Monday, May 6, 2013

THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS (La mano de un hombre muerto, 1962)

Once you become a horror man -- an actor typecast as a menace in scary movies, there are certain roles that come your way inevitably. One of those is the red herring. It didn't take Howard Vernon long to get there; he played Max von Klaus for the late Jess Franco in the same year that Franco had directed him in the title role of The Awful Dr. Orloff. It's as if Franco knew he would type the man with the burning gaze. Klaus hinges on the expectation that we'll be spooked by the mere sight of Vernon and suspect him of the worst. Franco uses a nice gimmick to distance the audience from the actor and the character he plays. We first see him as a static image: a snapshot at police headquarters or a painted portrait on the wall of his home. Franco confronts us with the image of Howard Vernon the newly-minted horror star before showing us the man Max Von Klaus. Later, a girl staying at the house is spooked in the middle of the night. She runs through the halls only to stop short, startled, at the site of the painting. Only then does Max himself appear to ask what's the matter.

What's the matter in town is that murder has revived the legend of the accursed Baron von Klaus of 500 years ago, a sadist before the word was coined to describe him. An angry father cursed this Baron for torturing his daughter, and the townsfolk tell that the villain disappeared in the swamps but did not die. Suspicion alights on Max inevitably, although Franco is careful to give us several other suspicious characters.

The problem for Max is that his alibi for the time of one of the murders stinks. As he protests, he'd probably come up with a better alibi had he actually done the crime, but his real problem, we learn, is that he actually does have a secret to keep. Only one person, the one for whose sake he's keeping the secret, can reveal it to free him, perhaps not without cost. All of this makes Max more than a red herring. He actually becomes a sympathetic character, if not quite the hero of the picture. Franco's compassionate handling of the material seems atypical; even his fans might concede that this is a rare Franco film with a heart.

Filmed in a wider aspect ration than Orloff, Klaus is a more classically composed if perhaps slightly less personal film from Franco. There's actually less sadism to it than the English language title suggests, though there is one scene with a topless victim, filmed almost tastefully, chained to the ceiling of a dungeon. Cinematographer Godofredo Pacheco gives the old-time urban and forest locations plenty of expansive, expressionist atmosphere. The story is simple stuff, but the visuals make it worth looking at, and if not one of his best, it may be one of Franco's most likable films.

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