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The Essential Mario Bava

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One Italian director / cinematographer not only shaped decades of European film-making, and influenced movie makers Martin Scorcese, Tim Burton, and Quentin Tarantino, but also gave the band Black Sabbath their name.

Visual virtuoso Mario Bava pioneered the stylish worlds of Italian horror and science fiction, modeled  the “Giallo” thriller genre, and conceived the modern slasher film. Trained as a painter, his lushly composed work was deeply atmospheric, and not only inspired a wave of European gothic horror and action films, but also established techniques for visual story-telling that we take for granted today.

Learning the ropes by assisting his father, sculptor-turned-cinematographer Eugenio Bava for a number of years, he then became a highly-regarded cinematographer in his own right. He finally secured his place in history by completing the first Italian horror talkie, “I Vampiri,” (1956, released as “Lust of the Vampire” in the U.S.), when the director of record – Riccardo Freda – walked off the job. Delivered on time and under budget, the movie was far from Bava’s best work, much less a great vampire movie on any scale (some would even debate it’s vampy-ness). And yet it was a cultural milestone that sparked a number of exquisitely creepy European horror films. As a direct result, the producers gave him the green light to direct his own work.

Fortune favored the well-prepared. It also favored the public with the stunning Barbara Steele, starring in Bava’s first one-man assault on the cinematic dreamscape: “Black Sunday” (1960; AKA ” The Mask of the Demon,” “House of Fright” and “Revenge of the Vampire”). Though she would go on to loathe the genre that launched her career (while keeping her a type-cast prisoner), Steele’s work was the perfect centerpiece for the director’s debut. “Black Sunday’s” commercial success ensured that Bava’s graphically violent visual style would shape how audiences are shocked and frightened by movies today.

As Bava worked in almost every cinematic genre (including soft core porn), it’s difficult to overstate his impact on popular visual media. Likewise, it’s tough to circumscribe a core of his most influential films. But when it comes to creepiness, gore and gratuitous nudity, here are five that serve as a great introduction to the Master’s work.


Barbara Steele in Black Sunday
Barbara Steele showing a side only Satan could love

A 17th-century Balkan witch (Barbara Steele) and her consort are condemned to gruesome deaths. A couple of centuries later, the witch is accidentally revived, and contrives to use her identical-descendant (also played by Steele), to achieve immortality. In the process, there’s plenty of blood-drinking, mistaken vampire identities, and torch-bearing villagers.

The striking black-and-white visual composition reframed familiar imagery – such as tombs, castles and bleak forests – in wholly new ways. And the violence – while sparse – was shocking for its day. The dialog struggles for narrative coherence. At the same time, Bava was more of a visual storyteller, and “Black Sunday” became the archetype for Italian gothic horror style. Despite being released in the US with terrible dubbing, harsh editing and a notoriously bombastic Les Baxter score, the film still became the highest grossing AFI release to date.


Boris Karloff in Black Sabbath
Dad’s home, and he has a surprise.

One of the great anthology films, “Black Sabath” (1963), features Boris Karloff as not only the master of ceremonies for each of the thee stories, but also as the star of its most startling. In richly dreamy hues of odd, unnatural color, Bava paints each of the tales with uniquely appropriate visual flourishes. Though certainly not terrifying by today’s standards, the combined trilogy was potent enough to inspire a band in 1968 to shift musical directions in dark contrast to the hippie love fest of the era, and change their name from “Earth” to “Black Sabbath.”

Beginning with a 20th century tale of telephone stalking, we share the terror of a woman who’s lover has escaped from prison. Of course, the threatening calls she receives signal a much richer social composition than anger and revenge. And though there’s an ironic twist anyone can see from a mile off, it’s handled deftly.

The second tale, “I Wurdulak”, is a re-telling of Tolstoy’s vampire story, “La Famille du Vourdalak.” Tragic, mean-spirited and gloomy, this is one excellent piece of Eastern European blood-suckery that’s so visually rich it brings nightmares in the middle of the day.

The final act, “The Drop of Water,” may be the most predictable of the three, as it concerns the consequences of  stealing from the dead. And yet the grimly moody stylistics are deeply unsettling.


Evi Marandi
Evi Marandi on the Planet of the Vampires

Well hello there, Ridley Scott. Would you like to borrow a concept or two for “Alien?” How about an interplanetary expedition forced onto a foggy, poisonous planet, where an alien spacecraft and its over-sized pilot were destroyed long ago?” And John Carpenter – would you like to lift the idea of interplanetary possession for your worst movie ever, “Ghosts of Mars?”

Truth be told, H.R. Giger’s thanato-sexual “Alien” design is light-years more chilling than Bava’s original work. Yet,“Planet of Vampires (1965)” is still a visual miracle. Shot on a 99-cent-store budget, it’s a stylistic chiller that won’t scare adrenaline addicts demanding moment-by-moment cat-jumping-out-from-a-closet scares, nor will it unnerve those suckled on the melting fleshy teat of Cronenberg movies. And yet it still answers the age-old question, “would Italy place more emphasis on style than function with space suits?” Hells yes! NASA, get off the catwalk – there’s a new breed of astronaut, and she wears Euro motorcycle leathers. Which, in the end, is more compelling than the plodding storyline and somewhat repetitive action.


Blood and Black Lace Killer
Models are never safe from the fiend of Blood and Black Lace.

A featureless, white-masked specter is killing hot fashion models with a bladed glove. Sounds familiar? Why yes, it would be an utterly derivative composite of most slasher films since Michael Meyers started racking up bodies in Haddonfield, Illinois – were it not for the fact that this visually sumptuous blood-fest came out in 1964. Handed a murder mystery script, Bava de-emphasized the “whodunit” at the center, and focused on stalk-and-slash sequences. Inadvertently, he created a heretofore unknown horror genre.

Bava can’t be commended for the acting he elicits from the cast. It’s kind of not great.  At the same time, the nasty, sadistic visual spectacle appalled audiences on its release, and it was a commercial failure. The movie’s notable achievement is the footprint Bava established for body-count movies, and the dubious archetypal linkage of sexuality with violent punishment. “Blood and Blake Lace,” along with the director’s earlier “The Girl Who Knew Too Much,” are considered the cornerstones of Italy’s “Giallo” film style.


Melissa The Ghost
The spectral Melissa, in Kill Baby Kill.

Strange deaths plague an isolated village in the Carpathian Mountains, while the ghost of a young girl haunts its streets. Autopsies reveal a single chilling consistency: each of the victims has a silver coin embedded in her heart. Witchcraft and revenge are the tools and motivation for this surreal battle of souls in one of the most influential ghost stories ever filmed. Though Bava’s monster child was not the first (“The Bad Seed,” and “Village of the Damned” certainly did the heavy lifting there), the spirit of dead Melissa left a terrifying after-image on popular culture that wouldn’t be eclipsed until “The Omen’s” Damien tricycled into our hearts.

As with all of Bava’s films, light is as important as any cast member. And given the strength of the performances in “Kill Baby Kill,” the visuals are some of Bava’s finest work.

In the end, Bava’s films are propelled by gradual accretions of atmospherics, rather than the compounding gyrations of plot. So his movies may not be the first choice for visual thrill-seekers. But if you’re mesmerized by the drifting, eel-like motion of stylized dread, Mario Bava was the master of the Golden Age of Italian Horror.

– Jack Taylor

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