Remember the old folk tale about Bluebeard, the psychopath who married, murdered and then preserved the bodies of several beautiful women? It seems unlikely material for a multi-million dollar spectacular, but that’s just what mega-producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind attempted with BLUEBEARD, a ludicrous but enjoyable camp-fest that provides enough unintentional hilarity for a dozen Ed Wood movies.
The Salkinds are among the world cinema’s foremost shlockmeisters, having turned out more than four decades’ worth of overbudgeted no-brainers. Certainly they’ve produced some legitimately good films, like Orson Welles’ THE TRIAL and the first couple SUPERMANS, but those seem accidental. More typical are disasters like SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE, CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: THE DISCOVERY and the 1972 film under discussion.
BLUEBEARD’S gimmick was to showcase the “charms” of seven screen sexpots, including Raquel Welch (who also appeared in the Salkind produced THREE MUSKETEERS), Joey Heatherton, Sybil Danning and Virna Lisi, who play Bluebeard’s wives/victims. Despite the vintage setting, the gals were meant to replicate various late-sixties “types”: the frivolous art lover, the radical feminist, the repressed lesbian, etc. The late Richard Burton, then one of the world’s biggest stars, was cast in the title role (and appropriately so, considering the actor’s well-publicized bimbo addiction). Puzzlingly, the veteran filmmaker Edward Dmytryk, one of the “Hollywood Ten” blacklist victims of the fifties and director of classics like MURDER MY SWEET and THE CAINE MUTINY, was tapped to direct. BLUEBEARD was to be one of the director’s final films, closing out a highly auspicious career on a decidedly low note.
Anne, a naïve American dancer, unwisely consents to marry Baron Von Sepper, an eccentric Austrian aristocrat with a blue beard. Anne doesn’t realize that she’s in fact his seventh wife, and that his past brides have all met with suspicious deaths—that includes his previous wife, who died in a hunting “accident”. Anne grows suspicious of her husband’s distant manner, and the fact that he won’t have sex with her. Her friends, meanwhile, are all killed in various “accidents.” One night while Bluebeard is out Anne discovers a golden key that she uses to open a secret door concealing a large freezer in which the bodies of Bluebeard’s ex-wives are interred. The Baron returns home shortly thereafter and Anne confronts him with her discovery; he decides its Anne’s turn to meet her maker, but she manages to forestall her death by convincing him to describe his previous marriages.
Flashbacks fill us in on the lurid details of Bluebeard’s marital history, in which, he claims, he killed his wives only because they were all annoying in one way or another. There was an opera singer who sang too much, and so he guillotined her. Another of his wives he caught romancing another woman, and enjoying the experience far too much, so he impaled both with a specially equipped chandelier. Another was an ex-nun who talked incessantly, leading him to suffocate her in a coffin. When a masochistic feminist got to be too much, Bluebeard drowned her. Finally, there was a frivolous art lover who was so obnoxiously carefree he sicked his deadly falcon on her.
Listening to all this, Anne figures out the real reason for Bluebeard’s murderous behavior: he’s impotent! She cacklingly reveals this bombshell, which prompts Bluebeard to lock her in his freezer. Can she escape? Will Bluebeard get his just desserts? Who cares?
If there’s any one movie that defines camp, BLLUEBEARD may well be it. It contains all the requirements: outrageously hammy performances, wildly overdone art direction and an atmosphere so suffocatingly humorless it can’t help but inspire laughter. It’s often difficult to believe the filmmakers weren’t making an intentional comedy, and, to be fair, maybe they were: in Richard Burton’s published diaries he revealed that he was trying for a Vincent Price-like approach here that mixed humor with drama. Well, the humor definitely registers but the drama does not! Bad movie fans know Burton was one of the hammiest actors on the planet in flicks like HAMMERSMITH IS OUT and EXORCIST 2, but he outdoes himself here. Not that any of the gals who play his wives are much better, as none were apparently cast for their acting ability.
One technical aspect that does manage to impress is the gorgeous, Dario Argento-esque Eastmancolor lighting by cinematographer Gabor Pogany, which lends the film its one and only bit of class (unsurprisingly, blue is the dominant shade). Much condemnation has been leveled at the filmmakers’ treatment of the female cast, all of whom get manhandled in various gruesome ways (through various tacky special effects), but criticizing the film in such a manner is, I believe, taking it far more seriously than it deserves.
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Producer: Alexander Salkind
Screenplay: Edward Dmytryk, Ennio Di Concini, Maria Pia Fusco
(Based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault)
Cinematography: Gabor Pogany
Editing: Jean Ravel
Cast: Richard Burton, Joey Heatherton, Raquel Welch, Virna Lisi, Nathalie Delon, Marilu Tolo, Karin Schubert, Agostina Belli, Sybil Danning, Jean Lefebvre, Mattieu Carriere