SINedelphia 2012: D is for Death – The Horror FIlms of Mario Bava, Part 1

It’s fair to say that post-1960 cult cinema would be vastly different without director and cinematographer Mario Bava. His catalog covers a wide range of genres, including fantasy, peplum, spy spoofs, historical drama, action epics, Viking films and spaghetti westerns. He also helmed a number of classic horror films, including some genre forerunners, effectively creating both the slasher and the Italian giallo film.

Bava got his start as a painter, though quickly moved to film to work with his father, a celebrated cinematographer and special effects artist. He went on to shoot and co-direct several of Riccardo Freda’s films, including the first Italian horror sound film, I, Vampiri (1956). Bava’s success as a technician gave him the freedom to begin directing, where he outshone his peers and went on to influence subsequent generations of horror directors. This Halloween, I’m going to formally introduce you to all fifteen of Bava’s wonderful horror films. Thanks to the recent efforts of directors and critics, particularly Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas, these exceptional films are becoming more widely available.

1. Il maschera del demonio aka The Mask of Satan aka Black Sunday (1960)
Bava’s stunning directorial debut stars Barbara Steele, John Richardson and Arturo Dominici. Loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Vij,” this is one of the finest gothic horror efforts from any period. In the 1600s, Moldavian princess Asa Vajda is tortured and burned alive by her own brother for witchcraft, satanism and vampirism. In revenge, she curses their family line with her dying breath. Two hundred years later, a pair of skeptical doctors traveling to a conference, Kruvajan and the young Gorobek, accidentally revive Asa when their coach breaks down outside her mausoleum. Asa soon possesses Kruvajan, determined to utterly destroy the Vajda family and drain the blood of her identical descendant, Katia, to gain immortality. Gorobek, who has fallen in love with Katia, is desperate to prevent this.

Building off his mentor Riccardo Freda’s efforts in I, Vampiri, Bava blends the shadowy expressionism of Universal Studios horror and the gothic splendor of Britain’s Hammer House of Horror to create a unique masterpiece. Stark black and white cinematography captures swirling fog, crumbling crypts and medieval castles, using gothic tropes to their best effect. Bava’s technical effects were ahead of their time, depicting graphic shots of witch burning, desiccated corpses reanimating and rising from the grave, a mask hammered onto a woman’s face and a stake through the eyeball (Bava’s unique take on vampire legend).

The Mask of Satan also introduced genre fans to the iconic Barbara Steele. Her distinctive beauty marked most of the major Italian horror efforts of the period – Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962), Antonio Margheriti’s Castle of Blood (1964), Mario Caiano’s Nightmare Castle (1965), etc. Her depiction of the evil Asa and the innocent Katia represents some of the themes Bava would return to throughout his career – the illusory, often treacherous nature of appearances and the troubling effects of sexuality.

Fortunately The Mask of Satan found its way to region 1 DVD. In the ‘60s, American International Pictures (AIP) released a cut, English-language version of the film known as Black Sunday, which was also re-dubbed and re-scored. Image Entertainment put out a DVD release of the original, international print that restored the missing footage and original music. A similar print is available from Anchor Bay as part of the wonderful Mario Bava Collection, and includes an excellent audio commentary by Tim Lucas. While both are technically out of print, Image’s Redemption label teamed up with Kino for a new Blu-ray release out last month.

2. Ercole al centro della terra aka Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)
Bava’s stab at the Hercules series, a staple of Italian fantasy/peplum films, is not directly a horror film, but shares too many genre traits to be left off this list. Starring Reg Park, Christopher Lee, Leonora Ruffo and Ida Galli, it follows Hercules’s travels into the underworld to save his lady love, Princess Deianira, from an amnesia-like illness. The quest takes him to the oracle Medea, the Land of the Hesperides and onward to Hades. Though he is forced to temporarily give up his immortality, he brings along his womanizing friend Theseus. Theseus falls in love with Persephone, the beautiful daughter of Hades, nearly bringing ruin down upon them all. Meanwhile, Deianira’s uncle, Lico, seems to be concerned and caring, but is planning to sacrifice her to gain immortality and steal her throne.

Though this film suffers from extreme budget constraints, some wooden acting and occasionally ill-placed humor, it rises above its competition simply because of the tremendous visual world Bava creates. This is his first color film and the palette is dazzling. Hercules is steeped in technicolored, hallucinatory beauty, bringing myth to life in every scene. Reg Park, Mr. Universe, looks the part of a demigod, but his acting is unsurprisingly average. Luckily Bava has written a sensitive, intelligent Hercules who has to rely on more than brawn to save his friends and the woman he loves.

Plot and peplum conventions only exist as a backdrop to the eerie visual world. The horror elements are driven by a strong, charismatic performance from Christopher Lee – there is a a particularly nice shot of him reflected in a pool of blood – who engages in ritual sacrifice and summons up an army of the dead. The underworld, clearly more influenced by Dante than Homer, enhances the horror motifs in the film with bleeding trees and a variety of grotesquely suffering souls.

There’s a lovely DVD from Fantoma, which includes the original Italian-language dub, optional English subtitles and the English-dubbed soundtrack, though the latter makes for a much campier film. This print is the best available, taken from the 35mm international version, known as Hercules at the Center of the Earth, and includes informative liner notes from Tim Lucas.

3. La ragazza che sappeva troppo aka The Girl Who Knew Too Much aka The Evil Eye (1963)
The lovely Letícia Román stars as Nora Davis, an American girl visiting her elderly aunt in Rome. She arrives to discover that her aunt is ill and under the care of the handsome, young Dr. Bassi (played with aplomb by cult favorite John Saxon). Her aunt suddenly dies and a horrified Nora rushes off into the night to find Dr. Bassi, but is mugged and loses consciousness. During her blackout, she witnesses a man carrying the body of a dead woman with a knife in her back, but the police think she is drunk and imagining things. An avid fan of murder mysteries, Nora begins an investigation on her own and discovers a past murderer, known as the Alphabet Killer. She believes that he plans to make her his next victim, unless she and Dr. Bassi can uncover the truth in time.

Generally regarded as the first giallo film, an honor that should really go to Bava’s later Blood and Black Lace, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is a blackly comic mixture of classic, Agatha Christie-like murder mysteries and the taut thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock. It lacks the sex, violence and sensationalism found in later gialli, but makes up for that with charm, wit and an average, though effective plot. There is a delightful, self-referential love of the mystery genre that allows for some darkly humorous moments. The title directly references Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and the stylish, dreamy visual world pays homage to him as well.

This is Bava’s final black and white film and, as usual, his impressive visual world steals the show, this time with a decidedly noir flavor. Though this is Bava’s first true foray into realism, there are many dreamy, hallucinatory moments and the usual lovely set pieces overpower any weaknesses in the narrative. He also allows the camera to lovingly celebrate Rome, which we discover through Nora’s naive, excited eyes.

There are two releases of The Girl Who Knew Too Much, though both are technically out of print. Image released a decent, single disc version. The Anchor Bay DVD, which is part of the Mario Bava Collection, has a somewhat better print, a great commentary from Tim Lucas and a John Saxon interview. Both include the complete, international print with Italian audio and English subtitles.

4. I tre volti della paura aka The Three Faces of Fear aka Black Sabbath (1963)
This Italian-French co-production is Bava’s contribution to the anthology horror film, which rose to popularity with Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962). Aside from being one of the best anthology films to emerge from the period, it is also an excellent place for Bava virgins to dig in. The three stories filmed here represent some of his recurrent themes: violent sexuality, sadistic male characters, the deceptive nature of appearances, familial blood drinking and the powerful, but doomed motivation of greed.

“The Telephone” represents another progression towards Bava’s giallo formula. The young, attractive Rosy receives threatening phone calls from her ex-boyfriend, recently escaped from prison. She calls her ex-lover Mary for help. Mary comes to her rescue, but has actually orchestrated the calls to get revenge on Rosy for dumping her. Before the night is over, they will both be in for a surprise. The sleazy, manipulative flavor of sexuality is new ground for Bava, but resurfaced with his next film, The Whip and the Body, and with his later gialli. It is the weakest entry in the anthology, but still worthy of interest.

“The Wurdalak,” written by Tolstoy, stars Boris Karloff as the titular beastie, a vampiric creature driven to prey on his own family. While there is not an abundance of gore, this black little film is utterly hopeless and effectively creepy. It re-imagines many of the themes in The Mask of Satan, including Bava’s interesting take on vampirism and a threatening, though breathtaking visual world. “The Wurdalak” is also one of Karloff’s finest roles, only second to Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934).

Based on a Chekov tale, “The Drop of Water” is another effective piece and blurs the lines between psychological terror and supernatural horror. It obviously inspired Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980); Bava is an uncredited cinematographer on the latter and it was his final film before retirement. In a riff on “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a nurse is hired to prepare a dead medium for burial the next morning. She steals a diamond ring from the woman’s finger before returning home. During the night, she is haunted by her guilty conscience and the woman’s spirit, who has returned for revenge. This subtle and effective film is one of Bava’s most understated, anxiety-ridden efforts.

Actually titled The Three Faces of Fear, the Black Sabbath title was another invention of AIP for American distribution. Though they edited all of Bava’s films, this is by far the worst. It was cut, re-scored, re-titled, re-dubbed and some scenes were re-shot. “The Telephone” is cut to seem like an ineffective ghost story, the films are in a different order and comic scenes were added to lighten “The Wurdalak” and end on a humorous note. Fortunately the Image DVD is the uncut international print. This was also used for Anchor Bay’s Mario Bava Collection, but with a nicer print and another great commentary from Tim Lucas.

5. La frusta e il corpo aka The Whip and the Body aka What! (1963)
With a script by cult screenwriting-maestro Ernesto Gastaldi and Luciano Martino, who produced and co-wrote many of his brother Sergio Martino’s later giallo films, The Whip and the Body is one of Bava’s most accomplished works. Part gothic horror and part psychological murder mystery, what seems like a Hammer clone early on goes another direction entirely. The exiled Kurt returns to his family estate. His father has directed Kurt’s brother Christian to marry Kurt’s old love Nevenka, though Christian secretly loves their cousin Katia. After Kurt reawakens Nevenka’s love (and lust) by whipping her, he is abruptly killed. Nevenka is convinced Kurt is still alive, or worse, haunting her.

The film is driven by great performances from Christopher Lee (despite the fact that he is sadly overdubbed) and Israeli actress and Barbara Steele stand-in Daliah Lavi. The lush, dreamy visuals were not hampered by the pitiful budget and, again, are the most remarkable element of the film. The over-saturated light scheme compliments plot themes and characters’ emotions. Red, in particular, dominates, and is tied in with the welts on Nevenka’s back after Kurt whips her, blood, and the roses she brings to his tomb.

The Whip and the Body is the most mature expression of the themes Bava explored in The Mask of the Satan and “The Wurdalak”. The story revolves around familial guilt and revenge, perverse sexuality, characters physically marked by evil, and the deceptive nature of appearances. As with many of his early works, there is a final confrontation in a crypt, though the sado-sexual whipping scenes are more controversial and disorienting than anything prior in Bava’s canon. This highly recommended film is an excellent example of Sadeian cinema, where non-normative sexuality is a central motif.

In what should come as no surprise by now, the U.S. release is bizarrely re-titled (What! to which I respond how? and why?) and so heavily cut and re-edited that it avoids direct depictions of masochism. Fortunately the VCI DVD is the uncut European version, presented in a nice, if aged print. There are Italian and English audio tracks and another fantastic commentary from Tim Lucas. Keep your eyes peeled for two easter eggs in the special features menu.

6. Sei donne per l’assassino aka Blood and Black Lace aka Six Women for the Murderer aka Fashion House of Death (1964)
Though The Girl Who Knew Too Much is generally considered the first giallo film, Blood and Black Lace more accurately anticipates this genre of Italian horror, as well as American slashers like Halloween. Starring Cameron Mitchell and Eva Bartok, Blood and Black Lace concerns a fashion house… of death! In an haute couture business owned by the newly widowed Countess Christina and managed by the sleazy Massimo Morlacchi, models are being killed by a white-masked, black-gloved assassin. The lackluster Inspector Sylvester discovers corruption, blackmail, drugs and a rumors of a secret diary that will reveal all.

This Italian-French-West German co-production was initially intended to be an Edgar Wallace-style thriller, but the result is one of Bava’s most influential films. The gorgeous color palate, awash with red, emphasizes the brutal, though mostly bloodless violence. The stylized red mannequins, telephones and set decorations compliment graphic murders – a bathtub killing, a face smashing, a woman scalded to death, etc. These celebrations of sadistic violence would reappear in later gialli, as would the criticisms of misogyny directed at Blood and Black Lace. The female victims are unsympathetic and corrupt, and the camera encourages viewers to relate to the killer with some truly inspired POV shots.

Though Blood and Black Lace creates giallo tropes – a murder mystery plot, numerous characters, dizzying red herrings, scantily clad women and a masked, black-gloved killer – it also foreshadows the flaws of the genre. Both male and female characters are one-dimensional, unsympathetic and utterly unheroic. The typically female victims are corrupt, sexually promiscuous, or drug users. The sometimes confusing plot drowns in characters with small parts and similar appearances. The police are mostly useless, something later gialli would emphasis in order to champion accidental, civilian detectives.

Though Blood and Black Lace may seem dated and, if you’ve already seen a significant number of gialli, not particularly unique, it is a landmark genre film that helped set the stage for fifty years of horror cinema. Bava continues to explore key themes from his earlier work, particularly the inability able to trust visual proof, which became a crucial element of later gialli. The deceptive use of clothing and costumes is of particular importance here and adds to Bava’s scathing critique of beauty, the fashion industry and aristocracy.

The 2-disc VCI special edition of Blood and Black Lace has the most special features, including Tim Lucas’s excellent original commentary, trailers, interviews, and more, but the transfer is inferior to the robust, colorful German print.

7. Terrore nello spazio aka Planet of the Vampires (1965)
This paranoid blend of sci-fi and horror is one of the finest sci-fi films of the ‘60s and probably the best to come out of Italy. Written by Bava and his Black Sabbath co-writer Alberto Bevilacqua, this also marks the first involvement of AIP as co-producer. They previously signed on to theatrically release, re-title, recut and re-score American versions of Bava’s films, but here they co-produced with Italian International Film and Spain’s Cooperativa Cinematográfica.

Based on Renato Pestriniero’s sci-fi short story “One Night of 21 Hours,” Planet of the Vampires follows two spaceships that respond to a distress signal on the unexplored planet Aura. One ship, the Galliott, crashes and becomes lost on the foggy surface. When the other ship, the Argos, attempts to land, crew members become possessed and try to kill one another. Only the Captain is able to resist and helps save some of his crew. They explore the surface and look for the Galliott, only to find that all the crew members are dead and their corpses are being possessed by a dying alien race determined to get off the planet at any cost.

Though the production suffers from a low budget, Bava makes use of his considerable talents and carefully crafts color and lightening design, as well as in-camera effects, including matte painting and miniatures. There are solid, if subdued performances from Euro-horror regular Ángel Aranda and Ivan Rassimov, while capable American actor Barry Sullivan takes the lead as one of Bava’s only heroic characters. The true star of the film is the hellish planet atmosphere, full of eerie fog, stark, colored lighting, glowing rocks, and lava pits.

Planet of the Vampires ultimately plays out like an EC horror comic crossed with classic sci-fi cinema of the ‘50s, with uniquely futuristic set design, desolate ships and black leather, biker-style space suits. The film has also received some attention because of its obvious influence on Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), though he and writer Dan O’Bannon claim not to have seen the film. Prometheus (2012), Scott’s recent prequel to Alien, is also very similar to Planet of the Vampires, down to the nearly identical space suits.

Though all current DVD editions are out of print, MGM released a region one version as part of their excellent “Midnite Movies” series that is still available some places online. The transfer is a nice-looking combination of the original Italian print and the re-cut AIP version, with a lot of non-dialogue footage added back in. The only major drawback is that it lacks any extras other than the theatrical trailer, unfortunately typical of “Midnite Movies” releases.


Check back tomorrow for Part 2…

Author: Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan’s Philadelphia-based Satanic Pandemonium film blog is interested mostly in horror, exploitation, erotica and academic film writing with a love of the gory and the perverse.

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