Tag Archives: Mario Bava

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA, PART THREE

Part I of the Mario Bava retrospective is here, and part II is here.

With A Bay of Blood (1971, renamed from the better-titled Twitch of the Death Nerve), we again find a film serving as an influential blueprint for countless hacks to imitate. Here, Bava set down the bullet-point checklist of slasher conventions that Wes Craven outlined in his pedagogical parody Scream (1996). At an isolated estate, a greedy count slips a noose sound the neck of his wheelchair-bound wife for her fortune, but then is butchered himself himself by an unknown assailant who drags the body off to places unknown. Later, a group of thrill-seeking young adults visit the count’s property, camp out in his dilapidated estate, and engage in sins of the flesh, unaware that they are being watched by a mysterious killer. One by one, they become victims of a murder spree, each dispatched by unique weapons and methods, all filmed from the killer’s POV. Naturally, there’s a lake (no, its not Camp Crystal) and rest assured one young lady (Brigitte Skay) is doomed when she goes skinny dipping (nudity and/or sex equals death). One unfortunate couple even gets speared while doing the nasty. The red phone of death returns for a cameo, ringing us with a warning of the grisly carnage ahead. Thunderball Bond girl Claudine Auger stars.

Baron Blood (1972) is one of Bava’s most critically maligned, yet most financially successful works. Most of the complaints registered against it center around the director’s “narrative deficiencies,” although expecting the plot to be a priority in a Bava film borders on foolishness, since, for him, it is merely a single element of a compositional whole (and a diaphanous element at that). Working with architecture student Eva (), Peter (Antonio Cantafora), a descendant of the evil Baron Blood (), resurrects his Vlad-the-Impaler-styled mass murderer ancestor and regrets it. In the parallel role of crippled alter ego Alfred Becker, Cotten seems to have an agitated attitude of slumming it. Sommer as an architect is as credible as Denise Richards as a scientist, but she makes a decorative scream queen when fleeing the stylish stalker in a shimmering micro-mini. Rafa Rassimov shines as the tragic clairvoyant. The end result is an unevenly acted, spirituous spectacle with Bava’s trademark tinted hazes, exquisite fetishistic set pieces, and a hair-raising scene of dogged pursuit.

With the surprising success of Baron Blood, Bava was essentially allowed to do whatever he wanted. 1973’s Lisa and the Devil amounts to a personal dream project, and it’s not surprising that it was Bava’s favorite among his own films. It was shown at Cannes and predominantly met with critical success. However, as an idiosyncratic love story, it was declined by American distributors, and it’s failure reportedly crushed Bava’s spirit. Per the request of producer Alfred Leone, it was reedited in 1975 with new footage (shot mostly by Bava’s son, Lamberto) to capitalize on the success of The Exorcist and released in the U.S. under the title Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA, PART THREE

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA, PART TWO

Part I of the Mario Bava retrospective.

‘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 ‘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 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 Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA, PART TWO

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA, PART ONE

An eclectic study of cinema should include the oeuvre of . He was overlooked by serious critics for decades. It was genre fans who kept whispering Bava’s name until it reached an echo and reverberated in critical circles. Called The Father of Italian Giallo Cinema, he influenced the likes of , ,  and (among others). Predictably, Bava’s fan base is given to religious zeal, but his body of work merits immersion in spite of his fanatical cult.

It should come as no surprise that Mario Bava’s original ambition was to become a painter. The son of sculptor and cinematographer Eugenio Bava, Mario found painting a less-than-profitable life goal and followed his father’s footsteps. Landing a job in Mussolini’s film factory, Bava’s apprentice work included lensing numerous films, beginning in 1939. It wasn’t until 1957 that Bava (uncredited) co-directed his first feature with Riccardo Freda: Lust of the Vampire (I Vampiri).

Still from Lust of the Vampire (I Vampiri) (1957)Although neither a great horror film nor a great film, Lust of the Vampire (not to be confused with the later Hammer film, which makes this one look like a masterpiece) is historically important for being the first Italian horror film. There are no vampires to speak of. The victims are the result of surgical horrors, and there’s little doubt that this film was a considerable influence on s Eyes Without a FaceAlthough crisply paced in its 78 minute running time, it’s saddled with dull, verbose characters. Lust of the Vampire teeters toward full-blown Goth cinema, but it also has scenes that hearken back to the mad scientist films of the 1940s; one has to look twice to make sure we’re not witnessing and up to no good in their labs. Visually, it has wonderful set pieces and almost surreal matte-work standing in for Paris. A portentous spiraling stairwell, shadow-doused laboratories, decaying beds, skulls falling to the floor, nooses inexplicably dangling from the ceiling, a mist-laden forest, an ornamental tomb façade, secret chambers, and beautiful women injected with serum transforming into withered drama queens all add up to an evocative early Italian horror. Gianna Maria Canale has the standout performance as Giselle du Grand, smoking cigarettes in front of mirrors. There’s a lot of debate as to how much Bava directed. The film has elements that could be attributed to the styles of both artists. Although Bava is clearly the superior director, Freda (who co-wrote the script) went on to make the effective Terror of Dr. Hitchcock (1962) and it’s sequel The Ghost (1963), both with . Freda walked out mid-production Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA, PART ONE

1963 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE SADIST, BLOOD FEAST, & THE WHIP AND THE BODY

1963 was such a productive year for horror/exploitation that even was involved in a better than normal effort. The Sadist is the film Hall Jr. will most likely be remembered for (if he is remembered at all). Here, Junior pivots away from the low-rent Elvis Presley persona that daddy  was crafting for him to instead play a cartoon psychopath inspired by the real-life sadist Charles Starkweather (in the first of several films loosely based on Starkweather’s infamous 1958 killing spree—to make sure we get the reference, writer/director James Landis names the antagonist “Charlie”). The Sadist is easily the best film of both this actor and this director, which is not to say that it’s great cinema. Surprisingly, the best thing about it is Hall’s energetic performance. Away from daddy, Junior bounces through the entire film with a near-perfect trash performance.

Still from The Sadist (1963)While Landis wasn’t quite the hack that was, he still hampers the production with rusty pacing and ill-conceived narration (supplied by Hall, Sr). The headlines of murderous mayhem proved to be the inspiration for the Landis/Hall Jr. team. They worked together in two additional features: 1964’s The Nasty Rabbit, about Russian spies smuggling killer bunnies into the U.S.A., and 1965’s Deadwood 76, which features Junior as a singing Billy the Kid. Both were written by Daddy Hall and again reveal a lead who clearly wants to be elsewhere. Junior seemed to reserve all of his enthusiasm and hammy tricks for The Sadist. He giggles. He slaughters. Once The Sadist locates Hall as its steam, it transforms into a model of creaky relentlessness. The small cast is exceptional, with Helen Hovey  memorable as Doris, who is pushed to the verge of victimization and fights back. Mother Nature serves Charlie his sentence.

At one end of the 1963 genre pendulum were productions from class directors, such as (The Birds) and (The Haunting). got his feet wet directing Dementia 13 for , and second-tier director Don Sharp helmed one of Hammer’s better non- opuses, Kiss of the Vampire. At the opposite end of the taste and quality spectrum was Blood Feast. Alternately (and arguably) dubbed the first splatter film and the first notable example of torture porn, Blood Feast catapulted horror into the art form for America’s white trash masses. Not surprisingly, is among the filmmakers who Continue reading 1963 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE SADIST, BLOOD FEAST, & THE WHIP AND THE BODY

1961 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE CHOPPERS, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, AND WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY

is practically American cinema’s masochistic patron saint of Juvenile Delinquent exploitation garbage. Guided by daddy Arch Sr. (who penned the script and produced) The Choppers was Junior’s first film in a mercifully brief career (he retired in 1965 to become a musician and aviator—daddy was ex-Air Force).

To most contemporary viewers, Hall, Jr. is possibly best known for his second film, Eegah (1962), after it was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000—although to the cult crowd, his crowning achievement is 1963’s The Sadist. Both of these will be covered here, along with Wild Guitar (1962), in upcoming exploitation collections from their respective years.

In Leigh Jason’s The Choppers, Hall is cast as Jack “Cruiser Bryan, the greasy-haired rockabilly leader of a gang of car-part thievin’ JDs. After stripping down cars, the Choppers take their loot to junkyard dog Moose (Z-movie veteran Bruno VeSota, familiar from Attack of the Giant Leeches, Wasp Woman and Bucket of Blood), who gives them ten cents on every buck!

Still from The Choppers (1961)Working out of their chicken coop truck, the Choppers also siphon gas out of unsuspecting vehicles, with Cruiser taking the role of the lookout guy who taps the steering wheel to the radio music he loves (which, the credits reveal, is Hall’s own song). For most of the film, the Choppers remain one step ahead of bland coppers and insurance suits. Later, we actually get to see Hall strum his guitar and sing “Monkeys in my hat band, I can do a handstand.” The jaw-dropping scene alone makes the entire film worthwhile. With rhyming genius like that, we can totally understand how Cruiser is a chick magnet who attracts a 1959 Playboy centerfold!

The yawn-inducing plot requires a comeuppance, which seems a tad harsh for the Choppers stealing car parts, but the producers probably realized a minute or so of something resembling excitement was necessary.

Mario Bava‘s Hercules In The Haunted World stars with apocalyptic hair. Bava and Lee, together with a bulging pair of male mammary glands in a loincloth (Reg Park), overcome laughably bad dialogue, near-fatal comic relief, echo boxes informing us that “these are gods!”, a prosaic plot, shrill dubbing, a green monster who must have been an ancestor of Sigmund the Sea Monster, and a bulimic budget to produce one of the most psychedelic sword and sandal fantasy flicks of the early 60s.

Still from Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)With painted sets and sky, diaphanous tints, swirling ink vapors, and transcendent camerawork, Bava’s cardboard Hades is the quintessence of orgasmic psychedelia masquerading as Continue reading 1961 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE CHOPPERS, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, AND WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY

BEAUTIFUL FILMS: BLACK SUNDAY (1960)

This is the first entry in 366 Weird Movies’ List of “Beautiful Films.” Consider this a sub-category; one that takes neither beautiful nor weird at face value, but openly views these two descriptions as genres which often go hand-in-hand—far more than one might imagine.

I will continue this list throughout the new year, and am open to suggestions from readers or peers in adding titles.

Black Sunday (1960), AKA Mask of Satan, marked Mario Bava’s directorial debut after twenty years as a cinematographer and uncredited assistant director. This Gothic fairy tale, (loosely) inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Vij (faithfully adapted as Viy), proved the ideal launch for a director who began life as a painter and son of a cinematographer. Additionally, Black Sunday was the first true starring vehicle for , making her the first (and, to date, the only) authentic female horror icon. Although both Bava and Steele had long careers following this, neither would ever make as good a film.

Bava’s painterly credentials serve his cinematography well: the forests, crypts, and castles are drenched in lush black and white. Mists, cobwebs, and rotting trees, filtered through Bava’s lens, compose a sensuous ruin. Setting a pattern that he would follow for the rest of his career, Bava’s visual storytelling is far more innovative than is the narrative, which is solid, but routine and simplistic enough to have spawned a plethora of imitators. Contemporary audiences will likely find the story less appealing than 1960 audiences did, in part due to its many offspring, and in part due to its its status as a homage to the  classics. Black Sunday is put over with such distinctive vigor that few will be concerned by its familiarity.

The casting of Steele is primarily a visual choice. Pauline Kael describes her as “looking like Jacqueline Kennedy in a trance, playing both roles in such a deadpan manner that makes evil and good all but indistinguishable.”

Still from Black Sunday (1960)Although never given a role which proved her actor’s mettle, Steele stood apart from cinematic “scream queens” in using her physicality to both seduce and frighten audiences, perhaps best summarized in Bava’s extreme closeup of her acupunctured face during an erotic resurrection, which is quite possibly the most pronounced scene of its kind.

Georgio Giovanni’s art direction cannot be underestimated in making the film a highly influential cult hit that gave birth to an entire school of European filmmaking.

Kino’s uncut Blu-ray edition boasts a sumptuous transfer that finally does justice to Bava’s chiaroscuro lighting. It also, thankfully, restores Roberto Nicolosi’s original, intensely innovative score, along with several minutes  of deleted scenes. The AIP version (buy) (which has different dubbing and Les Baxter’s vastly inferior score) features an interview with Steele,  commentary from Bava biographer Tim Lucas, and trailers.

CAPSULE: LISA AND THE DEVIL (1974)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A tourist finds herself staying overnight at a Spanish chateau managed by a butler who is the spitting image of Satan as pictured on a local fresco.

Still from Lisa and the Devil (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A mildly surreal horror, Lisa might make for interesting Halloween watching for the patient, but it’s too slow-paced with too little payoff to be counted among the greatest weird movies.

COMMENTS: “The entire setting is so right for a tall tale of gloom and perdition,” says one of the guests at a banquet as a manservant played by Telly Savalas serves her slices of rare meat. “We could make one up as we go along.” Given the almost random way the script unfolds, you might suspect that this line of dialogue is a confession rather than a throwaway bit of dinner conversation. It’s not always clear whether the frequent lapses of logic in Lisa and the Devil are meant to be part and parcel of the unsettling atmosphere, or are merely the result of lazy, indifferent screenwriting. After one of their party is found murdered, the owner of the estate in the middle of nowhere suggests to the rest of the party stranded there that there is no need to call the police—and they all accept that view calmly without offering much in the way of a counter-argument. Niggling unanswered questions proliferate: How do the chauffeur and the wife find time for a lovemaking liaison when he’s supposed to be fixing the car? Why is Lisa terrified of a pocketwatch she sees on a table? Whether these minor story issues add to the film’s dream logic or merely frustrate you as you try to settle on a context for this fright tale may determine how you react to the movie. Lisa builds to a perverse and spooky third act as the shameful secrets of the chateau are slowly brought to light, but the first two thirds of the movie are slow and often confusing. The main living denizens of the villa, a blind mother and her fey son, are an intense couple, but top-billed Savalas (who sucks on his trademark lollipop here) makes by far the biggest impression as a slyly diabolical butler. He’s not conventionally sinister or overtly threatening, but like most servants he knows more about the secret workings of the chateau than his masters do, and his blasé glances and mysterious smiles suggest a man whose subservience is an ill-fitting mask for a deeper purpose. As Lisa, star Elke Sommer, on the other hand, is little more than a blank pretty face—not her fault, as the script gives her nothing to do other than gasp, scream and fall unconscious. Lisa has no history and no reason is given for her straying from her tour group, and she is swept along by events with a bewildered expression, offering no resistance. Passivity is her only real character trait. Her lack of dialogue stands out: other characters divulge shocking confessions to her, and she has nothing to say in response. It’s not clear if her silence is a deliberate choice to make her a mysterious tabula rasa, or whether the character is simply underwritten. If it was a conscious decision, I’m not sure the gamble pays off; we are given little reason to care about the fate of this ambiguous protagonist. On the plus side, Bava’s films are always visually luscious, and Lisa is no exception. The dusty Spanish town and the aristocratic villa give him plenty of lush color to work with, and in her mod short blue skirt and mint green blazer, Sommer looks perfectly out of place romping through these classical vistas. She’s as dislocated in her fashion as she is in her psychology. A flashback/dream sequence set in a sylvan glade supplies a visual highlight, and foreshadows a later scene of a nude Sommer waking in a similar-looking ruins. Savalas’ offhand conversations with his collection of life-sized dummies and an ending that induces shivers despite being somewhat obvious are other memorable bits in this oft-odd spook story. The movie has assets: Savalas, the cinematography, and a few moments of thrilling disorientation. At its best it plays like the dream of a mad ghost; but overall this sepulchral tale is too lifeless for a general recommendation. Fans of slow-paced atmospheric horror may find it a worth taking a chance on, though.

Lisa and the Devil was a flop in Italy and was not picked up for American distribution. Producer Alfredo Leone then decided to try to salvage the movie by re-cutting it and shooting new footage with Sommer and Robert Alda (as a priest) to turn the film into an Exorcist clone; the resulting mess was released in the States as The House of Exorcism. It flopped. The 2012 Kino Classics release contains both versions of the film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The Bava art on full display, voluptuous and oneiric…”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion.com (DVD)

CAPSULE: DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli,

PLOT: A master thief and his girlfriend carry off a series of audacious heists while evading the police and a rival criminal.

Still from Danger: Diabolik (1968)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite some perplexing plot developments and slightly surreal moments, Danger: Diabolik never really journeys beyond its cops-and-robbers framework.  Ultimately, it’s more a product of its era’s weirder impulses than anything truly out-there.

COMMENTS: Full of kitschy décor and colorful costuming, Danger: Diabolik is a time capsule of the late 1960s.  The high-tech hijinks of its masked title character (Law) are redolent of Batman and James Bond, but with his frivolous capers and improbable escapes, Diabolik tops even those series’ campy excesses.  The entire film is just a string of cat-and-mouse encounters, as the Javert-like Inspector Ginko (Piccoli) lays a trap—be it priceless emeralds or a 20 ton ingot of gold—only for Diabolik to abscond with the loot, and his sexy accomplice Eva (Mell).

It may be perplexing at first to see a glamorous ball of fluff like Diabolik being directed by Bava, a man who’s best-known for stylized horror films like Black Sunday.  But Bava seizes on Diabolik’s ridiculous premise as a perfect opportunity to pour on the eye candy, unhindered by considerations of logic or self-restraint.   So instead of just getting one more of the routine super-spy pastiches that were clogging the theaters in 1968, we get some delirious sequences influenced by psychedelia and pop art.  The most effective such moment transpires when a prostitute tries to describe Eva’s appearance, leading into a bizarre animated cavalcade of mutating female faces.

The rest of Diabolik, however, is less audacious.  The cast seems to exist outside of these creative outbursts, and their performances drone on, whether they’re madly overacting—like Thunderball‘s Adolfo Celi as an angry gangster, or Terry-Thomas as a tooth-gnashing government official—or else, like John Phillip Law, underacting to the point of barely giving a performance.  Law is so deadpan that it’s easy to forget he’s there, and that’s not exactly a desirable trait in a brazen anti-hero.  But who needs a believable performance when you’ve got sex amidst piles of cash?  Or a giant mirror as a method for deterring the police?  Or a grand finale that features an explosive vat of molten, “radioactivated” gold?

Diabolik’s triumph is that it dispenses with plausibility from the very first gush of multicolored fog, and doesn’t look back, prioritizing scenes of wacky spectacle over minor details like dialogue and characterization.  So it’s certainly not a good movie, per se—in fact, a truncated version was mocked in the last-ever episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”—but it does carry its worn premise to enthrallingly absurd heights.  For a viewer who wants some unrestrained campy nonsense, that should be as much of a lure as freshly cremated ashes chock-full of emeralds.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Utilizing wide-angle lenses, day-glo colors, psychedelic sets, and outrageous costumes, Bava creates dynamic compositions which could have come straight from a comic-strip panel, along with some indelible images, none more so than Diabolik covered in gold at the end, or the shots of he and Eva making love on a spinning bed while covered by a pile of money.”–TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Jules.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)