A series of grisly murders in the remote village of Holfen convinces the locals that the town is still cursed by the spirit of a 17th-century baron who maintained an elaborate torture chamber in the dungeon of his estate. Undaunted by the villagers' superstitions, a detective (Georges Rollin) quickly focuses his investigation upon the creepy Max von Klaus (Howard Vernon). Meanwhile, the youngest male descendent of the Von Klaus bloodline (Hugo Blanco) returns home to mourn the death of his mother and must wrestle with his own connection to the cursed family. (From Redemption’s official synopsis)
Before he became one of the most (if not the most) prolific filmmakers of all time, Jesus ‘Jess’ Franco made a name for himself with expressionist horror films that pushed the boundaries of censorship in General Franco’s (no relation) fascist Spain. His first international hit was The Awful Dr. Orloff (Spanish: Gritos en la Noche, 1962), which led him to create a number of official and unofficial sequels and pseudo-remakes. Just before critics branded him the “Orloff machine” (I assume), he threw together a Orloff-esque, but still distinct thriller called The Sadistic Baron von Klaus (Spanish: La Mano de un Hombre Muerto, also 1962). It lacks the stylish delirium of Awful Dr. Orloff or The Diabolical Dr. Z (1965), but is, for most of its runtime, a sampling of what he could achieve while acting as a mainstream filmmaker.
For this particularly hip and jazzy mix of murder mystery and gothic horror sensibilities, Franco borrowed from Hitchcock, but is more indebted to French noir filmmakers, like Jules Dassin (Franco would make one of several official-ish sequels to Dassin’s Rififi called Rififi in the City [Spanish: Rififí en la ciudad] the next year, in 1964), and the expressionistic horror of filmmakers of the previous decades with an emphasis on Universal Monsters pioneer James Whale. While mimicking his cinematic progenitors, Franco also anticipates the on-coming Italian giallo wave by cladding his killer in black gloves and a black hat two full years before Mario Bava did it in Blood and Black Lace (Italian: 6 donne per l'assassino, 1964) and, in its uncut form, engaging in shocking (for the time), sexually-charged murder and torture.
Franco doesn’t so much combine noir and Gothic as much as he, cinematographer Godofredo Pacheco, composer Daniel White, and production designerAndrés Vallvé veer between them. This might be considered a weakness by some viewers – especially those not already acclimated to similarly odd shifts that accompany similar Eurocult movies from the ‘60s and ‘70s – but the tonal indecision really does define this early stage in the director’s career. Audiences primed to enjoy this type of thing can enjoy two genre films, neither of which is remarkable on its own merits, but excel when combined. And, despite the stylistic scattershot approach, the screenplay (credited to Pío Ballesteros, Juan Cobos, Gonzalo Sebastián de Erice, and Franco himself) is easy enough to follow in broad strokes. The characters have little in common with the nebulous ciphers and hard-line wackos that Franco would famously populate his more popular and hallucinatory movies. The tonal/stylistic imbalance extends to the all-star cult cast, who are themselves divided between naturalistic and melodramatic camps, sometimes switching even sides from scene to scene.
Do note that Redemption Films is using the French cut of the film as the basis for this Blu-ray, which is shorter than the Spanish cut (unusual, since censorship was so strict in Franco’s Spain). They have replaced the sado-masochistic climatic murder – the one scene that best defines the film for most fans (more on that below) – but a bit of research tells me that a brief, pre-credit murder is still missing.
The Sadistic Baron von Klaus was first released on anamorphic DVD via Image Entertainment as part of their EuroShock Collection. Later, it appeared on Netflix streaming, where it is still available, but it is a censored, SD version. Redemption Films hasn’t supplied any specifics as to their remastering process, but it’s clear that this new 2.35:1, 1080p Blu-ray is a substantial upgrade over both of the fuzzy SD versions. Details are tight, especially in well-lit, wide-angle shots. The gradations are even, contrast/gamma levels appear accurate, and there are very few instances of white level blow-out or black crush. Grain is prevalent and sometimes irregular, but rarely invasive. Considerable issues with print damage artefacts flutter throughout the transfer, including harmless flecks of white and much more intrusive vertical lines that slowly creep from the right side of the screen to the left during one or two sequences. It also looks to me like the image is slightly horizontally stretched, but it may be my imagination.
Overall, it is a nice transfer and a worthy upgrade with one very important exception – the climatic sex/torture scene. It appears that there wasn’t an original film source available for this sequence (as mentioned, it was cut from the French release) and the image quality drops significantly as the mayhem begins. The image becomes fuzzy, grain is thickened, and the haloed edges turn really blocky. It’s not the end of the world, of course, because the footage is important to the film, but Redemption probably should’ve stuck some kind of warning either at the top of the film or on the back of the Blu-ray box.
The Sadistic Baron von Klaus was likely shot with limited on-set sound, which means that extensive ADR was required. That said, because they were working from the French version of the film, Redemption has only included the French-language dub (the same one that accompanied the Image DVD and Netflix stream). Some of the actors seem to be speaking French, while others are probably speaking Spanish or English, but, even when the lip shapes match, the sync is often way, way off. The uncompressed, LPCM 2.0 mono track is otherwise pretty well-balanced, showing only minor signs of damage during harsher, louder noises. Daniel White’s sometimes jazzy, sometimes spooky score sounds particularly crisp, even if it’s overwhelmed by sound effects during its more delicate moments. Oddly, there is a tiny bit of surviving French dialogue and effects for the cut footage, but the bulk of the sequences play out with a looped piano piece.
The only extra is a trailer.