Sometimes the story of how a movie was made is as interesting as the movie itself. Or, in this case, movies, with an “s.” In 1962, film maverick Roger Corman made a deal with a Yugoslavian production company. Corman would supply a couple of American actors and a small sum of money and the Yugoslavian filmmakers would produce a film Corman could then distribute. This was a bigger deal than one might think because 1962 was the height of the Cold War and Yugoslavia was an Iron Curtain country. So Corman wasn’t just taking a risk dealing with potential political enemies but if it were discovered his film was actually a “Communist” film, it would be doomed, perhaps dooming Corman’s career, too.
The resulting film was entitled Operation Titian and was essentially a crime thriller involving the murder of an old man and a priceless, stolen painting by the 16th century artist Titian. The full film and all the remaining elements were shipped to Corman who was disappointed with the product. Feeling like he couldn’t sell the film, he asked Jack Hill to rewrite the film, recut it, and come up with a product that would successfully play the drive-in circuit. Hill filmed some new scenes, recut the picture, and retitled it as Portrait in Terror. Still unhappy with the film, Hill then asked another director, Stephanie Rothman, to do more work on the film, with the result being Blood Bath, which saw a brief release by AIP in 1966. Then, in 1967, AIP sold the rights to television. Again, the picture was recut to fit the TV time slot and retitled once more to Track of the Vampire.
So what we have is the same film four times…or, more accurately, four different versions of the same film. Operation Titian and Portrait in Terror are quite similar to each other and play more as a murder mystery/crime thriller centered on the missing painting. Blood Bath is slanted a bit more toward the horror genre and features a very different plot about a crazed painter who paints portraits of the women he murders. And Track of the Vampire is a wild mish-mash of the first three versions with the added supernatural element of the mad painter being a vampire.
While one must take into account that all four versions of the film were produced in the early- to mid-sixties, they are all actually decent little films. I can understand why Corman was unhappy with Operation Titian and Portrait in Terror. Outside of a striptease down to panties and pasties, there is very little to exploit in these versions of the film. They are both solid whodunits but neither has much action and both are a bit talky. For a producer who was famed for never losing money on a film, it is clear that he needed to spice the film up for the drive-in circuit if he wanted to keep his reputation. So extra murders were added, with a little bit of blood, some beatnik humor (with Sid Haig, thanks to Jack Hill), and even some gratuitous bikini shots were included for the more prurient members of the audience. Blood Bath and Track of the Vampire are more closely related with A Bucket of Blood than with the original Yugoslavian production.
There’s no way to get around it, however. All four versions are rather tame, cheap little potboilers. Nevertheless, each version is still fun while watching them back-to-back over a weekend to see the differences is also fun. It’s a real lesson in marketing from Corman and, frankly, one that exposes him not as an artist but as a conman willing to rip off the audience for a quick buck. Honestly, it doesn’t do anything positive for his image.
And while all four films are entertaining in their own way, certainly all of them contain flaws, which are just as fun to note as it is to note the differences contained within each film. For instance, there are several dead ends that really don’t serve much purpose, including a ballerina character that seems to be introduced more for the inclusion of filler material than to move the plot forward. There are several other miscalculations along with some pretty obvious cover-ups when the original actors weren’t available for reshoots. I think there is the potential for several different drinking games with these films. But the original film did contain a ton of atmosphere. The Yugoslavian crew were just amateurs. The actual scenery and setting, in the Adriatic coastal city of Dubrovnic, is gorgeous, with beautiful beach views as well as medieval city streets and architecture. The film itself evokes noir, and more than one critic has noted similarities with Orson Welles’ best work like Touch of Evil. The opening stalking scene is moody and masterful in its entirety and it’s interesting to see how these kinds of scenes were edited into the various versions of the film.
I had tremendous fun watching each version and enjoyed them all, both for what they were as well as to catch all the subtle differences. The film stars William Campbell, of Dementia 13, as well as a young Patrick Magee as the mysterious buyer for the stolen artwork. Other roles go to the aforementioned Sid Haig as well as a pretty brilliant turn by Karl Schanzer as a stuffy, skid-row artist and leader of the silly beatnik artist group. Several very pretty young women lend some eye-candy to the events, including Marissa Mathes as a model who ends up a murder victim as well as Lori Saunders and Sandra Knight.
The films themselves look great, especially given their low-budget history. All four versions have had 2K restorations, with only Operation Titian containing a handful of standard definition inserts to complete its reconstruction. However, only one scene in the entire movie is really noticeable at all, and includes only a few brief seconds of film damage during the striptease scene. Overall, it’s an admirable job the folks at Arrow Video USA have done.
If four versions of the film in one package weren’t enough, Video Watchdog Tim Lucas has expanded his original, three-part expose on the creation of these films into a fascinating, feature-length documentary that lovingly explores the history of each version of the film. I would have purchased this documentary as a standalone because it is so well-done. There are also some excellent interviews with Sid Haig and Jack Hill that round out the package. This special edition also comes with a two-sided foldout poster featuring the original and newly commissioned artwork for the Blood Bath version of the film as well as a 30-page collector’s booklet with writing about William Campbell, Patrick Magee, and Sid Haig, along with a short reflection by actor and writer Peter Beckman as well as a discussion about the restoration of each version of the film.
If you are a true cinephile and enjoy studying how movies get made, this is an essential package, and one of the reasons that Arrow Video is such a great company. Who else would track these obscure films down and then invest time and money into reconstructing the original version of the film? This exceptional package is available through Amazon or directly from Arrow at: http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa