A few notable developments in the timeline of Mario Bava’s sixties career; despite the successes of The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood And Black Lace, Bava didn’t do another straight murder mystery until our first film here today, Five Dolls For An August Moon. His contributions in other genres – westerns, a Viking epic, a superspy adventure and some supernatural horror movies – were excellent, but there was no real follow-through on his early giallos, perhaps having to do with the departure of the great Ubaldo Terzano as his lead cinematographer in 1965. (Terzano went on to shoot Lucio Fulci’s Lizard In A Woman’s Skin, Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein and Andy Warhol’s Dracula for Paul Morrissey, and Dario Argento’s great Deep Red.) Antonio Rinaldi shot Bava’s work for a while, but Bava himself manned the camera just as frequently from then on.
Five Dolls For An August Moon (Cinque Bambole Per La Luna D’Agosto, aka Island Of Terror) (Italy, 1970) was, in some ways, reluctantly done by Mario Bava. Once the film had been offered to him, he realized he hated the script, by Mario di Nardo, but the producers refused to let him alter it. Reluctant to turn down the paycheck, he accepted the film anyway at the last minute (he reportedly signed the contract on Saturday and started shooting that Monday).
George Stark (Teodoro Corrà) is a millionaire industrialist and entrepreneur who has invited two other business associate/competitors (and their wives) to the island he keeps a small vacation home on. (There are other island inhabitants – Isabel (Ely Galleani) is a teenaged girl who frequently visits; her parents are on the mainland because her mother is having an operation.) He’s also invited Professor Gerry Farrell (William Berger, a European B-movie regular), who has created a new formula for an innovative industrial resin. George, Nick (Maurice Poli) and Jack (Howard Ross) are all vying to outbid each other for the formula, through aggressive persuasion, outright bribes and underhandedness, but Farrell is oddly disinterested in selling it. Meanwhile, their wives amuse themselves how they can: Nick’s wife Marie (veteran seventies sexpot Edwige Fenech) is the party gal who seduces George’s houseboy, and agrees to come on to Farrell at Nick’s insistence. Jack’s wife Peggy (Helena Ronee) seems pretty conventional, keeping to herself while ardently supporting her husband. Farrell’s wife Trudy (Ira von Fürstenberg, of those von Fürstenbergs) is the beautiful ice queen who resists the propositions of the unscrupulous Nick while cultivating the longtime favor of George’s wife Jill (Edith Meloni). Jill freely admits that she married George solely for his money – her heart belongs to Trudy.
At the houseboy’s houseboat, Marie has slithered down for a late night quickie, but he’s DEAD! Stabbed. She says nothing, but his body is found on shore the next day by Jill. Later on, the Professor is shot on the beach; Trudy and Jill heard the shot, and discover his body, but by the time they’ve alerted the others, his body is dragged into the sea. Rather than comforting the newly widowed Trudy, though, the three men threateningly demand the formula from her. Peggy is the next victim, another gunshot recipient. Jack is despondent, and while the others comb the island in search of him, Marie is stabbed and killed. And as the bodies pile up one by one, George must hang each in his meat freezer.
Bava’s problems with the script are easy to figure – oh, no, not another Ten Little Indians knock-off! There are a few novel variations and unexpected twists, but most of them were stolen by di Nardo from Bava’s earlier Blood And Black Lace – the multiple red herrings, real twists and culprits, the conniving privileged characters, and the rationale for the murders being rendered ironically pointless at the end. But instead of using the script as a jumping-off point for sex-and-violence excess, Bava does the opposite – the sexual undertones are obvious but very understated (with the exception of Marie, who introduces the film with five minutes of cackling histrionic go-go dancing, and, later, emerges from the shower with full make-up intact), and the murders are short and quick, stalking-free and outrightly suspenseless. Rather, Bava emphasizes the simplicity, and take-it-for granted sense of privilege, of the character types he’s been stuck with, setting them loose within his indulgent atmospherics and visuals – color, lighting, the design of the house, and his use of daytime and nighttime. On our discovering the Professor’s body, Bava chooses to draw our eye to the garish caftan that Jill is wearing. George’s seventies-chic living room resembles the lair of a James Bond villain. George and Jill’s bedroom is straight out of Blood And Black Lace with its vivid red drapes and starkly uplit faces. Bava simply has his own good time, brandishing his always impressive and unique visual chops, rather than wrestling with the problems of the script – there are times where it feels like Bava is sniggeringly parodying himself. It’s kind of a shame, because the actors are all pretty capable; as stiff and formulaic as it all is, the performances never fall into cartoonishness or pointless histrionics. It’d be tempting to advise you to write this off altogether – it obviously wasn’t one of Bava’s favorite projects – but it’s all so artfully salvaged by him that it’s pretty watchable overall, and another swingin’ Piero Umiliani musical score helps immensely. Don’t seek it out, but, if you run across it, settle in guiltlessly.
“A woman should live only until her wedding night – Love Once, and then DIE!” So declares John Harrington (the almost impossibly handsome, but acting-talent deficient, Stephen Forsyth) in Hatchet For The Honeymoon (Il Rosso Segno Della Follia, which translates as The Red Sign Of Madness) (Italy, 1970). The film might seem very much like 5 Dolls… – another giallo contract job (this one a Spanish co-production) where Bava downplays the violence and jacks up the overall visual style. But there are some nice departures here – much of the plot parallels Bava’s real-life marital problems at the time, and the role of Harrington’s harridan wife Mildred (Laura Betti, fresh off of big success with Pasolini’s Teorema) is almost comically venomous. The other departure is that it’s not a typical giallo mystery – Harrington knowingly declares his homicidal psychosis just a few minutes into the film. But he’s driven to serial murder for a particular reason; each murder of a young woman brings closer to clarity a trauma he suffered as a child; witnessing the murder of his mother on her second honeymoon after remarriage. With each murder of an aspiring bride, his flashbacks become clearer and more detailed, and he must continue killing until he sees the whole truth. In some ways it’s morbidly noble – he genuinely wants to stop killing women. But we’re not so sympathetic that we’ll root for him murder-to-murder, either. The dude’s seriously deranged, no doubt about it.
Harrington is the proprietor of a large fashion house that caters exclusively to bridal clients – gowns, maid-of-honor dresses, and boudoir attire. The company was founded by his murdered mother, and he continued her work afterwards. But the company was in massive debt, resulting in his marriage to Mildred, a rich widow who subsidizes the studio for John. Mildred is a humorless, tormenting woman who takes every opportunity she can to humiliate her husband’s professional officiousness and private impotency. She has no clue that he has killed five would-be brides – three buried in their hothouse on their estate – and plans on continuing. But most of the victims are his own models, who make the mistake of announcing their resignations in order to get married. He kills Rosie on her honeymoon train-trip (one of the few times that Bava employs killer’s POV), and Alice (the gorgeous Femi Benussi) in his bridal gallery (employing his garish-but-somehow-gorgeous lighting and color flourishes a la Blood And Black Lace). But a new model appears to replace Rosie – the beautiful Helen Wood (Dagmar Lassander), to whom he takes an uncharacteristically affectionate liking. His burgeoning relationship with Helen coincides with a particularly cruel maneuver on Mildred’s part, and, driven to the brink, he kills her, too. And, despite being the obvious suspect for the dogged Inspector Russell (a disappointingly prosaic Jesús Puente), Harrington gets away with it all. That is, until Mildred makes a surprisingly novel return from the grave – her ghost haunts him, but he can’t see or hear her. But everyone else can, and they relate to her as if she’s still alive and everything’s normal.
The script here (by Santiago Moncada) has some obvious structural problems, but his general ideas were certainly appealing to Bava, and I liked the film much better on a second viewing. The ‘hatchet’ is actually a smallish meat cleaver, and the murders are surprisingly bloodless for 1970 (the film was shot in ’68, but released after 5 Dolls for some reason), continuing Bava’s preference for suspense and atmosphere over explicit bloodletting. But he relented on his delicacy in his next film, and created another giallo masterpiece.
Like most landmark films (and this is a landmark film, for better or worse) Bay Of Blood (with its many, many alternate titles that we’ll get to in a minute) (Italy, 1971) wasn’t particularly well received upon its opening. America’s Cinefantastique magazine said “The latest Bava work available for American viewing is the director’s most complete failure to date, heaping graphic violence onto one of his more ridiculous scripts.” British actor Christopher Lee, who admired Bava from their collaboration on The Whip And The Body (1963), saw it at its premiere screening at the 1971 Avoriaz Film Festival, and was reportedly revolted. The film’s initial release was poorly received, both here and in Europe. Distributors, however, were savvy to its more exploitative appeal, and persevered in releasing it under various titles and censored versions: it was best known as Twitch Of The Death Nerve in the U.S. upon its release here, but was also known as Carnage, Blood Bath, and Last House On The Left Part II. In Italy, it went through a number of working titles, but was initially released as Ecologia Del Delitto (The Ecology of Crime), pulled and re-released as Reazione A Catena (Chain Reaction), and finally settled in to posterity as Bahia di Sangre (Bay of Blood).
Bava’s “ridiculous script” actually works on three pretty interesting levels, drawing from some interesting templates. The first level describes the deranging effects of greed, and how our humanity is diminished by it. The film opens with a visual tour of the picturesque small bay under the opening credits, finally settling in on the small estate of the Countess Federica Donati (Isa Miranda, a well-respected and renowned veteran actress from numerous mid-century Italian films). She imperiously wheels herself down hallways and into her study, pensive, seemingly troubled. Suddenly a noose appears in front of her, it falls on her neck, and her wheelchair is forcefully kicked out from under her, resulting in a slow and sordid death from asphyxiation. With her lifeless body suspended horizontally above the floor, the killer comes into view – it’s her husband, Count Filippo Donati (Giovanni Nuvoletti), who takes off his coat for the job of disposing of her body. But we suddenly see a knife, which plunges into the Count’s back gruesomely and frequently, and he, too collapses into a dead heap. Yow! Now we meet Frank Ventura (Chris Avram) (and his sexy secretary/lover Laura [Anna Maria Rosati]), and learn he’s a real-estate developer who has been negotiating with the Donatis to develop the bay area for expansion and tourism. The Countess won’t hear of it, and has turned Ventura down flat. But Ventura has arranged a fairly complex sequence of events (with Laura’s help) that results in the murder of the Countess by her husband. Another accomplice in Ventura’s machinations is the Countess’ illegitimate son from an earlier marriage, Simon (Claudio Volonté), a rough and rustic fisherman who lives in a small shack by the water’s edge. His conflicting resentments of the Donatis’ semi-estrangements and Ventura’s greedy opportunism lead to another series of violent encounters. We also meet Renata (former Bond-girl Claudine Auger) and her husband Albert (Italian B-movie veteran Luigi Pistilli); Renata is the legitimate heir to the Donati’s holdings, but the Count , at this point, is merely missing, not presumed dead, and Renata is there investigating the circumstances that are annoyingly keeping the inheritance out of her anxious hands. Upon meeting two other inhabitants of the bay, the eccentric entomologist Paolo Fossati (Leopoldo Trieste) and his equally colorful wife, the occult-minded Anna (Laura Betti, fresh from Hatchet For The Honeymoon), Renata learns of the existence of her half-brother, Simon, and sets out to eliminate him from any part of the Donati legacy. It’s tough to tell the players without a scorecard in my little synopsis here, but the upshot is that most of these people commit murder in a La Ronde succession of potential payoff / arising threat / elimination thereof. And it’s all set in motion by each person’s selfish wish to either keep the bay exactly as it is at any cost, or to forcefully acquire the valuable land for their own purposes.
The second interesting level that the film works on is illustrated by one of its Italian alternate titles – Ecologia Del Delitto (The Ecology of Crime), which is indicative of the overall idea that nature can only be corrupted by humans, and that nature would be much better off if humans simply took themselves out of the equation. This theme, subtly but consistently reinforced, is what keeps the film from simply being just a series of cool murders, a la The Omen or the countless 80s slasher films that owe their existence to this masterwork. The entomologist Paolo is overtly expressive on the subject, but we’re also aware that Simon’s reliance on the resources of unfettered nature, alone, keeps him a relatively contented man. It’s only when human forces intercede in his life that his violent dark side emerges. Renata and Albert arrive at the bay in a camper/trailer, with two young children in tow, ostensibly to combine their investigations with a vacation-in-nature for the kids. But when subsequent events cause them to virtually abandon the kids to their own devices, there’s jaw-dropping payback for their negligence at the conclusion.
The third level is more reinforcement than independent engine, but much of the film is bolstered by its reliance on earlier dramatic forms – most obviously, Shakespeare and the Victorian revenge tragedies of John Ford, Thomas Middleton and John Webster. The character of Simon – a violent and primitive outcast who still evokes a substantial degree of audience empathy – is clearly modeled on The Tempest’s Taliban. Renata’s single-minded relentlessness in the face of Albert’s deference and second thoughts parallels Lady Macbeth’s malicious coaching of her husband towards the horrific – indeed, when Albert is driven to his second murder at Renata’s behest, his hands are splashed and covered with blood. Tim Lucas, Bava’s biographer and the author of the DVD’s commentary track, reveals that Laura’s demise in the film was changed – originally, she was to have her eyes gouged out, emulating Gloucester’s fate in King Lear. Ambition and acquisition lead to ever-escalating violence and death, whether it’s regal progeniture or real-estate deals.
So let’s deal with the elephant in the room; the violence, and the lengthy middle episode of the film dealing with the appearance of four teenagers who are grotesquely dispatched with seemingly random ferocity. The origins of the overall story comprise a terrific chain of events – a friendly collaboration between fast friends Laura Betti and Bava, the contributions of the resourceful Dardano Sacchetti, and the final shapings by Filippo Ottoni and Giuseppe Zaccariello. But the serendipitous fashioning of the final script didn’t offset a big problem – a low budget. Bava’s visual invention overcame a lot of budgetary considerations, but one young contributor to make-up and special effects convinced Bava to let him have a free hand in presenting the violence of each character’s demise. This, of course, was Carlo Rambaldi, and, like Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Rob Bottin after him, Rambaldi was keen to move the edge of the envelope forward in make-up and special effects. The showcase Bava gave him was this sequence – four good-timing teenagers arrive at the bay to party and make love – exploring one of Ventura’s never-opened night clubs, and breaking in to Ventura’s vacation home – but one of them inadvertently stumbles upon evidence of Count Donati’s murder, and at least one of our other participants feels the need to nip this quickly in the bud. The first, Hilda, has her throat slashed, and is nearly decapitated (a later victim is fully, and vividly, beheaded by a different, and very surprising, assailant). The second victim, Duke, has the same curved machete buried into his face. The third and fourth, Robert and Denise, are simultaneously skewered by a spear in their bed mid-coitus.
If these particular deaths sound familiar, then you’re one of the millions of moviegoers who saw the first two Friday the 13th films. Director / producer Sean Cunningham has never outrightly come clean on this, but the Friday the 13th films are largely derived from Bava’s film, made nine years earlier. Betsy Palmer’s Mrs. Voorhees is loosely modeled on Countess Frederica, and Jason Voorhees is a more abstracted and extrapolated version of Simon Donati. But four of the deaths in the first two Friday the 13th films are carbon copies of Rambaldi’s teen murders in Bay Of Blood; indeed, Cunningham’s films reductively concern themselves with Mrs. Voorhees, Jason, and a continuing parade of promiscuous and/or hapless teen victims, all paying a gory price for their youth and moral shortcomings. Bava, on the other hand, makes no moral judgments about his teens; they’d have been left alone if Hilda hadn’t made her incriminating discovery. The Friday the 13th films, in sad fact, are really the only reason Bay Of Blood is remembered so fondly, although there’s very little bad news in the idea that the later films lead movie fans to the former, far superior model. Carlo Rambaldi went on to make-up greatness, designing a cute little puppet named E.T., and collaborating with H.R. Giger to create a not-so-cute Alien for Ridley Scott, among other things. Bava successfully used an elevated level of violence as one of his many methods to camouflage the small budget of this film, but he had never used, and didn’t go on to use, that level of violent explicitness, before or after.
There are many very rewarding non-giallo Mario Bava films that are well worth seeking out. Mask Of The Demon, aka Black Sunday (1960), is a monumental, must-see Gothic horror film, and it was the lead-character debut of the legendary Barbara Steele. The Whip And The Body (1963) is a lushly gorgeous, malevolent and kinky ghost story featuring Christopher Lee and Daliah Lavi. Terror In Space, aka Planet Of The Vampires was a fixture on late-night American T.V., and creates impressively suspenseful and creepy atmosphere on a miniscule budget. Kill, Baby, Kill (Operazione Paura) is another murder mystery / ghost story hybrid from 1966, and is the favorite Bava film of an impressive array of film fans. Danger: Diabolik (1968) is a hallucinatory swingin’ sixties superspy adventure that has to be seen to be believed; it features Barbarella’s John Phillip Law and the always impressive Marisa Mell. Baron Blood (1972) isn’t wholly successful – the plot is a rehash (innocents accidentally revive an evil force from the past), and it features a well-past-his-prime Joseph Cotten, but Bava’s innovative visual chops are as sharp as ever, and it’s reverently detailed to emulate the great Universal horror films of the thirties and forties. Lisa And The Devil is a dreamy and surreal supernatural horror film with Elke Sommer and Telly Savalas – be careful not to accidentally get the botched re-edited version, often titled House Of Exorcism, which was foisted upon us by producer Alfred Leone in an attempt to exploit the success of The Exorcist. If there’s an acting credit for Robert Alda (God bless ‘im), recoil and walk away. Finally, there’s Rabid Dogs (1974), a marked departure for Bava that didn’t get a wide release until 1998; a high-velocity thriller concerning a group of sadistic bank robbers who terrorize the hostages they’ve taken in their efforts to elude their police pursuers. The majority of the film takes place inside the moving getaway car, in broad daylight, and is infused with a hard noir nihilism that’s simultaneously hard-to-take and hard-to-take-your-eyes-off-of. Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway was almost certainly an influence, and Rabid Dogs most certainly influenced later hard-boiled-crime filmmakers.