Written by: Josť Luis Bayonas, Edward Mann, and John Melson
Directed by: Santos Alcocer
Starring: Jean-Pierre Aumont, Boris Karloff, and Viveca Lindfors
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Tops in total horror!
Produced in 1967 but not released until three years later, Cauldron of Blood (aka Blind Manís Bluff) found itself in a nebulous position when it finally slipped into theaters. Clearly a product of the late 60s yet still clinging to some vestiges of the genreís classical period, the film presents an intriguing clash of styles, which is inevitable given its lineage as an American-British-Spanish co-production leaning heavily on an international cast. Most notable is Boris Karloff, whose presence serves to conjure up echoes of horrorís golden age amidst a film thatís otherwise right on the cusp of the more lurid Eurohorror movement. While hanging in such limbo, the film struggles to coalesce into anything remarkable (it lacks the atmosphere and tension of gothic horror and never quite ascends to Euro-flavored delirium), but it is a curious embryo all the same.
Karloff is world-renowned sculptor Franz Badulescu, whose work has attracted the attention of French journalist Claude Marchand (Jean-Pierre Aumont). Sent on assignment to photograph Baduleschuís newest work, the playboy instead spends most of the time hobnobbing with the locals, particularly the women (among them is Rosenda Montreros), thus rendering him perfectly oblivious to the sinister plot unfolding nearby: it turns out that Baduleschuís sculptures are eerily lifelike because his deranged wife Tania (Viveca Lindfors) has been murdering folks and using their skeletons as armatures (having been blinded, Bauleschu himself is unaware and assumes she is merely robbing graves).
Cauldron of Blood is a grisly update of the likes of House of Wax and Bucket of Blood, with the filmís trippy, jangly aesthetic (particularly its jazzy score) especially serving to connect it to the latter. But where Cormanís film is actually about something (itís one of the more blackly comic takedowns of frustrated artists and the Beatnik generation youíre likely to find), this one lumbers from one abduction and murder sequence to the next without any pretense of mystery or actual drama. The wifeís treachery is known almost immediately, so viewers are left to wait for the other characters to become clued in. The dramatic irony only pays off in small, comedic moments, such as Taniaís sly coyness when she almost admits what sheís up to in front of her husband.
Otherwise, the film plays out stylistically much like a giallo; with that genre having not been completely crystalized just yet, itís easier to forgive the lack of mystery and instead appreciate the attempt at aping the general mood: the occasionally feverish atmosphere, the garish fits of acid-assisted violence, the presence of various oddballs (such as a mute servant and a local fortune teller), and, yes, even a killer cloaked in a trench coat that you might find in a proper giallo. Many elements are distinguishably Euro-horror, from the scantily-clad bikini babes to bizarre nightmare sequences involving Taniaís traumatic childhood. It has a truly 60s vibe, though: itís a very groovy, semi-lucid trip into insanity that doesnít take the full plunge like 70s Euro-horror eventually would.
Caldron of Blood finds itself caught between two eras, and itís too bad it doesnít dive completely into either. In Tania, it has an incredible character lacking depth. Haunted by those nightmarish visions of sadomasochistic torture and Nazis (!) and deviously employing murder in the process of exploiting her husband, sheís quite indomitable, especially when Lindfors infuses her with broad, theatrical madness. Itís too bad she acts mostly as an impetus for the film to simply indulge in half-gruesome murder sequences because she should be much more interesting than that. Even without much depth, sheís more intriguing than everyone surrounding her, including her husband. By this time, Karloff was feeble and his performances limited due to his confinement to a wheelchair, but itís fascinating (as these later Karloff turns usually are) to see this former horror titan reduced to smaller roles; somehow, itís not as sad as it was for guys like Lugosi and Chaney, as Karloff always managed to keep an air of dignity even when struggling to make the transition to a modern horror scene that had mostly left him behind.
Itís perhaps telling that Karloff doesnít receive top-billing here (a rarity even late in his career): clearly, the horror genre was set to move into the grimier, grislier 70s, and Cauldron of Blood leaves most of the genreís old remnants behind here. Those times when it faintly echoes the gothic eraósuch as its sporadic trips down to Taniaís dreary dungeon (how interesting that she claims the space frequently haunted by Karloff decades earlier)---are fleeting and hurried over to get to the more visceral stuff, like skeletons being dissolved into acid. The film itself might as well have similarly melted away; after being shelved for three years, it went on to languish in obscurity and is only now making its North American digital debut thanks to Paramount and Olive Films. Bare bones DVD and Blu-ray versions are available, with the latter obviously serving to highlight the filmís style more faithfully. Even despite the lack of extras, the effort is appreciated by those refusing to leave any horror stone unturnedóCauldron of Blood might be more fascinating as a piece of a larger puzzle, but itís a nicely oblong little piece all the same. Rent it!
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