Features — 19 October 2012 » Written by
SINedelphia 2012: D is for Death – The Horror FIlms of Mario Bava, Part 2

Continued from Part 1

8. Operazione paura aka Kill, Baby… Kill! aka Curse of the Living Dead (1966)
After a young woman mysteriously dies in a small Transylvanian village, the local inspector asks a foreign coroner to investigate. The young Dr. Eswai performs an autopsy, but meets resistance from the superstitious locals. Monica, a medical student raised in the village, but returning for the first time since childhood, decides to assist him. They discover a coin in the girl’s heart, which Monica explains is a common superstition meant to ensure that a person who dies violently will be able to rest in peace. A number of other villagers are murdered and Eswai is attacked. He is saved by a mysterious woman dressed in black, while other villagers are terrified by a ghostly little girl. Clues point to a crumbling local villa, home to the disturbed Baroness Graps.

One of Bava’s most enduring horror classics, this excellent example of subtle, understated horror is Bava’s only true ghost story. It concerns a lot of his usual themes, like greed and the illusory nature of appearances, and feels like a more mature, nuanced version of Black Sunday. It also benefits from Bava’s typical hallucinatory atmosphere. The use of supernatural dread and an isolated community in the grip of superstitious terror has influenced a wide range of films, including David Lynch’s landmark TV series, Twin Peaks. The concept of a logical, educated man entering a superstitious, rural community is a common horror device, but Eswai is not actually the focus of the story. Despite criticisms of misogyny in Bava’s other films, all of the most important characters here are female, from the little girl ghost and the mad countess, to the mysterious witch and the helpful medical student.

This is one of Bava’s most interesting examinations of the deceptive nature of appearances, both visually and thematically. Everything in the film attempts to disorient us. He relies on superstition, magic, witches, ghosts and doppelgängers, though many of these are not what they seem. Even the angelic-looking ghost girl is actually played by a male actor, Valerio Valeri. Faces are distorted, hidden or half seen and the camera fixates on twisting staircases, doors and windows, showing us the entryway to another world, but never quite taking us there. The gothic setting is standard for Bava by this point, but he manipulates it by showing the village itself as crumbling, rotting and obviously uncared for. It is not simply geographically isolated, but cut off from life: walls are broken, trees are dying and the landscape is threatening.

Aside from minor imperfections like the silly title, poor dubbing and obsessive use of the zoom lens, this is one of Bava’s most highly recommended films. Fortunately, Kill, Baby… Kill! is on DVD from Anchor Bay as part of their Bava Collection. The print is decent and it includes an Italian audio track with English subtitles. Unfortunately the special features are skimpy and mostly involve trailers and TV spots. There is an unreleased Tim Lucas commentary, originally recorded for the cancelled Dark Sky Films DVD, that will hopefully see the light of day at some point.

9. Il rosso segno della follia aka Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1969)
John Harrington is quite mad. He kills young brides in order to unlock a repressed memory, one that will hopefully reveal who killed his mother when he was a child. John owns a Parisian bridal shop and has recently fallen in love with a new model, Helen. The only things standing in his way are his own murderous inclinations, his nagging wife, Mildred, who refuses to give him a divorce, and an increasingly suspicious police inspector. While Hatchet is certainly an acquired taste, I think it has unfairly received some negatives reviews simply because of misplaced expectations. This is not a true giallo; it marks the first in a trilogy of giallo-like films that purposely subvert the genre. In Hatchet, Bava relies on heaps of black comedy, unexpected supernatural elements and immediately reveals the identity of the killer.

This Spanish/Italian co-production is yet another Bava film with incredible visuals. While he repeats some design elements from Blood and Black Lace (the fashion industry, models, mannequins), he relies on new visual tropes and some experimental photography that reflects elements of John’s deranged character – disorienting zooms, trick shots, flashbacks, reflections, mirror images and frequent shots of eyes, both human and mannequin. The visual complexity and creepy sets benefit from the unusual Spanish locations – Bava rarely shot outside of Italy – namely General Franco’s Barcelona villa, full of labyrinthine hallways and staircases that reflect John’s confused, twisted mind. Hatchet was scripted by Santiago Moncada, who penned one of the greatest Spanish horror films, La campana del infierno aka The Bell from Hell (1973). The two films bear more than a passing similarity – they share clever, creepy and elaborate set pieces, and sympathetic, yet murderous protagonists who attempt to uncover past trauma.

Despite some problems with a messy, overly-Freudian narrative, this unconventional film delivers some unexpected pleasures. There is a lot of delightful black comedy and moments of genuine creepiness. The second half of the film steps up the gothic and supernatural elements, moving farther away from giallo territory into something bizarre, but inspired. There are good performances and some witty dialogue, namely from leads Steven Forsyth and Laura Betti. Canadian actor Forsyth does an excellent job with this disturbed, dandyish role and resembles the wonderful John Phillip Law, who starred in Bava’s dark comic book spy film, Danger: Diabolik (1968). John is one of Bava’s only sympathetic characters, despite the fact that he’s a murderer.

There are several Hatchet releases, though the best is the Kino/Redemption Blu-ray that came out last month and includes commentary from Tim Lucas. Aside from the Blu-ray, this commentary is only available on the region 2 UK Anchor Bay DVD, which also includes a documentary from Mark Kermode, “Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre.” There is also an older, out of print region 1 Image DVD with barely any extras.

10. 5 bambole per la luna d’agosto aka Five Dolls for an August Moon aka Island of Terror (1970)
This unusual, stylish, giallo-like riff on Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians is generally disliked by giallo purists, but will be of great interest to fans of ‘60s and ‘70s Eurocult cinema. Like Hatchet for the Honeymoon, this is not strictly a giallo, but is part of a trilogy of films (including Bay of Blood) that subvert the genre and add some truly bizarre and unexpected elements. Five Dolls is uninterested in being a whodunnit murder mystery and is full of black humor, irony and psychedelic sex appeal. This is allegedly Bava’s least favorite of all his films, though it is a fun, Jess Franco-like exercise in excess.

Four couples travel to a small island, seemingly for rest and relaxation. Three of the men are trying to buy a secret scientific formula from Professor Garrell, who continues to refuse their offers. Marie, one of the wives, is having an affair with the houseboy, who winds up dead. The murders continue, but the party is trapped on the island after the discovery that their boat has gone missing. The surviving men are still after the formula, but their interest is fatal.

Five Dolls nearly defies categorization. This fun, weird and colorful film lacks any of the typical giallo concerns, and revels in a sense of playful, yet sadistic mischief. None of the characters care much about the murders and are instead preoccupied with numerous deals, double-crosses and sexual affairs. Death is little more than an inconvenience for the dwindling number of still-living characters, who inexplicably (and hilariously) store the corpses in the meat freezer. The killings themselves are presented almost as afterthoughts when Bava fails to show us any of the murder directly.

Giallo regular Edwige Fenech stars, and despite the surprising lack of nudity, she shines, especially during the fantastic, gaudy opening that features a kitschy erotic dance and fake human sacrifice. Bava revisits some of his key themes, namely sexual neurosis and greed. The overall cinematography is effectively creepy, despite the unfortunate reliance on zoom shots that marks Bava’s later career. As in Hatchet, he makes use of unusual shots and angles to keep his audience disoriented. The almost non-existent storyline adds to the surreal quality of the film – we know little about the thoroughly unsympathetic characters and even less about the scientific formula. The conclusion is equally hazy and implausible and the identity of the killer seems completely arbitrary.

The film’s best release in the U.S. is included in Anchor Bay’s excellent Mario Bava Collection, which includes an Italian audio track with English subtitles, an English dub and a separate score/effects track. The print is average and there aren’t many extras, though there are some nice liner notes from Tim Lucas.

11. Ecologia del delitto aka Twitch of the Death Nerve aka Bay of Blood (1971)
Probably Bava’s most influential film, Twitch is the precursor to the North American slasher genre. Countess Donati is murdered by her husband, who stages it to look like a suicide. Immediately after, he is murdered. The mysterious assailant, who continues dispatching anyone that gets in the way, hopes to take possession of their considerable property, including much of the local bay area. Husband and wife Alberto and Renata, the latter of whom stands to inherent from the Countess, are determined to get to the bottom of things.

Despite the fact that this is far from Bava’s best work, its influence has been felt in nearly every slasher film in the ‘80s. The wonderful Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) replicated certain scenes almost shot for shot. Twitch completes Bava’s trilogy of experimental giallo films that play with genre and focus on irony and black humor. The emphasis here is almost solely on graphic violence.

The first half of Twitch is incredibly slow, due to the ridiculous and confusing narrative. Though the original story was written by Italian cult favorite Dardano Sacchetti, the later re-writes left behind a confusing mess that doesn’t manage to build tension or interest until later in the second half. Most of the characters are undeveloped and the leads, played by Bond girl Claudine Auger and spaghetti western regular Luigi Pistilli, are completely unsympathetic. Almost everyone is driven by unbridled greed, one of Bava’s favorite themes.

The dreamy cinematography is, as always, stunning and utterly faultless, though the pitiful budget forced Bava to get creative, resulting in the famous story where he used a child’s wagon as a camera dolly. Carlo Rambaldi’s award-winning visual effects are the reason to see this film. Rambaldi expertly crafts a decapitation, stabbings, gunshots, a lovely double impalement and more. In addition to the goriest murders of Bava’s career, we also have the most nudity in the form of a lengthy skinny dipping scene. And the less said about the twist ending, the better.

Twitch is included in the second volume of Anchor Bay’s Mario Bava Collection. The print is average, but there’s another great commentary from Tim Lucas and a few additional extras. There is an older, out of print Image DVD that should be avoided due to the poor print quality and even worse audio, making parts of the film incomprehensible. The best release is the region two UK Arrow Blu-ray, which includes a lot of special features and a slightly different cut of the film. Keep a look out for Twitch under one of its many other titles, including Reazione a catena, Ecology of Crime, Bloodbath, Carnage, Last House on the Left Part 2 (which makes no sense, because Twitch came out first), The Odor of Flesh, etc.

12. Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga aka Baron Blood (1972)
A throwback to Bava’s classic gothic horror works of the ‘60s, Baron Blood mostly feels like a fond farewell letter to the director’s favorite genre. Peter, an American student, visits relations in Austria to discover more about his great-great grandfather, Baron von Kleist, famous for torturing and killing hundreds of his subjects. Peter visits the ancestral castle, which is being turned into a hotel for tourists, and meets the attractive architectural assistant, Eva. Peter shows her an old, spooky parchment that will supposedly resurrect the Baron if read aloud at midnight in the castle. Of course, this seems like a good idea and they predictably bring the psychotic Baron back to life, though no one believes them. Mysterious murders occur and the hotel project is cancelled, allowing a strange millionaire to buy the property. Can Peter and Eva stop the Baron before he kills again?

Despite its poor reviews, Baron Blood really only suffers from anachronism. It’s odd that Bava attempts to revive gothic horror after a long string of gialli, though he seems aware of this. Unlike his earlier gothic efforts, the setting is modern, something Bava reminds us of regularly with visual cues like the Coca Cola machine in the castle. The slow place and lack of twists, violence or nudity don’t help matters. In terms of plot and visuals, Baron Blood feels like a mix of parts from Bava’s earlier classics like Black Sunday and The Whip and the Body. The Baron himself is a disappointing figure, with cheesy make up and a costume borrowed from Phantom of the Opera. Whether intentional or not, a lot about the Baron is reminiscent of the great House of Wax (1953), the first film to ensure Vincent Price’s horror stardom. The wonderful Joseph Cotten is mediocre and simply feels miscast, like a stand-in for Christopher Lee.

That’s not to say that Baron Blood is a bad film. There are some good performances, though female star Elke Sommer has more to offer in Bava’s next film, Lisa and the Devil. There are beautiful, atmospheric visuals, as always, though with somewhat less panache than his earlier films. The chase in the fog-filled alley and the Baron’s resurrection are some of the finest scenes. Though all the ingredients are present, they sadly don’t add up, though as just about every genre review of this film has said, a mediocre Bava film is better than the best films of most directors.

Baron Blood is available in several releases, though the best is the Anchor Bay version included in the second volume of their Mario Bava Collection, which has a nice print, English audio and a commentary from Tim Lucas. There is also an inferior, out of print U.S. Image release and an Italian Raro DVD that includes the Italian audio track and more special features. Kino has announced a Blu-ray to be released this December.

13. Lisa e il diavolo aka Lisa and the Devil (1972)
Lisa, an American tourist, is traveling in Spain when she separates from her group, views a fresco of the devil, follows some lovely music and gets completely lost. She keeps running into strange man named Leandro and panics when no one will give her directions. A couple offers to give her a ride, though their car soon breaks down in front of a villa. The villa is owned by a blind Countess and her creepy son, who thinks Lisa is the reincarnation of his dead lover. It also turns out that Leandro is their butler. The couple and Lisa accept an invitation to stay the night, but bodies begin to pile up and Lisa realizes she may never escape.

This Italian/Spanish/West German co-production is one of Bava’s finest and most difficult films. If I had to choose, it ranks as my personal favorite. Due to the box office success of Baron Blood, Bava was given the financial and creative freedom to make any film of his choosing. The result is a delirious, nightmarish and challenging culmination of all his previous filmmaking experiments. Simply, Lisa is a dream-like meditation on death, decay and spiritual longing. This intensely personal, poetic film is a celebration of the visual, which trumps narrative logic at every turn. Some of his finest and most disturbing images appear here – mannequins, strange music boxes, doll heads, the crumbling, maze-like villa, dream sequences, decaying corpses, etc.

Lisa is the kind of film that demands constant attention and asks more questions than it answers. It also excels from a technical standpoint. Sommer proves she is more than a lovely window dressing and Savalas excels in his role as the satanic, lollipop-licking Leandro. Keep your eyes peeled for familiar faces in the rest of the cast, including the intimidating Alida Valli. The score by Carlo Savina, which borrows from Joaquin Rodrigo’s popular “Concierto per Aranjuez,” is one of the best in any Bava film.

What, you may ask, is House of Exorcism? When Lisa failed to find a distributor, producer Alfredo Leone ordered Bava to shoot a new version of the film, House of Exorcism, released in 1975. To say it is a travesty would be too kind. When Bava refused to finish, Leone took the helm and reshot and reedited this mess of a film that costars Robert Alda as a priest trying to cure Lisa of satanic possession. In short, this is a lousy rip-off of The Exorcist that makes The Exorcist II look like an inspired piece of filmmaking.

There are several versions of Lisa on DVD and most include a print of House. The latest release is the Kino Blu-ray, which is the most complete in terms of special features. In addition to both films, it includes audio commentary from Tim Lucas on Lisa, commentary from Alfredo Leone and Elke Sommer on House, trailers, and a new interview feature, Bava on Bava, with Mario’s son Lamberto.

14. Cani arrabbiati aka Rabid Dogs aka Kidnapped (1974)
Much like Hercules in the Haunted World, Rabid Dogs is not, strictly speaking, a horror film, but I had to include it on this list because of the numerous horror elements. Four criminals pull off a violent car robbery, but their driver is shot and killed by police. The remaining men are forced to hide out, hijack a car and take hostages – the driver, who is on the way to the hospital with his sick son, and a young woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. When they realize they are being followed, they force the driver to take them into the country where the situation rapidly deteriorates.

This is an incredible change of direction for Bava, considering his mostly fantasy-based catalog and the fact that Rabid Dogs follows immediately on the footsteps of the surreal Lisa and the Devil. Other than the possible exception of Bay of Blood, this is Bava’s only film totally steeped in realism that attempts to follow a real-time scenario. The plot is as minimal as possible. We know little about the criminals or hostages, though the lack of exposition works in the film’s favor. Action takes place primarily in the car and is reliant on dialogue and a number of tight performances, particularly from leads Maurice Poli and genre favorite George Eastman.

Rabid Dogs is one of the best (and sweatiest) Italian crime thrillers ever made, but this grim and nihilistic film is not for everyone. Though it doesn’t completely enter the brutal rape-revenge territory it is heading towards, there is a fair amount of nasty cruelty and sexually suggestive violence that will leave most viewers exhausted, particularly after the surprise ending. With that said, there are many reasons to see this gritty, claustrophobic masterpiece, including the fantastic score from Stelvio Cipriani (City of the Walking Dead).

Until the mid-‘90s, Rabid Dogs was considered lost. One of the financial backers died during post-production and the film was seized as part of his estate. Female lead Lea Lander worked to secure the rights, add a title sequence and have a near complete version of the film released. There are now two versions. Bava’s original work print is known as Rabid Dogs, which I think is the superior print. His son, Lamberto, got together with Alfredo Leone to film some additional scenes and re-edit a new version with a different soundtrack, irritatingly called Kidnapped (when you see the film, you’ll know why this is so annoying).

Rabid Dogs was finally given an excellent DVD release by Anchor Bay, either as a single disc or as part of their Mario Bava Collection. There is a Tim Lucas commentary, both Rabid Dogs and Kidnapped are included, as well as a documentary called End of the Road featuring Alfredo Leone, Lamberto Bava and Lea Lander. Kino is releasing a Blu-ray version of the film this December.

15. Shock aka Beyond the Door II (1977)
I was reluctant to include Shock on this list, as it was allegedly mostly directed by Bava’s son Lamberto, though he lacks a formal credit. Dora, her new husband Bruno and her son Marco move into the home that Dora previously lived in with her abusive, drug-addicted first husband, who committed suicide. While Bruno is away for business, Marco exhibits some troubling behavior and Dora begins to have horrible nightmares. After the suicide, she spent some time in a sanitarium, where she suffered from a nervous breakdown. Is she going mad? Or are more sinister events afoot?

Though fans are bitterly divided by Shock, its main problem lies in the fact that it doesn’t know what kind of film it is – a Mario or Lamberto Bava film? Psychological or supernatural horror? Thematically, it bears unmistakable traces of Bava, while most of the visuals are representative of Lamberto’s work in films like Macabre (1980). This unfortunate identity crisis results in an unsatisfying film peppered with some truly spectacular moments. The bland, if solid direction, slow pace, lack of visual stylization and repetitiveness don’t do it any favors. Neither does the soundtrack, which bounces back and forth between a haunting piano melody and an electronic score by Goblin rip-off I Libra.

No, it is not a sequel to Ovidio Assonitis’s Chi sei? (1974), though U.S. distributors renamed it Beyond the Door II to capitalize on the similarities. Both films are about evil and/or possessed children and share the same child actor, David Colin Jr. The disturbed child plot, along with the American suburban setting and follies in the basement are also reminiscent of Fulci’s House by the Cemetery (1981), which may have been influenced by Shock.

There are some nice performances from John Steiner and Argento muse Daria Nicolodi, who is always a joy, as well as a welcome bit part from genre regular Ivan Rassimov. The script is well written and unpredictable, and there is an excellent conclusion. The themes here are the culmination of Bava’s work – the familial guilt present in Black Sunday, being haunted by a past lover and the residual psychological breakdown of The Whip and the Body, many elements from the wonderful segment, “The Drop of Water”, from Black Sabbath, etc. There are also some terrifying visuals, including a bleeding basement, insinuations of incest, a hand motif, tremendous nightmare sequences and moving objects, including Dora’s hair. Shock will thrill certain viewers and it gets better with repeated viewings – once you get over the shock of the change in direction.

There’s a nice Blue Underground region zero DVD that replaced the similar, out of print Anchor Bay disc. There are English, Italian and French audio tracks, though sadly no subtitles. Limited special features include an interview with Lamberto Bava. This version is believed to be uncut and replaces the scenes with Ivan Rassimov that are missing in some releases.

***

If you’d like to know more about Bava, he has a variety of other films worthy of attention outside the horror genre – fantasy epics, westerns, action, etc. Start with Danger: Diabolik (1968). There are also a couple of books to check out, particularly The Haunted World of Mario Bava by Troy Howarth from FAB Press, though the ultimate Bava resource is Tim Lucas’ seminal critical biography Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. Though this book is massive (over 1,000 pages) and rather expensive, there will never be a better, more extensively researched volume on Bava, or probably on any kind of cinema.

Happy watching this Halloween!

Share

About Author

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.

(0) Readers Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *