Film Review: THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS (1962) – directed by Jess Franco

Posted: August 15, 2012 in Jess Franco
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If there’s one issue that’s more contentious among Euro-Horror fans than the criteria a film must meet in order to be called a “giallo,” it’s who directed the first one. Many would concede that the answer to that question is Mario Bava with his 1963 psychosexual thriller THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. And for the most part, they would be right. After all, the “giallo” is an Italian sub-genre of horror that gathers much of its inspiration from the lurid yellow-covered novels that became a staple of Italian literature when the first one was published back in 1929 by the Mondadori publishing house. So suffice it to say, it would take an Italian filmmaker to pull one off as it’s a type of genre that is native to his homeland of Italy. Much like how the Japanese “kaiju” films were an innovation that could only come out of Japan due to a combination of lack of financial resources to pull off the stop-motion animation of KING KONG (1933) and the inspiration drawn from the post-W.W.II trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

However, when we talk about the “giallo” as a cinematic sub-genre of horror, there are certain motifs that immediately spring to mind. The “whodunnit” factor, the black leather gloved killer, copious amount of sex and violence often set to off-kilter music, flamboyant cinematography that calls attention to itself and red herrings galore. If these are the elements that define the “giallo” as a film genre, then with all due to respect to Mr. Bava, I’m afraid that THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH owes a major debt to Jess Franco and his 1962 Gothic thriller, THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS.

Made in France, a year before the release of THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, Franco’s film is an eye-opening revelation as far as discovering where the origin of this much-loved genre comes from. Everything we have come to associate with the “giallo” is there. The sense of mystery and fun that comes with trying to figure out the identity of the killer. The series of grotesque (albeit fairly tame in comparison to what would come out of the work of Dario Argento and Sergio Martino in the ’70s) sex crimes perpetrated to hordes of innocent women. The black leather gloved killer. And even the motif that is commonly credited to Dario Argento’s THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), the layman “detective” who befriends the chief of police and attempts to help solve the crime but is sent away and warned not to get involved only to get involved anyway via some personal, under-the-radar sleuthing. THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS is quite remarkable in that regard.

It is also quite interesting to see how this film represents not only a turn in Franco’s own career, but that of horror as a cinematic genre altogether. On one hand, the supernatural element of the story being that the ghost of the original Baron Von Klaus has placed a curse on the town owes much to the Universal/Hammer style that was defining horror at the time. While on the other hand, you have a very contemporary story being told here in that while there’s mention of a ghost, the actual murders are being perpetrated by a deranged human being who is committing acts that could very well happen in real life. You have to remember that back in 1962, this was cutting-edge stuff and that properly scared the pants off of audiences. It’s one thing to watch DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN and THE WOLF MAN and know full well that the “horrors” being portrayed on screen could never actually happen in real and thus take assurance in this fact. But when you see a scene in THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS where the killer breaks into a woman’s apartment and brutally stabs her to death, you would find yourself feeling absolutely terrified knowing full well that that could very well happen tonight when you get home from the theater. So not only is THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS the first “giallo,” but it may very well be one of the first, if not, the first, contemporary horror film.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Jess Franco was truly one of the most revolutionary and fascinating filmmakers of his time and he proves it once again with this masterpiece of a film.

 

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