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).
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 Eyes Without a Face. Although 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 (for unclear reasons), leaving cinematographer Bava to finish the directorial duties for the remaining shooting schedule. Reportedly, the film was heavily censored by Italian “moralists,” which resulted in scant showings and rendered it a financial loss. Image Entertainment released a superlative DVD of I Vampiri, but it’s currently out of print.s
Freda and Bava re-teamed as co-directors for 1959’s Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, which lays claim to being one of the earliest Italian science fiction films (Bava had served as a cinematographer for the very first Italian sci-fi, The Day The Sky Exploded, in 1958 and, according to some sources, co-directed it as well). Apparently inspired by The Blob (1958), Caltiki far surpasses its source material (which isn’t hard to do). Set in Mexico City, the opening narration gives a brief synopsis of the ancient Mayan civilization, the mystery of its demise, and warns of an evil Mayan deity, known as Caltiki, the Immortal Monster. The opening is unabashed Bava: an archeologist runs, terrified, through an eerily lit jungle as a volcano erupts in the distance. He makes it to his campsite and leads the group back to the Mayan ruins he had stumbled upon. Finding a long-lost temple, the archeologists succumb to avarice, which leads to the unearthing of Caltiki; a Blob of a god who melts away skin and mental faculties. The FX are grisly for the time period, but shock value always dates, and it’s the Bava touches (excellent matte work and cinematography) that still seem fresh. Although well-paced, the writing is a pastiche filled with cardboard characters.
Bava co-directed 1959 The Giant of Marathon with(!), which would be a typical Steve Reeves sword and sandal opus, were it not for Bava’s camera work on some of the elaborate (and bloody) battle scenes (including an underwater confrontation). Of course, it has lots of cleavage—from both sexes. It’s hokey as hell, and while it hardly represents the directing craftsmanship of Tourneur, it does highlight Bava’s superb camera work.
With the box office success of Marathon, Bava was finally given his own film to direct solo, and the result was Black Sunday. This horror classic remains Bava’s most famous film and is covered here in greater detail.
Before the premier (and the box office and critical success) of Black Sunday, Bava was sent to assist an aging Raoul Walsh in the synthetic bible opus, Esther and the King (1960), starring Joan Collins as the virtuous Queen (!) Bava supervised the Italian version and was given a co-directing credit, which he probably would have done better without. Naturally, it has exemplary cinematography and, this time, with Ms. Collins leading the gals, more female cleavage than male. Still, it’s only for the most masochistic celluloid Bible-thumper.
Bava next co-directed The Wonders of Aladdin with Henry Levin. It stars Donald O’Connor in the title role. No one has bothered to release it in the home video market. There’s a reason for that.
Hercules in the Haunted World finds Bava veering closer to his authentic niche. It’s covered here, in our 1961 triple feature.
Bava graduated from Greeks to Vikings with Erik the Conqueror (1961), which stars a well-cast and aptly rugged. It has typical lush Bava cinematography and set pieces, along with bouncing male cleavage. Surprisingly it has a solid, if uncomplicated, narrative about two long-separated Viking siblings on the verge a brother against brother war. Working wonders with a micro budget, it’s a sprightly paced venture into Viking terrain and commendably comic bookish, although it’s rarely seen.
With The Girl Who Knew Too Much (AKA The Evil Eye, 1963) Bava crafts the foundation of Italian Hitchcock, although the complex plot proves something of a hindrance for the visually-oriented Bava. It’s about a vacation (in Rome) gone wrong. Nora (Leticia Roman) is flying in to visit her ailing aunt. During her flight, Nora becomes engrossed reading “The Knife,” a pulp murder mystery. She’s given a pack of smoky treats by an overly-friendly fellow passenger, but he’s arrested for drug smuggling shortly after they land. After settling in at auntie’s house, Nora slips into a comfy, slinky nightie and lights up one of those cigarettes given to her by the drug smuggling passenger. Little does Nora realize that it’s wacky tobaccy she’s a smokin’ as she resumes reading “The Knife.” She’s interrupted, however, by a noisy storm, a hissing kitty cat, and poor auntie croaking. Nora tries to call the chiseled Dr. Bassi (John Saxon). Alas, the phone is dead, as well. On her walk to the hospital, Nora is mugged and knocked out, but awakes to hear a scream and witnesses the bearded Alphabet Killer pulling a knife out of the back of his victim. When Nora reports the murder, no body is found, and authorities conclude she was hallucinating from the combined effects of a knock to the head and reading too many pulp murder mysteries. Nora stays in Rome to clear her name and “solve the mystery,” which leads straight to doorstep of “whodunit,” with some steamy lip-locking between her and the good doctor along the way. Saxon and Roman have genuine chemistry when paired, but he’s a bore without her. Roman’s winning performance, coupled with Bava’s camera, are the film’s assets. It moves like quicksilver, with tongue firmly planted in cheek. The Girl Who Knew Too Much lacks the assured wit that Hitchcock would have given it; still, Bava thoroughly embraces the trashy pulp elements and eroticism, filtering it all through his exciting sense of style. The Kino Blu-ray includes both Bava’s original and the toned-down American version, which is considerably weaker. Despite its flaws, The Girl Who Knew Too Much proved a major template for Italian filmmakers to follow, and is an essential opus in Bava’s oeuvre.. It’s a blatantly obvious homage to
1963’s Black Sabbath lives up to its classic reputation and is Bava’s best film since Black Sunday. It’s a horror anthology with three tales hosted by Boris Karloff. He acts in the third episode, based on Tolstoy’s “The Wurdulak,” and the horror icon proves to be an unsettlingly creepy pedophile vampire. Karloff’s performance is perfectly intense, and Black Sabbath proves one of the finest moments for both director and actor. “The Telephone” segment is the first color giallo. It contains a stylish, overtly erotic performance by Michele Mercier coupled with hip interior design and a death phone of fascistic red and black. It is tensely directed. The Drop of Water, based on a tale by Chekhov, is a predictable but entertainingly tawdry ghost story. The Italian and English-dubbed AIP versions differ on the sequence. Undoubtedly Bava’s original is overall superior, but falters in the poor dubbing of Karloff’s voice. The AIP version adds “Thriller” inspired intros, has an inferior score, and dubs the Italian cast, but keeps Karloff’s superb original delivery. The U.K. Arrow Blu-ray release contains both versions, which is preferable—although it’s unfortunate that the two could not be combined into a third “best of both worlds” edition.
1963 proved to be a busy but formidable year for Bava as he also released The Whip and the Body, which has been previously covered here.
Blood and Black Lace (1964) is one of the earliest slashers, filmed in Bava’s trademark giallo style. It has a surprisingly strong narrative as well, and ranks as one of Bava’s most assured works. Brutal for its time, it’s all the more shocking for its contrasting, painterly beauty. Of course, Blood Feast premiered the previous year, but the difference amounts to that of a hack compared to an authentic craftsman. There’s a masked killer in a trench coat with a metal-clawed glove dispatching models at Christiana’s, a haute couture fashion house run by Max (Cameron Mitchell) and Cristina (Eva Bartok). The film opens in woods that could have been culled from “Little Red Riding Hood,” and indeed there will soon be plenty of flowing crimson red. In sharp contrast to the monochromatic palettes we see in contemporary horror, Bava fills his chalice with cadmium hues ranging from reds, oranges, yellows, to blues, purples, and greens, but these aren’t just meaningless dabs. When black or red telephones are picked up, you know it spells doom. Even the mask of the killer is symbolic, resembling a faceless mannequin. Paradoxically decadent and hyper-moralistic, Bava has his cake and eats it too. The fashion world is a façade for infidelity, blackmail, promiscuity, avarice, drug use, back-biting, objectification, and abortion. The most famous set piece is a gargantuan antique store that has mise en scène dripping off the film frame as strobe waves and splashes of mauve signify the carnage to come. Bava milks the lack of color as much as he does his palette: the shadows reflect the mystery at hand. It all leads to an indelible clincher. Only stiff acting from secondary actors mars the film. Although Blood and Black Lace lost money on its initial release, its impact was quickly evident and far-reaching.‘
Our survey of Bava’s career continues next week, beginning with his first Western, The Road to Fort Alamo.