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Dissecting Director Mario Bava!

08.19.2014by: Jake Dee

"In a horror film, lighting is 70% of the effectiveness. It's essential in creating the atmosphere."


It's been a long time coming, but what better way to celebrate the lifework of the unofficial Godfather of Italian horror cinema than by waiting until the man's would-be centennial! That's right y'all, the legendary Mario Bava would have turned 100 years old this past July 31st. So first off, happy belated hundredth to the late great! Secondly, while his creative legacy is thankfully survived by son Lamberto (DEMONS yo!), papa Bava's inimitable impact on the international horror scene will surely endure through his widely varied filmmaking oeuvre. Here's a dude who started as a cinematographer on mostly documentaries, eventually finding his own twisted style and warped voice upon writing and directing his own scripts, largely exploitation g enre joints. Killer ones at that!

As a result, shite like BLACK SUNDAY, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, THE WHIP AND THE BODY, BLACK SABBATH, THE EVIL EYE, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, KILL BABY KILL, HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON, A BAY OF BLOOD, BARON BLOOD, LISA AND THE DEVIL, RABID DOGS, SHOCK - and many many others - have become, if not progenitive templates, downright classics! Trailblazers! There's simply no other way to put it.

So...real shite, we can't think of a better way to honor Mr. Bava than by lending a dose of his own medicine. So Mario, excuse us while exhume your rotten corpse, toss your old bones on the slab and give you a taste of the old Dissection blade! We love you maestro, but the time is nigh!!!



Since it's not only his first credited directorial feature, but also his first real foray into the world of the macabre...it's hard not to award Bava's 1960 opus BLACK SUNDAY as, if not his best, his most influential. Real shite, I can think of only two other films as equally important to the modern horror genre than BLACK SUNDAY, and they both happen to be made in 1960 as well. The first is Hitchcock's PSYCHO (no argument there, right?) and the other is Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM. Between these three international films (USA, England, Italy) - the shape, look, tone, demeanor and depraved subject matter of the modern day horror film was born!

But back to BLACK SUNDAY. What a picture! Not only did it catapult the great Barbara Steele as the crowning scream queen of her generation, the flick instantly established Bava's twisted sense of the perverse, introducing us to his trademark visual stylings and off-the-wall atmosphere. If you've not seen it, BLACK SUNDAY follows a zombified witch and her trusty servant who rise from the grave in order to serve bloody revenge upon the young woman who's taken her place. Of course, the girl's brother and a fetching doctor have other ideas! Again, for 1960, you won't find a more disturbing horror joint. Bava wasn't hampered by production code strictures of Hollywood, he could actually show a level of gore his aforementioned counterparts could not (Hitch and Powell). Not wall-to-wall gore, mind you, but when it strikes, it strikes graphically and gruesomely. Shite. Is. Bad. Ass.


Thing is, how can one bring up BLACK SUNDAY and not follow up with BLACK SABBATH? Has to be done! You see, Bava's anthological sequel of sorts, released in 1963, not only directly inspired the name of Ozzy's heavy-metal band of the same name, it's also said to be a major influence on Tarantino's PULP FICTION. Care for more BLACK SABBATH trivia? How about this. It's the only flick in which the great Boris Karloff (FRANKENSTEIN) actually plays a vampire. The only one! Moreover, the thrilling phone-call template we've seen in WHEN A STRANGER CALLS and BLACK CHRISTMAS...yup, deftly executed by Bava in the first stint of BLACK SABBATH. Or how about 17th century vampires ravaging the Russian countryside? Yup, Bava in BLACK SABBATH! Or how about all you fans of THE KNICK, Soderbergh's new medical drama. Well, in BLACK SABBATH, Bava too essayed the 1900-era medical field, as a nurse is forced to make a life-altering decision when prepping the corpse of a séance-dying psychic. In typical Bava fashion, the maestro was one step ahead!



For all the inarguable classics, Bava's no stranger to making a bad film or two. Sure I could cite non-horror fare like THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN, ERIK THE CONQUEROR or ROY COLT AND WINCHESTER JACK - but even in semi-horror joints like HERCULES IN A HAUNTED WORLD or KNIVES OF THE AVENGER, Bava isn't close to being at his cinematic best. Or hell, did you catch one of his last films called FOUR TIMES THAT NIGHT? Yeah, well it hardly evokes the spirit of Bava at all, at least the one we've come to know and love. Instead it's a ROSHOMON inspired, multi-POV sex-farce that reenacts the same storyline from four different perspectives. Sure there's titillation, but where's the full-blown sadism and unremitting grue? This shite was made in 1972 after-all, the same year as BARON BLOOD and a year after TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE. Inexcusable!

And speaking of heinous, are you guys and ghouls familiar with the story of Bava's 1975 film HOUSE OF THE EXORCISM? Get this. As a way to capitalize on the success of William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST, producers of Bava's 1973 film LISA AND THE DEVIL basically took that film, recut with newly shot, overly-cheesy scenes of Linda Blair-like exorcisms, then released the film in America as a totally new film. What a ripoff! Literally and figuratively! Not only that, Bava's name was replaced with one of his aliases, Mickey Lion, so not to confuse the two films. Yeah, as if Telly Savalas is that incognito. Please!



For Bava, it all starts with the detail of lighting the frame. As a longtime cinematographer, a trained painter before that, it's no secret how important the camera itself is to Bava's movies, and the meticulous framing therein. His trademark style and visual flare - canvassed with a rainbow of psychedelic colors and gaudily ornate set-pieces - has become a staple of not just Italian horror, but genre aesthetic everywhere. And for decades! My man creates creepy ambience and foreboding atmosphere like no other!

Specifically, the use of the camera zoom - slow and fast - had become a reliant trick up Bava's sleeve for decades. Zooming into or away from a character's close-up during a suspense sequence, for example, is a frequent feature to be found in many of his flicks. It's a way to create a jarring rhythm and pace that instantly stirs the viewer. Bava understood this and executed it like true maestro he is! A boss!

But that's not the only recurring penchant found in Bava's flicks. Did you ever notice Mario's affinity for airplanes? Holy hell! In no less than four of his directorial joints - THE EVIL EYE, BARON BLOOD, LISA AND THE DEVIL and SHOCK - each film featured a scene on an airplane that either established or concluded its respective storyline. Not sure what that's about other than a way of physically exiting the set of the story, thereby making a clean-break ending so to speak. Whatever the case, fascinating recurrence nonetheless.



Based alone on the sheer decades of unavailability, RABID DOGS (1974) has to be Bava's most unheralded film to date. I mean, here's a picture shot in 1974, yet never released until 23 years later in 1997. You see, the film company that produced the flick went bankrupt in '74, and as a result, the courts seized the print indefinitely. 23 years of succeeding legal battles and BAM...RABID DOGS finally saw the light of day. And boy are we glad it did...it's truly Bava's tour-de-force of claustrophobic suspense!

With the intimacy of a one-act, six-character stage-play - the action in RABID DOGS takes place mostly inside of a moving car. The flick chronicles the aftermath of a botched heist, whereupon three wretched criminals take a man, woman and child hostage as they try to flee the streets of Rome. Simple set-up, right? Well, it's all in the hair-raising, spine-tingling execution. Bava's inescapable torture scenes inside the car will catapult you to the edge of your seat, where you'll edgily rock back and forth in a panicked sweat for the duration of the runtime. No bullshit!

Interestingly, RABID DOGS was actually incomplete when Bava died in 1980. His son Lamberto and producer Alfredo Leone shot new scenes, changed the ending and added new music in 1996, and released a different version of the flick called KIDNAPPED. Do yourself a favor and avoid that version like the plague and find the original Bava version, shot in 1974 (both are available on DVD). Also, it's worth noting how low-budget RABID DOGS was. After two days of shooting, Bava fired DP Emilio Varriano and shot the flick himself. Moreover, the flick was made during a low-ebb of Bava's career, and he really only took the job to prove to producers that he could make just as good a police-picture as his contemporaries. Go see the flick, he proved he can do it BETTER!



Unless he rises from the grave like a putrid-undead-ghoul from one of his movies, there ain't going to be a next project for Mr. Bava. Sorry to say dude's been in the dirt for 34 f*cking years! So, for all you youngsters and uninitiated tyros, we're highlighting more Bava classics. You cool with that? It's a goddamn commemorative centennial for Christ's sake!

Excuse the ire, but I'm mistily nostalgic for a time when flicks like HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON and A BAY OF BLOOD were made. Yup, 1970 and 71. You seen these flicks? You ought to ASAP if not (I do believe, like many Bava flicks, they're currently on Netflix). They not only presage the run of great 70s American slashers like BLACK CHRISTMAS and HALLOWEEN, they more or less refine the slasher template that Bava himself laid out in earlier Giallo-forming works like BLOOD AND BLACK LACE or KILL BABY, KILL. It's like he distilled the subgenre down to his own scientific formula with these two late-career masterstrokes. A formula that's forever been bitten, chewed-up, digested and, more times than not, shat out as derivative bilge (to be fair there has been some flavorful regurgitation, a la Carpenter, Clark, Craven and the like). Let's get specific!


HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON goes like this. In order to unlock the repressed memory of who murdered his mother, a maniacal fashion-designer and bridal shop owner begins balefully butchering a host of brides on their wedding day. And he does so with his trusty meat clever! How dope is that set-up, which Bava is uncredited for co-writing. He also shot the film himself, not at all uncommon for him, which only lends more to the sheer intent and pure authorship the man had over the film. Throw in the profligate set-pieces, extreme gore and wonderfully watchable pacing...here's one HONEYMOON you should afford to take annually!

As for A BAY OF BLOOD? Just ask FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 director Steve Miner what he thought about it? Because he straight-up jacked, almost shot-for-shot, the mattress double-impalement scene featured in A BAY OF BLOOD, aka TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE. Grand larceny! But that's not the only reason the flick is unquestionably Bava's slasher-swan-song, hitting every note and striking every virtuosic chord on the sub-generic scale. I'm talking a breezy tempo, dopily drawn characters, ample nudity, an impressive body-count, and of course, delicious-carnage-candy to feast upon like little Augustus Gloop in the Wonka factory. I'm talking diabetic gore! That much Karo syrup! Seriously, shame on you if you've not seen A BAY OF BLOOD...it's a true slasher staple!



The word legendary doesn't even begin to describe what Mario Bava has contributed to the horror film genre. Hell, even the term Godfather somehow feels reductive, doesn't it?! It's true, mere words can't fully express how instrumental Bava's work has proven to be over the course of his storied 40-year career, as he genuinely helped to define the overall scope of what a horror picture could be. Without Bava, where's Fulci? Argento? Then overseas to Carpenter? Craven? Cunningham? Clark? Movies like BLACK SUNDAY, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, THE WHIP AND THE BODY, BLACK SABBATH, THE EVIL EYE, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, KILL BABY KILL, HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON, A BAY OF BLOOD, BARON BLOOD, LISA AND THE DEVIL, RABID DOGS, SHOCK and tons of others - have fully informed contemporary filmmakers of what the standard of horror could and should be. Not just in the trademark visual panache Bava favored and excelled with - the bravura lighting-schemes and whatnot - but in the sheer authorship as well. Bava wrote, directed and shot most of his own flicks, a feat that very few filmmakers today can even attempt (Soderbergh comes to mind, though he stopped writing a long time ago). With that responsibility comes a singular vision, and without Bava's brilliance, where the hell would the genre be today?! A scary thought indeed!



Extra Tidbit: What's your favorite Bava flick?



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