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 House of Exorcism. The result was a vastly inferior disaster that flopped anyway. The original Lisa And The Devil was not seen for years, but thankfully  it was restored and released (together with The House of Exorcism edit) on a Kino Blu-ray. The film stars a slightly pre-Kojak (the premiere for that television series aired later the same year) and Elke Sommer. Tourist Lisa (Sommer) gets separated from her group in a strange Spanish town. Lost, she encounters the devil (Savalas) in the person of a lollipop-sucking butler. There’s no real plot beyond that, and the movie is already covered here. in her mod mini, Sommer is merely decorative, but she does get an excellently-filmed trademark Bava chase scene. As for the acting, it’s Savalas’ film, but really this is something of a Euro arthouse spook show, rich in visual metaphors and, as expected, lush, dream-like imagery. Although the pacing is glacial, it’s refreshing to find Bava honestly declaring no interest in narrative.

After a freak accident left one of its producers dead, Bava’s Rabid Dogs (1974) became embroiled in various legal battles and was not released until well over a decade after the director’s death in1980 (he never saw the finished edit). Son Lamberto re-edited Rabid Dogs with a new title, Kidnapped, and again proved a lesser director than papa. After Kino only released Kidnapped on Blu-ray, Shout! Factory stepped up to the plate in 2016 to put both versions together on Blu-ray. Dogs is a grindhouse crime melodrama about burglars taking hostages, including Maria (Lea Lander), whom the the thugs psychologically torment. Tautly nihilistic and claustrophobic (taking place largely in a getaway car), its ending is both brutal and unexpected. Apparently,  it was an influence on ‘s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and shares that film’s cynicism. Although it lacks Bava’s expressionistic touch (although it does retain his preoccupation with religion), some deem this stylistic departure to be a neglected masterpiece, but its legal hassles sent a psychologically ravaged Bava into a four-year semi-retirement.

1977’s Shock (AKA Beyond The Door II) proved to be Bava’s swan song. Allegedly, it’s a sequel to  Beyond the Door (1972), but actually has no connection to the earlier film apart from the casting of David Colin Jr, who plays an entirely different character here. Shock is a psychological ghost story, which requires a strong lead actress. Fortunately, Bava has that in as Dora. Dora believes that her abusive late husband has possessed her son, Marco (Colin), and is haunting her out of revenge. Her erotic hallucinations and descent into insanity bear a relationship to ‘s Carol from Repulsion and prefigures The Entity (1982). The portrayal of Marco is unsettling, and shockingly includes a scene of latent sexuality involving mother and son. Some sources claim the the film was largely directed by Lamberto (who co-wrote the script), and although Shock has a few random vignettes that feel stamped with Mario’s style, it’s an expectedly uneven film.

Baron Blood

Bava’s death received little fanfare in 1980, but by 2000 the reputation of “The Italian Hitchcock,” as he was sometimes called, had escalated enough to see the release of a television documentary, “Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre.” The documentary includes interviews with filmmakers like , Joe Dante, and , all of whom gush over Bava and acknowledge his considerable influence on their work. As expected, Lamberto Bava offers valuable insight, but his own career proved to be a pallid imitation of his father’s. The documentary is available on DVD. Of more value is the recent remastering of Bava’s work in multiple Blu-ray releases by Kino and Anchor Bay.

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