Mario Bava Collection: Volume 2 (US - DVD R1)
7 and a half more Bavas from The Bay means more dancing from The Gabe...
Anchor Bay/Starz is revisiting more Mario Bava classics from the vaults, and I could not be happier. Anyone not yet clear on Bava, or the Volume 1 release can click HERE for the low down. Otherwise, here are my thoughts on 7 and a half more films from the Maestro of the Macabre.
Bay of Blood(aka: Twitch of the Death Nerve, Blood Bath, and Reazione a Catena)
A wealthy heiress and landowner dies under mysterious circumstances (her husband did it, but don't worry, he was done in too), and anyone with a minute claim to her property shows up to collect. The would-be heirs start offing each other in increasingly creative and graphic ways, along with some dimwitted teenagers that stop by the bay looking for a party. Basically, it's Ten Little Indians on the bay.
Bava brought the Giallo genre to the forefront of Italian cinema with films like The Evil Eye and Blood and Black Lace. Dario Argento would soon popularize the genre with his solo directorial début, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Though these Giallo films had an influence on the Slasher genre (forerunner John Carpenter has admitted as such) it was Bay of Blood that would be specifically copied by the ne plus ultra of Slasher film series, Friday the 13th. The first chapter of the popular Camp Crystal Lake chronicles owes almost everything to Bava's film, right down to the style of sweater its killer wears (who if you'll remember was Mrs. Voorhees, not Jason). The first sequel even lifted Bay of Blood's most popular murder - the steak-through-a-couple-mid-coitus bit.
Bay of Blood may not be Bava's best feature, but it's definitely top five material, and a very easy place to start. The plot is swift, and there's nothing 'challenging' about the production, unlike some of Bava's more experimental and cerebral work (see: Lisa and the Devil). The only thing standing in the way of all out mainstream acceptance of the film is Bava's decision to pull focus between each scene, rather than wiping, cutting, or fading. The effect is a bit jarring, and doesn't quite work because the cuts can still be seen.
Bay of Blood is a perfect amalgamation of what were Bava's most popular non-gothic styles - his Giallo thrillers and his mod-chic, comic book capers. I guarantee this is the most fun you'll ever have watching an "important" film. It's dated to be sure, but in a beautiful, time capsule way, and we wouldn't want it to look any different.
(For my entire Italian R2 Bay of Blood review click HERE.)
Baron Blood(aka: Chamber of Tortures, The Thirst of Baron Blood, Gli Orrori del castello di Norimberga)
An American student named Peter takes a trip to Austria to research his great-grandfather, a murderous baron made infamous for acts of barbarous torture. When he arrives Peter discovers that the Baron's castle is being remodeled as a giant tourist trap/hotel. Peter and his new girlfriend Eva journey to the castle and are struck with inspiration – why not read an ancient incantation that may bring the monstrous Baron Blood back from the grave. The spell works, and the torture begins anew.
In 1972 Bava returned to his gothic roots and melded them with his popular Giallo thrillers to mixed results. The film was one of the director’s last, and shows many signs of a damaged creative sense (the kind of thing Argento has been doing the past decade or so). Bava quotes himself so often the film might as well be considered a sort of self-tribute, though there’s plenty of homage to other horror directors as well. The meaning behind Bava’s recycled images may actually be more important than the meaning of the plot, and effectively is a statement on the melding of the director’s old and new work.
Baron Blood is more interesting as a director’s comment on genre then as a successful horror film. I tend to assume that Bava was pointing to the death of gothic cinema in general at the hands of Gialli and Slashers, genres he had a big hand in starting. The film was made between two more interesting features – Bay of Blood and Lisa and the Devil. This is of note because the former takes Bava’s Slasher violence to comic extremes, and the later takes Bava’s colourful and dreamy visuals to experimental extremes. Baron Blood is almost a perfect middle ground between its bookends.
In the end, non-fans are left with a standard order stalk and slash, with a gothic backdrop and low body count. The acting is quite ripe, and the storyline is stretched thin, even for a Bava film. As a return to gothic visuals, something Bava hadn’t touched since 1966’s Kill Baby…Kill!, the film doesn’t disappoint, though by this time the director had a habit of overusing facial close-ups, focus pulls, and crash zooms, all things that didn’t quite meld with the atmospheric grace of the earlier pictures. This is probably not a very good place to start, but an interesting follow up to Black Sunday.
Lisa and The Devil/House of Exorcism(aka: Lisa e il diavolo, The Devil and the Dead)
While touring a small Spanish village, Lisa Reiner crosses paths with a mysterious man named Leandro. Frightened by Leandro's strange behavior, Lisa runs to rejoin her tour group, only to find herself lost. She eventually thumbs a ride with an aristocratic and anachronistic couple and their driver, but their elderly car breaks down, and once again Lisa finds herself in the presence of Leandro, this time in the form of a gracious butler looking after a strange and ancient estate.
Lisa and The Devil may be Bava’s most accomplished film since the perfection that was Black Sunday. It’s without a doubt his most mature work, and should’ve been the film that earned him the widespread critical acclaim he disserved.
Bava has always belonged in the same critical categories as Fredrico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and even Ingmar Bergman (Fellini even gave Bavaian horror a shot when he made Spirits of the Dead with Louis Malle and Roger Vadim, to nominal effect), but his work in ‘lesser’ fields like horror and comic book capers, along with his willingness to work as a director for hire, always delegated him to popular critic’s ghetto. It wasn’t until recently, when name directors like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino started talking him up that Bava’s reputation finally changed for the better. It’s too bad he was already dead.
Lisa and The Devil is the same kind of visual metaphor catalogue European art house directors produced during the ‘60s. If the film hadn’t been lost or re-edited for maximum schlock, film school students would’ve been studying it alongside Hour of the Wolf and La Dolce Vida in the 1980s and ‘90s, but alas, Bava’s last major artistic achievement was lost to the ages until quite recently.
The film is thematically comparable to Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, with its dream induced visuals and plot. Bava captures the feel of a nightmare state so impeccably it’s genuinely chilling, despite the relatively low-key nature of the story, hence the film’s categorization in the horror genre. This deeply melancholy movie also features some of the best acting in the director’s catalogue, including a surprising turn from the beautiful Elke Sommer, and Telly Savalas as a lollipop sucking, cool headed Satan. The lack of narrative logic and restful pacing may bore some viewers, but those willing to take the journey will find themselves richly rewarded.
Producer Alfredo Leone was among those folks that thought the film was boring, and against Bava’s wishes reconstructed the it, and padded it with new footage to emulate William Freidkin’s The Exorcist, which was tearing up the world box office at the time. This new version, which was actually released worldwide, was re-titled House of Exorcism. Though enjoyable on a schlocky, exploitation level, this cut robs the film of its subtlety, arthouse ambitions, and even most of its beauty.
Cramming a second rate Exorcist rip-off into a lyrical and abstract feature like Lisa and The Devil is generally a bad idea, on principle and in logistical terms. The two films simply do not fit. In Leone’s film, the events of Bava’s film represent a sort of psychological battle inside Lisa’s possessed brain. Leone intercuts Bava’s lyrical masterpiece with boring scenes of Elke Sommer doing her best Linda Blair impersonation, and it never blends. Even those unaware of the film’s difficult history must have assumed that they were watching two entirely different movies. I recommend House of Exorcism only for reasons of completion, as it does feature entirely uncut some of Lisa and The Devil’s more sexually charged and violent scenes.
Kidnapped(aka: Rabid Dogs, or Cani arrabbiati, Semaforo rosso, Wild Dogs)
When their getaway car is damaged and their driver shot, a trio of criminals kidnaps a hostage carjacks an innocent bystander (or bysitter in this case, I suppose). In the car is an ill child in need of medical attention. The gang forces the driver to leave the city and avoid the police, despite his son’s condition. What follows is a real time account of a very twisted day.
Towards the end of his career, now in his 60s and constantly overshadowed by younger filmmakers like Dario Argento, Bava attempted to rejuvenate his filmography with Rabid Dogs, a grim and gritty thriller like no other film in his collection. The multi-nominal feature was the victim of studio aliments, producer deaths, and a general lack of funding, and was never finished or released. After several years of diligent work, lead actress Lea Lander finally secured the rights and the film was released in a rough cut form as Rabid Dogs. This version found it's way onto American DVD thanks to the efforts of Image Entertainment.
Now that the initial release has been out of print forever, Anchor Bay has released the recut, rescored, and partially reshot version under the title Kidnapped. Bava's son, Lamberto, a protégé of both his father and Dario Argento, who frankly never amounted to much of a filmmaker, has added a few additional shots his father never filmed and tightened the editing. Like most post-mortem fiddlings, this leads to a less accomplished motion picture. Most of this review will refer to the original rough cut.
The beauty of Rabid Dogs is that it's about as raw as cheese-grated flesh. Bava has always, and will always be known for his incredible polish and attention to detail. Rabid Dogs features very few bravado camera moves, its colours and lighting are real-world derived, and the framing is often disgustingly tight. The film is meant to evoke a documentary or news reel feel, much like the work filmmakers Sam Peckinpah (both The Getaway, and Straw Dogs are obvious influences) and William Friedkin ( The French Connection is another obvious influence) were pumping out at the time. The style is again common in these modern days of reality TV and post-70s film revival.
Rabid Dogs looks like the film of a young man, an angry young man. It doesn't quite manage the peaks of anger that bleed from Peckinpah's best work, but there is a palpable ferocity. The immediacy of the threat, and spiteful realism of the characters is the kind of thing that makes the film worthy of the lofty title of 'Long Lost Classic'. There are some script problems (though not any plot holes, as is the norm for Italy in the period), and I could use with even more obstacles thrown into the road, but the overall effect is pretty breathtaking.
(For my full Kidnapped review click HERE.)
Five Dolls for an August Moon(aka: 5 Bambole per la Luna d'Agosto and Island of Terror)
A group of aristocratic socialites gather on a remote island beach house for a bit of groovy fun and sexy relaxation, or so it seems. One guest is a famous chemist who has created a revolutionary new…something (it’s really never 100% clear), and the rest of the attendees are eager to buy. They offer him one million dollars apiece (huge bucks in 1970), but he refuses to sell on moral standing. Soon after, the double crosses begin, and the bodies start to pile up.
As I stated previously, Bava was instrumental in jumpstarting the Giallo film genre, and 1970’s Five Dolls for an August Moon marked a welcome return. Unfortunately, he never touched the genre again in any pure form for the remainder of his career. August Moon is often cited as one of the director’s lesser films, and the consensus isn’t entirely unfounded. It was obviously made, at least partially, in response to the extreme popularity of young Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plummage, which blew the top off Gialli in 1969. Everything about the production appears rushed, from the groovy but arbitrary score, to the Agatha Christie ripped plot.
For his part, Bava manages to impress with majestic camera work, and one particularly beautiful shot that follows a series of glass balls down a spiral staircase to a bathing suicide victim, but he seems entirely disinterested in telling the story. The cuts are often jarring and random, scenes that should last a moment last forever, and scenes that should last forever last but a moment. The film is sexually charged, almost vulgar (another possible layover from the success of Bird), which is unusual for the director, but surprisingly enough Bava handles the sensuality with more dexterity than the death, which isn't very hard because most of these murder set pieces seem to take place off screen.
Lucio Fulci’s post-Argento Gialli ( Perversion Story, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin) are, I think, better samples of the genre at its sleaziest and most mod. August Moon isn’t a bad film, contrarily it’s quite amusing, but when stacked next to the Grand Guignol hysterics of Bay of Blood (which at its best this film is a dry run of), and the phantasmagoric allure of Lisa and the Devil, this little Giallo looks like a master craftsman’s weekend project.
Four Times That Night(aka Quante volte... quella notte)
Bava must have noticed Sergio Leone’s good luck with Fistful of Dollars, a Western re-telling of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and decided to take a shot at appropriating the Japanese master’s work for himself. In Kurosawa's Rashomon a feudal era murder is told from various points of view, each portraying a different story. In Bava’s Four Times That Night a night of sexual indiscretion is told from various points of view, each portraying a different story.
What begins as an average exercise in late ‘60s sex comedy eventually blossoms into an entertaining little social commentary on sex and relationships that still applies today. Four Times That Night is a battle of the sexes that turns up both sides as losers. Bava joyfully exposes the lies behind a typical ‘he said, she said’ fish story, and the truth is probably not what one would expect from the era. Who knew the Maestro was so progressive?
Despite the rather lewd nature of some of Bava’s Gialli, and the sex comedy pedigree, Four Times That Night is joyously innocent in the end, preserving the director’s rather quaint outlook on filmed sex. There is some nudity (more than maybe any other Bava feature), and there are moments of extreme sexiness (mostly thanks to the insanely gorgeous Daniela Giordanobut), but the whole thing is pretty tame and tasteful by today’s standards. Despite this, there isn’t much else to tell us that this is a Bava feature, save an inspired shot through a red wine glass.
Four Times That Night is a very entertaining film, with an amusingly existential twist, and any time Bava chooses to tell a story through the veneer of Mod fashion it is a cause to celebrate, but I fear most viewers will forget the film within minutes of watching it.
Roy Colt and Winchester Jack
Two outlaws and friends compete with each other over a treasure map that will lead them to buried gold. One man is in league with a sadistic priest-turned-crime lord, while the other remains a ‘free agent’. A young and nubile Native American girl enters the fray and plays both sides against each other.
By 1970 the fast burning Spaghetti Western was already beginning to fizzle. The genre’s front runners, Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, were more interested in making political statements and comments on their previous work than entertaining. This postmodern and self-referential behavior spawned the last vastly popular leg of the genre, when Spaghetti Westerns began making fun of themselves. The Trinity series, staring Terrance Hill and Bud Spencer, were especially popular.
Roy Colt and Winchester Jack wasn’t Bava’s first foray into Western territory, but it would be his last. The film seems to have been made in reference to the Trinity series, and true to the era’s fashion, it is a spoof rather than a serious entrée ( edit: Turns out I'm wrong. Bava biographer Tim Lucas has corrected me, Roy Colt was actually released before the Trinity series, and had an effect on it). The film’s political underpinnings are not exactly subtle, but neither are they particularly moving, probably because Bava himself was not particularly interested in politics, at least not like Leone and Corbucci were. One gets the impression that Bava was in this one for the money, and not the glory.
I should mention that despite my undying love for the Spaghetti Western genre, I’m not a very big fan of these light hearted and funny later films in the cycle (with the exception of Duck You Sucker, which is vastly underrated). Roy Colt and Winchester Jack fits the revisionist mould well, and that’s my problem. Humour suffers when it has to transcend time shock and culture shock, so an Italian film made in the early ‘70s ends up having a whole bunch of transcending to do. Some of the jokes work, but often the broad cartoonishness of era Italian humour is grating to this critic. Charming performances help, but repetitive shootouts and a sub Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid plot don’t. One of Bava’s lesser features to be sure, but still a finely crafted film with its share of striking visuals and well edited action.
I never managed to get my hands on the Image releases of many of these films, so I am unable to tell the difference, if any, between those transfers and these new ones. A trip to DVDBeaver.com or DVDCompare.net is only slightly illuminating because this release is not included in those comparisons as of yet. It does appear that several Image releases were non-anamorphic, and everything in this set is enhanced for 16x9 televisions.
Italian imprint Raro has released some of these films anamorphically and entirely uncut, but the only direct comparison I’m able to do here is on Bay of Blood. The Raro release, under the title Reazione a Catena (which is a slightly different cut of the film), is rather well detailed, but contrast levels are set way too high, and a lot of the colour is washed out. This new release is cleaner and far better balanced, but still leaves something to be desired. Colours still aren’t as arresting as Bava intended. Comparisons to the Image print (which is anamorphic) reveal a very close call.
This seems to be the best release thus far of Lisa and the Devil and Baron Blood. Lisa’s print is very soft in parts, but this is due to Bava’s use of soft focus, not the fault of digital compression. Baron Blood is a little on the dark side, but in keeping with the feel of the film. Artefacts are medium level, but grain is rather prevalent on both releases, especially Baron Blood. Again, I’d like to see richer colours, like that of Anchor Bay’s release of Suspiria, but the source material may just be too flat for such reinvention.
Five Dolls for an August Moon, Four Time That Night, and Roy Colt and Winchester Jack are all treated less lovingly by the Bay. Every film is more than acceptable, but lacking in definition, clarity, and contrast is often too high. I have a feeling that Four Times and August Moon have been taken directly from previous Anchor Bay and Image releases, but I can't prove it.
No six channel surround mumbo jumbo for these discs, we’re talking good old fashion Mono audio. In all honesty the music alone on these tracks could do with a stereo revamp, because the center channel has a habit of becoming cluttered on every disc in the set. The soundtracks have been cleaned, but distortion is prevalent during louder sequences, and definition is lacking when ever the tracks become busy. The only two films with genuinely risible audio problems are Four Times and Roy Colt. The later has more pops and crackles than the rest of the collection, and the former sees an obvious change in volume levels around act two.
The lack of language options is a little curious, but in the case of Bay of Blood, according to Tim Lucas, the film was shot in both English and Italian, so the Italian language print (available for Raro) is actually a slightly different movie.
Tim Lucas’ expert commentary tracks rule this release, which is missing even the nominal featurettes found on the Volume One collection (unless you count the one with Kidnapped, which is old news if you already own the single disc release). Lucas, writer of a new, all encompassing book about Bava’s films called All the Colours of the Dark, provides commentary for Bay of Blood, Baron Blood, Kidnapped (previously available on the single disc release), and Lisa and the Devil, but finds time to mention the other three and a half films as well. Again, Lucas’ insight and information proves indispensable without losing a personal touch. Lucas is not afraid to make mention of something that doesn’t work, and remains critical.
Producer Alfredo Leone and actress Elke Sommer provide commentary for House of Exorcism. Leone rules over the track, and spends most of his time defending his changes while generally patting everyone else involved firmly on the back. He paints a picture of a very prudish Mario Bava who begged Sommer not to reduce herself to cursing on set because of personal objections to such conduct. My guess is that Bava just wanted to maintain some of the original film’s class. Sommer is pleasant, and when she gets the chance to talk has generally warm feelings about both shoots, even though she didn’t get paid for the second one. This track has been taken from the OOP Image release.
Some of the releases also feature trailers, but missing is Lucas’ Bava biography, and those supposedly awesome liner notes from the Image releases.
Even the lesser films in this collection are worth the time, and Bay of Blood and Lisa and the Devil are genuine classics. The price is right, even if the extras are rather minimal.
Bay of Blood – 8/10
Baron Blood – 7/10
Lisa and the Devil – 8/10
House of Exorcism – 4/10
Kidnapped – 7/10
Five Dolls for an August Moon – 6/10
Four Times That Night – 7/10
Roy Colt and Winchester Jack – 5/10
Review by Gabriel Powers
Release Date: 23rd October 2007
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono English, Dolby Digital Mono Italian
Extras: Tim Lucas Commentary, Producer/Acrtess Commentary, Kidnapped Featurette, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Mario Bava
Cast: Elke Sommer, Telly Savalas, Howard Ross, Lea Lander
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Crime, Film-Noir, Horror, Mystery, Thriller and Western
Length: 718 minutes
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