This is a weird movie. Some of the weirdness comes from the European sensibility with which it was made. Much of the weirdness is suggested by the scenario. Contemporary audiences might find it weird because of the pacing and acting styles. The source of the weirdness is the movie however, it is simply a strange piece of storytelling. The film balances between comedy and horror, and never quite succeeds at either. Richard Burton was a movie star and an actor. He had great gifts as witnessed by the multiple Academy Award nominations heaped on him, but he was also a flawed human being. He drank too much, suffered from the melancholia of other Welsh Actors, and could be a world class prick. Today, people see Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and imagine the greatest movie stars in the world married. It is a good story, but Elizabeth Taylor was more beautiful than Angelina, and Richard Burton was more talented than Brad, and they were married to each other twice as often as Bradgelina. Burton needed money like Elvis did, and he took what producers were willing to offer that payed. He had better taste than movies like this and “The Klansmen”, but baby needed another diamond.
I saw this movie with a guy named Scott Moore. He was a guy I met in algebra class my freshman year of high school. We were pretty good friends for that year, but he found some other people that he fit in with a little better, and we sort of stopped hanging out. His mother was in her late thirties when we met and she was divorced from his dad. She had to work to support him and his brother and sister. She tried to be sort of hip, she drove a Lincoln and dressed in mini-skirts, and she was very permissive with her kids. Which is how a couple of fourteen year olds got tickets to this R rated movie playing on a single screen theater(the El Rey on Main Street in Alhambra) where the ushers would know if you were under age. This may have been playing with another film featuring Richard Burton, based on the book Candy. Candy was a Psychedelic sex novel turned into a movie with a whole bunch of stars in it. It came out in 1968, but as I said before, distributors in those days would find films to match with the current feature to play at the local theaters on a double bill. I suspect that the presence of Mr. Burton in both movies was the reason they were together. Both films are highly sexualized, and the blood pressure of a fourteen year old, seeing them together, would be almost too much to imagine.
The movie turns out to be concerned with impotence and an oedipus complex. Burton is a hero of the first world war for the German flying corp. He has injuries that explain the unique color of his beard and why he will not shave, those injuries appear to go much deeper than his face. After the war he meets a woman, falls in love and marries her. She is killed in a hunting accident, and a dozen years later he falls in love with an American entertainer, that he makes his bride. She is terrorized by creepy events at the castle and discovers a large refrigerated room that contains a number of frozen corpses of women. It is then that the Baron recounts his romantic history and we learn his murderous ways. It takes nearly an hour to get to the meat of the story, and the set up is filled with unusual events and scenery. It feels like a Gothic horror piece in the beginning but when we get to the murders, it is more like a bloody Hammer horror film.
The color palate of the movie is strange. There is a rich velvety textured wallpaper in the mistress of the houses bedroom. It is blood red, but we see in some of the flashbacks that the same wallpaper in the same room was at one time deep blue. I suppose this is to correspond with Bluebeard’s onset of murderous behavior. He also has a fascination with photographing his victims after death, highlighting broad outlines, and turning the image into intricate web based graphic images. The costumes are outlandish, one of his wives has a bright pink outfit that makes her look like a flamingo as he stalks her through the castle. Burton twice wears the most ridiculous purple,lavender set of tails. He looks like a teenager from the 1970s going to a prom. The best thing about the movie, other than the main features I will get to in a second, is the atmospheric music from Ennio Morricone. I am a fan of his work in the DeLeone westerns, The Mission and my favorite “The Untouchables”. Here he provides a creepy theme that sets the tone for the picture and punctuates a number of scenes very effectively.
OK, the real attraction of this movie for a kid my age in 1972 was the nudity. Every actress except Raquel Welch is topless at some point in the movie. The nudity is used as titillation to set up the murders and remind us of Blubeard’s impotence. OK, it’s really there to turn us on, and it did. Joey Heatherton was one of those 1960s stars that was famous for being pretty and being on TV. She could not act, she could dance just a little, but the sheer black wrap that she wore in this movie made an impression that I don’t ever think I could forget, even if I wanted to, which I don’t. She was hot. The murders were gruesome, but often accompanied with some comic flair. I won’t give away the punchlines for most of the deaths, but after hearing Burton relay the circumstances of his relationship with each woman, he does not come across as quite the monster we believed. In a couple of cases he could argue justifiable homicide.