A Beginner's Guide to Italian Horror: Mario Bava on Blu-ray

A Beginner's Guide to Italian Horror: Mario Bava on Blu-ray

Oct 03, 2012

No matter what it may look like to outsiders, all film fans have gigantic gaps in their knowledge. There’s just not enough time to watch everything. I realize I could be watching Francois Traffaut instead of putting Thor into my Blu-ray player for the fourth time, but I do it anyway, and not without a twinge of guilt. When Kino-Lorber announced the arrival of three Mario Bava Blu-rays, just in time for the Halloween season, I knew it was time to get educated. For horror fans, Bava is considered an undisputed master of the genre. I’d read about the Italian director’s effective use of color, I’d heard that he gave birth to what we know as the giallo, but had I really spent any time exploring his oeuvre? Not really.

Mario Bava, born in 1914, was the son of a fine artist who became a cinematographer, and Bava followed in his father’s footsteps, trying his hand at painting before becoming a cinematographer himself. In his early career as a director of photography, he often took over the directorial duties as well, but received no appropriate credit for that work until 1960’s Black Sunday. During his long career, he worked on the first Italian horror film (Il Vampiri), the first Italian sci-fi film (The Day the Earth Exploded), the first in a series of popular Hercules films, and ushered in the era of the slasher film with giallos like The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Twitch of the Death Nerve. Bava’s career hit some speed bumps in the 1970s (heavy edits, films with no distribution), but those rough spots have had little impact on Bava’s legacy. When he passed in 1980, he was already revered as a major influence on modern horror.

I’d seen exactly one Mario Bava film in its entirety - 1965’s Planet of the Vampires. While a colorful film, it’s not the zippiest sci-fi horror film ever made. I walked away appreciating its influence on films as varied as X-Men and Alien, but I wanted to like it more than I actually did. It wasn’t that Vampires turned me off of Bava’s work forever; it was slow and it put me in no real rush to explore more.

I’d heard of all three of Kino’s Blu-ray releases -- Black Sunday, Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) and Lisa and the Devil (1974) -- but I had no preconceived notions of what to expect. All three films looked vastly different from each other, certainly different from Planet of the Vampires, and I was curious if I’d find elements in them that marked them as the work of the same director.

Black Sunday appears in its original Italian cut and title The Mask of Satan (La Maschera del Demonio), and was the first fully credited feature film of Bava’s career. Filmed in black and white, the film stars Barbara Steele in multiple roles, as an undead witch/vampire and as the innocent beauty Katia. The witch’s grave is disturbed by a doctor and his young assistant, and fully awakened she formulates a plot to swap bodies with the younger Katia so that she can extend her own evil life.

It’s a minor masterpiece of gothic horror, and one that caught me off guard with how effective it still is. An early shot features an executioner hammering a nailed mask directly into someone’s face as pitch-black blood pours out of the holes. An iconic shot of Steele, laying in her tomb with eyes wide and her face dotted with nail holes, will linger long after the film ends. The storytelling is brisk and efficient, and as far as gothic horrors from this time period go (which were mostly from England’s Hammer Films), Black Sunday is actually scary. Bava wrings a lot of atmosphere from the story and the film’s more shocking moments still shock.

I loved Black Sunday. With that rush of excitement still lingering, it could only be downhill for the more existential Lisa and the Devil (an alternate cut, House of Exorcism is also included on Kino’s Blu-ray). Lisa, played by Elke Sommer, is a tourist in Spain who wanders away from her bus and follows a mannequin-toting stranger (Telly Savalas) into a remote mansion where several other folks have sort of accidentally ended up there for the night. Savalas may or may not be the Devil, but, even then, the weirdest presence is the man of the house, Max (played by the insufferably pretty Alessio Orano). When people in the mansion start turning up dead, Bava provides a couple of red herrings before the big reveal.

The film is more in line with what I expect from Italian horror, namely questionable acting amidst weird, dreamlike plotting. There’s one great creep-out centerpiece in Lisa, in which a character is raped in a bed beside a desiccated corpse, but there are also a lot of narrative questions that don’t get answered. As a mood piece, it works on some level, so I can’t dismiss it as a complete failure, but I think it will take a second viewing -- one away from the dark thrills of Black Sunday -- for me to decide where I come down on it.

I’ll need no such second viewing for Bava’s silly Hatchet for the Honeymoon. Touted as a giallo but missing the who-done-it aspect that earmarks those films, it’s really more of a why do it. We know Stephen Forsyth plays the killer from the start of the film; the only mystery is why he’s doing the killing. He plays bridal gown manufacturer John Harrington, who also gets off by stabbing young brides-to-be to death, preferably while they wear their wedding gowns. Harrington knows that his compulsions are linked to some event in his youth, and spends most of the film killing until he can remember what made him kill in the first place.

Hatchet’s dialogue is hilariously overwrought (“My name is John Harrington. I'm 30 years old. I'm a paranoiac. Paranoiac. An enchanting word, so civilized, full of possibilities. The truth is, I am completely mad. The realization which annoys me at first, but is now amusing to me. Quite amusing. Nobody suspects I am a madman.”), but Forsyth is committed to his psycho performance. The highlight of Hatchet is an extended third-act twist, in which he kills his nagging wife (Lauren Betti), but ends up haunted by her persistent ghost for the final third of the film. Is it scary? Not at all, really, and unfortunately the reasons for Harrington’s psychosis are telegraphed very early on.

Turns out, the three films were as different as they seemed. I still have a hard time getting a handle on what makes a Bava film a Bava film. A glance at his filmography shows that this diversity carried over throughout his career. He did horror, sure, but also sword-and-sandal epics, Westerns and espionage films. If I couldn’t find a common thread in Bava’s horror, how could I be expected to find one that ran through his entire career?

Maybe diversity is the common thread? Perhaps Bava was a filmmaker who had no interest in making the same film twice. As different as the Kino releases are, Bava wasn’t lazy with any of them. He seems wholly invested as a storyteller, bringing different styles to the films as their stories dictated. I may have enjoyed Black Sunday the best, but there’s no telling from the filmmaker which one of his babies he loved more -- each one displays his dedication to the craft.

 

(Biographical source: Wikipedia)

Categories: Features, Horror
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