Mario Bava Collection: Volume 1 (US - DVD R1)
Gabe's in Bava heaven, and hopes that there are more volumes on the way...
For those not in the know (and for those who didn't read my Bay of Blood review, from which I'm taking most of this intro), Mario Bava is quite possibly the most influential filmmaker to ever come out of the spaghetti factory. More influential than Argento, more influential than Antonioni, more influential than Bertolucci, even more influential than Felinni. The only Italian director I can think of that may've had a larger and more lasting effect on modern film is Sergio Leone, but it's a very close call. Unfortunately for Bava no one seems to know this but a select few rabid fans.
A few of these rabid fans include Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Dario Argento (who worked with both Bava and his son Lamberto), Tim Burton, John Carpenter, and of course, Quentin Tarantino. Bava's influence is most obvious in three films – Black Sunday, Planet of the Vampires, and Bay of Blood (aka: Twitch of the Death Nerve, Blood Bath, and Reazione a Catena among others).
Planet of the Vampires was an obvious visual influence on Ridley Scott's Sci-Fi masterpiece Alien. Scorsese has been known to use Bava's work as short hand when describing a shot to a DP. The little girl inhabited by the Devil in Last Temptation of Christ is an image ripped straight from Kill Baby, Kill. Bay of Blood was specifically copied by the ne plus ultra of slasher film series, Friday the 13th, 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 two of Bay of Blood's most popular murder, the steak-through-a-couple bit, and the machette in the face bit.
Like many of Italy's most accomplished directors, Bava is not best known for his plots or his work with actors, but his visual prowess is second to very, very few. Originally a director of photography, Bava's intuitive eye has charted some of the most breathtaking shots in film history. This collection of five features need only apply to those interested in the secret history of modern film, and those able to appreciate a film on a purely visual level. There are some fine stories too, but they often get lost in the flood of colours and shadows.
An evil witch (or vampire, depending on which version you happen to catch) played by the voluptuous Barbara Steele is put to death for her crimes against humanity, but vows vengeance from beyond the grave. 200 years later, she is accidentally resurrected and attempts to possess the body of her look-alike descendent. Spooky happenings abound.
Black Sunday (aka: Mask of Satan and La Maschera del demonio) is the quintessential Bava film, and its unabashedly gothic atmosphere had an obvious effect on young filmmakers like Roger Corman in the 1960s. Its influence continued for decades and has since become the director's signature look.
Considering the time it was made, 1960, the film is shockingly violent and tonally dark. There is a dated charm to the asthetic, but really it transcends its era more than most films ever have (Hitchcock's Psycho and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, also from 1960, are two of the few I can personally recall). Like early Hammer Studios productions (and later Tim Burton's ode to Hammer and Bava, Sleepy Hallow), Black Sunday is filmed entirely on gothically dressed stages, with artificial structures, flora, and earth, though it's meant to appear filmed on site. Bava actually manages to outdo his English brethren, and though his film is stylized, it is often easy to forget we're still on a rather small set.
Black Sunday also appropriates a lot of classic Universal style, specifically evoking Tod Browning and James Whale's work. Bava takes all the lessons learned in the black and white era, and ends up upstaging almost all of them. I personal think the film is more impressive than almost all comparable films, and though it was made three decades after the best of Universal's output, I'd like to think that Bava would still outshine the genre godfathers had he been making films in their day. The film is so visually striking that I found it nearly impossible to decide on screen caps for this review. Every shot is a masterpiece of photography.
The film's visual prowess isn't only based in simple and pleasing beauty, but represents an overall filmic intelligence on Bava's part. There are specific and clever visual metaphors throughout the feature, and the bulk of the film is deliberate beyond simple looking good. There isn't a single moment wasted, not a single shot left unorchestrated. On top of this is an uncommonly impressive use of decades old, in-camera special effects techniques. In the digital age it's often easy to forget that such simple tricks can still be so effective.
Thematically the film is uncommonly dense, requiring quite a bit more of the audience’s attention than most horror films produced in its time. The story doesn't depend strictly on shock tactics to rattle its audience, and the dialogue and characters are quite cleverly constructed. Some of the acting is ripe, as is to be expected, but despite the film's fantastic elements and super-stylized look, most of the actors manage reasonably realistic performances. Several actors found their trademarks on this film, not the least of which was Barbara Steel, the true queen of Euro-horror.
It's incredible that such an old film can still elicit such a palpable feeling of fear. Black Sunday is genuinely frightening on several layers. It contains lo-fi, but honestly repulsive gore effects, there is a deeply upsetting sense of impending dread, and there are some decent jump scares to boot. A certain amount of leeway must be considered when critiquing older films, and obviously Black Sunday couldn't just be dropped in modern theaters as is and expected to make money, but I believe even jaded horror aficionados, raised on a diet of colour film stock and digital gore effect, will still find something to love in this nearly perfect horror classic.
The anthology film was nothing new at the time of Black Sabbath (aka: Le tre volti della paura), but after the film's release the model became popular. Whether this was a case of foresight on Bava's part is up for discussion, but the finished film is another of the maestro's most influential works. Between Black Sunday and Black Sabbath Bava made a handful of adventure films, and his practice at colour comes to the forefront here, in his first colour horror film.
The Telephone is the tale of a woman terrorized via phone by an escaped convict she helped to put away. Decades before Scream or even When a Stranger Calls (the original), Bava filmed a beautiful woman descriptively threatened by an unseen mad man via telephone. This is the weakest of the three films, but features two twists, and plenty of thrills. I imagine that it was positively nerve racking in its day.
The Telephone is the most 'realistic' of the three features, and Bava's saturated colours are reduced to a relative minimum. The suspense is thick enough that the emphasis on realism is probably preferable. The problem is that this possible situation doesn't really have a place among the other two shorts, and has nothing to do with Boris Karloff's fantasy based intro.
The Wurdalak is several steps beyond The Telephone, in both story and execution. Bava appears much more comfortable amongst the wonderfully decorated, brightly coloured sets. The fantastical, historical drama is more his cup o' tea. The story's base is one very common to horror fiction, and follows a man who stumbles across a family locked in a centuries long battle with vampire-like creatures. When our hero arrives, the aging head of the family (Boris Karloff, looking very old), has returned from a battle with the wurdalak, and his allegiance is in question. Our hero proceeds to fall in love with the family's youngest daughter, and tries to take her away from the chaos.
The Wurdalak is positively dripping with atmosphere, and features several deeply haunting images. The performances and plot are a little stilted, but rarely hurt the short's overall tone. I can think of one scene in particular must have caused a series of heart attacks in 1960s theaters. In the sequence Karloff has killed his grandson, and the boy's father has buried him outside. The boy reawakens, de-buries himself, and wanders the night pleading for his mother's attention. His mother allows her maternal nature get the better of her and runs to his aid, stabbing her husband as he tries to stop her. When she finally opens the door it is not her son, but Karloff waiting for her. Cue cardiac arrest.
The story is a bit of a mini-epic, and the longest of Black Sabbath's three parts. It also subscribes to Karloff's opening monologue a bit better. The Wurdalak could've been a stand-alone feature, but it's probably for the best that it wasn't, as it lags a bit in its middle section. The AIP release moved this story to the end, which makes sense because the bookend features Karloff in costume wishing his audience a good night.
This original Italian Black Sabbath saves the best and creepiest tale for last. A Drop of Water follows the horror anthology formula made popular in later anthology films (often based on EC comics anthologies like Tales from the Crypt), as it is a morality tale. The story follows a nurse who is summoned in the middle of the night to prepare a freshly dead patient's body for burial. When she's left alone with the corpse, a truly upsetting make-up effect, she steals a ring from its finger. When she gets home she's haunted by the deafening sound of dripping water, a hold over from her recent crime.
Drop of Water's final act is a nerve wracking work of abstract colour and sound as our protagonist (or I suppose antagonist in this case) wanders through her house searching for the cause of the infernal dripping sound. One notices a few dashes of inspiration Dario Argento 'borrowed' for his chef d'oeuvre Suspiria (Argento would later use both Bava and his son Lamberto as effects assistants on Suspiria's thematic sequel Inferno). The reveal at the end of the sequence is another shot that must have given rise to a few premature babies and wet pants, as it still holds a disturbing power. On a level of shock, this may be Bava's finest work.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much
An American tourist named Nora (Letícia Román) has a really bad night. The elderly women she's been put in charge of dies, she's mugged, and then she's witness to a brutal murder. The next morning there is no murder weapon or body, and what Nora's witnessed appears to have happened several years before. With the help of her new doctor boyfriend (a very young John Saxon), Nora decides to solve the mystery on her own.
Bava brought the Giallo genre to the forefront of Italian cinema with films like Blood and Black Lace. Dario Argento would soon popularize the genre with his solo directorial début, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. These Giallo films had an influence on the slasher genre (genre forerunner John Carpenter has admitted as such), but in Italy the genre started in the form of lurid murder mysteries with yellow covers (Giallo literally translates to yellow).
The Girl Who Knew Too Much is often credited as the first Giallo film. Though obviously lurid and flamboyant murder mysteries had been on film for years, Bava did a lot to define the genre's style here. The film features an innocent tourist witnesses a murder, and despite Police protests decides to solve the case on her own. Along the way she picks up a sidekick/love interest, finds that an important clue was under her nose the entire time, and the killer's true identity is obscured by a bright red haring. Garish colours are the one signature element of the genre that the film lacks.
The missing hues are more than made up for with deep and textured shadows, enough to create a feeling and look that even the most expensive special effects couldn't touch. The film owes an obvious debt to Hitchcock, beyond its title of course, not to mention lead actress Letícia Román bares more than a passing resemblance to Psycho's Janet Leigh. There's also a bit of Carol Reed's black and white mystery masterpiece The Third Man for good measure. Much of the picture looks like a Hollywood production, it's very well polished, and Bava does very little to define the picture are specifically Italian.
The plot is involving enough, once you're able to accept the fact that our heroine witnesses a murder that happened years ago while in a anxious stupor. The film's most intriguing asset is the fact that it references the Giallo genre constantly. Several decades before Scream hit theaters, Bava's film features an protagonist utilizing the rules of a standardized genre to save herself in a familiar situation. This angle also leads us to some of the films more humorous and charming sequences.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much is another of this set's true classics, and encompasses all of Bava's most endearing assets. Like the best the Giallo genre had to offer in the following years, the film is equal parts thriller, horror film, and romantic comedy, and more or less succeeds on each of these levels, for the most part. It's slimly edited, and moves at a thrilling but thoughtful pace. The actors are effective without chewing too much scenery (though the Italian dubbing is occasionally not so great). Only Bava's later work in the genre, and a few of Argento's better productions stand above this on my personal Giallo scale.
Kill Baby, Kill!
A doctor is summoned to a small villa to investigate the bodies of apparent suicides. The townsfolk’s aren't too happy about the autopsies, which turn up pieces of gold lodged within the victim's hearts. Rumours of an evil ghost child abound, but modern medicine and folk tales don't gel, and the doctor searches desperately for a natural cause.
Kill Baby, Kill! is another of Bava's more well known features, thanks in no small part to a lapse in copyright. It's also one of the most commonly referenced (ie: ripped off) films in Bava's kludge. Unfortunately, unlike some of Bava's more successful films, Kill Baby, Kill! really only manages to be memorable on a visual scale.
The film is very colourful, but not as garish or neon as some of the director's more flamboyant features ( Baron Blood, Lisa and the Devil). With a few exceptions the film has a rather standardized pallet. The gothic atmosphere isn't quite as abstract as some of Bava's other films either, though everything still appears very obviously set on stages, and there is a wisp of fog in pretty much every single outside shot.
Kill Baby, Kill! is one of the first films in Bava's filmography to over do focus pulls, overlaps, and warped mirror effects, all items that end up ruining some of the director's later work. Surprisingly the film is kind of lazily directed overall, and is a mish-mash of the better images from earlier films.
The lapses in total originality are forgivable, especially when the finished product still looks better and is more influential than most horror films from the era. My issue is with the film's bland plotting. Bava's films rarely move at breakneck pace, but Kill Baby, Kill! is often terminally slow, featuring a solid beginning and end, but a very saggy midsection. The story is often repetitive, and there isn't much to say for plot twists, or real 'plot' in general.
The film is unfortunately dated as well, and probably won't do much to scare a modern audience, but there are some haunting images, and the last act has a wonderful subconscious quality. I consider this one a miss, but still well worth the time for anyone interested in discovering their favourite director's greatest influences.
Knives of the Avenger
When the king has left, and is presumed dead, the queen is forced into hiding from the king's unchecked enemy. A knife-throwing stranger promenades into town just in time to save the queen from bandits, and becomes her protector and suitor. But this stranger is not what he seems, and has an agenda all his own.
Knives of the Avenger was a brief return to the adventure/fantasy genre that Bava seemed to hold dear in the wake of Black Sunday's success. I am not familiar with this part of his career, but have read about it, and know it was a big part of what made Bava who he was. This particular entree in the filmography is more a standard Italian adventure flick than the usual Bava visual feast, but it gets the job done in a sort of old fashion B-Hollywood kind of way.
I can't find much information about the film, but based on its date it was made in a time when interest in historical adventures was waning in favour of Westerns in Italy. Full on fantasy flicks didn't hit big until after the release of John Milius' Conan the Barbarian. The film's plot, pace, and the use of popular American actor Cameron Mitchel all point to a Spaghetti Western slant, and it's possible that Bava was hoping to reinvigorate the genre by appeasing Western fans. It's just as possible that Bava made the film for the money alone, as it's not exactly the most exciting flick in the man's collection.
The film is very anachronistic, which would be fine, had it actually been made in 1935, but seeing that it was made in 1966 this olde time feel is a hindrance. The music is hugely over-the-top, the acting is brutally hammy, the fight scenes are awkward, and everything looks as if it was filmed during a stage play. This can all be rather charming, but the sloppy pacing and editing is not so easily excusable. Bava is a master filmmaker, and was an established talent at this time.
From what I understand, Bava's Hercules and the Haunted World is a much more entertaining and important film than this, and Knives of the Avenger probably wouldn't sell many copies had it not been included in this box set (though it was available from Image, I've never seen a copy). I'm kind of thinking of it as a bonus feature, not equal in value or genre, and its plodding nature really did bore me overall. Not exactly Mystery Science Theater 3000 worthy, but pretty painfully average overall. Keep an eye out for the tattoo that was obviously drawn with a ballpoint pen.
Based on other recent Anchor Bay re-releases of other studios work, I'm going to assume that most of these transfers are very similar to those of the Image releases. I've never been able to get my hands on these releases, so I can't be sure, but hopefully someone will do a comparison review someday.
Black Sunday is absolutely gorgeous. The film's age shows in the form of artefacts and grain, but on the whole this transfer is nearly perfect. Details are sharp when needed, gradients are subtle without disturbing the deepness of the deepest blacks, and highlights are bright enough while rarely blooming. There is a slight flickering of brightness levels as the film advances, but this is a very minor quibble.
Black Sabbath appears slightly washed-out, some of the brighter hues are a bit dull, but overall the transfer's colours appear vibrant. The film is pretty grainy, and dark areas are at a slight loss for detail. Beyond these dark spots details are nice, but never quite as crisp as I may've liked. It appears that someone attempted to remedy this general lack of saturation by increasing the films overall contrast, and some scenes suffer from harsh shading. I'm not positive that the film could look any better, but imagine it could. Sufficient, but not perfect.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much is another black and white feature, and isn't quite as immaculate as Black Sunday. The overall dirt, grain, and artefact levels are pretty high, but vary throughout, and are still pretty damn impressive. Contrast levels are high, creating especially deep blacks and bright whites, and though midtones suffer, I beleive this is the way the film is meant to look.
Kill Baby, Kill! is thankfully widescreen (the copyright free copies circling the market are all full frame), but doesn't look quite as nice as the other features in the set. It appears that sharpness levels have been cranked to uncomfortable highs, which was the exact problem of my old Brentwood copy. Colours are bright enough, but tend to bleed, and reveal a lot of compression artefacts and noise. Edge enhancement is everywhere, and distracts from some of the better compositions.
Knives of the Avenger looks strange. The colours are solid and similar the way colorized black and white films often look. All the skin tones are nearly identical. Often there is a strange coloured edge enhancement to characters, kind of like the double image seen when a 3-D film is viewed without glasses. Detail varies, but is pretty sharp overall, though I still noticed a whole bunch of compression noise. This is a decent transfer, above average for the film type, but there's something fishy goings on.
Every film in the set is presented in Dolby Digital Mono, and sound about as good as should be expected. Some films ( Black Sunday, Black Sabbath) benefit from a little more remastering than others it seems, but only Knives of the Avenger (if memory serves correctly) has a lot in the way of distortion and popping. Everything here is relatively clear, if not a bit flat (even for a Mono mix). The music tracks on Kill Baby, Kill! and Knives of the Avenger are tinny, and dialogue scenes are too often devoid of ambient noise, which is a bit jarring. I do wish that the English dub would've been included with Black Sabbath and The Girl Who Knew Too Much as the lead actors appear to be speaking English. Even the Italian dubs of Italian actors often miss the lip-sync.
Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, and The Girl Who Knew Too Much all feature commentaries by Mario Bava expert and biographer Tim Lucas. Lucas is a great 'expert' commentator, who doles out facts by the dozens, but still finds time to critique the shortcomings of the films he loves. These tracks have some blank spots, but answer all the important questions. I'm personally a big fan of Lucas, he's probably my third favourite critic behind Kin Newman and Maitland McDonagh, and his tracks make me feel like a plagiarist. Though I can guarantee I didn't copy my Bava knowledge from these tracks, I can't say that I didn't learn a lot of it from the man's writings.
Besides the commentaries these discs are pretty bare, sporting two interview/featurettes, the same Mario Bava bio (well written by Lucas), and a whole bunch of trailers. The first featurette can be found on the Black Sabbath disc, and is entitled A Life In Film - An Interview with Mark Damon. I admit to know little to nothing about Damon, who went from a heartthrob actor in the '50s to a hotshot producer today. Damon's takes a lot of credit for a lot of things I'm not positive he's earned (ghost directing Roger Corman's Pit and the Pendulum, along with introducing the Poe stories to Corman, introducing Clint Eastwood to Sergio Leone, and creating the modern independent film), but he's an easy going guy, and doesn't strike me as a braggart like say, Robert Evans. I also can't prove that any of his claims are false, so I'm just as likely to believe him as I am to not believe him.
The other featurette is a discussion with John Saxon called Remembering the Girl on the The Girl Who Knew Too Much disc. Saxon is always pleasant, charmingly dumbfounded by fan culture, and tends to get some of the facts wrong in a cute old man way (he refers to a story from the set of Cannibal Apocalypse, but doesn't remember the film's name, and mistakenly calls Lucio Fulci Luciano Fulci). He doesn't remember Bava too fondly, but fell in love with Italy when he made the film in 1963.
The trailers are most entertaining simply for the comparison, as American International Pictures sold the films to American audiences in amusing ways. It makes one long for their cuts of each film for further comparison.
You can't lose with three classics, one pseudo-classic that's been ripped off a billion times, and one entertaining flop. If you don't know Bava here's a good place to start. Here's to hoping Volume 2 is on the way and will house Blood and Black Lace, Twitch of the Death Nerve, Lisa and the Devil, and Baron Blood, and here's to more commentaries from Lucas.
Black Sunday: 9/10
Black Sabbath: 7/10
The Girl Who Knew Too Much: 8/10
Kill Baby, Kill!: 6/10
Knives of the Avenger: 5/10
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 3rd April 2007
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono English, Dolby Digital Mono Italian
Extras: Tim Lucas Commentaries, Two Featurettes, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Mario Bava
Cast: Barbara Steele, John Saxon, Letícia Román, Cameron Mitchel, Mark Damon
Genre: Adventure, Film-Noir and Horror
Length: 508 minutes
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