January 15, 2012

The Dark Visions of an Italian Master

Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre (2000)

To this day, I'm not sure what to make of the career of cinematographer, director, and all-around dark fantasy auteur Mario Bava. When he was good, he was very, very good, and when he was bad, well…..   On the plus side, Bava and director Ricardo Freda (re)introduced horror and fantasy to the Italian film industry with their groundbreaking Lust of the Vampire (aka I Vampiri; 1956 -- while retaining a Gothic sensibility and visual style, it updates the vampire story to include science in the service of evil.)  On the debit side, Bava pioneered the Giallo genre, which in turn inspired the American slasher film, which in turn degenerated into today's torture porn (e.g., Saw and Hostel).

But let's be positive. Around the same time that Hammer Studios was reinventing Gothic horror with copious amounts of blood in living technicolor, Bava, first as a cinematographer, then as a director, was developing a unique, nightmarish visual style that greatly influenced not only Italian cinema, but European cinema as a whole. Bava is in essence a founding father of "eurohorror."

I don't think it takes away from his greatness to say that Bava's earlier pre-Giallo work stands the test of time, and that his later films, often featuring a tiresome succession of gratuitous, gruesomely "stylish" murders, don't enhance his standing very much (at least in my eyes). If he had only done Black Sunday (La Maschera del Demonio; 1960), he would be worthy of study. Black Sabbath (I Tre Volti della Paura; 1963) confirmed his eccentric genius. And with Planet of the Vampires (Terrore Nello Spazio; 1965), he pulled off the very first Gothic, fog-shrouded, horror-sci-fi space adventure.

Having been a huge Mario Bava fan since first seeing the incredible Black Sabbath back in the '60s (and suffering a sleepless night), it's hard to imagine that the maestro has been, if not exactly forgotten over the years, then certainly not celebrated to the extent that he deserves. For example, the two English language biographies (The Haunted World of Mario Bava, 2003 and Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, 2007) are already collector's items, with copies fetching hundreds of dollars. The literature in general on Bava is relatively sparse considering his unique and stylish contributions to horror and fantasy. (Even if you don't particularly care for his unique visual style, there is still the fact that he practically invented the slasher film, for better or worse.)

Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre attempts to address the injustice by bringing together filmmaker fans such as Tim Burton, Joe Dante and John Carpenter with film writers and scholars to review Bava's rich legacy (and to simply gush over some of the most visually striking work that the horror genre has ever known). Bava, the son of a film effects technician, got an early start in films at the age of 14 as an assistant cameraman. Soon he was working the camera for some high-powered directors: Raoul Walsh, G.W. Pabst, Roberto Rossellini, and Jacques Tourneur. The documentary credits director Ricardo Freda and cinematographer Bava for coming up with the first Italian horror film (at least of the sound era) with the moody, neo-gothic Lust of the Vampire (aka I Vampiri; 1956). Bava finished directing the film for Freda, who reportedly couldn't keep up with the grueling shooting schedule and argued with the producers. In the next several years Bava would finish two more films when the directors walked out: Caltiki, The Undying Monster (1959) and the sword and sandal epic Giant of Marathon (both released in 1959). Thus, a fascinating genre director was fashioned from a very talented cinematographer.

Black Sunday (1960) introduced beautiful and exotic
Barbara Steele to an international audience.
The documentary celebrates a unique filmmaking career and at the same time speculates about what might have been. AIP's legendary Sam Arkoff invited Bava to come to the states, but Mario found the language barrier too daunting. One of those interviewed in the film wonders if he might have attained the status of an Alfred Hitchcock if he'd had the budgets of a "real" Hollywood director. Joe Dante (The Howling, 1981; Gremlins, 1984) also wonders, but ultimately is thankful for a body of work that perhaps could only have come from a leaner, but more richly imaginative, European environment.

More than one commentator remarks on the surreal, dreamlike quality of Bava's work. Tim Burton (Batman, 1989; Sleepy Hollow, 1999; Corpse Bride, 2005) is the most adulatory: "He really captured film as dream." Others point to Bava's influence, some of it unacknowledged, on later, much more expensive projects. Friday the 13th (1980) plays very much like an American remake of Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood, 1971), and Ridley Scott's Alien (1980) lifted the general look and feel, not to mention a whole sequence, from Planet of the Vampires (1965).

Behind all of the dark, macabre dreams was a gentle man with a good sense of humor. Composer Carlo Rustichelli describes Bava as the antithesis of his films, a joyful man. Grandson Fabrizio "Roy" Bava explains his grandfather's choice of subject matter as a penchant for going against the grain: "too many people speak about love, so maybe I [Mario Bava] can put together love and death." Perhaps most touchingly, biographer Tim Lucas relates that the night before filming a scene for Twitch of the Death Nerve involving a beetle pinned to a desk, Bava didn't sleep a wink, because he didn't want to take responsibility for the insect's life.

Despite attempts like this TV documentary, the maestro remains overlooked and undervalued. He was a pioneer and an inventor, and many of his films featured graphic violence that was shocking for the time, but most of all he was a master stylist who knew how to light up the night to reveal surreal, nightmarish landscapes that have the power to haunt even today.

The Mario Bava Essentials (in chronological order):

Lust of the Vampire (I Vampiri; 1956). Italy's first sound horror film ignited the Eurohorror industry, and paved the way for the "demented-scientist-preys-on-innocent-females-to-supply-blood-and/or-facial-grafts-to-ailing/disfigured-benefactors/relatives" subgenre. (Bava completed the directing chores for Ricardo Freda.)

Caltiki the Undying Monster (Caltiki il Mostro Immortale; 1959). A much more graphic and intense Euro version of The Blob (1958). (Bava again stepped in for Freda to complete the film.)

Black Sunday (La Maschera del Demonio; 1960). Bava's first feature length film as a director (not counting the films he completed for others). A masterpiece of shadows and dread. Introduced the beautiful and exotic Barbara Steele to international audiences.

The Evil Eye (La Ragazza che Sapeva Troppo; 1963). A proto-Giallo with American John Saxon in the lead role. In the documentary, Saxon claims he played the role tongue-in-cheek. It's hard to believe he didn't mistake Evil Eye for another film, as this one about a tourist in Rome being targeted by a serial killer is as dark as it gets.

Boris Karloff in "The Wurdalak" segment
of Black Sabbath (1963).
Black Sabbath (I Tre Volti della Paura; 1963). A trio of terror tales from "classic" literature. Two of the three segments, "The Drop of Water" and "The Wurdalak," are masterpieces of dark, mounting dread. "The Wurdalak" features Boris Karloff's best performance since the original Frankenstein.

Blood and Black Lace (Sei Donne per L'Assassino; 1964). I hesitate to include this one due to the graphic violence, but it's style and cinematography make it a Giallo masterpiece (if that's your cup of tea).

Planet of the Vampires (Terrore Nello Spazio; 1965). The one that Ridley Scott ripped off for his hit Alien. An intriguing blend of horror and space opera on a fog-shrouded planet.

Kill Baby, Kill (Operazione Paura; 1966). This one, about a series of mysterious deaths in a remote village, is perhaps the best example of Bava's ability to create disturbing, surreal dreamscapes. The night in Bava's films is at the same time colorful and dreadful. (See the clip below.)

Baron Blood (Gli Orrori del Castello di Norimberga; 1972). Not among Bava's best, but interesting for being sort of a last-gasp effort to create gothic horror at a time of social and artistic upheaval. Joseph Cotton and Elke Sommer also liven up the proceedings.

In Kill Baby, Kill, Bava builds tension and dread with surreal, nightmarish imagery:

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