In the small Austrian town of Hoffen, there’s been a murder.
Actually, there’s been more than one murder. Several women have been killed, stabbed to death by what appears to be an ancient dagger. The people of Hoffen are convinced that it’s the result of ancient curse, one that states that every male descendant of the original Baron Von Klaus is destined to become a sadistic murderer. However, there are only two living male descendants. Max Von Klaus (Howard Vernon, at his decadent best) has an alibi. Ludwig (Hugo Blanco) wasn’t even in town. So, if neither Max nor Ludwig committed the murders, then it had to be someone else in town, right?
Or could it be, as the townspeople suspect …. THE ORIGINAL BARON VON KLAUS HAS COME BACK TO LIFE!
Wait …. what? How stupid are these people? I mean, I know that small villages are supposed to be a breeding ground of superstition but it seems kind of obvious that it’s probably just some random human serial killer. Then again, if you believe in a centuries old curse, I guess it’s not that difficult to accept the idea of the dead coming back to life. I mean, it seems pretty stupid to me but what do I know?
While a police detective and a reporter investigate the crimes, Ludwig is shocked to discover that there’s a torture dungeon in the basement of the Von Klaus castle. Ludwig is encouraged to be the first member of the Von Klaus family to find the courage the destroy the dungeon and abandon the castle. Instead, Ludwig finds himself drawn to the dungeon. Will he be able to resist its musty charms or is he destined to become yet another sadistic Baron von Klaus?
Hmmmm …. a violent and loosely-plotted movie that’s set in a small Austrian village, one that opens with a close-up of two hands playing the piano and which features Howard Vernon as a decadent aristocrat. Even if you hadn’t already read the title of the review, the plot description alone should be all you would need to hear to know that The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus was a Jess Franco film.
Before he died in 2013, Spanish director Jess Franco was famous for being one of the most prolific directors around. He’s officially credited with directing 203 films but most sources agree that he was responsible for a lot more. Franco remains something of a controversial figure. Many of his films were bad. Quite a few of them were surprisingly good and atmospheric. Christopher Lee did several films with him and consistently defended Franco as being an intelligent artist who was often forced to work under less-than-perfect conditions. Franco was also a member of Orson Welles’s European entourage, with Franco even doing some second unit work on the sublime Chimes at Midnight. Speaking for myself, I’ve seen plenty of boring Jess Franco films. But I’ve also seen some surprisingly good ones. Female Vampire, Faceless, The Awful Dr. Orloff, Nightmares Come At Night, A Virgin Among the Living Dead, all of them are atmospheric, dream-like exercises in cinematic style.
The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus is middle-of-the road Franco. Despite plot similarities and the presence of Howard Vernon, it’s not as memorable as The Awful Dr. Orloff (which came out the same year) but it’s also clearly put together with more care than some of Franco’s later films. The plot really doesn’t hang together but that’s to be expected from a Franco film. For that matter, way too much time is spent with the police inspector and the journalist. But, visually, the black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous and, as he often did for Franco, Howard Vernon does a great job of epitomizing the decaying aristocracy of Europe. The film is deliberately paced but Franco does do a good job of creating an feeling of impending doom. Each scene seems to be leading towards the discovery of a terrible secret, with Hoffen coming to life as a town fueled by superstition and repressed desires. The scene in which the Von Klaus torture chamber is used is shockingly violent (the film’s title is not kidding about the sadism) but it also highlights the film’s theme about the impossibility of escaping the sins of the past. Considering that this film was made while Europe was still struggling to rebuild after World War II and when General Franco was still in control of Jess Franco’s native Spain, that was probably intentional on the director’s part. The Von Klaus curse stands in for the fear that fascism, dictatorship, and war was always destined to rise again.
The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus is not one of Franco’s better-known films but it is one that shows that Franco could make an effective film when he had the time, the money, and the motivation.