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Jack Hill’s Spider Baby is usually labeled as the future exploitation maven’s feature debut, but it turns out that intricate behind-the-scenes details have masked his slightly earlier work as director on a troubled Roger Corman production eventually known as Blood Bath. Blood Bath went through a number of changes, as author/critic Tim Lucas attempted to trace in three 1991 issues of Video Watchdog magazine (issues 4, 5, and 7). Apparently, uber-producer and Blood Bath mastermind Roger Corman had acquired the release rights to a Yugoslavia thriller called Operacija Ticijan by Rados Novakovic and, looking to create a more viable North American market release, he put a young Francis Ford Coppola to work supervising the English-language shoot. When the recut Operacija Ticijan, retitled Portrait in Terror, still didn’t meet expectations, Corman asked Hill to fix it and make the thriller into a horror movie. Meanwhile, Corman’s other projects stalled and Blood Bath was put on hold. Hill eventually left the project for Spider Baby (a good choice on his part, since Spider Baby is the more personalized and Jack Hill-esque picture), at which point Student Nurses (1970) and Velvet Vampire (1971) director Stephanie Rothman finished the film under the title Track of the Vampire.

According to an interview with Calum Waddell for his book Jack Hill – The Exploitation and Blaxploitation Master, Film By Film, Hill claims “about 80 percent” of Track of the Vampire was his movie. In addition, Hill claims that Corman realized that he had barely used any Operacija Ticijan footage and ended up releasing it as a second bill feature. Then, according to Arrow Video’s own advertising, Corman made an censored TV version to be released under the Track of the Vampire title. This Blu-ray collection includes four versions of the film – Operacija Ticijan, the recut US version of Novakovic’s movie under the Portrait in Terror title, Hill and Rothman’s Blood Bath, and the Track of the Vampire TV cut (see the video section for more on what Arrow used to create this four movie collection). This basically boils down to two versions of two movies, rather than four versions of one movie, even though there are elements recycled throughout every version. Arrow has divided the movies onto two discs accordingly.

 Blood Bath

 Blood Bath

 Blood Bath

 Blood Bath

 Blood Bath
Much to my surprise and contrary to its reputation, I quite enjoyed both Operacija Ticijan and Portrait in Terror, despite their muddled pasts and patchy structures. Novakovic was clearly inspired by the pulpy, comic book-themed Germany’s krimi (crime) movies, their Spanish counterparts, and the post-Bond Eurospy traditions of Italy and England (primarily, but not exclusively). There are already signs of Corman’s tampering in this earliest incarnation. The narrative is awkwardly divided between an art thievery plot being perpetuated by Patrick Magee’s character (in an unusually tough guy role for the eccentric actor) and a melodramatic, mostly unresolved love triangle. The two stories interact and eventually line up (with an amusing, if not unconvincing twist), but it’s no surprise that Magee’s ‘evil James Bond’ portion of the movie is vastly more interesting. It also seems pretty obvious that Novakovic wasn’t the only one in charge of the camera, because the footage alternates between truly dynamic high/low angle shots and utterly uninspired wide shots. Portrait in Terror streamlines the bloated runtime, but the cuts aren’t particularly graceful or even practical (aside from the pointless tourism pitch at the very beginning of the movie). It’s perhaps a more amusing viewing experience, but not the more elegant versions of this elaborate production.

Blood Bath and Track of the Vampire have very little in common with Operacija Ticijan and Portrait in Terror, aside cast members (some of which are playing different characters), location, and the painting theme. None of this is unusual for a Roger Corman production from the era – he was famous for recycling sets and squeezing multiple movies out of an actor’s contract. The plotline is utterly different; this time it revolves around a tortured painter named Tony Sordi (played by returning star William Campbell) who is possessed by the spirit of an ancestor that transforms him into a twisted vampiric monster by night (portrayed by a different actor, because Campbell refused to participate with even more reshoots). Hill satirizes the pretensions of the ‘60s art scene, beatniks, and dance instructors, possibly in reference to Corman’s own A Bucket of Blood (1959), in which an unpopular busboy wins over a cafe of pompous beatnik art snobs with plaster-covered murder victims. But the thing that makes the film feel like a ‘Jack Hill joint’ is his ability to blend authentic appreciation for artistry into the satire. Goofy scenes of sycophants (including future Hill favourite Sid Haig) fawning over a comedic impressions of fine art are wedged between genuinely haunting, surrealistic visions and sincere character drama. Even the cheesecake bikini beach shots have a mournful beauty about them.

 Blood Bath

 Blood Bath

 Blood Bath

 Blood Bath

 Blood Bath
Hill also goes all-in for the horror elements, including the aforementioned hallucinations, disturbing gothic interludes (the boiling wax bath that adorns most of the movie’s poster art is pretty shocking for the era), and intense Vampire Sordi stalk-and-murder scenes. He nabbed all of the most dramatic shots from Novakovic’s film, specifically images from the Serbian/Yugoslavian locations, because they offered him the greatest production value. These certainly broaden the scope of the film, but don’t always fit the tone, since Hill’s footage tends to be more opulent and expressly cinematic. It is fun to watch all four movies in production order, though, and recognize random shots popping up in completely different contexts. The most substantial lift is from Operacija Ticijan’s opening, which is itself an homage to Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Lang ends up serving as a stylistic basis for most of the Vampire Sordi scenes, though Hill and cinematographer Alfred Taylor also pay homage to expressionistic noir (I personally see a lot of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, 1949), Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, and Mario Bava’s early work (specifically The Girl Who Knew Too Much, 1963).

Unfortunately, Blood Bath is only about an hour long and ends very abruptly. This is where Rothman’s additional work fits in. Track of the Vampire is, essentially, a version of Blood Bath that is padded out with exploitation-market-friendly sequences. The most substantial addition is a bawdy beach chase that culminates in a seemingly endless underwater wrestling match between an unnamed, barely-clothed victim and Sordi – though you might not recognize him, since a third actor is playing him for this single sequence (this is apparently the longest version of the scene ever seen on home video). The initial problem is that Rothman’s tiny budget and short schedule required her to utilize natural light and handheld cameras. The footage looks very different than Hill and Novakovic’s more stagey images (note that, according to Tim Lucas’ updated video essay, Rothman also shot additional material for Portrait in Terror). The bigger problem is that she was barely able to shoot anything at all, so additional space is filled with footage of Patrick Magee from Operacija Ticijan, which is taken completely out of context and very, very badly dubbed to fit with Hill’s horror-themed plot. However awkward, this does explain how Magee ends up appearing as one of Sordi’s wax-crusted victims at the end of Blood Bath.

Video


Note: The images on this page are divided by each movie. Operacija Ticijan is first, followed by Portrait in Terror, Blood Bath, and Track of the Vampire.

Blood Bath’s restoration was pretty complex and an explanation of the process takes up a page and a half of the included booklet. I’ll do my best to compress the description to its basics. The Blood Bath cut was sourced in 2K from 35mm fine grain elements. The results are about as good as we can expect from this particular film. Grading leans dark, which appears accurate, but also leaves the highlights of some sequences as appearing a bit grey. Blends, grain structure, and edges are all pretty clean. The final reel was sourced from an inferior source, so there is a notable drop in quality. Track of the Vampire utilizes the Blood Bath’s 2K transfer, then fills in the exclusive/expanded footage with a mix of dupe and original fine grain 35mm elements. While detail levels remain pretty consistent throughout, some of the inserts feature flatter gamma/contrast levels and blown-out whites. These shots are less grainy, which makes me assume that they were created from printed sources instead of negatives. The splices between footage types can be very messy, but I honestly sort of enjoyed the accidental aesthetic it creates.

Portrait in Terror was created from a 2K scan of composite 35mm fine grain elements, so it can appear inconsistent. Fortunately, good post-scan grading helps to regulate the contrast and sharpness. Some shots end up considerably darker, but none are completely crushed. The detail and textures more or less match the standard of the Blood Bath transfer. The booklet notes don’t mention a specific source for Operacija Ticijan, but it’s easy enough to assume that they used what they could from their Portrait in Terror transfer and inserted standard definition sequences where needed. The SD shots are relatively obvious – they’re fuzzier, they have weaker blacks, and loads of edge enhancement. Curiously enough, these lower-resolution images exhibit less print damage on the whole; though, even at their most artefact-strewn, the HD images are still preferred. All versions of the film are cropped at 1.66:1.

 Blood Bath

 Blood Bath

 Blood Bath

 Blood Bath

 Blood Bath

Audio


Again, each cut of the film was taken from a different original source. Blood Bath and Portrait in Terror’s uncompressed LPCM mono soundtracks were sourced from 35mm elements, Track of the Vampire’s LPCM mono inserts were sourced from 16mm elements, and Operacija Ticijan’s SD dialogue was taken from an unnamed compressed source. Blood Bath is a nicely balanced track with decent dynamic range, relatively naturalistic dialogue, and quite a bit of ambient noise from the set/locations. Even the punchy musical cues – most of which were cribbed from composer Ronald Stein’s The Undead (1957) and Dementia 13 (1963) – sound clean and undistorted. There are a couple instances of brief audio drop-out, which is only obvious when the background noise is particularly loud, such as the crashing waves during beach scenes. Track of the Vampire is more or less the same, besides the terrible dub scenes, of course. Operacija Ticijan and Portrait in Terror are both very minimalistic in terms of sound design, to the point that some sequences are entirely silent. The Yugoslavian-shot sequences appear to be entirely post-dubbed as well, so it is not surprising that the lip-sync is off. These SD inserts tend to be distorted as well, specifically the louder and harsher consonants – though the entire Operacija/ Portrait soundtrack has issues with hissy esses. The sparsely used musical cues seem to be mostly catalogue entries, including the theme from The Last Woman on Earth (1960) and more Dementia 13 score.

Extras


  • The Trouble with Titian Revisited (1:21:10, HD) – Tim Lucas returns to and updates his original three-part Video Watchdog written feature in this brand new video essay. Here, the author of Mario Bava: All The Colors of the Dark traces the convoluted production history of all four films in much deeper terms than I did at the beginning of this review. Like, way, way deeper. This includes personal accounts from the cast and crew (via written interview that Lucas reads himself), side-by-side comparisons, historical context, and connections to other Corman productions (like Coppola’s Dementia 13), all set to footage from the films, production photos, and posters from other pertinent movies.
  • Bathing in Blood with Sid Haig (4:40, HD) – This new interview is short, but sweet, and covers the production from the actor’s point-of-view.
  • Jack Hill on Blood Bath (3:10, SD) – The writer/director briefly runs down his version of the movie in this older interview.
  • Still gallery

The original specs claimed there would be Track of the Vampire outtakes, but, according to Lucas’ essay, those were actually included with the final cut of the movie.

 Blood Bath

 Blood Bath

 Blood Bath

 Blood Bath

 Blood Bath

Overall


None of the films included in this set are particular great on their own, though the unaltered Operacija/ Portrait and Blood Bath are certainly visually impressive. The real value is found in the greater context of their shared history, which makes this a rare home video collection that transcends the quality of the actual movies. It’s a fascinating lesson in the low-budget filmmaking of a bygone era, lovingly reconstructed, restored, and supported by a feature-length video essay. Even those that have already seen and rejected Track of the Vampire may find themselves engaged with what Arrow has done here.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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