Color, 1974, 82 mins. 31 secs.
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Lina Romay, Alberto Dalbés, Evelyne Scott, William Berger, Maribel Hidalgo, Vicente Roca
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Color, 1974, 92 mins. 8 secs.
Directed by Jorge Grau
Starring Fernando Rey, Marisa Mell, Máximo Valverde, Espartaco Santoni, José Lifante
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Color, 1974, 84 mins. 19 secs.
Directed by Pedro Luis Ramírez
Starring Wal Davis, Norma Kastel, Ada Tauler, Ricardo Vázquez
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Of all the countries Night of the Skullentangled with Italy at the height of the '70s giallo craze, none was more enthusiastic or prolific than Spain. Despite being under an oppressive dictatorship at the time, the country came out in droves for those stylish Italian thrillers and took part in co-productions like Umberto Night of the SkullLenzi's Knife of Ice and Eyeball, both shot in Spain. In the process some films emerged that pushed the definition of what constituted a giallo, technically an Italian-made murder mystery, such as The Fox with a Velvet Tail, which featured a Spanish director, extensive Italian talent behind the camera, and an international collection of actors. Finally we get to the clear-cut Spanish giallo imitations, which toned down the sex and violence in most cases but delivered charms of their own; a few key examples include Trauma, The Corruption of Chris Miller, Seven Murders for Scotland Yard, The Fourth Victim, A Dragonfly for Each Corpse, The Killer Is One of Thirteen, Shadow of Death, Murder in a Blue World, and No One Heard the Scream. To that list you can add the three films included in Vinegar Syndrome's 2024 Blu-ray set, Spanish Blood Bath, which essentially functions as an unofficial entry in their "Forgotten Gialli" series (which had multiple prior Spanish entries). While all the films here are indisputably Spanish, you won't find much of a blood bath here as the set's title is a cheeky nod to the most infamous, misleading retitling of the feature films. Curiously, all three films were released in Spain in 1974, by which point the initial giallo craze in Italy was already winding down very quickly before its resurgence with Deep Red in 1975.

Based on the nonexistent Edgar Allan Poe story "El gato y el canario" (presumably an attempt to tie this to The Cat and the Canary), The Night of the Skull (La noche de los asesinos) is an atmospheric and relatively restrained old dark house whodunit from none other than Jess Franco with several of his familiar stock players in attendance. In a wildly unconvincing Spanish seaside simulation of Louisiana, reclusive English exile Lord Marian is buried alive in the middle of the night by someone wearing a skull mask. After his demise, his relatives congregrate for the reading of the will and become miffed when it all goes to Rita (Romay), his maid and illegitimate daughter. Then Night of the SkullScotland Yard improbably shows up in the form of an inspector (Roca) who's just in time for a slew of plot reversals and additional murders in which multiple motives and killers all come into play.

Complete with a great rubber-masked villain, a spooky seance, and loads of red herrings including Franco vet Antonio Mayans (as the Lord's young son), Night of the Skull is a minor but pleasing murder mystery with a vibe similar to his later Ten Little Indians riff, The Night of the SkullSilence of the Tomb. Dressed in a more demure fashion than usual, Romay gets the meatiest role here and does well playing in a serious mode, while the whiplash twists (including a minor but fun turn by reliable Eurocult staple William Berger) pile up fast enough to betray the heavy giallo/Krimi influence here. However, the lack of exploitable material here means this one didn't really get seen outside of Spain for ages apart from dupey bootleg video copies until it hit DVD in 2006 from Image Entertainment with English subtitles. (Useless trivia note: yours truly was the one at Image who came up with that Night of the Skull title since the literal translation, The Night of the Murderers, had zero chance of getting into brick and mortar stores.) That disc was bare bones, but the Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray improves things considerably with an excellent 4K scan from the original camera negative that makes this look about as pristine as it possibly could; the original Spanish mono track sounds fine here (in typical fashion, everyone's dubbed anyway) and features optional English subtitles. An interview with Mayans (13m9s) finds the actor hamming it up with a skull-faced buddy and chatting about his memories of the film, as well as that entire mid-'70s period out of what proved to be a very long and fruitful collaboration (and why his family pops up in a lot of his movies). He also touches on the film's creative debt to the Krimi and the giallo, as well as its foreshadowing of the slasher movie in a sense. An interview with Sitges Festival director Ángel Sala (9m35s) about this film covers the switch to "normal" Gothic horror after the financial failure of Franco's delirious Countess Perverse.

Violent Blood BathNext up is a film that earned a somewhat notorious reputation among Eurosleaze VHS hunters back in the day: Violent Blood Bath, the ridiculous American title for a Violent Blood Bathsubdued and thoughtful murder mystery by Jorge Grau, best known for The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue and Blood Ceremony (and to a lesser extent, the insane Hunting Ground). This one was given a marginal U.S. theatrical release by Sam Sherman's Independent-International Pictures and a VHS release by his Super Video label, both with artwork promising lurid, cheap thrills from a film that actually only has a couple of quick post-mortem death shots and a bit of subdued sex here and there. The original Spanish title, Pena de muerte (or Death Penalty), is far more to the point as we follow the trevails of Oscar Bataille (Rey), a stern French judge who's staunch in his administration of harsh penalties for murder. While vacationing by the sea with his wife, Patricia (Mell), he gets questioned by the police over a murder investigation that bears eerie parallels to a sentence Oscar handed down against a man who butchered an entire family. Meanwhile Patricia is using the getaway to reignite a relationship with her ex, Wilson (Santoni), and another couple they befriend will get mixed up in the murderous scenario as well.

With its sunny scenery and a great, dedicated performance by the always impressive Rey, Violent Blood Bath hinges on a plot twist that really drops about an hour in but shouldn't come as much of a shock to anyone paying attention to the theme hammered home repeatedly Violent Blood Bathin the dialogue. (If that weren't enough, the VHS cover was a complete spoiler anyway!) It's all nicely shot Violent Blood Baththough and has a weird, queasy atmosphere that builds to a nice ironic ending, and Mell is always worth watching as she gets a juicier role than you might expect (with a couple of moments that feel like a callback to Perversion Story. Out of commission for decades, this one looks excellent on Blu-ray here with a far more fresh and crisp appearance than that old VHS; on top of that you finally get the subtitled, far superior Spanish track here (DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono) along with the usual English dub. It's a great way to experience this for the first time or for a revisit, as long as you keep your expectations from that title in check. An interview with Carlos Grau (20m6s), son of the director, covers his dad's various artistic pursuits outside of filmmaking, the director's thoughts on genre cinema, and the day-to-day family life in Spain when he was growing up. An interview with actor José Lifante (11m32s) goes into his theatrical background, his progression to film, and the heyday of Spanish filmmaking when budgetary restrictions mostly limited everything to one take. (For some reason Jorge is misspelled as "Jordi" in these subs, but that's who's being discussed.) Finally an interview with Sala again (9m55s) covers Grau's reception among local critics including this one made between his two biggest hits, as well as the great coup of getting Rey to star in the film.

The Fish with the Eyes of GoldFinally on disc three is The Fish with the Eyes of Gold (El pez de los ojos de oro), the only The Fish with the Eyes of Goldone in the set with no prior U.S. video release of any kind. A regular on the bootleg scene thanks to a VHS European release, this one is the most traditional giallo-style film of the bunch and also serves as one of the few star vehicles for the baffling Wal Davis (a.k.a. onetime German murder suspect Waldemar Wohlfahrt), star of The Horrible Sexy Vampire and a fixture in Jess Franco films like Love Camp, The Other Side of the Mirror, and Les glutonnes. Here he plays Derek, a British expat making his way across Spain who hitches a ride by the beach with a young woman. The next morning he wakes up in a disoriented state to find his companion brutally stabbed to death in bed, so he decides to go lay low with married friends Zachary (Vázquez) and Virginia (Kastel). Obviously Derek is the main suspect in what now appears to be a pattern of serial killings, which started off in the pre-credits sequence with a bikini-clad Swedish tourist getting knifed in broad daylight on the beach by a guy in a scuba suit. How does Derek figure in? Why does the killer seem to be obsessed with fish? And how many red herrings can the film pile up before the end The Fish with the Eyes of Goldcredits?

Again the whodunit aspect here is pretty mild and really given away early on, so the real fun here lies in seeing all the usual giallo plot conventions getting the Spanish treatment on a summer holiday. Davis is nobody's idea of an accomplished thespian, but he wanders through this looking vaguely perplexed about as well as other actors around the same time like Robert Hoffman and John Richardson. Released in Spain with one poster design completely The Fish with the Eyes of Goldcribbed from Knife of Ice, this has been a perennial in gray market video catalogs under the "Giallo" section for ages but hasn't looked even remotely as good anywhere else as it does on the Blu-ray release. Again you get a very vibrant, textured transfer off the negative, and it's a real treat to watch (especially with a cool drink and a warm breeze handy). The Spanish track is the only one around, so that's what you get here in fine shape as a DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track with English subtitles. Sala pops up twice here, first for a discussion of the film (14m23s) including "piece-rate" director Pedro L. Ramírez (School of Death) who hopped around Spanish film genres, the overt influence of Dario Argento and his animal trilogy at the time, the push to keep stories like this set outside of Spain, and this film's more curious aspects like its indelible opening sequence. You also get a short "5 Spanish Giallo Recommendations by Ángel Sala" (2m20s), and they might not be titles you'd expect.

Reviewed on April 17, 2024