Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Mario Bava’s Chilling Tales of Terror

Horror is one of the most subjective of film genres; a movie beloved by one fan may not be another’s cup of tea. But it’s always good to have a healthy discussion about the merits or drawbacks of a particular title. As you can probably tell from sampling previous posts on this blog, I have great affection for science-fiction, fantasy & horror, and am always happy to discover a new treasure, and share it with like-minded fans. I recently viewed Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966), from the influential Italian writer-director Mario Bava, who’s best known (along with fellow countryman Dario Argento) for revolutionizing the look & feel of the horror film in the 60s & 70s.

I’ve seen (and enjoyed) some of Bava’s other movies, including the classic Black Sunday (1960), starring Barbara Steele; the dreamlike, eerie Lisa & The Devil (1972), and the three part anthology Black Sabbath (1963), featuring Boris Karloff. His atmospheric, creepy, mist-shrouded tales have inspired many others working in the genre, and he has a host of famous fans, including Tim Burton, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. Kill, Baby, Kill! (a terrible US release title; it’s known in Italy as Operazione Paura, or Operation Fear) is a story of terror, hauntings and the supernatural in a small town. At the turn of the century, a police investigator and a coroner arrive in a small Carpathian village to look into a series of mysterious deaths. The residents aren’t very helpful; they're openly fearful of the cause behind these killings, and some even block their efforts, including the local burgomaster.

The coroner, Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), discovers a gold coin embedded in the heart of one of the victims. He learns that a local witch (Fabienne Dali) is placing the coins there, in order to ward off the vengeful spirit of a little girl who died years before under mysterious circumstances. In a neat twist on a horror film cliche, the witch is one of the heroes. The dead girl’s mother, the eccentric Baroness Graps, lives alone in a decaying villa, and may know more than she’s telling about the killings. As Dr. Eswai’s investigation continues, he’s forced to consider that there may not be a rational explanation for these terrible occurrences. Strange events continue to escalate, and a feeling of terror & evil permeates the area. This rational man of science may have to admit he can’t explain away all the dark events that are occurring.

Bava effectively used images, color, music and mood to enhance a scene, and create tension. He was truly a master of the cinema of dread; his early films are spiritual cousins to the understated tales produced by Val Lewton for RKO in the 1940s, such as Cat People, The Leopard Man & Isle of The Dead.  For example, there’s a great scene in Kill, Baby, Kill! as Dr. Eswai moves through the Baroness’ villa, and appears to continually enter & exit the same room over and over; the slow build up of his fear and disorientation is highly effective. The ghostly girl’s sudden appearances at windows, in rooms, and her (seemingly) innocent laughter & tossing of a ball, presage scary moments in films like The Shining and the Canadian-made ghost story The Changeling, both released in 1980.

The movie is extremely well made, though its power may be somewhat diluted by the many similar themed films that have been produced in the years since its release. It’s also hampered a bit by weak dubbing, which often hurt the imported genre films of this period. The movie could actually be seen as sort of precursor to the Japanese produced “J-horror” genre of films like Ringu (1998) and Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), which often feature horrifying child spirits out for revenge. Kill, Baby, Kill! is recommended for those horror fans who may have heard of Mario Bava, but haven’t had a chance to check out any of his work. I’d also recommend the above mentioned Black Sunday, Black Sabbath & Lisa & The Devil as good starting points for your Bava film festival. But don't stop there....there's more terror to be found in tales like Blood & Black Lace (1965)Planet of the Vampires (1964), Baron Blood (1972)....and many more.

I’ve barely touched upon his genius and artistry here; I could write several columns about Bava, his stylish films, and their overall influence on the genre. Kill, Baby, Kill! and many of Bava's other efforts are available on DVD and Blu-ray, for digital download and on streaming on services like Netflix. If you’re really interested in his life and work, I’d suggest seeking out Tim Lucas’ excellent (and definitive) book on Bava, Mario Bava: All The Colors of the Dark. You may know Tim’s work from the excellent genre magazine Video Watchdog. This highly acclaimed, exhaustive study of Bava, as well as Tim's wonderful magazine devoted to fantastic films, are truly worth seeking out. Here’s a link to the trailers for Kill! Baby Kill! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LmKnI5Cllz0  and Black Sunday http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Q5nV12AgVc.

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