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Patrick R

Mario Bava - Godfather of Italian Horror

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REWATCH RANKING SO FAR (as of 8/19/17)

1. Black Sunday (1960)

2. Kill Baby, Kill! (1966)

3. Black Sabbath (1963)

4. Rabid Dogs (1974)

5. Baron Blood (1972)

6. Lisa and the Devil (1973)

7. Knives of the Avenger (1966)

 

The Godfather of all Italian Horror! Your average clued-in film person has seen a Dario Argento and perhaps even a Lucio Fulci movie but it feels like, outside of horror hounds, people have forgotten Mario Bava. Bava is a strong candidate for greatest horror filmmaker of all time, as well as best cinematographer (he shot most of his own work, often uncredited) of any genre.

 

He mastered black and white gothic horror with the stone classic Black Sunday, he made a slasher movie that Friday the 13th was still ripping off from ten years later back in 1971 before the word "slasher" meant anything. He did sci-fi that inspired Alien, he did pop-art comic book spy thrillers, wacky sex comedies with Vincent Price that were ripped off by Austin Powers, hardnosed crime thrillers,  the giallo film that inspired the rest of them, and even nightmarish Alice in Wonderland dreamscapes

 

I recently listened to a great interview with someone who wrote a 1,100 page biography/critical examination of his work and it timed up with the Gene Siskel Film Center doing a retrospective and now I am in full Bava mania. I hope to see as many of his films as possible over the course of August.

 

Here's the killer opening to Black Sunday, which is the first thing I ever saw that he directed (I saw it as part of a Bravo horror clip show) and inspired me to see much more. So beautiful, haunting and incredibly grisly by the standards of 1960!

 

 

 

"It is I who repudiate you! And in the name of Satan I place a curse upon you! Go ahead! Tie me down to the stake! But you will never escape my hunger, nor that of SATAN!" So awesome. As an a director working with black and white, he really is up there with Bergman.

 

Here's what I've seen so far this month:

Rabid Dogs (1974) - 

 

A grimy, nasty piece of work. Sweat-soaked extreme close-ups for days from this kidnapping thriller that takes place almost entirely in a crowded car. Bava keeps the screws tightening (dig that 12 note escalating organ theme that never quite leaves) and the threat of the worst possible actions you can imagine always present, while maintaining a certain degree of color and dark humor.

 

There's a few 90 degree wide-angle pans in this that absolutely destroyed me, standing out all the more because so much of this is constricted to inside a vehicle, right up in everybody's face. There's a certain emotional shift towards the end that took me completely by surprise and the final twist is a killer, not only because it's incredibly nihilistic but because it clears up some niggling plot problems I had.

 

I spent a lot of this thinking "This is so simple and effective, I can't believe no one's tried to remake it" but of course someone has and it was totally needless. This is quintessential 70's exploitation. Time and place are so important.

 

Lisa and the Devil (1973) - 

A notable step down.  It's an unhinged dream film that sadly has a complete blank slate for a dreamer. Ideally all this strange imagery and mood would be reflecting some kind of psychological mindset on the part of Lisa, but Lisa has no psychology to speak of, passive and hollow to the point of lunacy at times. She's a very dull Alice and Wonderland deserves better.

 

It leaves any scene without a murder or Telly Savalas's satanic smirk lacking a little something. Still very striking looking and admirably unparsable.

 

 

I'm seeing Black Sabbath on the big screen tonight and am very excited. It's easily one of my all-time favorite anthology horror films, and has some of the best looking color in any horror film I've ever seen, including Suspiria.

 

 

Also, psst, it seems like a lot of his movies have been uploaded in full to YouTube if that is your game.

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BLACK SABBATH IS SO GREAT. EVEN BETTER ON THE BIG SCREEN.

 

 

 

AH! SO COOL.

 

It's a three-story anthology horror film hosted by a very cheeky Boris Karloff, assuring us that some of our fellow audience members are vampires.

 

"Il Telefono" is still the weak link, but on the big screen it's still of interest because of Bava's amazing cinematography. Even if nothing really happens, nothing really happens in an absolutely GORGEOUS way. People slowly looming, their faces going in and out of shadow...so great.

 

"I Wurdalak" is still a banger, like a lost Hammer film with all the filler cut out, except much much more beautiful and colorful. One of the great Boris Karloff performances, with a tone and set that feel straight out of an opera. The initial moments of Karloff returning home and no one knowing how to handle it is absolutely chilling, the household of an abusive patriarch.

 

 

"La goccia d'acqua" remains actually truly terrifying, a total fucking nightmare and easily some of the scariest horror of the decade. THAT FACE FLOATING AROUND JESUS. Just watch the video above!

 

The most beautiful color photography of Bava's career, which makes it a shoe-in for most beautiful color photography of all time. And that goofy ending is one of the most endearing things I've ever seen.

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Baron Blood was Mario Bava's follow-up to Bay of Blood (AKA Twitch of the Death Nerve, the greatest horror title ever) though it has very little to do with that film other than being a proto-slasher film with some good moments of violence.

 

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As the above still may imply, Baron Blood is more of the gothic tradition, a film about a wicked torture-baron (is there any other kind of baron?) from the 16th century who is brought to life by his dopey descendant, who is fresh out of college and looking to have some fun by fucking around with seances and black magic incantations.

 

 

The plot is honestly not important, and whenever a scene of exposition comes up you can tell that Mario Bava couldn't be less interested. And there's no shortage of scenes like that. But when the horror kicks off his absolutely beautiful photography elevates this into a memorable horror film. Mario Bava had a distinct style that combined chiaroscuro shadows with garish color gel lighting that can be absolutely stunning when it kicks in. Unfortunately it kicks in far less here than, say, Black Sabbath. But still, look at this!

 

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Pretty great.

 

Tonight I'm seeing my absolute favorite Bava film, Black Sunday, on the big screen and I couldn't be more excited.

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Black Sunday is the greatest gothic horror film of all time, what I always wished Universal's monster movies were like before I developed a taste for them. It's well-paced, gruesome, atmospheric, fevered, and insanely beautiful nightmare of a film, one that practically dares you not to cheer for the fabulously wicked witch played by Barbara Steele.

 

 

The opening (which I linked to the original post) is so astounding, so strong, so perfect that it's kind of a miracle that the film can keep it up past the credits. But it does. Oh oh it does. 

 

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If there's an argument to be made that Mario Bava is one of the best cinematographers of all time, this film is certainly Exhibit A.

 

 

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Knives of the Avenger is a 1966 barbarian/fantasy film that Bava got assigned and shot in about a week. Barbarian movies have never been my thing, and this very low-budget small-scale story is no different. Maybe if there was more of a magic element other than an oracle/witch in the opening scenes. The rest of the film is just sword fights, grappling and a whole lot of knife throwing.

 

 

Weirdly the trailer is in black and white, even though it's a color film. It's color choices are honestly the most interesting thing about it. Everything is orange! The eponymous Avenger has a bizarrely orange head of hair and it seems like every scene there's an orange fire or an orange sunset or an orange article of clothing.

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My words fail me with Kill Baby Kill! It's a mindblowing rainbow nightmare that legitimately freaked me way out in a way I wasn't expecting. Creepy kid movie meets gothic witch movie meets hallucinatory color. I don't know where to begin but everyone should see it.

 

 

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The unfortunate thing about Kill Baby Kill is that a hate rock group has taken the title as it's name so now whenever I search it on the internet a bunch of nazi fuckheads pop up.

 

Oh well. The movie is still amazing.

 

 

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I haven't seen any of these films yet, and very little of giallo or horror genres in general. I bought the Rabid Dogs Blu-Ray when Arrow (UK) had a sale about a year ago, though, so I might watch that some time soon, maybe even tonight. Also very curious to see at least Black Sunday now, and if I like those too, then probably more.

 

[edit] Well, Rabid Dogs was great! "Kidnapped" on the same Blu-Ray should be just a different cut of this film, right?

 

I think I will buy more of Bavas Blu-Rays when Arrow has another sale or something.

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I now saw Black Sunday as well. Found a decent enough torrent of the English version, but will likely get it on Blu-Ray as well, it was that good. I especially liked the beginning of the movie - from the beginning up to the point where the evil rises was maybe one of the best sequences in any horror film ever. I would like to see a better restored version some day.

 

So far I don't exactly agree with him being the best cinematographer (my vote probably would go to Urusevsky), but he is definitely really good and I want to see more.

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Holy shit, Blood and Black Lace is amazing looking! I'm starting to believe that Bava was one of the best cinematographers. However I found the movie wasn't all that suspenseful because the killings became so ordinary and expected, so it doesn't get full marks from me.

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I have seen quite a few of his movies now, and here's my ranking so far:

 

Black Sunday - this is just amazing, it would be pure perfection if it wouldn't be for some strange elements of the second half, pointed out by the audio commentary of Tim Lucas. I also found the second half strange, but couldn't quite place it exactly... Lucas suspects it's because the plot was changed in the middle of shooting, and this theory seems plausible.

 

Rabid Dogs - very intense, well made thriller with a unique twist

 

Blood and Black Lace - amazing color photography, every shot is a masterpiece, but somehow there is no suspense

 

Black Sabbath - kind of the same here, amazing photography, but especially the first story The Telephone is weak in suspense except for a short bit. I think the last one, Drop of Water was it?, is really perfect, though.

 

The Whip and the Body - this could be my favourite except it starts to feel drawn out by the end. I think it has maybe the strongest story among all of these films

 

... I also hope to see Kill, Baby Kill, Lisa and the Devil and maybe more. This makes me wonder how many other amazing directors/cinematographers that I haven't heard of are out there... I didn't know anything about Mario Bava a month ago.

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Then this thread was worth it!

 

I'd also say Planet of the Vampires and Danger Diabolik are must-sees, the former being a very moody sci-fi horror that inspired Alien and that latter being a completely nuts pop-art comic book spy movie. Bay of Blood (AKA Twitch of the Death Nerve) is one of my all-time favorites but mostly because I love slasher films. It doesn't have the atmosphere or striking high-contrast shadows or gel-lighting of some of Bava's best work, but it is a very bleak black comedy with a bunch of fun slasher movie kills that were almost all ripped off in different Friday the 13th sequels.

 

If you feel prepared to dive into a Bava hole forever, Tim Lucas wrote an irresponsibly large 1128 page book about his life and work called All The Colors of the Dark. The hardcover is hundreds of dollars, 12 pounds and almost impossibly unwieldly, but there is a digital version of the book that is only 30 dollars and is multimedia with trailers and videos.

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Hmm... I might consider the book later, although lately I've tended to not finish books, so I think I better finish some first. For some of the other movies, I'm keeping an eye on Amazon UK Blu-Ray prices - unfortunately I hesitated and missed a really good price on Bay of Blood. Or I might get them elsewhere too if I get in Bava mood again.

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OH. MY. GOD. I just saw The Girl Who Knew Too Much. How is Mario Bava so little talked about? In my opinion, this movie is on par with some of Hitchcock's best work. Maybe not exactly as well-focused as Psycho or Rear Window, but close. Next up: Bay of Blood, Planet of the Vampires, and I hope I can find a good copy of Danger: Diabolik.

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Bay of Blood was my first Bava disappointment. It's a mediocre film for me, I just don't see anything interesting in these killings. I guess the plot of Blood and Black Lace wasn't much better, but it made up with incredible atmosphere. In this one even the eponymous bay seemed more like a pond.

 

[edit] Actually I'm warming up to it a bit, and I think I'm calling it above mediocre, but not great, for me personally, because I'm just not a fan of the slasher genre. After watching some of the additional material (which was poor, though) on the Blu-Ray, I'm kind of seeing more what they tried to do with all the different ways of killing and

 

basically everyone being a killer

. But it may be that this kind of black humour is not really for me. Although the two are very very different films, I really disliked Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry and I could draw some parallels to the kind of humour here. Another thing is that I dislike dubbing and I accidentally watched the English version, without realizing that an Italian version was available - all the other Blu-Rays had done the language selection quite differently in the menus and I always picked the Italian versions before.

 

Also, Twitch of the Death Nerve... man, what a title.

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FilmStruck is featuring 11 films of Mario Bava

 

Quote

Be prepared to bath in blood as we feature the work of the infamous Italian filmmaker Mario Bava. A director heralded for the horrors committed on screen, Bava’s predilection for violent subjects is showcased in ALL of the films shown here.

  • Black Sunday
  • Black Sunday (international version)
  • Erik the Conqueror
  • The Evil Eye
  • The Whip and the Body
  • Black Sabbath
  • Planet of the Vampires
  • Kill, Baby, Kill
  • A Bay of Blood
  • Rabid Dogs
  • Shock

I think I will watch Erik the Conqueror, The Evil Eye and Shock there.

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I realized that The Evil Eye is The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

 

Watching Erik the Conqueror now and this is my first real Bava disappointment (after Bay of Blood growing on me somewhat). Clearly Bava is not in his element in the genre of historically themed adventures. This is as generic as can be, with ridiculous costumes, bland story and characters, dialogue as explanation instead of showing things - Somebody on a ship taking part of a battle actually shouts something like "the ships are drifting apart" instead of the camera showing that happening. As if this were not enough, the shots are often badly focused and the entire look has a very low dynamic range at least in the FilmStruck stream.

 

[edit] I have to say that some of the action and battle scenes were quite well done, though, and Bava's skill is still occasionally seen in this movie, but I'm giving it ★★. [for some reason I wanted to explain my rating system here, but it turned out too long - basically 2/5 means nothing special].

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Knives of the Avenger was a similar disappointment for me, but that was a work for hire thing where he came in mid-production so it makes sense it's uninspired. Not sure if the same is true of Erik the Conqueror. Either way, not Bava's strongest genre, it would seem.

 

Shock was a disappointment for me as it's a cheap reheat of Exorcist/Amityville Horror tropes that were popular at the time. But it does have some fun special effects and a cult following, so maybe you'll be into it.

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I just finished watching it. It did make me think of The Exorcist, but it's a long time since I've seen that and I can't remember anything specific. I haven't seen enough horror films of the period to tell how original it was, but I think it might have influenced later movies like The Babadook, and maybe even The Shining? Or am I wrong in thinking that?

 

I kind of liked it, but the dubbing was distracting me, wish I had seen the Italian version. On the other hand, with Erik the Conqueror, it was an additional minus hearing the Italian dialogue - something you never associate with Vikings/The English.

 

BTW. I think I've never been as obsessed with one director so much. I've seen 11 of his movies (if I Vampiri counts) during a month and a half and only 2 have disappointed - Erik and I Vampiri. I can't even pick a favourite... Black Sunday, Kill, Baby, Kill, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, The Whip and the Body, Blood and Black Lace are all amazing. And I expect I will like Danger: Diabolik and Planet of the Vampires also.

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Planet of the Vampires was good!

 

Unexpectedly, I saw another Mario Bava movie yesterday night/this morning when Mubi made Hatchet for the Honeymoon the movie of the day. I think it's kind of low key for Bava and a bit sloppy with how some scenes are staged (who would want to watch a fashion show on a stage like that, where the models are far away and often hidden by columns?). But it's not bad and Bava's skill of playing with light and shadow is still fun to watch.

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Just watched Lisa and the Devil and man, the photography in this is amazing. The DP is Cecilio Paniagua, not Bava himself, but I think he is almost as good. The main difference seems that there's not as much playing with light vs shadow - even where Bava would put half the room in pitch black darkness, everything is brightly lit here - except for a few outside night-time scenes. Unfortunately the movie’s plot is a little dull compared to Bavad best features. The Italian audio on the Blu-Ray somewhat lapses into English - maybe the English cut was longer so they used the extra audio from that. Anyway, I kind of like it, but I understand why it's not considered primary Bava.

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Planet of the Vampires is a film I have been meaning to rewatch for a long time. I remember loving it at the time and it inspired me a lot with my first novel (not through direct influence like The Addiction and Near Dark).

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I now saw Danger: Diabolik and I am not a big fan. It seems great fun on one hand, but has a lot of dumb things in it. For example, exaggerated special effects that feel awkward nowadays. Underdeveloped characters - although this might actually somewhat common to Bava films, this particular film seems like it really needs to do better at motivating the main characters and antagonists. I liked almost all other Bava films I saw so far better than this, including even Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Five Dolls for an August Moon, excluding only Erik the Conqueror.

 

But what I did like was that even this film where women are clearly objectified somewhat, actually the woman (almost the only one in the movie) has some control over, and even saves the male protagonist a couple of times. Although some Bavas movies often show the female body as an object of desire, they never felt sexist to me, because there is usually still a woman who has the ultimate power.

 

Anyway, I think this concludes my Bava streak that started in August, with him (briefly?) taking the place of my second most watched director between Jarmusch and Bergman. I might watch some more of his oeuvre, but I think I've covered most of his more popular work pretty well.

 

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But I probably won't be able to stay away entirely, I might have a Bava addiction. Even if most of the rest of his movies are not from the horror genre where he really excelled, they might still be fun and I'm willing to give them a try - Hercules in the Haunted World, Nebraska Jim, The Wonders of Aladdin, The Venus of Ille, The Road to Fort Alamo, Esther and the King, Caltiki the Immortal Monster, Four Times that Night, Knives of the Avenger, The House of Exorcism (although this one is an inferior version of Lisa and the Devil), Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, Roy Colt and Winchester Jack, etc..

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