The long and convoluted history of Blood Bath has always intrigued and fascinated me, ever since reading about it in the early days of Video Watchdog magazine, in which editor Tim Lucas delivered a remarkable three-part article titled ‘The Trouble With TITIAN’ that detailed the complex history of the film and its many varied incarnations. The article was a defining moment in the early history of Video Watchdog, and helped set the template and precedent for the type of in-depth examination which the digest magazine became best known for.
Blood Bath started off its life in 1963 as Operation Titian, a moody and very atmospheric B&W Euro-thriller that was filmed in the Yugoslavian seaside town of Dubrovnik and centered around a plot to steal a valuable Titian painting. Directed by Rados Novakovic, the film was co-produced by Roger Corman, who not only sent stars William Campbell (Dementia 13, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte) and Patrick Magee (later of A Clockwork Orange and Asylum) over to Europe to appear in it, but a young Francis Ford Coppola (coming off directing Dementia 13), whose job it was to oversee the production.
When Operation Titian was completed, Corman found the film to be unsuitable for release to the US market, so he recruited a young female assistant, Stephanie Rothman, to film some new sequences to insert into the movie, which was then recut and released directly to television in 1965 as Portrait in Terror. Portrait in Terror was the first incarnation of this film that I ever managed to see, when it showed up as the late late movie in Australia in the early-90s, the one and only occasion I can recall it getting a television airing in this country. I almost wore out my VHS recording of the film over the ensuing months, as I re-watched it endlessly, drawn in by its baroque atmosphere, arty camera set-ups (in particular, lots of low angles in tight, cramped locales), exotic Dubrovnik locations and clear nods to Orson Welles in its style and sensibilities.
Not satisfied with the way in which Portrait in Terror turned-out – or perhaps just eager to get more mileage out of the original Operation Titian footage – Corman recruited another young up-and-coming filmmaker by the name of Jack Hill to recut the film and shoot more additional footage with a number on new actors (including Sid Haig), which was originally intended to be more a juvenile delinquency/gang noir drama that also paid homage to Corman’s 1959 low-rent classic A Bucket of Blood. To convolute the story even further, Hill departed the project before it was completed (to work on his cult favourite Spider Baby) and was replaced by Stephanie Rothman, who did a full 180 with the material and turned it into a vampire film called Blood Bath, which was doubled with Curtis Harrington's Queen of Blood and released theatrically in 1966 (and featured a double directing credit of Hill/Rothman on the posters and opening titles, something of a rarity for the time).
When Blood Bath was sold to television, its meager running time of 69 minutes required some additional padding in order to fill out a TV time slot, so Rothman was once again brought in to recut the film and shoot some new footage – including a five minute sequence of a girl (standing in for actress Linda/Lori Saunders) dancing along the beach – and the resultant film was then sold to television as Track of the Vampire (Rothman later went on to helm some 70s exploitation and horror favorites like The Velvet Vampire and Terminal Island).
With so many variations of the same film floating around on late-night American television for years, it’s likely that some insomniacs started questioning their own state of mind as they watched multiple movies featuring much of the same footage, redubbed and re-edited into different points in each film. It's the kind of movie jigsaw that many film buffs love. So which incarnation of the movie is best? Well, they all have their pluses and minuses. While Operation Titian does have atmosphere, it also has a lot of travelogue footage that stops the film in its tracks. You can clearly see why Corman felt it was unreleasable in the US as is. Blood Bath/Track of the Vampire takes the plot way over the top and also has some nice moments of evocative surrealism in some of the newly-shot footage, but for me Portrait in Terror will always be the definitive and most enjoyable version of this film - I love it's style and plot, and it's the film in which I think Patrick Magee comes across as his villainous best. His voice is so rich and he has a terrific screen charisma and is effectively menacing. William Campbell also makes for an interesting male lead, his character (with implied impotence) always looks so on edge and anxious, like a comic book character drawn by the great Steve Ditko during his 1960s work in comic books like Dr. Strange and Creepy.
Blood Bath has been released on VHS by various public domain and bootleg labels over the years, as well as a limited DVD release by MGM in 2011, while Portrait in Terror received a 2005 DVD release on the budget Alpha label (in a grainy and badly cropped print). Track of the Vampire also received a DVD release in 2014, on the obscure Mutant Sorority Pictures label, but it's fair to say that the new Blood Bath package from Arrow Video renders all previous releases of the film(s) obsolete to all but completist collectors. As usual, Arrow have done a superb job with this release, spreading out all four versions of the film over two Blu-ray discs, with the second disc contain a nice range of supplementary material, including interview featurettes with Jack Hill and Sid Haig and, best of all, a revised and updated version of Tim Lucas’ Video Watchdog article, which Lucas himself narrates over a collection of stills and footage. Running at 80 minutes, this ‘visual essay’ is almost as good as a proper making-of documentary, and well worth the price of admission alone. Adding extra value for money, Arrow also throw in a 40-page booklet containing essays on the films and its stars, as well as a fold-out double sided poster (one side featuring newly-commissioned art, the other the original Blood Bath one-sheet art) and reversible sleeve art on the clamshell case. The disc, booklet and poster are all contained within a slipcase that features the same new artwork as the poster.
Definitely one of the Blu-ray packages of the year, and something I would not have ever dreamed possible or likely when digesting that Video Watchdog article while watching that TV recorded VHS of Portrait in Terror over and over again in my bedroom back in 1992. Took nearly a quarter of a century but it was well worth the wait.