For longer than I can remember, Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue (1974) has featured prominently among my very favourite films and since my earliest fanzine scribblings, I’ve had a lot of journalistic mileage out of it. My sadness over the death of its director on Boxing Day last year was compounded by the fact that Senor Grau’s final illness commenced just as I was on the eve of interviewing him in August 2018. Don’t put off till tomorrow, etc…
In the last interview he did actually give (to Calum Waddell, published in issue 199 of The Dark Side magazine), JG insisted that the repressive climate of Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s fascist regime did not cramp his own film making style. It’s notable, however, that the almost Bunuelian portrayal of rural idiocy, religious mania and authoritarian policing in his most celebrated offering was shot in the UK, that the same year’s gialloesque effort Puena De Muerte (“The Death Penalty”… misleadingly retitled Violent Bloodbath in English-speaking territories), a meditation on the ethics of capital punishment in totalitarian societies, was shot in Spain but set in France…
… and that the film under consideration here, the previous year’s Ceremonia Sangrienta / “Bloody Ceremony” (in which a self-serving aristocratic ruling class exploit their backwards assed superstitious serfs to the point of killing them for use as beauty aids) was also shot in Spain but relocated to Eastern Europe.
Most obviously an Iberian response to Hammer’s Countess Dracula (directed by Peter Sasdy in 1971), The Legend Of Blood Castle / The Female Butcher (to give it its Anglo release titles) fits more generally into the long roll call of movies devoted to the bloody true life outrages of Hungarian Countess Erzsebet Bathory de Ecsed (1560-1614). First rearing her scarlet cinematic head in Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956), the bloodthirsty shade of Bathory can also be detected in Harry Kumel’s Daughter Of Darkness (1971), Vincente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride (1972), Luigi Batzella and Joe D’Amato’s The Devil’s Wedding NIght (1973), Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales (1974) and Eli Roth’s Hostel: Part 2 (2007), among countless others. Jess Franco and Jean Rollin tapped into the cinematic potential of the Bathory mythos on numerous occasions and Leon Klimovsky’s La Noche De Walpurgis (1971) is just the first of several run ins between Paul Naschy‘s “tragic wolfman” character Waldemar Daninsky and assorted Bathoryesque villainesses.
In Grau’s picture Lucia Bose plays an “Erzebeth Bathory” who is descended from the historical anti-heroine and ultimately begins to emulate her misdeeds, though the bloodletting is almost relegated to incidental status relative to the sexually dysfunctional relationship of the principal characters. Grau wastes no subtlety on depicting Erzebeth’s husband, the Marchese Karl (Espartaco Santoni) as a psycho struggling to simultaneously repress his homosexual and homicidal impulses.
Initially Erzebeth tries to win back his waning affections with the traditional womanly wiles and when she discovers that the blood of a beaten servant girl makes her skin look younger, she needs very little encouragement from her witchy old nanny Nodriza (Ana Farra) to start reviving “the old ways.” There’s a really sadistic scene in which a little girl is encouraged to play with a doll that has been left lying amid shards of broken glass. But how to entrap and subdue all those stropping young peasant wenches?
At this point the plot takes a distinct turn into left field, as Karl agrees to drink a preparation that will simulate his own death (the first cinematic mention of the historical Bathory’s alleged penchant for potions). Officially lost to the plague that is haunting the countryside, Karl is now free to kill to his heart’s content, making sure that his victims’ blood drips through a sluice in the floor of his playroom in the attic, below which Erzebeth has positioned her bath tub. Love and sex have been completely subsumed to this odd couple’s true passion…murder, as confirmed when gold-hearted tart Marina (Ewa Aulin), whom we’ve been led to view as the Count’s slim shot at romantic redemption, is done in by him. Finally the pig-ignorant local peasants, who’ve been chalking their ever-dwindling numbers down to vampirism and plague, rumble what’s been happening and storm the castle with the traditional pitchforks, firebrands, et al.
Nanny has her vicious old tongue cut out (in a scene that will appeal to Mark Of The Devil fans) so she can’t suggest blood sacrifices to anybody else. Like her historical inspiration, this Erzebeth (having stabbed Karl to death – for real, this time, after yet another domestic tiff) is spared execution but bricked up alive, our final sight of her reassuring us that yes, she has degenerated to the point where her looks now reflect the ugliness of her soul.
It is been suggested that at least some of the releases put out by Mya Communications, whose disc is under review here, were not properly authorised. Whatever, they’ve done a decent job on this one with a print whose not exactly pristine quality somehow adds to the film’s unrelenting atmosphere of oppression and claustrophobia. Sourced as it is from Spanish elements, various peasant strumpet victims remain modestly attired throughout, though out takes from alternative “export” versions of the film, included in the supplementary materials here, significantly boost the tit and bum quotient. You can even, should you choose, watch these alternative takes side-by-side in “comparison mode”. Once you’ve had enough of that, the other extras include Italian and American variations on the title and credit sequences and an international poster gallery.