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Bluebeard (1972)

The oddest aspect of this big, sprawling black comedy / horror is the spectacle of a glowering Richard Burton trying to imitate Vincent Price while Edward Dmytryk does an inflated Roger Corman and the Salkinds provide production values and an all-Euro-star / let supporting cast. It's over two hours long and not very good, but a demented charm almost carries it into the camp classic category only for the stolid, uninterested direction trips it up.

Baron Kurt von Sepper (Burton) is a German WWI ace (cue flashback footage presumably lifted from something else) who grows a beard to cover the scars of a crash and has a chemical reaction which turns it blue-ish. A choppy opening covers the Baron's marriage to hunting type Greta (Karin Schubert) who gets shot by 'accident', then the bulk of the film deals with his later bride Anne, an American dancer (Joey Heatherton does a passable charleston) who wears provocative outfits (especially a lacy see-through nightie) but can't get a rise out of him. After Poe-Psycho business involving a dead mother kept in the crypt and the mad servant who combs the corpse's hair, plus much creeping about the castle, the fairytale plot is carried through as Anne is given a ring of keys and told not to use the golden one. Naturally, she can't leave well enough alone and finds a roomful of refrigerated corpses in gruesome state, which prompts the Baron to retell anecdotes about these liaisons (not all marriages) and how the women were monsters who drove him to kill them. Amicus would have set this up before the credits were through, but it takes nearly half the film to get to these self-contained sequences, which are then hurried through so that the women barely have time to register as misogynist jokes before they get killed: Elga (Virna Lisi) warbles ditties off-key and is guillotined, inexperienced Erika (Nathalie Delon) hires a hooker (Sybil Danning) for lovemaking lessons and the pair are skewered by an antlered chandelier, apparent nun Magdalena (Raquel Welch) confesses to an endless succession of love affairs and is suffocated in a coffin, feminist drunk Brigitte (Marilu' Tolo) reveals that she is a masochist who demands a whipping and gets drowned in wine, and provocative free spirit Caroline (Agostina Belli) has a falcon sicced on her.

Anne works out that all the women were killed trying to arouse the impotent villain, but the film embodies a strange kind of misogyny as the guest stars are admired as beautiful objects, reviled for various types of unconventional behaviour and then mutilated via Carlo Rambaldi effects. Only Belli's death is truly nasty in a Fulci sense (close-up of throat pecked out): not coincidentally, her character is also the most direct challenge to the film's conservatism. In an attempt either to evoke then-recent hit Cabaret or add some dramatic weight, Von Sepper is a right-winger involved in the early Nazi party (weirdly, a substitute symbol is used for the swastika, as if the Salkinds were worried Hitler would sue – it's the same pretend-swastika seen in Equilibrium). The Baron gets away with all his woman-killing but is ironically assassinated by a Jewish violinist (a silent Matthieu Carriere) in revenge for the persecution of his family. While vandalising the castle, the Violinist finds Anne locked in the freezer and releases her. The acting is awkward all round, with Heatherton unable to handle so much dialogue, but everyone looks fabulous in their 1920s frocks. The decor, with blood-red walls and lots of blue (obviously) objects is eye-catching if sometimes also eye-offending. As if someone knew this one needed a hard-sell, the poster and the trailer give away every single gruesome punchline.

First published in this form here.

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