One of the many strange things about this thriller starring Richard Burton as a serial killer whose victims are his gorgeous wives is that Bluebeard was released near the apex of the Women’s Lib movement—not exactly the right moment for a piece about the ultimate misogynist. Similarly, make what you will of Burton’s casting, seeing as how he shot Bluebeard toward the end of his first tumultuous marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. Knowing that Burton had considerable friction with the woman whom he reportedly called “Miss Tits” lends strange connotations, especially during scenes in which Burton’s character is repulsed by the sight of bared breasts. Oh, and Bluebeard—which features as much gore and nudity as the raciest Hammer flicks—was among the final films directed by Hollywood veteran Edward Dmytryk (The Caine Mutiny).
Based on the 17th-century story by Charles Perrault but set during the 1930s, Bluebeard is about Baron von Sepper (Burton), an Austrian aristocrat whose facial hair turned blue following exposure to chemicals during a fighter-plane crash in World War I. (Because that happens.) After the Baron’s current wife dies under mysterious circumstances, he falls for a spunky American showgirl, Anne (Joey Heatherton). After they marry, Anne discovers a trove of corpses in the Baron’s castle, so she persuades the Baron to explain the circumstances of his past murders in order to buy time before she becomes his latest victim. This prompts long flashbacks, one per wife.
Tonally, Bluebeard is so inconsistent that it’s likely each participant thought he or she was making a different movie. Burton plays his scenes like high camp, as if he’s Boris Karloff or Vincent Price, while Heatherton purrs and slinks like she’s starring in a softcore picture. (Although her acting is hilariously bad, she looks great whether clothed or, as is frequently the case, not.) Supporting players incarnating the roles of the Baron’s wives/victims deliver a dizzying range of styles. Nathalie Delon exudes sincerity playing the naïve Erika (that is, until her steamy lesbian fling with buxom costar Sybil Danning). Marilú Tolo (literally) sings her way through a cartoonish turn as the exuberant Brigitte. And Raquel Welch embarrasses herself with stilted line readings suitable for a high school play while portraying Magdalena, a nymphomaniac-turned-nun.
The film’s horror aspects are silly, thanks to the use of unrealistic-looking mannequins for corpses, and the application of cheap Freudian psychology to explain Bluebeard’s motivations is tacky. As a result, good luck figuring out whether Bluebeard is a failed comedy, a failed thriller, or a horribly misguided hybrid. Despite all of these faults, however, Bluebeard is weirdly watchable because of opulent production values, a steady procession of naked beauties, and the odd rhythms of Burton’s performance, which has moments of credible intensity amid overall hamminess. Capping the whole psychosexual experience is a gonzo musical score by the inimitable Ennio Morricone.