Bluebeard: A woefully underrated, black comedy/horror gem

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBluebeard directed by Edward Dmytryk horror film reviewsBluebeard directed by Edward Dmytryk

It’s funny, but I always thought the Bluebeard character was based on a real-life historical figure, much as Vlad the Impaler had been the inspiration for Dracula, Gilles de Rais inspired Paul Naschy’s Alaric de Marnac, and the Countess Elizabeth Bathory was the obvious basis for Delphine Seyrig’s vampiric Countess Bathory in Daughters of Darkness. But a little research reveals that Bluebeard was rather the creation of French author Charles Perrault, and first appeared in a collection of the author’s fairy tales in 1697. The basis for no less than six cinematic treatments, the character appeared in 1972’s Bluebeard in a top-notch production with a terrific cast; a film that was, strangely enough, almost universally scorned by the critics of the time. It has taken me a full 40 years to finally catch up with this one, and now I cannot help wondering what all the negative comments were about. The film strikes me as a woefully underrated, black comedy/horror gem, and a tremendously entertaining one, to boot.

In Bluebeard, Richard Burton plays the title character, also known as the Baron Kurt von Sepper. The survivor of a WW1 dogfight crash landing, von Sepper’s face is now somewhat scarred and covered with a neatly trimmed beard that, due to some chemical admixture in that crash, is now decidedly bluish in tint. A wealthy landowner, the Baron lives in a sprawling castle in what the viewer must infer is Nazi Germany; a lover of beauty, he has already gone through six wives by the time the film begins in earnest. Unfortunately, all six of his previous wives were, for one reason or another, “monsters” in the Baron’s eyes, and he was compelled to slay the entire bunch, keep them preserved in his hidden refrigerator room, and then paint abstract portraits of them (a la Humphrey Bogart in 1947’s The Two Mrs. Carrolls) for his gallery. And now wife #7, an American entertainer named Anne (surprisingly well played by ’60s sexpot Joey Heatherton), has just moved in…

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsUnlike Henry VIII, who only killed two out of his six wives (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard), von Sepper here is a much more consistent chap! Burton is quite excellent in his portrayal, and I really cannot explain all the harsh criticism regarding his performance. The film boasts some incredibly handsome sets, solid direction from Hollywood vet Edward Dmytryk (this was his extra-penultimate film), and yet another wonderful score from the maestro, Ennio Morricone; a creepy/lovely score that will likely stay with you for days. (As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m just in awe at how many superb film scores this genius has come up with!) Joey, very much the female lead here, not only looks smashing, but also does quite well in the acting department, too (although she does not FULLY convince us that she’s a 1920s flapper, with her decidedly limited acting range); she also gets to do some high-kicking dance numbers here, of the sort that wowed viewers of The Dean Martin Show in the mid-’60s.

Bluebeard‘s structure is a fairly interesting one, jumping about in time as it does. During the film’s numerous flashbacks, we get to see von Sepper’s six previous wives, and learn just how and why he did away with them. And what a bevy of international pulchritude is on display for the viewer here! We meet wife #1, a singer who just wouldn’t stop singing, and played by the gorgeous Italian actress Virna Lisi; wife #2, Erika, a baby-talking nitwit played by the luscious French actress Nathalie Delon, who goes to a prostitute (played by Austrian cult actress Sybil Danning) for lovemaking advice; wife #3, a lapsed nun with a rather licentious past, played by THE American sex goddess of the era, Raquel Welch (though second billed, Racky only gets seven minutes of screen time in the film); wife #4, Brigitt, a feminist turned masochist, and played by steamy Italian beauty Marilu Tolo; wife #5, Caroline, a very young and indolent layabout, portrayed by supersexy Italian actress Agostina Belli; and wife #6, the increasingly randy Greta, played by German (future porno) actress Karin Schubert. All these fabulous babes give wonderful comedic performances, helping to make Bluebeard a black comedy to relish.

But the horror elements are present in abundance, too; besides the six grisly murders, the film dishes out a mute female servant, underground crypts, a mother’s preserved corpse (one that is just as hideous as Psycho‘s Mrs. Bates), a cobwebbed castle, an electric chair and on and on. Perhaps most horrifying, for this viewer, however, was the spectacle of all manner of wildlife — rabbits, deer, fowl, a fox, a boar — being shot and killed during one of the Baron’s hunting parties. No animal should be needlessly slaughtered to make a motion picture, I feel, so I am deducting some points for this gratuitous nastiness. But other than this scene, the film works splendidly, and is really grade-A entertainment. This is a story that can be recast and remade every generation, it seems to me, using the top female sex symbols of the day. I can almost envision a 2016 version, starring Salma Hayek, Michelle Pfeiffer, Megan Fox, Scarlett Johansson…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough’s finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a “misspent youth” of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship — although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century — and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror… but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle “ferbs54.” Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club….

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