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B&W Dread: 'Blood Bath'/ 'Burn Witch, Burn'

In 2011, horror is all about color. From the bright red radiance of a showboating splatter sequence to the sickening green/grey patina of something like Saw, filmmakers rely on pigments to play fright master - sometimes relying on them more than ideas to sell their shivers. In fact, terror has never been solely contingent on tints to get by. Back 50 years ago, true masterworks of the macabre - The Haunting, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead - could be fashioned out of a good script, a solid director, some decent performances, and rolls and rolls of monochrome film. When color became the norm, the genre lost some of its luster. Gone where elements like atmosphere, setting, and allusion. In their place are obvious bows to blood and body parts

That's why both Blood Bath and Burn, Witch, Burn (available from MGM new Limited Edition Movies on Demand service) are so fascinating. The first is an attempt to merge several dispirit storylines into a single madman on the loose narrative. While it doesn't always succeed, it does provide some terrific subplots and subtext. The second is far more successful, for reasons we have outlined above. The story is first rate, the characters clear and easy to identify with. The narrative builds slowly, lulling you into its web of wicked mysteries before unleashing a near lethal finish. Along the way, the filmmaking matches the misery onscreen, accentuating our feeling of apprehension and horror. To put it simply, one is a goof, the other is great. First, the foolishness:

Blood Bath (dir. Jack Hill)

In the bohemian art community of Venice, California, one name commands all the commercial attention - Antonio Sardi (William Campbell). Known best for his famed "Dead Red Nudes," he paints his horrific images in the familial tower of an old mythic relative who many believe was a vampire. When several young women from the area turn up missing, a serial killer is suspected. Few realize that the real fiend is mingling among them, using an ancient curse to make his art "come alive. "

For decades now, producer/writer/director Jack Hill had lived off a complicated, almost schizophrenic career. Although many mostly know him for his insane early '60s horror romp Spider Baby, he continued his work behind the lens, lifting the exploitation (and blaxsploitation) category with amazing efforts like Coffy and Foxy Brown. But before he made said name for himself, he was a struggling independent filmmaker trying to find his way in the industry. Hooking up with guide to the grindhouse Roger Corman, he hoped Blood Bath would be his big break. Instead, it wound up with one of the most convoluted production histories ever. Starting out as a spy thriller, the first version was deemed unreleaseable. Corman turned the film over to Hill to see if he could salvage it. Out went the espionage, in came a bunch of baffling shock and beatniks. In the end, Corman hated Hill's version as well. He then hired Stephanie Rothman to rework the property again.

The results were-and are now - less than spectacular. Aside from a wonderful bit involving character actors Sid Haig and Jonathan Haze as burly bohemians, Blood Bath is rather lifeless. It gets by on basic black and white atmosphere and lots of idle inference. We never really see Sardi become a vampire - it's as if another actor all together was hired to play the part. Similarly, the storyline involving turning humans into works of art had been done 'to death' (forgive the pun...). Between Bucket of Blood and Color Me Blood Red and any number of Wax Museum movies, there's a definite feeling of dread déjà vu. Of course, the insane production process doesn't help. Some scenes look like they were shot in Eastern Europe (they were). Others are straight from an "I Love LA" tourist guide. Yet the overall effect is one of acceptable anarchy. With Blood Bath don't necessarily feel a tingle running up and down our spine, but we're also not struggling to stay awake.

Burn, Witch, Burn (dir. Sidney Hayers)

Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) teaches psychology at a local UK university. He relishes debunking faith-based hokum like witchcraft, superstition, and a belief in the occult. His wife (Janet Blair), is a firm follower, especially after a near fatal accident while on vacation in Jamaica. Desperate to protect her husband, she uses spells and incantations to keep him safe. When he discovers her efforts and demands she stop, she reluctantly agrees. Within days, Norman's life is plaque by problems - both pragmatic and paranormal.

A truly lost gem, few have seen this remarkable genre effort. Originally entitled Night of the Eagle before it was bought and relabeled for resale by AIP, it tells a perfectly paced tale of a skeptical scholar who sees his entire existence unravel thanks to a back and forth clash between white and black magic. On the dark side is someone desperate to see Norman fail, to look foolish in front of the faculty and board and - hopefully - dissuade them from electing him department chair. Battling for good is Mrs. Taylor, a wild-eyed scenery chewer who never met a line reading she couldn't turn into a diagnosis of insanity. As played by Janet Blair, the frantic witch wannabe trades on so many mannered superstitions that you'd swear she wrote the basic book on them all. The best moments come when Norman insists her collection of talisman's be burned. She goes into such a tizzy that the craziness of the next hour makes all the more sense.

Perhaps the reason this all works so well is that two famous horror fiction writers - Charles Beaumont and the terrific Richard Matheson - were responsible for the script. Both men cut their teeth on episodes of The Twilight Zone and each one has/had a special way with scares. The tension here builds beautifully, never once missing a moment to catch us off guard. Even better, the post-spell situations, involving rape and reputation smack of real world legitimacy and authenticity. All of this leads to a climax which, for want of a better conceit, takes the original title far too literally. It's spectacular in scope, if just a bit Bert I. Gordon by today's standards. And yet, we wouldn't want it any other way. With a delicious deus ex machina epilogue and an intro that promises to protect us from all the diabolic devil worship being tossed around, Burn, Witch, Burn is a classic b-movie masterwork. It deserves to be better known and appreciated by true fans of fear.

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