The film is widely known for its convoluted production history. In 1963, Roger Corman co-produced a Yugoslavia-made spy thriller called Operation: Titian, but deemed the film unreleasable. Corman then purchased the rights, and assigned writer-director Jack Hill to write a new script—this time a horror film—based on the footage from Operation: Titian. Hill wrote and directed numerous horror sequences, which were edited into the film, and it was re-titled Portrait in Terror. Still unsatisfied with the final product, Corman hired Stephanie Rothman to film additional sequences which were also edited in. The film was then given a brief theatrical release under the title Blood Bath by American International Pictures, with screenplay and directorial credit jointly shared by Hill and Rothman.
In Venice, California, student Daisy (Merissa Mathes) leaves a club alone after having an argument with her beatnik boyfriend Max (Carl Schanzer). Walking through the deserted streets, she stops to admire some gruesome paintings in a gallery window painted by artist Antonio Sordi (Campbell), who coincidentally also comes by to look in on his "lost children." After a friendly conversation, Sordi convinces the young woman to pose nude for him that night. At his bell-tower studio, Sordi is possessed by the spirit of a long-dead ancestor and suddenly transforms into a vampiric monster who hacks the screaming Daisy to death with a cleaver. Afterwards, he lowers her mutilated corpse into a vat of boiling wax.
Sordi, in his vampire form, stalks Venice in search of victims; he is able to do so freely at all hours. In the middle of the day, he chases a young woman into the surf at a beach and drowns her. At night, he kills a prostitute in a car while pedestrians stroll by, all of them assuming the pair are lovers sharing an intimate moment. Another victim is approached at a party, chased into a swimming pool, and drowned there after the other guests have moved into the house. The murdered women are carried back to Sordi's studio and painted by the artist, their bodies then covered in wax.
Max wants to make up with Daisy but cannot find her anywhere. Learning that she has posed for Sordi and become the subject of the latest in the artist's series of "Dead Red Nudes," he visits her sister Donna (Sandra Knight) to ask her forgiveness. Donna tells Max she hasn't seen Daisy for days, and is concerned about the recent rash of disappearances. She reads Max the legend of Sordi's 15th-century ancestor Erno, a painter condemned to be burned at the stake for capturing his subjects' souls on canvas. Unable to convince Max that Antonio Sordi might also be a vampire, she confronts the artist at his studio and asks him if he has seen Daisy. He angrily brushes her off. That night, he later follows her through the streets and murders her as she tries to escape from him on a carousel.
The "human" Sordi is in love with Dorian (Linda Saunders), an avant-garde ballerina and Daisy's former roommate. At first he tries to protect her from his vampiric tendencies, warning her his studio is a cheerless place and at one point breaking a date with her to spend time gaining control of his feelings for her. When she turns up at the studio unannounced, he believes she is the reincarnation of Erno Sordi’s long-dead mistress Melizza (also played by Linda Saunders), a witch who had denounced him to the ecclesiastical courts in order to protect herself from prosecution, and traps her in a net. He is about to slash her throat with a razor when Max and his beatnik friends finally realize Sordi is a murderer and successfully free her from the tower. Melizza, seen in a painting that Sordi keeps concealed behind a curtain, brings three of Sordi's victims back to life and they dispatch him by forcing him into the boiling wax.William Campell as Antonio Sordi
Marissa Mathes as Daisy Allen
Lori Saunders as Dorian
Sandra Knight as Donna Allen
Karl Schanzer as Max
Sid Haig as Abdul
Biff Elliot as Cafe Manager
Jonathan Haze as Beatnik
Fred Thompson as Beatnik
David Ackles as Carousel Operator
In 1963, while on vacation in Europe, Roger Corman made a deal to distribute an unproduced Yugoslavian espionage thriller titled Operacija Ticijan/Operation: Titian. Corman bought the rights to the film for $20,000 and insisted on control over the production to ensure it could be adequately “Americanized”. To this end, Corman provided two cast members, William Campbell and Patrick Magee, who had appeared together in Corman’s The Young Racers and Francis Ford Coppola’s Corman-produced Dementia 13. In addition, Coppola was installed as the production’s script supervisor. The completed film was deemed unreleasable by Corman, although a redubbed, slightly re-edited version was eventually released directly to television under the title Portrait in Terror.
In 1964, Corman asked director Jack Hill to salvage the film. Hill wrote andfilmed additional sequences in Venice, California, in order to match the original movie’s European look, and turned the former spy thriller into a horror movie about a crazed madman who kills his models and makes sculptures out of their dead bodies. Campbell was available for the reshoots and insisted on a sizeable paycheck to appear in the film, reportedly angering Corman, who nonetheless agreed to the actor’s demands. Hill added all of the beatnik-related scenes shot with Sid Haig and Jonathan Haze, and was responsible for what many fans believe is the single most effective sequence in the film, the hatchet murder of Melissa Mathes. Magee’s role was more or less retained intact in this version. However, Hill’s version of the film, retitled Blood Bath, has never been released, as Corman once again was unhappy with the results.
In 1966, Corman made another attempt to create a workable film. He hired another director, Stephanie Rothman, to change the story as she saw fit. While retaining much of Hill’s footage, she changed the plot from a story about a deranged, murderous artist to a story about a deranged, murderous artist who is also a vampire. Because Campbell refused to participate in yet another reshoot, Rothman was forced to use a completely different actor for the new murder scenes. This meant Rothman now had to provide the Campbell character with the ability to magically transform his physical shape whenever he turned into a vampire, in order to explain why the vampire-killer looked nothing like Campbell. Other complications including bringing Sid Haig back for re-shoots; at the time of shooting with Hill, he did not have a beard, but had grown one for the subsequent project he was working on. This explains the continuity errors concerning his facial hair in the film.
In spite of the inconsistencies brought on by Rothman's additional shoots, this was this version of the film that most pleased Corman, and it was subsequently released to theatres by American International Pictures, retaining Hill's Blood Bath title. Both Hill and Rothman were credited as co-directors. The film's co-feature was Queen of Blood, written and directed by Curtis Harrington and co-produced by Rothman. Hill later claimed that Rothman's changes "totally ruined" the film.
A fifth version of the film exists, entitled Track of the Vampire. Because Rothman's Blood Bath ran 69 minutes, which was deemed too short for television showings, additional footage was added, including a six-minute sequence showing Linda Saunders dancing non-stop on the beach. This version of the film was shown often on late-night television.
Blood Bath debuted in cinemas in March 1966 through American International Pictures.
Michael Weldon, in his Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, called Blood Bath “a confusing but interesting horror film with an even more confusing history. Phil Hardy’s The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror noted, “Cheap and crude, with echoes of a dozen movies ranging from Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) to A Bucket of Blood (1959), this film isn’t unenjoyable." Cavett Binion of Allmovie wrote, "As one might imagine, this is pretty difficult to follow, but there are some good performances — particularly from William Campbell as the haunted shutterbug — and some fairly suspenseful scenes."
In 1991, Video Watchdog magazine devoted lengthy articles in three separate issues fully detailing the production history of the film. These articles included interviews with Hill and Campbell, the latter of whom expressed shock when he was told that the film he had shot so long ago in Yugoslavia had been turned into five individual movies.
The film was released on DVD in 2011 through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's "Limited Edition Collection," which are made-on-demand discs. In May 2016, the film was released on Blu-ray in a limited edition two-disc set by Arrow Films. It features all four versions of the film restored from the original negatives: the original Operation: Titia; Jack Hill's original Blood Bath; Blood Bath featuring Stephanie Rothman's re-shoots; and Track of the Vampire.