Super Mario Bava Special!
By Kristin Battestella
What’s not to love for the classic horror viewer when it comes to the stylish scares, tempting thrills, and colorful chills of that giallo master Mario Bava?
Baron Blood – Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane) and Elke Sommer (more on her in a bit) star in this often unloved 1972 tale of family curses, and the mix of centuries old torture, witches, hidden treasure, and vengeance does indeed need some polish and clarification. Is this about the past cruelty, the raised baron, or the contemporary haunted hotel? Why do these clearly out of their depth people go messing with these past horrors anyway? Despite a bright, swanky, jet setting, and cliché start – an American coming back to his spooky ancestral Austrian castle complete with outfitted dungeon – the titular ghost talk, tolling bells, and incantations build suspense. The accents, poor script, and exposition scenes may be tough, but the dark, murderous actions counter the lack of motivation or room to maneuver from the cast. How is the viewer to like them when the resurrected baron is their fault? Thankfully, the country locales and estates look lovely – the partially restored castle is both dreary as needed or lit with just the right ambiance and fog. Perspective kills, scary zooms, angles, shocks, chases, and kids in peril continue the creepy, and the sickening makeup is burned and nasty effective. The wheelchair bound Cotten does add some slick and twisted layers, however, we don’t see him enough to enjoy his nuances. The picture is off on the wrong foot and hampers itself under a muddled story because it doesn’t focus on the eponymous character. This is rougher around the edges than Bava’s usual style, charisma, and mood, granted, yet the look and players remain just watchable enough thanks to an entertaining finale.
A Bay of Blood – Signor Bava directs this 1971 plot of heiresses, real estate, and murder – you know, the usual – with his expected mix of upscale cinematography and unsettling panache. Storms and classical melodies create a sadness to start as nasty deaths disrupt a would be old-time gentility. There’s no dialogue for the first ten minutes, but the silently designed kills are tantalizing nonetheless. Add swanky affairs, alluring secretaries, and skinny dipping run afoul to the zany fortune tellers and partying teens, and all today’s quintessential horror ingredients pack these eighty-four minutes. Pretty outdoor designs give way to blue nighttime hues and noir lit interiors add mood while red accents ominously treat the eye. Eerily framed bodies, hallways, and faux suicide notes add layers as those seventies zooms mirror the characters’ swoons and fears. Although this is more bloody than Bava’s earlier works – which some may like and others may not – the bodies here are normal compared to contemporary bimbos. The gory chase, squeamish squidworks, and nasty hatchet slices are artistically juxtaposed with sunshine, birds chirping, and that Bava delicacy. Of course, the weak script is certainly not perfect, the English audio is too low, the subtitles don’t quite sync, and who is who or double-crossing whom can be very confusing. Thankfully, the inheritance battles, illegitimate mysteries, and one by one eliminations mix well with the sex and violence. The bodies pile up in unique ways, and Friday the 13th certainly copied a kill or two! Some scenes may feel slasher for slasher’s sake, but the stylish, somewhat melancholy tone remains strong. Everyone is fighting over this lovely land whilst also ruining it with ghoulish mayhem, and this deadly mystery is still an exciting grandpappy for the slasher genre.
Black Sabbath – Boris Karloff hosts this 1963 AIP/Italian trilogy production also starring Mark Damon (House of Usher) and Michele Mercier (Angelique, the Marquise of the Angels). ‘A Drop of Water’ leads off the English version here with lovely period charm and freaky questions regarding fright, spiritualism, and the moments immediately before and after death. Seriously, one should never, ever steal from the dearly departed! The great mix of solitary scares, what you don’t see approaching, and the shocker smoke and mirrors effects seal the deal. Hot damn, it got me! Plot two ‘The Telephone’ shines with the then contemporary sixties goodness and lots of suspense. There’s a sexy anticipation, a voyeuristic vibe, and predatory fear adding to the juice. Karloff’s introduction sequences are a lot of fun, too- serious and latently psychedelic in style but humorous at the same time. In his final story, a Russian vampire tale called ‘The Wurdalak’, all the mood, culture, and creepy come across wonderfully. The K’s makeup and approach is so angry and suspicious, even disturbing as familial angles come into play. Completists may go for the alternate Italian version for the full effect of director Mario Bava’s (Black Sunday) vision, but despite studio interference and changes that might upset purists; the scares are loud and clear here.
Black Sunday – We’ve seen other anniversary curses and execution revenge pictures beyond this 1960 black and white so-called Bava directing debut, originally edited and released by AIP stateside without its proper Mask of Satan title. Every cliché is here, complete with a coach breaking down in front of a derelict mansion, scholars turned grave robbers, and a few drops of blood releasing a ghoulish mistake, but we’ve never seen such lurid family history, look a like damsels, and undead doctors like this. The stereotypical hysterias, Old World mysticism, Eastern European staples, and Moldavia vibes not only work, but the opening 17th century fire and brimstone narration is darn effective with excellent wind and thunder to match. Sudden movements add surreal jump scares, but fog, phantom carriages, and creepy forests know when to be still. Artfully, posed scenes are filmed thru branches, shadows, cobwebs, and smoke – almost like a silent movie. Sure, this was probably done to conceal the on the cheap but no less crafty period flair or assorted set flaws, but the design looks damn scary and perfectly atmospheric. I wouldn’t go out alone at night and milk the cow either! Though the English delivery and vocals are very well done, it is unfortunate Barbara Steele (The Pit and the Pendulum) is dubbed. Nonetheless, her dual role as the ingénue princess and the not-so-well-to-do witch is ethereal and captivating – the classic lighting and photography captures her stunning beauty as well as the totally creepy corpse effects and ghouly makeup. Of course, the blood necessities, servants dead in the day but alive at night, bodily possessions, and witch or vampire and Satanist terms are all somehow used wrongfully or interchangeably as needed; yet the science versus occult talk is also well thought out, even ahead of its time. Thankfully, the complete 87 minute European version has all the simmering pace and swelling music intact, and one can see why so many other films followed this model. Why did we forget how to make pictures like this?
Blood and Black Lace – Sweet, jazzy rhythms, classy titles, and a suspicious tone open this 1964 ninety minutes – one of Bava’s earlier saucies full of secret diaries, scandal, drugs, hysterical dames, and murder. Though a little slow to get going thanks to confusing lookalike women, uneven or hampered dubbing, and misogynistic “I don’t believe in permanent, exclusive relationships” two-timing men; the violence here is carefully styled and well filmed whilst also being rough, haphazard, congested, and disturbingly intimate as such horror risque should be. It is chilling and uncomfortable to watch as these women are attacked, abused, and tortured – this is real world scary violence not the fantastic or fake monsters. Ripped garments and blood marring the pretty faces add enough skin and gore suggestions alongside a vivid palette of flashing lights, shadow schemes in multiple colors, and symbolic reds matching the illicit. Rome exteriors, layered décor, and fancy frocks accent the mid-century behind the scenes fashion drama, and delightful editing, interesting camera framing, and multi action intercutting raise the tension. The viewer side eyes these naughty women going off alone at night with obsessed, lusty men, yet it’s fun to suspect as the screams and crazy turns add surprises. Who is this fedora wearing masked killer so desperate to keep the off the time racy hidden? Sure, the lethal planning and police investigation are a little sloppy; the subtitles don’t match and thus send some of the details amiss. However, the deadly vignettes progress into an intriguing mystery rooted in a realistic setting and simmering schemes – making this little thriller a wild, must see precursor to slice and dice horror as we know it.
5 Dolls for an August Moon – A swanky, sunny, coastal start with groovy records, spinning beds, and heady parties full of glitz and glamour quickly leads to bad business deals, isolated island danger, and mysterious science experiments in this 1970 thriller. Jokes about virgin sacrifices and saucy torture make way for kinky seductions, skimpy skin, juicy gold digging dames, and shady millionaires. No price – such as a life or two – is too much for this elusive formula, and smartly used darkness, silhouettes, and flickering lights accent the fine editing and carefully placed zooms. Though perhaps dated, now period flair and colorful Bava style don’t look budget, and early genre staples add panache. From a false scary start to a scantily clad running beauty and a group of people trapped with a high stakes killer, the eighty minute suspense moves quickly as the players fall. Some of the back and forth money double talk might get lost in translation amid the Italian audio and English subtitles and too many Jacks and/or Jacques do make it tough to tell who is who. However, the dead piling up in the freezer adds a touch of humor, and it’s amusing how the money and formula are more important to these people than finding the killer! Interesting lady leaning innuendo, character turnabouts, missing money, and finger-pointing accusations accent the deadly competition, and red herrings lead to some excellent ante ups for the final twenty minutes. No, there isn’t a lot of outright slice and dice scary or gore as may be expected, and calling this horror feels slightly mislabeled. Fortunately, there is a lot of entertaining tension here to match the interconnecting intrigue, and it’s fun to guess who’s behind the ‘formulaic’ foul play.
Hatchet for the Honeymoon – Romantic scoring and stylish red designs over the opening credits of this eighty-eight minute 1970 slasher deflect the killer scares to come, but arty, distorted deaths and dreamlike swirls are edited in time with the eponymous slices, shiny blades, symbolic wedding night blood, and bridal voyeurism. Unique camera shots and frames filmed through the mirrors or the internal fashion photo shoot lenses add to the quality, non herky jerky camera movements, and creepy mannequins, seances, secret rooms, askew sexuality, marital dysfunction, and beautiful roses create heaps of atmosphere along with lovely locales, lush interiors, and a spooky speeding train. The killer narration is also bemusingly honest – this psychopath nonchalantly admits where the tallied and once pretty bodies are buried and how he hates his brow beating but unaware spiritualist wife Laura Betti, also of A Bay of Blood. The struggle against the urge to kill escalates as painful memories and seductive, tempting models help piece together this deadly psyche and the murderous source. Brief mentions of a faltering business and rocky inheritance, however, seem of little importance, and the police investigation feels too weak, even easy. Obviously, there are also perhaps too many motherly roots and Psycho parallels, but strangely, partway through the time here, the murdering mayhem turns into something more paranormal. The audience is intrigued by the killer and the surrounding twistedness, but this seemingly rushed double plot tries to do too much. Thankfully, there is a wacky, whimsical mood and internal wink to the deathly love and saucy subtext without the need for excessive skin or gore. There are some fun spins here to keep the bridal butchery entertaining, and I’m surprised this one seems a little unloved.
Kill, Baby, Kill – From the period start with bloody spikes, evil child laughter, and coffins to he superb crumbling locales, bleak landscapes, and foggy cemetery – Maestro Bava invokes the total gothic formula for a macabre, dreadful mood in this 1966 mystery. Horrendous deaths, a foreign doctor’s arrival, the mysterious baroness on the continent, suspicious townsfolk, village curses, and carriages complete with fearful drivers blossom amid an impeded investigation, reluctant autopsies, scared girls, and scary ladies. Eerie rituals and specters tapping at the window escalate the suspense while a dizzying spiral staircase and carefully placed zooms increase anxiousness – be they fast, hectic ascents or slow, simmering tracking shots. The print would show its age and low-budget, but there are no faded visuals here thanks to the intentionally lush dimension, well-lit design, smart shadows, strategic cobwebs, and spooky chic interiors. The hazy dream sequence isn’t over the top yet remains disturbing alongside an orchestra of scary sounds, cat meows, and tolling bells topping off the atmosphere. While those familiar with the gothic Hammer productions or our recent American in another country versus juvenile phantom trends may find some elements predictable or the expositions convenient; skin suggestions and hints of blood do enough without the need for excessive nudity or gore. The English audio and subtitles are pretty good, too, and the players are quite fine over the fast-moving eighty-three minute duration. Whichever of the assorted distribution titles you find this one under, there’s no reason not to like the creepy mysteries, spooky revelations, paranormal fun, and sorcery shocks here.
Lisa and the Devil – The dubbing is off, the spoken volumes low and the music too loud and over the top for this dreamy, stylized, and somewhat confusing 1974 Bava bent. Subtitles are definitely a must to help explain the mysterious men, macabre apparitions, bizarre guests, and Spanish flair. The maze like city streets, weird statues, cluttered Old World feelings and eerie estate, however, are perfectly atmospheric and match the almost elegant filmmaking. Fresh color and blood add to the scandals and up close, erratic violence while reflections, zooms, and angled camerawork anchor the photography and parallel the multi dimensional players and their affairs, secrets, and crimes. This ensemble is aware of their spooky circumstances, even when the script is uneven with superfluous soliloquies and silence. Wispy flashbacks take too much time to explain all the past connections, yet the tale also seems overlong like a 85 minute supersized anthology segment. The nasty implications will be tough to watch, too, but the unique saucy and peculiar sensuality is smartly obscured what we think we see sex and nudity. Telly Savalas (Kojak) is likewise creepy yet charismatic with the svelte ingénue Elke Sommer, and this crisscrossing mix of Doppelgangers, demons, and the dead is a bizarrely entertaining, twisted little ride.
House of Exorcism – Stay with me now, for this re-edited version of Lisa and the Devil from producer Alfredo Leone adds new possession themes, exorcism footage, and Robert Alda (Rhapsody in Blue) as the titular performing priest in an attempt to mainstream Bava’s Euro-fashioned uncut edition. From different opening titles and the re-christened Mickey Lion aka Leone directing to more blood, violence, and intercut medical scenes, it’s apparent this is not the same film. Sommer’s grunting and demonic scenes are embarrassing and somehow seem more exploitative than her nasty sex scene in Lisa and the Devil. Not that this is a bad performance by Elke, but the crass sex, extra boob shots, and full frontal nudity just seems so classless – sex and priests just don’t feel right then or now. All the exorcism clichés seem trashy, and the language is so unnecessarily foul it’s almost funny: “Where do you come from?” “A cunt, you jerk!” Wtf? “Don’t break my balls, Priest!” Granted, Bava’s tale is confusing, but this Lisa being possessed has nothing to do with the doubly flashback scandals and makes even less sense. Would I have liked to see an exorcism or possession drama from Bava? Sure. Is this it? No. Die-hard fans may like to watch and compare, but otherwise, don’t bother with this rehash.