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Horror Film Blog

March 2008

raymac Written by raymac
Mar. 20, 2008 | 3:29 PM





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Bava Fest at the American Cinematheque Week One

As the second weekend of the Mario Bava festival at the Egyptian starts tonight, we have a guest blogger with his excellent review of what has unspooled so far. After reading it, I’m sure that you will be making your way to Hollywood to check out the rest of the series.  I know that I will! - Ray


Bava at the Egyptian Theatre, weekend one by Evan Baker

Last weekend saw the first half of the American Cinematheque’s latest Mario Bava festival, held at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and evocatively titled Mario Bava: Poems of Love and Death. With a total of 17 films screening over 7 double features and one triple feature, this is the most thorough Bava festival ever mounted. Of the films featured in their last Bava retrospective (The Haunted World of Mario Bava), three are not making it into this batch: the minimalist, psychedelically colored “Hercules in the Haunted World”; the impressively mounted Viking epic “Erik the Conqueror”; and the ultimately ineffective Western comedy “Roy Colt and Winchester Jack.” I’m sorry that I haven’t had the chance to see the first two of those titles on the big screen, but I will not shed too many tears over having missed out on “Roy Colt…”

Anyway, enough of what must be missed, and on to my thoughts on what has been screened thus far.

“Black Sunday” (1960) and “Black Sabbath” (1963)

The first night of this festival paired two of the definitive films of the Italian gothic horror genre, both exquisitely beautiful pictorial experiences.

“Black Sunday” was the first film on which Bava was credited as director, although in his capacity as director of photography he had already repeatedly stepped in and completed films abandoned by their nominal directors, in some cases reportedly doing the lion’s share of the work. “Black Sunday,” however, is the first film that is entirely and unmistakably the result of Bava’s narrative sensibilities and directorial craftsmanship.

The print screened should more properly be referred to as “The Mask of Satan,” as “Black Sunday” was the title applied by AIP for their release of a re-edited, re-dubbed, and re-scored version of the picture, but this was the English dub of the original cut created in Italy for international distribution, bearing the title which more accurately translated the Italian “La Maschera del demonio”, and featuring Roberto Nicolosi’s original score.

“Black Sunday” was a very important picture in a number of respects. Its Stateside success instantly established a reputation for Bava (though sadly one which he had a hard time maintaining, despite making many better but less commercially successful movies), it made one of the great horror movie icons of the stunning Barbara Steele, it gave birth to a slew of Italian gothic horrors over the course of the 1960s, and it influenced the Edgar Allen Poe adaptations being made by Roger Corman for AIP. For all of that significance, it’s always been a movie that I liked a great deal but which fell short of its reputation for me.

Seeing it at the Egyptian has completely brought me around. On a screen that large, and in a recently struck print as clear as the one they used, “Black Sunday” is completely engrossing, despite its sometimes awkward narrative structure (it was re-worked so heavily in post-production that editor Mario Serandrei was ultimately granted a screenwriting credit).

For my tastes, black and white films are almost always at their best when they give prominence to deep, rich areas of black, and in this respect, “Black Sunday” excels. It is a movie continually focused on dark apertures: windows facing into the night, trap doors, opened tombs, and hollow eye sockets. Bava’s camera fixates on these paradoxically obscure openings, creating a mixture of allure and trepidation, finding a beauty that enriches the horrors of decayed buildings and ancient corpses.

There are few images in all of cinema as indelibly enchanting and haunting as the hollow stare of the deoculated, spike-scarred Barbara Steele’s unnaturally preserved centuries old corpse. And this iconic image further pays off in the unsettling and graphic image of eyes bubbling up anew from within those twin abysses.

“Black Sunday” was fittingly matched with “Black Sabbath,” Bava’s equally beautiful premier horror film in color (although the earlier color film “Hercules in the Haunted World” had a number of horror elements to it, it was very much of the so-called peplum genre), also released in the United States by AIP, and, rather than creating a new icon of the horror genre, giving one of the genre’s earliest icons, Boris Karloff, one of his final great roles.

Once again, the print that was screened by the Cinematheque should perhaps not properly be referenced by AIP’s title. This was a subtitled print of the film’s Italian release, which bore the title “I Tre volti della paura,” which translates to “The Three Faces of Fear.” AIP re-ordered the sequence of stories in this three-part anthology movie, and had a representative on-set whose notes lead to one segment, “The Telephone,” incorporating some different footage for the US release, and allowing it to tell a wildly different story. The Italian “The Telephone” is essentially a giallo, where the US version of that segment is a ghost story.

Although it is a shame that (as with the current DVD release, which also uses the Italian version of the film) we must be deprived of Boris Karloff’s vocal performance, this was otherwise the preferable way to see “Black Sabbath,” and in a way the dubbing of the role allows one to appreciate all the more so the fantastic physical quality of Karloff’s acting.

In the case of “Black Sabbath,” I went into this screening already entirely convinced of the film’s artistic and narrative wonder, but none-the-less thrilled by the opportunity to see its gorgeous color schemes and compositions projected in 35mm in a worthy venue. As much as I already adored the movie, and despite the less pristine condition of this print, I still walked away with my opinion elevated to yet another level. More than anything else, the sheer size of the image afforded a new appreciation of Ricardo Dominici’s production design and Giorgio Giovannini’s art direction, the latter particularly in the case of the final segment, “A Drop of Water.”

The introduction provided by Karloff for this version of the film is marked by some of Bava’s most extreme use of unmotivated colored lighting, and the impact on such a large scale was quite striking. This indulgence is promptly, and wisely, followed by “The Telephone,” the most stylistically subdued segment. Bava’s collaborations with cameraman Ubaldo Terzano yielded some of the filmmaker’s most graceful camera movements, and in “The Telephone” these are paired with an elegant lighting scheme that brings out the skin tones and stunning features of female leads Michele Mercier and Lidia Alfonsi.

Because of its more naturalistic lighting and design, the wear and tear on the print was most distracting during “The Telephone,” but the colors were still well served, and a little bit of colored lighting became apparent which I had never noticed while watch “Black Sabbath” on television screens.

The second and longest segment, “The Wurdulak,” would stand as one of Bava’s finest films even without the accompaniment of the other chapters, and could well have been expanded into its own feature. Here, Boris Karloff provides one of his most chilling portrayals, aided by perhaps the most beautiful lighting in all of Bava’s cinema. While working with Terzano, Bava’s penchant for primary colors was executed more gracefully than in his later efforts, and here the dominant blues and magentas come together in a deep, rich interplay that, like so many of Bava’s best visuals, conveys both dread and allure.

Bava, a master of in-camera effects techniques, created one of his most seamless for “The Wurdulak,” and that shot is all the more impressive when viewed on a large screen. It is a combination of a set depicting a collection of ruins, which is kept to the far left of the screen, while the middle and right of the frame are filled by a matte painting extending those ruins. When we first see this composition, it is only with actors moving on the real set, but later we are treated to a shot that completely sells the illusion, as Suzy Andersen moves through the ruins at the left while Karloff’s face emerges in the foreground in front of the glass matte.

The final segment, “A Drop of Water,” is one of the most undiluted exercises ever undertaken in horror cinema. It is an ultimately ambiguous narrative, either a ghost story or a story of madness brought on by guilt. There is very little plot, and long stretches play with no dialogue, with the horror brought about almost wholly by eerie, pulsing lights, silence punctuated by everyday sounds amplified to horrifying impact, and Giovannini’s aforementioned art direction, with the sets littered with worn and tattered objects which seem randomly placed in a diegetic sense but play a part in the segment’s magnificently chilling spatial compositions.

The audience at the Egyptian reacted particularly well to the drawn, staring corpse molded for the sequence by Eugenio Bava, father of Mario. This corpse never looks for a moment like a real dead body, but conveys a spectral energy, a vitality, that gives one the sense that, even if it is just a sculpted figure, it might rise or lunge at any moment.

To relieve the astonishing tension of “A Drop of Water,” this cut of the film closes with a comical coda by Karloff, which calls attention to the artifice of the entire affair, and is in a sense one of the clearest signatures that the self-effacing Bava ever put on one of his own pictures. The audience was delighted by the final gag, and it was a perfect way to cap off an otherwise chilling night.

“Five Dolls for an August Moon” (1970) and “Blood and Black Lace” (1964)

The second night of the festival featured a pair of Bava’s gialli, one nearly as influential within that genre as “Black Sunday” had been in the field of gothic horror, the other a pop art oddity with a charm that almost defies description.

“Five Dolls for an August Moon,” the latter of the two films but the first screened, was not a movie Bava particularly wanted to make. Having just been stiffed on a couple of gigs, he was in need of money, and in this case the producers were willing to pay up-front. Bava was hired on a Saturday to begin shooting on the following Monday. He hated the script, and asked for additional time to re-write it, but was denied on the grounds that the cast had already been booked. Bava managed to institute a couple of changes, and those aspects he introduced are the most memorable narrative elements of the movie, but overall he was disinterested in the generic, shallow script, and so he largely ignored the content and focused on a pop-art style that has less in common with his other gialli than with his earlier comic book adaptation “Danger: Diabolik” and his later swinging sex comedy “Four Times That Night.” In fact, in a way Bava’s completely superficial approach to directing the picture is the ideal stylistic representation of the completely superficial nature of the characters around whom the by the numbers murder mystery takes place.

Bava’s collaborations with cinematographer Antonio Rinaldi lack the grace and composure of his earlier works in conjunction with Ubaldo Terzano, and the Bava/Rinaldi pictures are particularly derided by many for their supposed over-use of the zoom lens; “Five Dolls” stands out as an especially zoom-heavy work. I am of the opinion that the team used their zooms, if self-indulgently, still to clear effect. And, in a picture as self-consciously stylized in its visual presentation as “Five Dolls”, the enthusiastic zooming in and out is apiece with the work as a whole.

Bava always photographed faces well, and Five Dolls collects several very interesting countenances for him to explore. Exotically gorgeous Edwige Fenech was just emerging as one of the great sex icons of Italian genre cinema, and Bava certainly takes full advantage of her value as a fetish object, examining her distinctive face and gently curving figure in detail. Equal attention is paid to the stern, wise lines of Maurice Poli’s face, and all of the best moments of character interaction are shared by these two, who play a conniving husband and lusty wife, neither of whom seems to have any deeper emotions to interfere with their simple, material obsessions.

Innocently pretty Ely Galleani, distinguished and warm William Berger, and glaring, boisterous Teodoro Corra all serve as particularly interesting subjects for Bava’s roving camera, as well.

In a work of pop-art cinema, production design is a definitive element, and the mod interiors and swinging sixties outfits are easily as memorable as are any of the performances, their slick style a striking contrast to the natural beauty of the picture’s island locale, with its shimmering sunsets over the ocean and verdant plant-life.

All the visual elements are perfectly complemented by Piero Umiliani’s delightfully light, airy, jazz-influenced score, which features Hammond organ, harpsichord, big band brass, and even the sitar.

The print of “Five Dolls” was fairly new, and looked gorgeous, which is a necessity to truly appreciate a movie so fixated on clean, stylish production design.

By contrast, the print of Bava’s remarkable “Blood and Black Lace” was a well-worn, vintage 16mm copy provided by director and Bava enthusiast Joe Dante. However, the densely saturated quality of good 16mm film is not inappropriate for a movie as drenched in bold, primary colors as “Blood and Black Lace,” which, in its narrative simplicity and utter devotion to the beauty and intensity of its presentation, stands as my favorite of all of Bava’s films.

“Blood and Black Lace,” detailing a series of brutal murders which occur around a Rome fashion house, has much in common with “Five Dolls,” but is a much more personal work for Bava. Thematically, it is one of several Bava films in which greed and superficiality result in the violent deaths of every major character. And, as with “Five Dolls,” it belongs to a sub-genre of the thriller that didn’t particularly interest Bava; in the case of “Five Dolls,” it was the type of body count mystery most notably represented by “Ten Little Indians,” while with “Blood and Black Lace” it was the police procedural mystery which had become popular in Europe through German krimi films, mostly based on or influenced by the writings of Edgar Wallace. However, in this case, Bava was given a relatively free hand in his treatment of the script, which he co-wrote with Marcello Fondato and Giuseppe Barilla. Bava found those police procedural aspects largely uninteresting, and decided instead to devote as much screen time as possible to the victims and the killer, and particularly to elaborate stalk-and-kill sequences.

This decision to emphasize murder set pieces would be one of Bava’s most significant legacies, defining perhaps the most fundamental aspect of the giallo genre that would emerge in the film’s wake, as well as the American slasher genre that would follow in turn. “Halloween,” “Dressed to Kill,” and all of the classic gialli of Dario Argento, along with inestimable other works on both sides of the Atlantic, owe a tremendous debt to Bava for “Blood and Black Lace.”

In addition to giving birth to a new approach to on-screen murder, Bava’s marginalization of the police procedural aspects would define one of the key sources of humor in much of the giallo and later slasher genres. The police become completely ineffectual figures, spouting inaccurate theories to which nobody particularly cares to listen while the plot is carried by the more interesting, intelligent, and resourceful civilians who surround them.

The term “candy colored” has rarely been as accurately applied as when used to describe “Blood and Black Lace,” both in terms of its production design/art direction and its lighting. Within the fashion house, the color red is given a special prominence through a few key props, while the horror set pieces are marked mostly by floods of purple, magenta, and blue light. The rich colors combine with some of Ubaldo Terzano’s most graceful and at times complex camera movements (perhaps most notably a wide shot following the first victim which smoothly and unexpectedly becomes a close-up introducing the killer) to create an instantly recognizable visual style unlike anything else even within the Bava cannon, a blend of the best elements of his chilling gothic horrors and his slick, pop-art contemporary tales.

The score by Carlo Rustichelli also incorporates this blend of styles. The print screened did not have the original opening titles, and so the audience was not treated to either the weird and unforgettable poses of the lead performers over which their names appear in the European version of the picture (as well as on the DVD), but rather to the equally playful animated sequence produced by Rankin Bass for the film’s US release, and thus they also missed out on the first and best use of Rustichelli’s brassy main theme. In contrast to this musical element, Bava insisted on the inclusion of tracks from Rustichelli’s last score for the director, from the gothic murder mystery “The Whip and the Body.” The blending of tawdry nightclub music with pieces more evocative of haunted castles helps the film to maintain its constant twin auras of sex and death.

One becomes most acutely aware of the stylistic elegance of “Blood and Black Lace” when the actual killings periodically occur, because they are strikingly brutal, not just for the time at which the film was made, but even to modern sensibilities. The methods are varied, and the build-up to each is played differently, but always when the moment of murder comes, the audience is forced to face just how ugly death can be, in contrast to the beauty of both the victims and the style of the presentation.

The film’s Italian title, “Sei donne per l’assassino,” which translates as “Six Women for the Murderer,” highlights its fixation on the stalking and killing of the cast of fashion models, while the American title draws greater attention to the blending of elegance and brutality. Both are quite appropriate, and either way, the picture is a masterpiece drawn very much from Bava’s senses of humor, beauty, and horror.

As much as I may hold “Blood and Black Lace” as one of the absolute masterpieces of Bava’s career, I must admit that, of the two films, “Five Dolls for an August Moon” seems to have received the better response from the bulk of the audience at this screening. The primary reason for this can probably be summed up in an observation Brooks Smith recently made to me: “In a double-feature environment, the sillier movie will generally get the better audience response.” I certainly think that “Five Dolls” is a sillier movie than “Blood and Black Lace,” but for the sake of making the observation a little more universal, I might say that the simpler movie will generally get the better response. The shallow scripting and playful but somewhat disinterested direction of “Five Dolls” gives it a tone that is instantly familiar and accessible to anybody verse in the worlds of camp and kitsch cinema. “Blood and Black Lace” is a much more complicated movie thematically and emotionally. It is at once prettier and uglier, more affectionate and yet more brutal towards its characters, more grounded in its narrative and yet more delirious in its style. It is a more intimate movie, offering much more to those who relate to it on an individual level, but it is less of a crowd pleaser.

“Lisa and the Devil” (1973) and “Baron Blood” (1972)

While the earlier pairings in this series were based on thematic, generic, and stylistic similarities between the movies, in this case the relationship is more pragmatic; the earlier produced, more commercial picture’s success allowed for Bava, producer Alfredo Leone, and star Elke Sommer to re-unite for the more esoteric later film, though here they were presented in reverse order.

“Lisa and the Devil” would never have been made were it not for the stateside popularity of AIP’s slightly re-cut and re-scored version of “Baron Blood.” The picture did so well, and Bava and Leone had enjoyed such a good working relationship, that the producer offered his director carte blanche on their next film together. Bava thus set out to realize one of his long-standing dream projects, the oneiric, morbid, sensual visual poem which was initially titled “The Devil and the Dead.”

Sadly, this distinctive, auteurist work would come to represent a major aspect of Bava’s difficulty in maintaining his early success: a fundamental appeal of Bava’s work for his fan base is his blend of generic, popular elements with an art-house sensibility, and such a blend is largely regarded by distributors as box office poison. The elliptical nature of the narrative in “Lisa and the Devil” helped it win high praise among Bava’s fellow artists, but nobody wanted to sink their money into distributing something that would be so alien to casual horror film audiences.

The result of this difficulty was one of several artistic tragedies of Bava’s later years: at producer Alfredo Leone’s insistence, and only partially under Bava’s direction, a completely new framing story was conceived, and huge portions of “Lisa and the Devil” were eliminated so that the remainder could be cut into an awkward “Exorcist” cash-in called “The House of Exorcism.” It was in this form that the picture was distributed, and for years it was in only this form that it could be seen at all.

Fortunately, a print of “Lisa and the Devil” eventually came to light, and subsequently this version has over-taken “The House of Exorcism” in popular awareness. Unfortunately, Bava did not live to see this picture that he loved so much finally find its audience.

“Lisa and the Devil” re-united Bava with his leading lady from “Baron Blood,” the versatile and popular German-born starlet Elke Sommer. Blonde and naturally pleasant Sommer is an atypical figure in Bava’s ouvre, but there’s an intelligence and a dramatic commitment that she brings to her roles that allows her to indulge in the genre’s melodramatic excesses while maintaining a grounding in character and emotion.

In fact, this film is graced by one of Bava’s finest casts. The quirky and charming Devil of the title is played with zest by Telly Savalas, whose trademark Kojak lollipop business was first introduced here. Dark, mysteriously gorgeous Sylva Koscina, with whom Bava had worked (serving in his capacity as director of photography) on Pietro Francisci’s pair of “Hercules” films more than a decade earlier, takes on the role of an unfaithful upper-crust wife, and provides both a fine performance and an interesting contrast to the blonde and big-eyed Sommer. Spanish actor Alessio Orano brings an intense machismo balanced by an underlying pathetic impotent mama’s boy quality to his role as the son of the Countess portrayed with icy authority by Alida Valli, a grande dame of the cinema with whom Bava and Leone had both longed to work.

Bava’s usual cinematographer of the era, Antonio Rinaldi, was absent, replaced at the request of the film’s Spanish investors by Cecilio Paniagua. While Bava’s directorial hand is, as ever, clearly guiding the approach to lighting and camerawork, the style is less grandiose than in most of his pictures, with the especially elaborate camera movements fewer and, like the zooms, used only for very specific, measured psychological effects.

The print screened of “Lisa and the Devil” was very new and in excellent condition, beautifully representing this work of magnificent visual style. Particularly breathtaking was one of Bava’s matte paintings, used near the end of the picture as Lisa, seemingly awakened from her reverie, emerges from the house in which most of the action occurs, and a surreal impact is provided by the fact that everything in frame except for Elke Sommer herself, including house and foliage, is part of the painting.

It was difficult to gauge the audience’s response to the picture. I was as taken with it as ever, but I was also already quite familiar with it. My friend Jon Weichsel found it brilliant and beautiful. During the screening, I heard the voices of a few viewers trying to understand the lyrical, obscure narrative, but it wasn’t clear whether they were intrigued or frustrated.

Much clearer and more direct is the narrative of the film made previously but shown subsequently, the first joining of the Bava-Leone-Sommer triad, “Baron Blood.”

Most modern viewers don’t seem to walk away from “Baron Blood” with especially strong feelings for or against it. It was, as mentioned above, very successful with the matinee crowd at the time of its original release, but it holds a middling position in the favor of most Bava enthusiasts, and is generally dismissed as something of a stylistic backslide and a way to tread water between more meaningful projects.

I quite like “Baron Blood.” Although it is certainly far from Bava applying the full measure of his artistic passion, it is a finely crafted old-fashioned monster movie imbued with an EC comic books color palette and some nice bits of grotesquerie. And it features a few set pieces and moments that rank alongside some of his best work in more broadly acclaimed pictures.

The Stateside success of this picture can be attributed to the fact that it is in many way’s Bava’s most American work. The script, brought to Bava by American producer Alfredo Leone, was the work of American film and television writer Vincent Fotre, is a well-assembled but at no point especially original collection of horror movie tropes, with its young American lead character (played by Spaniard Antonio Cantafora) returning to the “old country” (in this case Austria), staying at an ancient castle, and re-awakening a vicious ancestor who wrought horror centuries ago.

Bava was clearly conscious of the familiar nature of the storyline (familiar in part because of similarities to his own “Black Sunday”), as he included an atypical amount of visual quotation from past horror films, both his own works and American films that had influenced him. In a couple of cases, Leone has specifically stated that certain sequences that included such references were added to the script by Bava.

Among the films that recognizably informed parts of “Baron Blood” are Robert Wise’s “The Haunting,” Jacques Tourneur’s “The Leopard Man,” Andre de Toth’s “House of Wax,” and Bava’s own “Black Sunday” and “Twitch of the Death Nerve.” Bava seems to have been enjoying himself in assembling these sequences, and as a result they are some of the picture’s most entertaining and memorable. On the big screen, sequences like the re-awakening of the Baron (which draws on “The Haunting,” “The Leopard Man,” and “Black Sunday” for its scares) and the Baron’s pursuit of Elke Sommer’s Eva through the village’s empty streets at night (lifted largely from “House of Wax,” as are many traits of the Baron himself) are especially effective, and, if not wholly deep or original, a little chilling and a lot of fun.

The stand-out sequence of the entire picture, and one that especially benefits from being viewed in a pristine print on a large screen, occurs when the main characters have sought the assistance of medium Christina Hoffman, who summons the spirit of Elisabeth Holle, the witch who centuries ago cursed the Baron, and who alone knows how to send him back to Hell. Rada Rassimov plays both the medium and the witch, the latter appearing as a specter arising from the flames of a sacred fire. Several times we are granted a gorgeous composition in which Rassimov as Christina stands in the foreground in close-up, while the flames and Elisabeth Holle’s spirit reside in full-shot in the background. Even in a lesser picture, this sequence alone would make the whole affair worth seeking out on the big screen, though I confess that I speak as someone with a special fascination for movies that feature prophetic, possessed, or psychic women, and for compositions build around stark foreground/background contrasts.

The Baron, one Otto von Kleist, appears at first as a hideously scarred, mute monstrosity, reflecting his physical condition at the moment of his death. He then shape-shifts back and forth between that appearance and a more presentable, unscarred guise, in which form he assumes the name Alfred Becker. The make-up for the Baron’s monstrous visage was created by Carlo Rambaldi, and is a memorable mass of scar tissue and open wounds, made all the more effective because his face is never clearly glimpsed for more than split second at a time, usually in quick flashes of light. In a theater, the impact is heightened because the legitimate change in the light levels of the room when such flashes occur can leave an afterimage of the Baron’s face on the viewer’s retina.

When he appears in his Alfred Becker guise, the role of the Baron is played by Joseph Cotton. Bava and Leone originally sought Vincent Price for the part, but Price passed it up due to his dissatisfaction with the one film he had made with Bava, the almost Universally derided “Doctor Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs.” Certainly, Price was an infinitely more charismatic and memorable screen presence than Cotton, not to mention more skilled at delivering the kind of melodramatic dialogue written for Becker. However, Price’s charm and humor would also have made Becker a less threatening figure. While Cotton handles a few of his early scenes very poorly, once he is allowed to become a more openly menacing figure, the fact that Cotton is not at all a likable personality works to the film’s advantage, because he is quite believable as a really cruel, cold-blooded character, quite capable of the type of despicable tortures and murders attributed to Baron von Kleist.

The other significant on-screen presence in the picture is Elke Sommer, who took the role because she enjoyed exploring a variety of genres and trying out her acting skills in different styles, and she attacks her classical damsel-in-distress role with enthusiasm. Although staying in character and playing scared very well, it seems clear that Sommer is having a great time in the process. Any time that Sommer is in frame, consequently, it is difficult not to have a good time watching “Baron Blood.”

In some ways, the pairing of “Lisa and the Devil” and “Baron Blood” could be said to show off particularly well the range of Bava’s skill, able to bring his dynamic and beautiful visuals to both artsy esoterica and simple matinee fun.

“Kidnapped” (1974) and “Shock” (1977)

Bava’s last two features were brought together for the last night of the first weekend of the festival, and, to my tastes, no other pairing demonstrates such a stark difference in quality, with the first film ranking as one of Bava’s finest achievements, and the second barely worthy of note.

After the disservice done to “Lisa and the Devil” in its transformation into “House of Exorcism,” the fate of Bava’s next project, screened by the Cinematheque in the cut titled “Kidnapped,” must have felt to the 60-year-old director rather like being kicked while he was down. This project was a story that really excited Bava, and which he fought hard to get produced, not only because of his artistic desire to work on it, but also because it was to be a more gritty, realistic film than he had ever directed before, and thus a chance to prove that he still had a place among the new breed of filmmakers whose work was eclipsing his at the box office.

Unfortunately, due to issues involving the death of backer Joe De Blasio during the picture’s editing, and the resultant declaration of bankruptcy by De Blasio’s partner, Roberto Loyola, the camera negatives, rough cut, and demo recordings for the score were all impounded. Bava’s exciting attempt to break into a new kind of filmmaking was taken away from him at this late stage due to circumstances entirely beyond his control, and he would not live to see the film released.

The money was eventually assembled to free the film from its imprisonment, largely through the efforts of lead actress Lea Lander, who had also appeared in “Blood and Black Lace,” and it is now widely available in several different forms. The easiest way to see it is in the recently issued DVD edition from Anchor Bay, which includes two different cuts. One of these is essentially Bava and editor Carlo Reali’s rough-cut, featuring Stelvio Cipriani’s temp score recorded in 1974, and it bears the title “Rabid Dogs.” The “Kidnapped” cut, which was the one screened on Sunday, was assembled from the rough in cut in 2002 under the supervision of producer Alfredo Leone, and features cleaned-up editing, additional footage directed by Lamberto Bava, a different Italian dub track, and a new musical score by the same composer.

Obviously, neither version represents exactly what would have been seen had post-production been completed under Bava’s supervision. My preference is for the “Rabid Dogs” cut. In some ways, the roughness of the assembly, the battered and grainy image quality, and the sometimes slow pacing contribute to the harsh, gritty quality of the movie, and a few bits of effective business have been lost. Also, Cipriani’s score-in-progress from 1974 feels better suited to the picture than what he provided in 2002. Finally, and most importantly, the new material directed by the younger Bava detracts from the intensity of the story while adding nothing of significance, potentially even telegraphing a major story element far in advance of its revelation.

That said, the more polished “Kidnapped” gives more evidence of just how good the finished film would have looked, sounded, and played to an audience. Since this version was so recently completed, the print shown was in excellent condition, and it looked wonderful on the big screen.

“Kidnapped” is set largely within a single car, where a group of escaping thieves hold hostage a driver, a sick child, and an innocent woman. Bava’s visual skills are applied differently here than in any of his other pictures as he makes the most of his limited settings, using tight framings that still mostly manage to contain multiple subjects, emphasizing a sense of claustrophobia and heat. The limitations of the environment also require this to be far more dialogue driven than most of Bava’s other pictures. In all, it becomes his most performance-driven piece, and fortunately the performances are strong enough to carry the movie.

Riccardo Cucciola, as the driver, shares most of his interactions with Maurice Poli, who plays the gang leader addressed as Dottore (Doctor). Each of them has a sense of restrained intensity, anchoring the dramatic tone as their co-stars play more to their emotional peaks. As the story goes on, they both convey with very slight changes to their demeanor the way that the situation is steadily wearing them down and pushing them to more frantic heights, without ever giving way to full-blown melodramatics. One particularly well-played element is the respect that Poli’s character gradually develops for Cucciola’s.

Aldo Caponi, as the knife wielding Bisturi (Blade), and Luigi Montefiori, as the hulking Trentadue (Thirty-two, a nickname representing a measurement in centimeters which equates to 12.6 inches), both demonstrate certain widely recognized traits of psychopathology, though here they are manifesting in two very different personality types. The characters have an interesting and very intense bond, and their ability to bring out the worst in each other creates a whole even more terrifying than the sum of its individually frightening parts. Caponi is particularly involving as the more socialized and rational of the pair, in large part because of his apparent devotion to his partner.

The two madmen spend the lion’s share of their screen time tormenting Lea Lander’s significantly named innocent, Maria. Early on, Maria has little more to do than sweat and panic, but, as she begins to adapt to the situation and is given care of the sick child, Tino, she manages to become outwardly more composed, and perhaps somewhat numb, without ever sacrificing the sense of utter horror lurking just beneath the surface.

Seated in the same row as my friends and I during the screening was the actress who played the smaller role of a second Maria who winds up briefly in the car with the group, unaware of the situation into which she’s stumbled and getting on everyone’s nerves with her constant chatter. Although I didn’t notice much, Justin Bloch, who was sitting beside me, noted that the obnoxious chatter carried over into her behavior while watching the movie. After the screening was over, we spoke to her for a few minutes, learning that this was the first time she’d ever seen the film (we told her that it was available through any major on-line DVD retailer), and she did not care for it, finding it lacking in comic relief. She also related an anecdote about working with Bava, which I will refrain from repeating here as it gives away a plot point in the movie, and I would be loathe to reveal the details to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that there is some difference of opinion among Bava scholars and those associated with the production about the name of the actress who played the role, and so I did not think to ask her what her name actually is. However, the fact that she was clearly both alive and an American supports Lea Lander’s assertion that the role was played by Erika Dario, and not, as author Tim Lucas asserts in his book Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, by the late Italian actress Marisa Fabbri.

That lack of comic relief, or any kind of major tonal shift, is key to making “Kidnapped” live up to its dramatic and troubling concept, but makes it an ill fit for most mainstream audiences.

The companion feature at this screening, “Shock,” is similarly lacking in tonal shifts, and its themes and subject matter are equally potentially off-putting to many audiences. This story of a haunted house and the spectral possession of a child, the final feature film credited to Bava, and actually conceived and in large part directed by his son Lamberto, deals with murder, deceit, madness, suicide, and incest.

The print screened dated back to the film’s original US theatrical release, bearing the title “Beyond the Door II,” which was attached to try to disguise it as a sequel to Ovidio Assonitis’s “Exorcist” rip-off “Beyond the Door,” and it showed its age, but not too horribly. The picture itself, though, is nothing special to behold. Without the elder Bava’s direct control (he reportedly left the set most days after the initial set-up had been done in order to afford son and long-time assistant director Lamberto the opportunity to helm scenes himself), cinematographer Alberto Spagnoli delivered the most run-of-the-mill lighting and compositions ever to grace a film credited to the director. And rarely has a haunted house film done so little to give its central location a sense of significance or atmosphere. There are a few interesting set-ups that show Mario Bava’s input, but they are too far-between.

This functional but unimpressive visual style would be more forgivable if the script were any more effective. Unfortunately, some well-conceived story point and character dynamics are simply not explored to their full potential. Much of the film drifts along with no sense of narrative progression, character development, or intrigue. The greatest impact comes when the film veers into the realm of the incestuous or the matricidal, but these, like all of the film’s themes, are not dealt with in any real depth.

To the film’s credit are a couple of clever trick shots. One of these involves lead actress Daria Nicolodi lying in bed, experiencing orgasmic sensations as she is overcome by a ghostly energy which causes her hair to rise up from the pillow. Tim Lucas’s Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark includes a rather funny illustration drawn by Bava to demonstrate how this effect would be achieved. It is a basic revolving room gag, with the camera strapped in place on the bed, which rotates 360 degrees during the course of the shot. Simple tricks achieved with extreme proficiency were one of Bava’s best skills, and this one is further sold by Nicolodi’s enraptured performance.

Another simple and totally effective trick has young actor David Collin Jr. running toward the high-mounted camera, so that as he comes close he passes below the frame line, at which point Nicola Salerno, as the possessing ghost, pops up from below the frame just where Collin has disappeared. It’s a great scare, but, like the revolving bed trick, it’s a shame that it didn’t see use in the context of a more engaging film.

It is also a shame that such poor scripting and visuals accompany one of Daria Nicolodi’s most committed, effective performances. Even when nothing else in the movie is working, Nicolodi, familiar to American audiences largely for her work in the films of her then-lover Dario Argento, always maintains the intensity of her troubled character.

Like so many children in movies, David Collin Jr. is too obviously a couple of years older than the character he is playing. His performance isn’t bad, nor even is the English dubbing, an element that is often especially problematic in roles played by children.

“Shock” is not a terrible movie, but it is in so many respects mediocre that its inclusion in this festival in place of one of the senior Bava’s earlier films makes sense only because of its sequential relationship to “Kidnapped,” specifically as it denotes the passing of the torch from one generation to the next following the father’s failed attempt to claim a place for himself in an industry dominated by directors of his son’s age.

That wraps up my thoughts on the first weekend’s screenings in this festival. Next week, we will be treated to the following selections:

Thursday: The adventure-filled, hyper-stylized comic book adaptation “Danger: Diabolik,” with its unforgettable Ennio Morricone score, plays alongside colorful, similarly stylized “Planet of the Vampires.”

Friday: Bava’s prototypical slasher picture with memorable gore effects by Carlo Rambaldi, “Bay of Blood,” is paired with the strange sex comedy “Four Times That Night.”

Saturday: A couple of Bava’s somber, hypnotic gothic horrors with misleadingly lurid titles, “The Whip and the Body,” dominated by intense colored lighting and a classical score by Carlo Rustichelli, and the surreal yet understated ghost story “Kill Baby, Kill!” play together.

Sunday: The final night of the festival is graced with a triple feature, opening with the gorgeous and funny black and white Hitchcockian thriller “The Girl Who Knew Too Much,” followed by delirious and aptly titled “Hatchet for the Honeymoon,” and closing with “Caltiki, the Immortal Monster,” an entry in the giant blob subgenre which was abandoned by credited director Riccardo Freda to be completed by cinematographer Bava.


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Karie (site owner) Written by Karie (site owner)
Mar. 1, 2008 | 12:21 PM
Horror Category





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Mario Bava Film Series

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Attention horror fans!  Don’t miss the upcoming Mario Bava series at the Egyptian Theatre March 13th - 23rd.  Some of the titles featured in the series will include:

The Uncut European Version of BLACK SUNDAY (LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO)

FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON (5 BAMBOLE PER LA LUNA D’AGOSTO)

LISA AND THE DEVIL, SHOCK (aka BEYOND THE DOOR II)

DANGER: DIABOLIK

PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (TERRORE NELLO SPAZIO)

KILL, BABY, KILL (OPERAZIONE PAURA)

CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (CALTIKI - IL MOSTRO IMMORTALE)

and much much more!!

The Cinematheque will also welcome actress Elke Sommer in person for the double feature of LISA AND THE DEVIL and BARON BLOOD. And look for directors (and Bava fans) Joe Dante (THE HOWLING; HBO’s “Masters of Horror”), Eli Roth (CABIN FEVER; HOSTEL) and Ernest Dickerson (NEVER DIE ALONE; BONES) to introduce some of the double features! The Cinematheque will also be giving away Bava DVDs at some of the screenings as well as a copy if Tim Lucas’ 1000 + pages, gorgeously full-color-illustrated All the Colors of the Dark !

If you love horror, this is an event not to be missed!

Stay tuned for more details here at FilmRadar.com


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