Part I of the Mario Bava retrospective.
Mario Bava‘s first attempt at the western genre was 1964’s The Road to Fort Alamo, a derivative pastiche of countless cowboys vs. Indians “B” oaters. Apart from Bava’s impressive matte work and lensing, it has little to recommend it. Muscle man Ken Clark removes his shirt periodically, providing eye candy.
Bava tried his hand at science fiction with the oddly titled Planet of the Vampires (1965), which proved to be a cult hit and major influence on Ridley Scott‘s Alien. A group of astronauts, led by Barry Sullivan, crash-land on an unknown planet and discover a hostile, parasitic alien race. It’s narrative is thin and it’s occasionally silly when it succumbs to the obligatory sci-fi jargon, but it’s authoritatively brilliant nonetheless. As one might expect, it’s more of a horror, although there are no vampires per se. Visually, it’s astounding, with Bava dipping deep into purples and blacks, with green washes of mist. The new wave set design and chic costuming add to the film’s pronounced hallucinogenic texture.
Bava took over directing duties from the fired Antonio Roman for the spaghetti western A Gunman Called Nebraska (1966), again starring Ken Clark. The film, about a couple on a ranch fighting off a nasty landlord and his ruthless hombres, is a pedestrian effort with little style. Clark and actress Yvonne Bastien supply sex appeal on both sides. Still, Clark does have onscreen charisma, and it’s surprising that his career was short-lived. Bava was merely collecting a paycheck here and taking a “show must go on” attitude.
That same year, Bava teamed up with Cameron Mitchell for another Viking opus, Knives of the Avenger. It’s a stylized rehash of George Steven’s Shane (which wasn’t very good to begin with), although Mitchell, an underrated character actor, delivers a solid performance. It has the “Bava Beach,” a location he repeatedly used (last seen in Black Sabbath), typically lush cinematography, and little else. Bava again took over from a fired director, rewrote elements of the script, and shot it in a week. It’s an unmemorable also-ran in the director’s oeuvre.
Bava was back in his element with his third (of four) 1966 films, Kill, Baby Kill, which some insist is his most accomplished work. Painterly visuals give flesh to the supernatural narrative and render this one of the prominent examples of Gothic cinema. Doctor Eswai (an aptly bland Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) is called to a small village to investigate a series of bizarre, inexplicable deaths. He solicits the aid of nurse Monica (Erika Blanc) to assist him with an autopsy and deal with superstitious villagers. Eswai soon hears the local legend of the eight-year-old Melissa Graps (Valeria Valeri) who was killed in the streets by drunken thugs during an 1887 festival. The townspeople believe that Melissa’s spirit has returned to exact revenge, driving victims to suicide. Naturally, Eswai rejects and opposes what he sees as local fanatical fears, but soon encounters a witch and the elderly Baroness Graps (Gianna Vivaldi) in her grim mansion. Kill, Baby Kill prefigures elements of The Wicker Man, and Bava proves admirably unhampered by a reduced budget. While the script wouldn’t win any awards for originality, Bava soaks his film in phantasmagoric lighting, innovative camera work (including fierce zoom shots), interiors of genuine dread, illusory landscapes, superlative art direction, and a psychedelic score (by Carlo Rustichelli). Kill, Baby Kill is paced like a frenzied scherzo with chilling imagery (a ghost rocking on a swing set in a cemetery, a white ball, a child’s deathly face pressed against glass, repeated shots of doors and windows, sinuous passages, and combustible colors) that could be described as icy surrealism. The finale is a tangy one, in spite of its being anticipated. Luchino Visconti was one of the film’s impassioned advocates.
Bava followed one of his best films with his worst, Dr. Goldfoot and The Girl Bombs. This sequel to 1965’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (directed by Norman Taurog) is also one of the most embarrassing moments for star Vincent Price. Like its predecessor, Girl Bombs is an alleged spoof of both James Bond and the AIP Poe films. The sequel is unfathomably worse and is only for the most masochistic fans.
Bava took a year off after ending 1966 on such a sour note. The break did him well. He returned in 1968 with the delightfully goofy and ultra-stylish Danger: Diabolik. Based on an Italian comic book, it is an homage to Luis Feuillade’s surreal silent serials. Kaleidoscopic sets and kinky costuming make it a cousin of sorts to Barbarella. Unfortunately, it’s also neglected, being a film outside the director’s preferred genre. John Phillip Law plays the master criminal Diabolik with the required gusto. James Bond aficionados will recognize Adolfo Celi from Thunderball in the villainous role of Valmont. Although, Danger: Diabolik did exceptionally well in Europe, American critics and audiences largely ignored it.
5 Dolls for an August Moon (1970) finds Bava again in the role of replacement director. Given that he dismissed the script as a shabby ripoff of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians,” it’s better than one might expect, due in part to Bava’s trademark humor. Orgasmic color palettes, dazzling compositions, ornate set pieces, the overtly eroticized giallo diva Edwige Fenech, an almost surreal lounge score (Piero Umiliani), and a bizarre finale (rewritten in part by Bava) move the ho-hum mystery along.
Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) has a reputation of being lesser Bava. It’s a richly stylized variation of the crude Corpse Vanishes (1942) with an impotent Stephen Forsythe filling in for Bela Lugosi and upping the ratio of corpse brides. Bava stamps it with his normal gallows humor and throws in a healthy dose of matricide (shades of Psycho). The recent Kino Blu-ray release significantly improves the film as it crystallizes its greatest strength, which, of course, are the visuals.
Next, Bava attempted one last spaghetti western with the execrable Ray Colt and Winchester Jack. It’s clearly a low-grade rip-off of George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and various Sergio Leone westerns. The entire film attempts to be a comedy relief. Slapstick, westerns, and Isa Miranda, as a madame looking left over from Girl Bombs, add up to an ill-advised mix.
Four Times That Night is an atypical sex comedy, which Bava shot on the quick (and joked that he did it to prove that he was heterosexual). Although it’s not the type of thing Bava is remembered for, it’s probably all one could ask for from a pop art extravaganza posing as frothy 1971 Italian peek-a-boo sex farce (it was released in 1972 stateside). Tall, dark, and handsome Italian stud Brett Halsey, Daniela Giordano as the long-legged girl with a short dress on, scantily clad go-go dancers in a cage, chain mail dresses, ultra chic shower sex, catfighting lesbians, hip swingers, an amusingly fashionable jazz lounge score (Coriolano Gori), and mod set design (with inflatable funky Freudian furniture) add up to stylish kitsch, which, as many reviewers note, models its contrasting-viewpoint rape narrative based on Akira Kurosawa‘s Rashomon. After the three fantasy versions (one by a binocular-toting doorman telling his very fabricated fantasy to a sleazy milkman), the real low down, from a psychiatrist, is an inevitable let down. Naturally, it employs the director’s penchant for brusque zooms, elegant lensing, and ballsy, kinky humor, which was essential in transforming the melodramatic Rashomon into a sleek, pop-colored sexploitation. Unseen for decades after its release, it became something of a Bava holy grail until it was resurrected on home video in 2000. The opening nudie animation is a hoot, and Giordano excels in the type of role that Edwige Fenech usually filled. For some, it’s the quintessential continental sex comedy.
Next week our Bava retrospective continues, starting with A Bay of Blood [AKA Twitch of the Death Nerve].