Two Films by Mario Bava

Posted: May 10, 2021 in Uncategorized

I need to do a bit of catching up here, and Steve Sullivan and I have watched two more Mario Bava films recently: Kill, Baby… Kill! (1966) and Bay of Blood (1971, aka Twitch of the Death Nerve). I’d seen the former relatively recently, having taught it a few years ago, but it had been ages since I’d revisited the latter, except to show excerpts in class. I found that seeing the two of them together made for an interesting contrast, and really underscored the achievement of Kill, Baby… Kill!

Getting ready to commit more of the 13 murders in Bay of Blood

I want to start with Bay of Blood. It’s the more compromised movie of the two, but also the one with the greater legacy, as its impact on the slasher films to come is colossal. Bava had to work with a very small budget, and the limitations do show: the camerawork is much less fluid than in other films, there is more reliance on the zoom lens, and only the opening scene has that sense of visual opulence that defines his Bava’s best work. It is, however, very impressive that Bava conjured the convincing impression of a forest where there was none, and the murders pack a punch.

The opening scene is very striking, shifting from dreamy, melancholy romanticism to two brutal murders in quick succession. And while there is plenty of bloodshed to come, Bava can’t sustain the delirium of that opening. So there are draggy patches between the killings. Where the film is going is terrific — this is a pretty corrosive allegory of capitalism, with everybody killing everybody in order to possess a plot of land, which, filmed in February, conveys nothing so much as dereliction and decay. The ending is drives this home with a bang, but along the way, there is some meandering, perhaps showing the signs as well of there having been a great many hands in the screenplay.

I like Bay of Blood, and its importance is beyond question. It’s also a much better, smarter movie than many of its imitators. But it isn’t Bava in full creative flight, in the way Kill, Baby… Kill! is. This is Bava in Gothic ghost story mode, and it’s one of his very best films.

Kill, Baby… Kill!’s nightmarish recurring image.

Here, none of the budgetary compromises of Bay of Blood are present. The camera is in constant motion, and the colours and lighting are nothing shot of rapturous. The imagery is nightmarish, particularly the recurring use of what must surely be among the most definitive uses of the face at the window in all of cinema. Images, too, of mazes dominate the film. They are there in the geography of the haunted town, which looks the the fever-dream collaboration of Escher and Piranesi. They are there in the mystery through which our protagonists stumble, and they reach a climax in the haunted Villa Graps, where spiral staircases descend forever, the difference between paintings and reality vanishes, and the hero can chase a figure through the same room again and again, only to catch up with himself.

Striking too is that fact that though the ghost story traditionally works best as a slow burn, Kill, Baby… Kill! moves like a bat out of hell. It opens with a violent death and rarely lets up, cascading from set piece to set piece (not unlike Dario Argento’s later Inferno). I think this is one of Bava’s most fully realized films, a near-perfect translation of nightmare to celluloid, and a film of truly stunning visual beauty.

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