Narcissist bloodsuckers and resurrected toads, the suggestive autumn of Hammer horror. Youth and death are the twin motifs concisely sketched in a prologue out of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, the mirror that held the young maiden’s smile now reflects the cloaked fiend, a pallid crone is all that’s left. The eponymous swordsman (Horst Janson) is an ex-imperial guard, he wields a swift katana and medicates himself with hemp cheroots, leeches, and generous nude close-ups of Caroline Munro. His sidekick is a hunchbacked professor (John Carter) who specializes in occult beasts, "what he doesn’t know about vampirism wouldn’t fill a flea’s codpiece." The string of deaths inevitably leads to the local castle, where a decaying widow (Wanda Ventham) and her aristocratic brood contemplate the cosmetic side of mortality. "I know you’ve got guts, Kronos. I’ve seen them." Gruesome vanity as a scourge between wars and plagues, Brian Clemens films it in the crisp English countryside with great lashings of Leone and Polanski. The droll tweaking of undead mythos allows for plenty of arcane invention: The camera circles inside a vacant church until a wooden cross fills half the foreground, its looming shadow in the back gradually changes shape, cut to an altar stained with spilled wine. Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain figures humorously in the particularly arduous slaying of a vampirized colleague (stake, noose, and torch pass in quick succession), Franju’s façade (Les Yeux Sans Visage) is adduced before the Scaramouche climax. A heady frisson brew, served at a time when the genre, even more so than the crumbling ghouls here, craved new blood. With John Carson, Shane Briant, Lois Daine, and Ian Hendry.
--- Fernando F. Croce