Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Mario Bava is a highly influential director from Italy’s golden age of horror and thankfully Kino Classics is re-releasing his films on Blu-ray for a new generation to appreciate.
If you have never sampled Italian horror from its heyday of the 60s and 70s then you are missing out on some audacious cinema that assaults your senses with a splatterfest of blood, gore, and over the top style. Italian horror is sometimes dismissed -- as so much horror often is -- as merely violent and lurid, and exploiting sexy women as victims. But what Italian masters like Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and others do is to elevate horror to an art and to turn murders into bold set pieces that combine music, imagery, editing, production design, and blood into an intoxicating cinematic experience.
Kino Classics has already remastered Bava's classic “Black Sabbath” starring Barbara Steele and released it on Blu-ray, along with a few other titles, earlier this year. Last week they added “A Bay of Blood” (a.k.a. “Twitch of the Death”) and “Five Dolls for an August Moon” (both from 1971) to the Bava Blu-ray Collection. Both films are mastered in HD from the original 35mm negatives and feature audio commentary by Tim Lucas, author of “Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark.” And that’s cause for celebration.
Bava is often credited as kicking off the Italian giallo, a genre or category of films broadly described as crime thrillers. These films tend to feature gruesome murders, suspense, excessive bloodletting, as well as stylish cinematography and production design.
“A Bay of Blood” has been described as both a giallo and the granddaddy of contemporary slasher films (a bedroom kill that skewers two lovers is duplicated in the first “Friday the 13th” film). The script wastes no time on logic or character development but rather focuses in on the body count. But unlike American slasher films like “Friday the 13th” or “Halloween,” the characters are adults, the tone is wickedly black, and there’s not a single serial killer at the center. Instead we get a group of murderers. “A Bay of Blood” is not only smarter and more stylish than its American counterparts but it’s also fueled by an underlying social commentary – in this case it's a tale of greed set in motion by the murder of a wealthy countess. The film has a distinct sense of class structure, and an ending that is pitch black perfect – delivering something that's both supremely cynical and wickedly funny.
I will mention one spoiler (but only to convey the essence of the film and it only spoils the opening scene). Bava opens with the wheelchair bound countess in her elegant home. She is suddenly attacked and strung up in a noose. We see a black-gloved hand – a classic giallo image – but then we are startled when the murderer himself is abruptly killed. It’s a sly way to acknowledge the genre elements and then undermine them with glee. We may not care for any of the characters – all of whom are motivated by greed and selfish desires – but we do care about how Bava takes each unlikable one out and are delighted that he takes care to make each kill unique.
These gialllos are fueled by a particularly Italian sense of style, something boldly operatic with the blood flowing a very bright and gaudy shade of red. Unlike many American slasher films, Bava's "A Bay of Blood" makes each murder an artistic set piece. Bava delivers 13 portraits of deaths – each different -- in less than 90 minutes. Helping him achieve this end is special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who would later win Oscars for his work on “Alien” (1979) and “E.T.” (1982).
I was familiar with “A Bay of Blood” and had seen it a number of times in the past but was I thrilled to find on this Blu-ray an alternate European release that’s in Italian with English subtitles. Most of these Italian horror films were released in the U.S. in flatly dubbed English so it was a delight to hear the film in Italian for the first time.
"Five Dolls for an August Moon" is a Bava film I had never seen before, perhaps because it never received a U.S. release. The story takes place on an island retreat where a group of friends and business associates gather. One is a scientist who has invented a groundbreaking process that everyone wants to buy. But then people start turning up dead. I have to say that teh film hooked me from the first frame also with a party scene that has one of the grooviest soundtracks to ever grace a horror film. The costumes and production design (including a bedroom with a rotating circular bed) are pretty groovy as well.
“Five Dolls” riffs on Agatha Christie’s suspense novel “And Then There Were None” in which guests on an island get picked off one by one until, well, there are none. But “Five Dolls” still falls into the slasher/giallo mold with its high body count. In this case, as the bodies pile up, they are creepily and humorously wrapped in plastic and stuck in the elegant walk in freezer.
"A Bay of Blood" and "Five Dolls for an August Moon" serves up Bava at his best and they are a welcome addition to any horror fan’s collection.