Mario Bava was one of the most underrated filmmakers of the 20th century -- not to mention the most versatile, turning out giallo thrillers, gothic horror, Viking action, Hercules, a Western, and even a Swinging Sixties crime caper. Five of these brilliant movies are brought together in the "Mario Bava Collection Volume 1," including one of his most famous horror movies ever.
The poorly-named "Kill Baby Kill" opens when a young woman leaps onto an iron fence. Dr. Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) is called in to do an autopsy, with the help of beautiful Monica (Erica Blanc). He finds a coin in the girl's heart, and none of the townspeople will tell him -- because if they do, they will suffer a similar fate.
He's even more annoyed when local sorceress Ruth (Fabienne Dali) begins using her powers to protect a young girl from a childlike specter -- little dead aristocrat Melissa Graps. But as the bodies pile up, and Monica is plagued by bizarre nightmares, Eswai must accept Ruth's help to save Monica from the ghost, and an evil baroness.
"Black Sunday (The Mask of Satan)" is a bizarre tale of vampirism -- evil princess Asa (Barbare Steele) and her servant were executed centuries ago, for serving the devil and all-around nastiness. As usual, she places an evil curse on the Vadja family, and vows to return one day to get revenge on them, just before being impaled by the "devil's mask," a spiked mask that kills the wearer.
But in the modern day, two doctors on their way to a convention accidentally reopen her grave, and awaken her with a drop of blood. Turns out that Asa isn't QUITE dead -- and now gaining new power, as she discovers that her distant descendent Katia Vadja is a dead ringer for her. Now she's trying to possess Katia's body -- can one of the doctors save her?
"Black Sabbath" is actually three stories -- "The Telephone," a Hitchcockian giallo thriller about a woman haunted by phone calls from an ex-lover. "The Wurdalak" is a twist on typical vampire stories, with Boris Karloff turned into a wurdalak, a vampire who only drinks the blood of loved ones. And in "A Drop of Water," a nurse steals a ring from the corpse of a medium, and is unsurprisingly haunted by her.
"Knives of the Avenger" is one of Bava's lesser movies, but shows he could handle unusual genre films. A mystery man (Cameron Mitchell) who calls himself Helmut saves young widow Karin (Elissa Pichelli) and her son from some thugs, sent by a local regent who wants to marry the woman (whether she likes it or not), because she is the widow of the late king.
Helmut stays in the house to protect Karin from the regent, and becomes a sort of mentor to the boy. But Karin doesn't realize that Helmut (not his real name) has a nasty past that he's keeping hidden -- he may be the man who raped her many years ago. When Karin's husband returns, the mystery man saddles up to save the mother and child.
No, "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" was not a sequel to Hitchcock's movies, but a stylish Hitchcockian giallo. Nora Davis (Leticia Roman) arrives in Rome to care for an ill friend, only to have her expire that evening of a heart attack. As she tries to get help, she is mugged, and blearily sees a man pulling a knife out of a woman's corpse -- but of course, nobody believes her.
Nora moves in near her friend's house, and does some detecting on her own -- it seems that this murder follows the pattern of a serial killer who has haunted the area for years. They thought they caught the man who did it, but they captured the wrong man -- and now the killer is coming after Nora next.
Mario Bava didn't need massive budgets or special effects to create his brilliant movies -- just some solid actors and a haunting backdrop. Crumbling castles, the streets of Rome, sword-and-sandal countryside and misty mountains are all used in these movies, with performances that range from brilliant (Steele) to merely solid (Mitchell).
In fact, Bava was such a brilliant director that he was able to elevate anything with his cinematic touches -- colourful lighting, eerie camerawork, exquisite use of light and shadow, gory executions, and even a touch of comedy here and there. Even when the scripts are subpar ("Knives of the Avenger"), he manages to include some nice touches.
"Mario Bava Collection Volume 1" is a collection of five excellent movies, ranging from amazing to solidly enjoyable. And it's a good demonstration of Bava's talents, and the kinds of movies he could undertake. Definitely worth getting, especially for horror buffs.
on August 16, 2008
Mario Bava is probably one of the most important and influential, yet lesser known, genre directors to come out of Italian cinema. His films combined an art house sensibility within the 'exploitation' tag they we're labeled with. As it's been noted elsewhere here, he was a master of the gothic horror film, yet his body of work included such genres as Science Fiction, Greek mythology, Viking Sword and sandal tales, Crime capers, serial murderers, anti heroes, sex farces, westerns, surrealism, and psychological tales. His real love was special effects photography, yet he was capable to delivering decent performances from actors. He started off wanting to be a painter, and yet, in spite of that disappointment and yet following in his father's footsteps, he accomplished more as a cinema photographer and director through painting with light and celluloid. One of the stunning aspects of his career was the fact he was able to accomplish more with the limited budgets of his films, then what many new directors do in Hollywood with their multi million budgets, and their unlimited resources of computer effects.
While that might seem an overstatement, considering the many visual delights one can find in the standard Bava film, even a below par films, he's the kind of director that can inspire other filmmakers with his ideas. He was a master of trick photography, especially glass mattes and the layering of images. His skills with lighting a scene, colored lighting, the use of shadows and splashes of light, has been imitated by others, yet many other filmmakers just haven't had the same panache. All of the films included in this first Bava box set, demonstrate all of the above points. "Black Sunday" and "Black Sabbath" have remained his two most celebrated and praised films, and for good reason, but I'd like to comment about other three lesser known films in this set.
"The Girl Who Knew Too Much", (1962) which was released in the states under the title "The Evil Eye", the Italian title being "La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo", has been noted as the first giallo, is the biggest surprise of the set and a real gem of a film, although it might simply play as quaint to contemporary eyes. It was Bava's final film in Black and White and yet it demonstrates what mastery he had of even that medium. The charming Leticia Roman stars as a visiting American tourist, while staying with her aunt and after a red herring at an airport involving tainted cigarettes, meets John Saxon, a doctor who is treating the sickly aunt. That night the aunt dies of a heart attack that Nora witnesses, under distress, she flees the apartment for the streets of Italy, after being attacked by a purse snatcher, she believes she witnesses the murder of a woman. She convinces Marcello (Saxon) to help her investigate the 'alphabet murders', Valentina Cortese plays a woman who may or may not be the sorted protagonist of this cat and mouse game. While the film is a satire on a Hitchcock thriller, it remains an innovative and fun film. Ironically, and of interest, it was released in 1963 in the States at the height of the Cuban Missle Crisis, and was his biggest commercial disappointment.
"Knives of the Avenger", (1966) going under the Italian title of "I Coltelli Del Veniccatore", is a lesser film. Bava was probably a director for hire on this project. It manages to be a fairly interesting Viking sword and sandal take on "Shane". Cameron Mitchell stars as Helmut, a drifter who was a ruler named Rurik, a man who was shunned by his people, and gave up his title to roam the earth, until he finds atonement. The main part of the story involves Karin and her son Moki, the wife and child of a rival king believed to be dead. Argon, who has taken over the kingdom through treachery, wishes to marry Karin at any cost, leaving the woman and the boy to remain in hiding until her husband, Arold, can return. Of course Helmut is intertwined with all of these characters and protects the mother and son. For a Bava film, the relationship between Helmut and Moki is touching. While there are some good action sequences, this film is far more introspective than you'd expect. Visually, it's a beautiful looking film.
"Kill, Baby...Kill" (1966), which is known under it's Italian title "Operazione Paura", is another exceptional gothic inspired ghost tale. Martin Scorsese used this film as an inspiration for some sequences of "The Last Temptation of Christ". A remote village is tormented by the ghost of a little girl who is driving people to kill themselves. Giacomo Rossi-Stuart is a coroner brought in under the advise of an inspector to uncover the mystery. Erica Blanc assists and may be the key to this whole matter. Some very surreal and innovative photography can be found in this film. Max Lawerence's role as Burgomaster Karl is strange yet effective, and Giana Vivaldi as Baronness Graps is memorable.
The flagship of this set is "Black Sunday (The Mask of Satan)" / "La Maschera Del Demonio" (1960), has probably been the most critically praised and, in some respects, over-analyzed film of Bava's career. It does live up to its hype of a masterpiece of Gothic horror. Bava's use of black and white photography is masterful. There's a real sense of bleak decay in every frame of celluloid. After a famous opening sequence where the witch princess Asa, and her Warlock brother Javutich are impaled with Masks, two centuries pass where two travelers, Professor Kruveian and Dr. Gorobec unwittingly break open the crypt of Asa, triggering her resurrection as an all powerful Vampire. After Asa calls back Javutich from the dead, Kruveian and Gorobec (John Richardson) are pulled into the castle of the doomed Vaida family, the decedents of Asa. Princess Katia seems to be the identical decedent of Asa and a romance develops between her (Barbara Steele) and Gorobec, in the midst of a day and night of supernatural murder and mayhem. This film took the Hammer films of the 50s to the next level with it's images of perverse sexuality and sadistic horror. Simply put, essential viewing. Arturio Dominici's Javutich is probably one of the most memorable henchmen to appear in horror, and Steele's Asa has become iconic. This is the English dub version of the film
After Bava followed up with "Hercules in the Haunted World" and "Erik The Conqueror" (1961), as well as the "The Girl", Bava returned to gothic horror in 1963 with an even more effective anthology, "Black Sabbath (The Three Faces of Fear)" / "I Tre Volti Della Paura". Film anthologies are hard to pull off, usually it requires a unified vision to make it work, for example, George Romero's "Creepshow", yet Bava manages another masterful job with three tales. "The Telephone" about a woman who is stalked by a caller at her home who threatens to kill her, "The Wurdalak", a tale of a doomed family fated to Vampirism and Mark Damon's character who is lured into this family, as well as "The Drop Of Water" about a nurse who is stalked by the ghost of a dead medium,.her former employer. Boris Karloff anchors this film as well as plays the Vampire in "Wurdalak" and it's considered one of his best performances. Fair warning, this isn't the AIP English print of the film, but the superior Italian language version.
The DVD's of "Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, The Girl Who Knew Too Much" includes a generous portion of extras. Excellent Audio commentaries from Tim Lucas, a good ratio of film and TV spot trailers, Bava biographies and biographies of other cast members, a retrospective of Mark Damon's work is included with the "Black Sabbath" set, as well as a very informative interview that's included in "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" DVD of John Saxon's experiences of working on that film. As far as their aspects ratios are concerned, the widescreen formats of these discs range from 1:66:1, 1:77:1, to 2:35:1. All will fit into the widescreen format's of 16x9 screens with ease. My only complaint is the absence of substancial credits for "Knives of The Avenger", it's fairly apparent they were added in post for the prints of "Knives" as well as "Kill, Baby...Kill", yet the quality of all of the prints are excellent, great color saturation, and a richness to the prints that shows an improvement from the Image DVD additions.
Highly recommended collection.
Prior to picking up the Mario Bava Collection Volume 1, I had only seen one Bava movie, Black Sunday. Based on seeing that movie, and his reputation as an important director for horror, I decided to pick up the five movie set and was not disappointed.
Black Sunday (or as it is also known, The Mask of Satan) was originally given a three star review when I watched it a few years ago, but it gets better on reviewing. Opening with the brutal killing of a witch and her lover, the movie soon goes forward two centuries, when through a series of seeming accidents, the witch is revived and is intent on possessing her descendant and wreaking vengeance. For Bava, this was his official directorial debut, and it is an effective one: even if the writing is weak in places, it is a wonderful film to look at. In addition, it established Barbara Steele as the queen of horror, the first real female horror star.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much is a light suspense movie obviously influenced by Alfred Hitchcock. Leticia Roman plays an American tourist in Italy who thinks she witnessed a murder by the so-called Alphabet Killer. This killer struck years ago, killing three women whose surnames began with A, B and C. Since Roman's character's last name begins with D, she worries she's the next target (this seems a bit of a plot hole, as the killing she witnessed she should have thought was the "D" killing). John Saxon plays her often hapless love interest.
With Black Sabbath (a.k.a., The Three Faces of Fear), we get another horror movie, in this case, one of the best horror anthologies I've ever seen. The Telephone is a short story about a (possible) call girl terrorized by phone calls threatening her death by dawn. Although the source of the caller is revealed in the middle of the story, there is still a twist or two left. This first story is actually the weakest of the three, but even it is good.
The second story (and the longest) is The Wurdalak, a vampire story with Boris Karloff (who also bookends the movie with a brief introduction and epilogue) as the family patriarch who may also be a wurdulak (a type of vampire). Mark Damon is a nobleman who encounters the family and gets entangled with their problems. Genuinely creepy, this story also seems to show the influence of Roger Corman, both with the use of Corman veterans Damon and Karloff and the look of Corman's Poe movies. The final story is also really creepy: in The Drop of Water, a nurse steals a ring from a dead woman and is soon being haunted by increasingly strange events. Is it all in her mind or is something supernatural going on? Only at the very end is an answer provided.
The boxed set version of Black Sabbath is the superior Italian version. The other version, described in the commentary, is not as good, with the stories in a different order and some editing that weakens the stories (particularly The Telephone). The only plus to the American version is some additional Karloff material introducing the individual stories. As a side note, this movie inspired the name of the famous music band.
The fourth film is the one real clunker in the set, Knives of the Avenger, a sort of Viking-Western hybrid with B-movie (at best) actor Cameron Mitchell as a Shane-like warrior who comes to a village seeking revenge against a bandit leader. Although it sometimes looks nice, there is little of the Bava touch in this forgettable film.
The final film is another horror film, Kill, Baby...Kill. It is a ghost story involving the specter of a strange little girl who somehow is killing people. A doctor called into the haunted village to assist in the investigation of some murders learns that something more sinister is going on, defying his disbelief in the supernatural. As with the other Bava horror films, the okay story is enhanced by the nice look of the film.
While Knives of the Avenger is just a one-star film, the others are all four or better, with Black Sabbath the best in the bunch. With three commentaries (on the first three films) and some other extras, this is a five-star set. If you're a horror fan, this is well worth adding to your collection.