Baba Yaga (US - BD)
Gabe revisits one of the strangest comic book to film adapations of all time...
Life has been strange for a young and beautiful fashion photographer named Valentina (Isabelle De Funes) ever since she made the acquaintance of a mysterious older woman named Baba Yaga (Carroll Baker). Besides a series of bizarre, sexually sadistic nightmares, Valentina's cameras also seems to have acquired a deadly curse, which is killing her clients. Compelled to visit Yaga at home, Valentina discovers bizarre relics, including a dominatrix doll, and a bottomless pit in the living room.
Most readers are probably familiar with the groovy/sexy pseudo-horror film called Baba Yaga by its alternate title Kiss Me Kill Me thanks to an excess of copyright free budget video releases. Co-Writer/director Corrado Farina didn’t do much outside of Baba Yaga, at least nothing exploitation fans have much cause to celebrate, which is nominally unique given the film’s general popularity among Italian horror enthusiasts. Without meaning to insult the guy, I’d compare Farina’s work here to the work of Jesus Franco. Of course I mean the ‘good’ Franco, the one that conjures beautifully bizarre, psycho-sexual images, not the lazy bastard that ‘directed’ schlock like Cannibals and Manhunter. Besides the obvious comparisons between this lesbian slathered story and the stories found in many of Franco’s Sapphic Vampire flicks (not to mention the superior Sapphic Vampire visions of Jean Rollin and Harry Kümel), Farina maintains a dreamy, occasionally avant-garde atmosphere, and uses his minor budget effectively with a sharp Minimalist inspired décor. Given its appearance here it seems that Milan was gripped with some kind of massive storm surge just previous to filming, as everything is dripping wet and engulfed in fog. Though the look generally stays away from Gothic sensibilities this persistently spooky ambience effectively plays into the film’s witchcraft themes. By and large Baba Yaga is an art film, not a narrative-driven theatrical experience, and audiences willing to accept its surreal senses.
Baba Yaga is loosely based on a comic series called Valentina, and Farina takes this adaptation rather literally when it comes to his visual choices. Comic books and other graphic Minimalist/Modernist compositions play a consistent role throughout, even when Farina opts for something more extreme and dream-like imagery. Almost every visual indication of Yaga’s magic is frantically edited to create a pseudo subconscious depiction of movement, and anything resembling a sex scene is usually represented through a series of black and white stills, which are occasionally juxtaposed with actual ink drawings from a comic page. The constant use of comic book panels and graphic line work, which along with the groovy soundtrack and heavy mod fashion sense, recalls Mario Bava’s masterpiece of camp Danger Diabolik, which is sort of the alpha and omega of Italian comic book adaptations of the era (on the special features Farina also credits Modesty Blaise and Barbarella as visual inspirations) Baba Yaga isn’t nearly as fun, but does belong in a similar class of pop. There is an obvious Dario Argento influence, specifically in subjective POV shots of characters opening doors and fondling walls while wearing black gloves, and fluttering images of Valentina’s memories unfolding. The fetishistic manner Farina shoots actors working through cameras and other artistic endeavors also recalls the popular post-Argento gialli of the period, along with Michelangelo Antonioni prototypical study of ‘60s fashion photography Blowup. The underdeveloped theme of Valentina’s camera capturing the magical murders is an intriguing semi continuation of Antonioni’s film’s themes.
The film dips its toes heavily and regularly in the waters of psychology and religious philosophy, recalling more pointedly political filmmakers, specifically Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville and Elio Petri (whose similarly comic booky The 10th Victim was released on Blu-ray by Blue Underground late last year). Here Farina falls short, often creating an air of self-parody with his character’s heavy handed discussions of the reality of art and politics. These people are largely exhausting in their social interactions, and generally uninteresting as characters, making it difficult to negotiate any sequence pertaining to actual humanity. The deliberate pacing and lack of solid narrative foundation is rarely the problem you’d expect, and once Farina moves on to more explicitly supernatural and fairytale-inspired themes the film is rarely boring. To the contrary, Baba Yaga is actually one of the most briskly paced Sapphic art-flicks I’ve ever seen, and largely entertaining even when it’s wallowing in dopey philosophical metaphors. Farina’s treatment of Freudian themes is also more intelligently executed than expected. Sure, there’s a lot of skin and S&M for the sake of skin and S&M, but there’s also a palpable sense of more going on beneath the violent and sexy surface.
Baba Yaga had been previously released by Blue Underground on remastered anamorphic DVD, but until now I’ve only seen budget releases (Brentwood and Diamond) under the title Kiss Me Kill Me. These were taken from a VHS source, and generally look like crap, so my standards are pretty low going into this 1080p release. This transfer looks positively fantastic given my expectations, and doesn’t fall to the same CRT scanning and DNR issues Blue Underground is continuously accused of committing on some of their more prestige releases. The photography here is stylized in a manner not befitting a cropped and sloppy budget release. The compositions are often softly focused, foggy, and largely darkened with minimalist highlights that can very easily turn to mush. Here the film shows its age in terms of grain and occasionally dull contrasts, but generally excels in terms of clarity otherwise. There are hints of minor print damage throughout, mostly in the form of dirt and hair in the gate, but little in the way of digital artefacts or signs of compression. Details are just about as sharp as the material can manage, revealing relatively complex backgrounds, and minute close-up textures. For the first time I’m able to really notice how shoddy Carroll Baker’s cake-heavy make-up really is. Colour quality is pretty outstanding despite the relatively stoic palette of browns and blues. Black and white composition is largely more important than vibrant hues, creating bright, sharp daylight contrast, and light, soft nighttime blends. Outside the occasional hint of green the most poppy colours are reds, especially Arno’s candy red car.
Baba Yaga comes fitted with two DTS-HD Master Audio mono options. The first track is presented in English, and the other in Italian, and it’s important to note that both tracks are technically post-dubbed, as per the norm with Italian period releases. The English track is the better sounding of the two, but some viewers will have issues with the fact that the majority of the actors are obviously speaking Italian and not English. Outside of the misaligned lip-sync, however, this is the more natural and warm track, featuring slightly punchier sound effects, and crisper music. Piero Umiliani score suffers distortion at high volumes, especially when it comes to heavy piano strikes, but the whirling strings come off surprisingly crisply, and with modest depth of field. The Italian track is a bit mushy, but feels more natural given the largely Italian speaking cast and definitively foreign setting. The sound effects are a bit dulled, and the musical score is generally flatter and slightly more distorted overall. Carroll Baker’s voice is also often touched by a hint of echo on the English to create character ambience, a fun addition that is entirely missing in Italian.
The extras begin with Farina & Valentina: An Interview with Co-writer/Director Corrado Farina (21:40, SD). Here Farina discusses Valentina, the comic strip that inspired the film, his 1971 film They Have Changed Their Face, Baba Yaga’s themes and subtexts, casting, censorship, and the film’s post-release popularity on home video. Freud in Color: Guido Crepax Documentary (12:10, SD) is a short documentary on comic writer/artist Guido Crepax, the Valentina comic strip, his other popular comic work, his storyboard work, and the reception of comics in Italy throughout the pre and post WWII eras. The similarities between Crepax’s style and the style implemented by Frank Miller since The Dark Knight Returns are striking. The disc also features a reel of deleted/censored/altered scenes, which were apparently roughly reinstated on the UK DVD release (10:00, SD home video quality), a trailer, a poster and still gallery, and a comic book-to-film comparison gallery.
Baba Yaga isn’t quite a must own or even must see piece of arthouse exploitation, but it’s certainly an interesting movie, and rarely a dull experience. This Blu-ray release is clearly the best available version of the film, especially given the title’s crummy treatment on budget video over the years, and doesn’t show many signs of the digital tampering Blue Underground has been accused of over the last couple of years. The soundtrack features solid choices for both fans of Italian and English tracks, and the extras, though brief, cover the bulk of what fans are likely to want to know about the film.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the Blue Underground Blu-ray screen-caps.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 28th February 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono English and Italian
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, English for Italian Version
Extras: Farina and Valentina - Interview with Director Corrado Farina, Freud in Color - Guido Crepax Documentary, Deleted and Censored Scenes, Trailer, Poster and Still Gallery, Comic to Film Comparison
Easter Egg: No
Director: Corrado Farina
Cast: Carroll Baker, George Eastman, Isabelle De Funes
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Horror and Thriller
Length: 83 minutes
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