DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA

mario-bava

An eclectic study of cinema should include the oeuvre of Mario Bava. 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 Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Quentin Tarantino (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.

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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).

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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 Georges Franjou’s 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 Boris Karloff and Lionel Atwill 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 Barbara Steele. 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.

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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).

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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.

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Bava co-directed 1959 The Giant of Marathon with Jacques Tourneur (!), 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hercules in the Haunted World finds Bava veering closer to his authentic niche. It’s covered here, in our 1961 triple feature.

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Bava graduated from Greeks to Vikings with Erik the Conqueror (1961), which stars a well-cast and aptly rugged Cameron Mitchell. 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.

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With The Girl Who Knew Too Much (AKA The Evil Eye, 1963) Bava crafts the foundation of Italian giallo. It’s a blatantly obvious homage to 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.

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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.

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“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

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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.

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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, Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 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..

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Bava’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.

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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 Ridley Scott’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.

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Bava took over directing duties from the fired Antonio Roman for the spaghetti western 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.

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That same year, Bava teamed up with Cameron Mitchell 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.

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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 that Melissa’s spirit has returned to exact revenge, driving victims to suicide. Naturally, Eswai rejects and opposes what he sees as local fanatical fears, but soon encounters a witch and the elderly Baroness Graps (Gianna Vivaldi) in her grim mansion. Kill, Baby Kill prefigures elements of The Wicker Man, and Bava proves admirably unhampered by a reduced budget. While the script wouldn’t win any awards for originality, Bava soaks his film in phantasmagoric lighting, innovative camera work (including fierce zoom shots), interiors of genuine dread, illusory landscapes, superlative art direction, and a psychedelic score (by Carlo Rustichelli). Kill, Baby Kill is paced like a frenzied scherzo with chilling imagery (a ghost rocking on a swing set in a cemetery, a white ball, a child’s deathly face pressed against glass, repeated shots of doors and windows, sinuous passages, and combustible colors) that could be described as icy surrealism. The finale is a tangy one, in spite of its being anticipated. Luchino Visconti was one of the film’s impassioned advocates.

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Bava followed one of his best films with his worst, Dr. Goldfoot and The Girl Bombs. This sequel to 1965’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (directed by Norman Taurog) is also one of the most embarrassing moments for star Vincent Price. Like its predecessor, Girl Bombs is an alleged spoof of both James Bond and the AIP Poe films. The sequel is unfathomably worse and is only for the most masochistic fans.

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Bava took a year off after ending 1966 on such a sour note. The break did him well. He returned in 1968 with the delightfully goofy and ultra-stylish Danger: Diabolik. Based on an Italian comic book, it is an homage to Luis Feuillade’s surreal silent serials. Kaleidoscopic sets and kinky costuming make it a cousin of sorts to Barbarella. Unfortunately, it’s also neglected, being a film outside the director’s preferred genre. John Phillip Law plays the master criminal Diabolik with the required gusto. James Bond aficionados will recognize Adolfo Celi from Thunderball in the villainous role of Valmont. Although, Danger: Diabolik did exceptionally well in Europe, American critics and audiences largely ignored it.

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5 Dolls for an August Moon (1970) finds Bava again in the role of replacement director. Given that he dismissed the script as a shabby ripoff of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians,” it’s better than one might expect, due in part to Bava’s trademark humor. Orgasmic color palettes, dazzling compositions, ornate set pieces, the overtly eroticized giallo diva Edwige Fenech, an almost surreal lounge score (Piero Umiliani), and a bizarre finale (rewritten in part by Bava) move the ho-hum mystery along.

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Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) has a reputation of being lesser Bava. It’s a richly stylized variation of the crude Corpse Vanishes (1942) with an impotent Stephen Forsythe filling in for Bela Lugosi and upping the ratio of corpse brides. Bava stamps it with his normal gallows humor and throws in a healthy dose of matricide (shades of Psycho). The recent Kino Blu-ray release significantly improves the film as it crystallizes its greatest strength, which, of course, are the visuals.

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Next, Bava attempted one last spaghetti western with the execrable Roy Colt and Winchester Jack. It’s clearly a low-grade rip-off of George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidand various Sergio Leone westerns. The entire film attempts to be a comedy relief. Slapstick, westerns, and Isa Miranda, as a madame looking left over from Girl Bombs, add up to an ill-advised mix.

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Four Times That Night is an atypical sex comedy, which Bava shot on the quick (and joked that he did it to prove that he was heterosexual). Although it’s not the type of thing Bava is remembered for, it’s probably all one could ask for from a pop art extravaganza posing as frothy 1971 Italian peek-a-boo sex farce (it was released in 1972 stateside). Tall, dark, and handsome Italian stud Brett Halsey, Daniela Giordano as the long-legged girl with a short dress on, scantily clad go-go dancers in a cage, chain mail dresses, ultra chic shower sex, catfighting lesbians, hip swingers, an amusingly fashionable jazz lounge score (Coriolano Gori), and mod set design (with inflatable funky Freudian furniture) add up to stylish kitsch, which, as many reviewers note, models its contrasting-viewpoint rape narrative based on  Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. After the three fantasy versions (one by a binocular-toting doorman telling his very fabricated fantasy to a sleazy milkman), the real low down, from a psychiatrist, is an inevitable let down. Naturally, it employs the director’s penchant for brusque zooms, elegant lensing, and ballsy, kinky humor, which was essential in transforming the melodramatic Rashomon into a sleek, pop-colored sexploitation. Unseen for decades after its release, it became something of a Bava holy grail until it was resurrected on home video in 2000. The opening nudie animation is a hoot, and Giordano excels in the type of role that Edwige Fenech usually filled. For some, it’s the quintessential continental sex comedy.

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With A Bay of Blood (1971, renamed from the better-titled Twitch of the Death Nerve), we again find a Mario Bava 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.

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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 ( Elke Sommer), Peter (Antonio Cantafora), a descendant of the evil Baron Blood ( Joseph Cotten), 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.

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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-konak Telly Savalas (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.

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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  Tarantino’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.

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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  Daria Nicolodi 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 Catherine Deneuve’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.

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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 Tim Burton, Joe Dante, and John Carpenter, 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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About Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker is fine arts painter, filmmaker, and has a masters degree in theology. He currently lives in Portland, oregon with his wife: Aja Rossman-Gray.
This entry was posted in Director Retrospective, Film Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA

  1. Eric Binford says:

    Love Bava! He knew how to use primary colors! IMHO, Rabid Dogs (1974) is his best movie. But, I love most of his work. Great essay on one of cinema’s most underrated filmmakers. 🙂

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