclaimed little feminist exploitation/indies, to turn the story, which had already gone from a thriller whose villain was finally revealed as a bonkers art obsessive, to a proto-slasher with a full-blown House of Wax-esque insane sculptor, into a supernatural horror whose mad artist villain was a vampire too, confusingly entitling her film Blood Bath also. But the story doesn’t quite end there, as Blood Bath, too short for television showings at sixty-nine minutes, was again re-edited to create Track of the Vampire – Rothman’s preferred title for Blood Bath – and, confusingly, Corman finally got around to releasing an only mildly re-edited and dubbed version of Operacija Ticijan to television around the same time, now also entitled Portrait in Terror. If you’ve managed to get all that straight then that’s where the story ends, until Arrow Video managed to cobble together all four extant films and release them all over two discs of glorious Blu-Ray, no doubt prompting many a philosophical debate about how much a film can be changed and remain one product. Notably, Wikipedia considers Operation Titian, Portrait in Terror, and Track of the Vampire all to be versions of Blood Bath, while IMDb considers Operacija Ticijan, Portrait in Terror, and Blood Bath three separate films, but Track of the Vampire to be an alternate version of Blood Bath, despite the fact that the two sharing the most common material are Operacija Ticijan and Portrait in Terror. To any planning on picking up the set, the most important consideration is: how many films are you going to be buying, exactly?
The Film Itself
How original can unoriginality get? The question seems to inform much of Corman’s career, and a comparison of the enjoyability of the various versions is interesting, for those with nothing better to do. Operation Titian is the first of the four featured here, and it’s fun enough in a totally forgettable, Sunday-afternoon kind of way, offering a complex and mildly intriguing art-heist plot, some beautiful scenery, and a fine performance from Patrick Magee, who is set up as the main villain before being dispatched via harpoon by Campbell’s character. Portrait in Terror speeds up the often leisurely Operation Titian considerably, and makes room for one drawn-out murder scene as well as a beautiful SCUBA sequence which blows those in 1965’s Thunderball out of the – ha! – water, despite the black-and-white photography, but in becoming pacy the story loses some of its breezy, vacationesque charm. Particularly sorely missed are several irrelevant sequences selling the sights and the history of Dubrovnik. The tourist board must have been sad to see them go, too.
Blood Bath is, of course, the main event here, and there is some demented satisfaction to be had in this short, disjointed, enjoyable, but ultimately unsatisfying mash-up of a motion picture. There’s a wonderful parlour game to be had in trying to pinpoint which scenes belong to Hill’s film and which to Rothman’s; one big clue is that Campbell was available to shoot new scenes for Jack Hill only, but further ambiguity comes in when there are several scenes of a group of beatniks, whose number includes a young Sid Haig. The satirical tone, countercultural feel, and art theme seems to place them in Hill’s movie, but their frequent discussions of vampirism suggests Rothman’s. One thing that seems clear is that Jack Hill’s Portrait in Terror/Blood Bath would have been an excellent horror film, with Campbell’s new scenes much more powerful than his old ones, and a confident Surrealist style that surprises one in such a low-budget cash-grab. The loss of Hill’s film is sad, but nonetheless it appears to make up the bulk of Rothman’s Blood Bath/Track of the Vampire which, save for a few establishing shots, contains almost none of Operation Titian/Portrait in Terror. Track of the Vampire is the last, and easily the least, of the films presented here. Blood Bath’s meagre length being unacceptable for a two-hour slot, even including commercials, the picture was padded out to fill its runtime, and the resulting films manages, astonishingly, to make a mess of what was already a mess. While some of the new footage is genuinely new, it’s fairly worthless: there is a five-minute uninterrupted take of a woman dancing on a beach, for instance. What’s more interesting is that whoever edited Track of the Vampire has gone back to the source material, including outtakes not only from Rothman’s and Hill’s pictures, but even as far back as Operation Titian/Portrait in Terror, reinstating Patrick Magee into the film – while completely changing his personality, backstory, motivation, dialogue, and voice – and actually showing his death this time around, even if it is via stand-in!. Still, while this extra footage is interesting to see, it hardly helps Blood Bath with its existing problems: namely, poor continuity, a disjointed plot, and a weird sense of pacing. If anything here keeps you coming back, it’ll be the flawed, strangely brilliant Blood Bath, and the even more brilliant Jack Hill picture buried within it.
Audio and Visuals
Like everything else about this box set, it depends which version you want to see. Operation Titian is available only with English audio – actually, it’s not even clear whether an authentic Croatian version exists, though Arrow has a good track record on providing the original audio track – and it is very terribly recorded, but the visuals look fine, with appealing black-and-white cinematography, beautiful location shooting, and the odd creative touch. Portrait in Terror is just as good-looking as Operation Titian – how could it not be? – but, for whatever reason, its sound is considerably less rough around the edges despite being substantially identical, so it seems strange that this audio track could not have been used for Operation Titian, where possible. Sadly but somewhat inevitably, Portrait in Terror ditches Operation Titian’s jazzy, crime thriller-appropriate score for some more generically Gothic cues. Blood Bath both looks and sounds excellent, and the work that has gone into the restoration deserves high praise – for a picture cobbled together so haphazardly, there is no noticeable difference in quality between the various scenes. Track of the Vampire notably does suffer more from differences in quality, but not to the extent that it will hamper whatever enjoyment the experience represents, and it is impressive, really, that a TV film from 1967 should look or sound at all decent.
The box is a thing of Gothic beauty, something you’ll want to prop up next to your TV rather than file away on a shelf, and comes with the traditional reversible artwork; also included is a double-sided poster, for those whose living rooms need a touch of Corman kitsch. The menus are visually interesting and easy to navigate, although the sound on the menu is a little too loud compared to the volume at which the films themselves play.
In the 1990s, journalist Tim Lucas wrote a three-part article in Video Watchdog detailing the complete production history of Blood Bath. Here, he translates it into a video essay, as The Trouble with Titian Revisited. The film is a fascinating watch, balancing a really strong factual basis with the right amount of arch humour. Taking you through the convoluted production process film by film, the documentary is one of the most engaging of its type, and its host is genial, eloquent, and charming. After that, there is only “Bathing in Blood with Sid Haig”, a five-minute interview with the horror legend; an archival interview with Jack Hill, who doesn’t seem as resentful, at least here, of Rothman’s new scenes as other sources report; and the customary stills gallery. That there is no theatrical trailer for any picture is surprising but not too upsetting; more lamentable is the absence of a commentary, perhaps by Tim Lucas, on any of the four pictures – ideally Track of the Vampire, one supposes, since it is the most diverse picture of the bunch – is lamentable, but what would have really been appreciated is an optional onscreen indicator, for Blood Bath and Track of the Vampire, of which films each shot was produced for. A similar function has been seen on the Blu-Rays for entirely unconfusing alternate cuts of films, such as the Director’s Cut of Alien or the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions.
As a set of motion pictures, this is not, in this reviewer’s opinion, four films so much as two films, featuring two different cuts of each. The absence of Jack Hill’s Portrait in Terror/Blood Bath is unfortunate, especially as it would have eased the transition between Michael Road’s Portrait in Terror and Stephanie Rothman’s Blood Bath; without it, there’s a missing link between what is still recognisably a Yugoslavian art thriller to an American-set Gothic horror, with no stepping stone bridging that gulf. However, what’s lost is lost, and there is no point in chiding Arrow for their inability to recover yet another sadly missed lost film. The work that has gone into acquiring, remastering, presenting, packaging, and aiding the viewer’s understanding of, this bizarre project, is a commendable work of cinematic academia, and anyone with even a layman’s interest in the art of film editing owes it to themselves to view each of these four films.
Blood Bath arrives on our shelves today (30th May), will you be buying yourself a copy? Let us know in the comment box below!