Monday, July 1, 2024

American Gothic Week: Balkanized

aka Operation: Titian or Track of the Vampire

1966 or 1968
Directed by Rados Novakovic or Jack Hill or Stephanie Rothman
Written by Vlastimir Radovanovic or Jack Hill or Stephanie Rothman

Spoilers: moderate

In 1966 Roger Corman released, through American International Pictures, a Gothic-adjacent horror film called Blood Bath; it was directed, so its credits claim, by Jack Hill and Stephanie Rothman, making it each one's credited feature directorial debut.  It's fairly reasonable to assume that Hill and Rothman did at least meet each other at some pointboth had served as ministers without any specific portfolio to Corman for several years, doing this, that, and the other thing for a variety of movies that Corman producedthough they only worked one after the other on Blood Bath, not together, and thereon hangs this production's "like, what is a movie, man?" kind of tale.  Meanwhile, it is actually unclear whether they ever met the film's original director, Rados Novakovic, d/b/a "Michael Road," though since it wasn't even Blood Bath yet then, my guess is that they probably didn't.  Well, I just hope this yarn doesn't get too frayed as I try to unwind it.

So: it began as a cheapie instigated by Corman in 1963 during one of his European sojourns, where he made the acquaintance of Novakovic, a Yugoslav.  A screenplay was quickly hammered out, if it didn't exist already, and in the meantime Corman secured the participation of a couple of Anglosphere actors for the American market's sake.  The star would be William Campbell (best known as Trelane from Star Trek's "The Squire of Gothos," and while I had always assumed the foppish hair was a put-on for that episode, it turns out that's how he wore it; it suits him).  In a supporting role, we find Patrick Mageethough he didn't make it to Blood Bath.  To reiterate, Novakovic's movie was not Blood Bath; it was called Operation: Titian, which you may accidentally misread as "Operation: Titan," but it is indeed about the famed Renaissance painter.  The film involves a fictional (I strongly presume) Tiziano Vecellio painting, a group portrait centered on a newlywed young noblewoman who, it was discovered, was cuckolding her new husband before they were even married, and was thus murdered by him.  This subject plays only a little bit into the film, insofar as Campbell's character, a fallen member of Venetian nobility named Sordi, has recently been broken up with by his girlfriend (Anna Pavane), though the story wouldn't play too terribly differently if she weren't in the movie.  The main thing is that his uncle owns this valuable painting, or, it turns out (or does it?) a worthless, bad copy of it; but Magee's globetrotting, white-suit-and-panama-hat-clad thief has definitely gotten it in his mind to steal it, and things get all tangled up.  In the end, even the infinitely-forgiving critic that was Corman deemed it unreleasable.

It's not half as bad as that should imply, and Corman must've relented on that judgment at some point anyway, because Operation: Titian was slightly re-edited, sold to TV, and subsequently aired in 1968 as a fourth version of the same film, called Portrait In Terror; but let's swing back around on that later.  For now, we have Operation: Titian, a $20,000 investment just sitting on Corman's shelf and collecting dust.  Naturally, he decided he'd take another crack at it, as was very much his standard operating procedure in this periodthe "Americanization" of films from Eastern Europe had already become a small but saliently hackish aspect of Corman's burgeoning B-movie empire, most germanely with 1962's Battle Beyond the Sun, known to its Soviet makers as Nyebo Zovyot, or The Heavens Beckon, which then had its effects footage reused for Blood Bath's double-feature mate, Queen of Blood.

Of course, he could treat even his own movies with the same sort of cavalier indifference: Corman's 1963 film The Terror was basically an experiment to see if he could cobble together a Poe-like horror film out of the remnants of Boris Karloff's shooting contract for The Raven, and, though Corman and numerous other directors (including Hill) worked for months to turn it into a "real" movie, it wound up the cinematic equivalent of mine tailings.  But, regardless, Operation: Titian was practically Americanized already.  How hard could it be?  And so Hill took his swing.  This is the major missing link in Blood Bath's evolution (of the three versions of the film bearing significant variations, Hill's is the one that appears to have been the only one allowed to slide completely into oblivion): it was here that it gained the title Blood Bath, and while it's hard to be certain, it looks like a somewhat more serious, Adriatic coast version of Corman's own A Bucket of Blood, revolving around a demented artist/murderer who integrates his victims into his work.  I doubt Corman therefore took a personal umbrage to Hill's derivative approach, but whatever piqued his distaste, he rejected Hill's movie, too, despite having shelled out even more money for reshoots with an annoyed Campbell to reorient his character to fit a Walter Paisley mold.

I guess he learned no lessons from The Terror, because he trebled down on Blood Bath, and now Rothman got her turn.  Both Rothman and Hill wound up having careers after this, and apart from Corman, but it's worth pointing out that Rothman's was the less robust of the twoI'm sure you can imagine the principal reason why (though neither career was that robust)but, anyway, I would suspect her version of the movie is better than Hill's.  It's a little better than Novakovic's, at least.  Rothman's builds on Hill's foundation; but, now, Campbell is a vampire.  This was unbeknownst to Campbell, so far as even a single recorded image in Blood Bath goes; for Campbell adamantly refused to make this movie a third time, telling Corman to take a hike, and hence the vampire is played by a stand-in, massaged into the film more by way of makeup and horror flick kludge (the idea is that his vampiric form simply does look completely different from his babyfaced human guise), rather than solely Plan 9 From Outer Space-style dipshit trickery, and the dipshit trickery that remains is more sophisticated.  It actually works pretty okay, and the plot even depends on it.

So, a quick summary of the "actual" Blood Bath that got released, that is, Rothman's: Antonio Sordi (Campbell)still an Italian artist, but also a vampirehas decamped to an ancient town on the Dalmatian coast (though it's more like an unspecific nightmare city), where he occasionally feeds and works his violence into his art, including (though not limited to) a series of unaccountably popular paintings that have acquired the sobriquet of "Red Dead Nudes."  He has artistic conflict with a clutch of semi-annoying beatniks led by Max (Karl Schanzer), who are plunging ahead into the wilds of modern art, including irritating new styles prompted by a profoundly non-expert understanding of quantum physics.  Also on Sordi's plateonly figuratively speaking, as yetis a blossoming romance with Dorian (Lori Saunders), a dancer, who also happens to be the spitting image of the woman responsible for his vampiric state, Meliza (also Saunders, in hallucinations), who centuries ago was his lover but ultimately denounced him as a Satanist, pointing to his monstrous paintings that, Sordi suggests, plumbed the unconscious mind of man before "the unconscious" ever got its name.  Though he burned, he came back, but he never really stopped loving Meliza, and sees in her lookalike a chance at happiness.  But he's still a vampire, and a man who believes that murder is one of the fine arts, and so he seduces, for food (and possibly out of petty artistic competition), Max's ex-girlfriend Daisy Allen (Marissa Mathes), which brings in Daisy's sister, Donna (Sandra Knight), who spends the middle half of the movie investigating; but, structurally-speakingthis is basically a vampirism-mediated slasher, including an initial, anonymous kill to kick things offthis is obviously not going to work out great for Donna, and eventually Sordi is going to find that Dorian's resemblance to his dead, traitress girlfriend doesn't please him as much as he thought it did.

Or something like that.  It is, unsurprisingly, a little confused, though here's the real perplexing part: Rothman's movie is less confused in its telling than Novakovic's is, and Novakovic was just making a integral movie, not attempting a frankensteined salvage job.  Operation: Titian is a weirdly impenetrable sort of thriller, or at least Portrait In Terror is.  (I watched Portrait In Terror.  My understanding is that they're basically the same thing and I'm going to keep calling it Operation: Titian.)

I think that this impenetrability must be, at least somewhat, by design, because it's meant to be that kind of thriller; unfortunately, it's overplaying this to a dysfunctional degree, dependent on a whole lot of contrivance and obfuscation alike, so that it's a pretty rare moment that you have any more than the vaguest sense of what's even going on, beyond the most fundamental idea of the movie, "Patrick Magee is a murderous villain."  The problem is that it always feels like it's stumbling into "obfuscatory thriller" by accident, because Novakovic never manages to emotionally attach his narrative to any of his various pawns: he's very obviously going for a Third Man here, with its surfeit of Old European atmosphere (likewise, Novakovic's finale fearlessly rips off an Orson Welles directorial effort, The Stranger).  It's simply not sufficiently good at itthere's never any sensation of sinking into a fearful unknown here, and a lot of things come off less as "twists" than as things the movie just forgot to mention.  So, it's probably my fault, and I probably missed some tossed-off exposition that clarified this, but I think it'll help convey what the experience of watching Operation: Titian is like: until an hour into the movie I believed that the male heroic lead (who I assume is Kerry Anderson, but it's hard to determine) was a cop, or an intelligence service man.  Actually, he's a reporter.  The key takeaway from my anecdote, however, is that it didn't really matter to my understanding of the plot that I was wrong.  (Though what fucking kills the movie stone dead is just a giant serving of Z-movie padding, involving a stultifying five-minute stretch of scuba divers investigating all sorts of shit before finally getting to the plot point it exists to serve, our female demi-villain's (probably Ella Karlan's) dead body.)

Rothman's movie, working atop Hill's rebuild, is much more straightforward and investing, despite Hill already taking recourse to surrealism and gonzo horror to punch up his movieI'm pretty sure one of the best parts of Blood Bath, involving a hallucination that recreates Sordi's studio in the middle of an endless expanse of desert while his dead girlfriend laughs at him, is a big net-positive Hill contribution.  (I also enjoy the Corman Poevian emphasis on evil paintings.)  Hill is also responsible for the biggest net-negative elements of the reconstructed film, the beatnik artists, who are way less on-target than Corman's satire of the same in Bucket of Blood, and obnoxious enough that even when Schanzer and company settle down in Rothman's Campbell-free reshoots, and manifest as semi-normal human beings for a change, the critical damage has already been done.  It doesn't help that Max's main contribution to the discussions where he is a semi-normal human being is to listen to Donna spout some stunningly easily-obtained exposition about this specific vampire legend, which the book she's reading aloud from helpfully identifies, explicitly, as Sordi's "ancestor."

Rothman's principal contribution, then, besides running with Hill's instinct to remold it into horror, and nudging the film into a different horror subgenre, is the vampiric kill sequences themselves, and they're kind of excellent.  Here's the thing about Novakovic's movie: it was already really well shot; or, at least pretty well shot, with a lot of dynamic angles, and a very photogenic location (Dubrovnik, Croatia), boasting, in particular, a lot of attractive masonry.  Rothman integrates some of the best stuff Novakovic was getting up to and integrates it very wellit's a great pity she couldn't finagle a way to justify that rad, acutely-angled shot up a stairwell, with the glasses that Campbell's wearing glinting like two giant, demoniac eyes.  She does, however, get a lot of mileage out of the footage Novakovic shot of enormous shadows sliding across the facades of archaic buildings, and his ninety-degree pans in a brick tunnel alleyway, and his obscured hat-men.  For all that Novakovic's was doing third-rate Third Man (oh, I kid, it's more like second-rate), Rothman leans into that even further, ginning up some starkly expressionistic horror images to intercut into Novakovic's footage, frequently turning her location (Venice, California) into what amounts more to the mere suggestion of architecture, just platforms and ornamentation hanging in a void, an impression heightened by Alfred Kane's high-contrast photography that represents a fine example of the house style Corman had developed for black-and-white films by the 60s.

Hill's movie, with its "Red Dead Nudes," was already preemptively scowling at the Italian giallo as the shape of that subgenre was slowly coming into focus (1964, the year Hill shot his version, was the year Blood and Black Lace came out, and Novakovic was at least as aware of the then-extremely-current The Girl Who Knew Too Much as he was The Third Man).  Rothman emphasizes that even a little bit more with her proto-slasher, both as a matter of sexualized violence and as a matter of strange and dreamily-composed murders.  There's a rather unusual vampire kill here, involving a drowning in a swimming pool, which Rothman renders in surprisingly long underwater takes (long, at least, for the two actors who presumably did not actually drown and were not actually a vampire, respectively).  It's missing a giant plume of black blood (which is, let's be a real, a big miss and should've automatically occurred to Rothman); but it does end with a note that's arguably more properly unsettling, when her friends, without any great concern, find the dead woman's heels floating in the pool.  I'm further quite fond of a forlorn establishing shot of a street that's been captured in such a way that the lighting makes the buildings take the shape of a coffin.

Rothman's Blood Bath is either an okay film, or, at least, almost okay; I'm not in love with it as a complete object, not at all, but considering its origins, it's a startlingly coherent one (and startlingly watchable, though "being only 62 minutes long" undoubtedly helps).  The illusion of being a "real" movie only breaks down in the climax, where Rothman is obliged, thanks to Campbell's understandable recalcitrance, to veer back into Hill's ending, which is a more supernaturally-tinged version of (you guessed) Bucket of Blood's; it still sort of functionshell, it probably makes more sense now that the story has an established supernatural elementthough at this extreme it's also pretty obvious that Sordi isn't a vampire in this footage.  (And Magee comes back for one shot as a corpse, I think!)  That's a demerit, but I would, very tentatively, forward the last version of Blood Bath as a "good movie"; considering that it's a stitched-together abomination for the producer who made The Terror, this is an accomplishment Rothman has every right to be proud of.  That's true even if it wasn't actually the last version.  There's yet a fifth, a TV version called Track of the Vampire, with five minutes of new footage of Saunders dancing go-go on the beach to fit a timeslot.  It was a wild era, man.

Score, Stephanie Rothman's Blood Bath: 6/10
Score, Jack Hill's Blood Bath: ?
Score, Rados Novakovic's Portrait In Terror: 5/10


  1. Good grief, and I thought a palimpsest was only possible in literary form! (Honestly, the story behind the making of this film could arguably inspire a horror movie - or at least a horror comedy - in it’s own right: ‘make a movie, but you’re only allowed to use old movie footage to do it and there will be exactly NO explanation of why you’re only allowed to use THIS old footage’ is long winde, but could provide one or two sharp hooks).

    1. Like, Stephanie Rothman's job on Blood Bath is her personalized Jigsaw trap? Sounds about right, really.

    2. I was thinking something more like her IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, not being a big fan of ‘Torture Porn’ but having a certain admiration for Cosmic Horror.