Blu-ray Release: March 9, 2021
Audio: Castilian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono; English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono (international cut only)
Run Time: 90 minutes (international cut)/88 minutes (Spanish cut)
Director: Jorge Grau
In 19th century Europe, people are in the grip of ancient superstitions and the fear of vampires runs riot through the land. Strange rituals are enacted to seek out the resting places of the undead and macabre trials are held over disinterred corpses. The Countess barely notices. She is more concerned with her fading beauty and her husband seems only interested in his birds of prey and observing the behavior of the superstitious locals. But her faithful lady’s companion has an idea to reignite her husband’s passion and preserve her looks. She reminds the Countess of her ancestor, the notorious Erzebeth Báthory, who bathed in the blood of virgins to maintain her youth. (From Mondo Macabro’s official synopsis)
Jorge Grau is a name forever associated with Spanish horror movies, despite the fact that he only made three horror films over his three-plus decade career. Furthermore, his continued reputation in Eurohorror communities is really due to a single picture, 1974’s Spanish/Italian co-production The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (Spanish: No profanar el sueño de los muertos; aka: Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and Don't Open the Window). Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue deserves recognition as a pulpy, clever, gory, and spooky film, one that was slightly ahead of its time in depicting intestine-devouring zombies in a European horror movie several years before Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2; aka: Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979). Still, Grau’s prestige is pretty unique among other Spanish cult favorites, like Paul Naschy, Javier Aguirre, Amando de Ossorio, and Carlos Aured, each known for multiple genre entries. Most fans, including myself, hadn’t even seen his other two horror films – Violent Blood Bath (Spanish: Pena de muerte, 1973) and the subject of this review, Blood Ceremony (Spanish: Ceremonia sangrienta; aka: The Legend of Blood Castle, 1973) – nor do we often acknowledge that all three of these movies were made and released in a row over a period of about a year, after which point Grau moved on to other genres and trends.
Compared to the hyper-contemporary approach of The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (some might say exceedingly so, given its occasionally awkward nods to the counterculture movements of the day), Blood Ceremony definitely feels like the product of an earlier generation of Spanish horror. The differences obviously begin with the fact that it’s a period piece with none of the connections between modern and historical eras seen in movies like Aured’s Horror Rises from the Tomb (Spanish: El Espanto Surge de la Tumba; aka: Blood Mass for the Devil, 1972) or De Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead (1973). This isn’t to imply that the things Grau makes as a director feel outdated, even compared to completely modern-set Spanish horror films. In fact, the style here beautifully blends the Hammer Studios brand of Gothic, costume drama motifs with an awareness of the arthouse Euro-exploitation of Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and José Ramón Larraz. It’s not a particularly avant-garde movie, but there are genuinely lyrical moments, often baked into the bloodiest sequences. Grau doesn’t push the gore boundaries as far as he did for Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, but still manages to unload quite a bit of grue and blood, including some fantastically nasty EC Comic-style zombies during a nightmare sequence. (Warning – animal cruelty: there are scenes of trained hawks tearing pigeons asunder and a shot of a bat being burned by children)
As far as the story goes, Blood Ceremony is yet another adaptation of the Elizabeth Báthory myth. For those few that don’t already know, Báthory was a real-life Hungarian noblewoman who tortured and murdered uncounted, though likely hundreds of women and girls. Unproven rumors that she drank and bathed in her victims’ blood were added to her legend and are the basis for most pop culture versions of the story. For whatever reason, the ‘70s saw a mini-boom in Eurohorror Báthory movies, including Franco Brocani’s Necropolis (1970), Peter Sasdy’s Countess Dracula (from Hammer Studios, 1970), Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (French: La Rouge aux Lèvres, 1971), and Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales (French: Contes Immoraux, 1974). It wasn’t even the only Báthory-themed Spanish horror movie released in 1973 – it shared theaters with Aured’s Curse of the Devil (Spanish: El Retorno de Walpurgis; aka: Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman, 1973), which revealed that Paul Naschy’s popular character, Count Waldemar Daninsky, was cursed to become a werewolf, because one of his ancestors had burned Báthory at the stake. She returned as the villain in Night of the Werewolf (Spanish: El Retorno del Hombre Lobo; aka: The Craving, 1980), directed by Naschy himself.
Grau’s film prioritizes mood over narrative, but doesn’t neglect the popular and juicy socio-political theme of aristocratic society exploiting the poor. The enduring popularity of the Báthory legend is likely tied to this theme, similar to the Dracula legend, though bathing in the essence of the poor for utterly selfish vanity arguably hits a bit harder than drinking the essence of the poor for survival. That said, there is still a scene in which the wealthy eat bloody rare meat while discussing the technical necessities of supposed vampirism. A secondary theme of authoritative incompetence is found in a borderline satirical subplot about a witch hunt. Local authorities and religious leaders hold an official trial for a dead man accused of being a vampire, prompting hysteria, profiting at the expense of lower class families, and a supposedly benevolent ceremony that is every bit as absurd as the Countess’ grotesque beauty regiment (I keep referring to her as a countess, but the movie refers to her as a marquise).
The screenplay (credited to Grau, Juan Tébar, and Sandro Continenza) gives Báthory slightly greater benefit of the doubt than other movies, which tend to depict her as a merciless Dracula type (technically, she isn’t actually Báthory, but an ancestor carrying the same name). She’s a selfish, morally corruptible character who is drawn into evil by scheming cultists and the psychotic desires of her husband, Count Karl Ziemmer (Espartaco Santoni), who is already obsessed with the idea of vampirism and who is only too happy to help procure the red stuff. She’s short of being a victim herself, but also doesn’t have a whole lot of agency of her own. Grau plays coy with the supernatural elements of the story, heavily implying that the feared vampirism is merely a superstition and cover for the murders, while also making it clear that Báthory’s blood baths are making her appear younger and more beautiful.
As far as I can tell, Blood Ceremony has never been available on English-friendly home video, either on VHS or DVD. The closest thing I could find was a Finnish tape that reportedly has hardcoded subtitles. Then, in 2019, Artus Films released a French Blu-ray/DVD combo pack that only featured the Spanish dub and French subtitles. This new Mondo Macabro Blu-ray (which is a standard edition, following an October 2020 limited edition) is not only most of the world’s introduction to the film, but its 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer has been struck from a 4K scan of the original negative. Moreover, the company has included two versions of the film – the original Spanish cut, which was edited for the sake of local censorship, and the international release version, which runs a few minutes longer and is being touted as the longest cut available. The HD transfer is similar to Mondo’s same-day release of Naschy’s Panic Beats (Spanish: Latidos de pánico, 1983). Both feature tight, but not over-sharpened details, minimal print damage artifacts, and fine grain that has an occasionally overly noisy telecine quality; the latter being the closest thing to a measurable problem with either transfer. Cinematographers Fernando Arribas & Oberdan Troiani’s dark and smoky photography leads to some occasional dinginess, but, for the most part, the color quality appears accurate, including warm night time sequences, softly vibrant daylight exteriors, and stylishly vivid interior highlights.
The international cut includes English and Castilian Spanish language dub options, both presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound. The Spanish cut, naturally, only features a Spanish dub. I assume that Blood Ceremony was shot without on-set sound and dubbed in post, no matter the language, but I’m not positive. Either way, the actors appear to be speaking Spanish (minus Ewa Aulin, a Swedish actress clearly speaking English), so the Spanish lip synch fits a bit better. The Spanish track is also notably louder than the English one, all without any notable uptick in distortion, so I suppose that makes it the preferred audio option. Carlo Savina’s spooky chamber music score – punctuated by nerve jangling, off-tempo bells – comes off well on both tracks, exhibiting only occasional warble during the loudest moments.
Commentary with Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson (international version) – Howarth, the author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films (Midnight Marquee Press, 2015) and Thompson, owner/reviewer at Mondo Digital, chat about Grau, his career, the careers of the rest of the cast & crew, Báthory’s legend as seen through horror movies, the making of Blood Ceremony, and how it compares to other pseudo-historical vampire films.
Commentary with Robert Monell and Rod Barnett (international version) – The second track features Barnett, of the Naschycast podcast, and Monell, of the Cinemadrome International website, who load their commentary with just as much info as Howarth and Thompson. Unsurprisingly, there is overlap between the tracks (based on my sampling of both), but there are enough differences to make them worthwhile companion pieces. For instance, the first track is slightly more interested in the historical angle and the second is slightly more interested in the filmographies of the participants (both mention that star Lucia Bosè died of COVID-19-related pneumonia).
Jordi Grau: Getting Started (15:16, HD) – In this archive interview, the director (who this featurette’s title card claims prefers his Catalan name Jordi) recalls his early film career, from work for theater companies and acting, to documentary shorts and second unit work for big name directors, like Sergio Leone, and, finally, feature-length first unit direction. Cips from some of the films discussed are included.
Jordi Grau on Blood Ceremony (26:11, HD) – This follow up interview focuses directly on the making of Blood Ceremony, from early inception to casting and eventual release. Apparently, Grau hadn’t intended on making his Báthory movie a horror film, but the popularity of genre n Spain meant he had to if he was ever going to finish it. It might have even been a Hammer co-production at one point and Grau accuses the studio of stealing the idea for Countess Dracula from his script.
Press book gallery
Mondo Macabro trailer reel
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.