Mario Bava: Master Choreographer of the Giallo’s Dance of Death

Mario Bava turns 100 this week. In tribute, Parallax View is pulling up this feature from the archives.

[This is a revised and expanded version of an article originally published on Greencine, April 3, 2007]

Italian poster for "Black Sunday"
Italian poster for”Black Sunday”

Mario Bava is a horror original.

A painter and cinematographer turned director, a craftsman turned celluloid dreamer, an industry veteran who created, almost single-handedly, the uniquely Italian genre of baroque horror known as “giallo,” he directed the most graceful and deliriously mad horror films of the 1960s and early 1970s. Always better at imagery than explanation, at set piece than story, Bava’s films are at their best dream worlds and nightmare visions. Check your logic at the door.

Bava was born into the movies in 1914. Italy was at the height of its epic historical spectacles and his father, Eugenio Bava, was one of Italy’s top cameramen; he shot, among others film, the lavish blockbuster Quo Vadis. Mario trained as a painter but soon followed in his father’s footsteps and became one of Italy’s most in-demand cameramen (Bava disdained the term “cinematographer”) and special effects artists, often working uncredited. He’s said to have made unsigned directorial contributions to such productions as Mario Camerini’s Ulysses (1955) with Kirk Douglas, Jacques Tourneur’s The Giant of Marathon (1959) with Steve Reeves, and Raoul Walsh’s Estherand the King (1960) with Joan Collins.

Legend has it that Italian genre veteran Riccardo Freda “pushed” his friend Bava into the director’s chair by abandoning not one but two projects for his frequent cinematographer to finish (it’s hard to verify the real reason that Freda left the projects, but it makes for a good enough story to justify printing the legend). Based on his uncredited direction completing Freda’s I Vampiri and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, plus his imaginative work as cinematographer, special effects artist, and assistant director on Pietro Francisci’s genre-defining muscleman movies Hercules and Hercules Unchained, Bava was offered a shot a directing a project of his choosing. He chose Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy” and made his official directoral debut, at age 46, on The Mask of Satan, renamed Black Sunday for the U.S. release.

"Black Sunday" - the unforgettable prologue
“Black Sunday” – the unforgettable prologue

From the opening frames, Bava proved that he knew how grab an audience’s attention. Barbara Steele, her eyes glaring hate even as her face registers terror, is bound to a stake, spitting curses with hellfire to the robed and masked judges who pronounce her death sentence. A spiked mask is slowly placed over her face and a massive wooden mallet pounds the iron mask with a startling finality as the credits explode in fire (this final shot was excised from the American release). Even as the film eases into an eerie Gothic atmosphere of a ghost story, where centuries later the corpse is revived by the innocent descendant (also played by Steele) with a single drop of blood, Bava never eases up on the tension. His vivid style – gliding camerawork, dramatic lighting, striking compositions, and atmospheric sets cobbled together from limited resources – set the standard for Italian Gothic horror, and his magnificent photography of the weirdly beautiful Steele made her an icon of the genre. Equally good as the devilishly wicked witch, with eyes blazing and evil smile set off by feral teeth, and the haunted innocent, she plays both in this moody, macabre cult classic of cruelty.

Bava’s first color film as a director, Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), followed, a surreal muscleman adventure in purple and red and blue on swirls of fog and underworld cave walls and moats of glowing lava. The haunted world is, in fact, Hades, where Hercules (Reg Park) and his traveling buddies face witches, hallucinations, and a stone monster on the way to retrieve a magic crystal that will save a princess. Christopher Lee is the evil King Lyco, who leads Hercules to the second great set piece of the film, a graveyard chase where the dead rise from the ground and glide through the air with a supernaturally eerie grace in a Twilight Zone of darkness and mist.

The piercing dead eyes in “A Drop of Water”

Bava took his vivid, oversaturated color palette back to horror with Black Sabbath, a trilogy of terror hosted by Boris Karloff. It was trimmed, toned down, rescored, rearranged, and in the case of one segment butchered beyond recognition for American release. The original Italian cut has since been restored, and while it’s odd to watch host/co-star Boris Karloff speak with some else’s Italian voice, it’s literally a new film. The correctly ordered stories now build from the early, ornate giallo thriller The Telephone” to the gorgeous and eerie vampire tale “The Wurdulak” (with Karloff as an uncharacteristically demonic patriarch) to the chilling ghost story “The Drop of Water,” a masterpiece of shiver-inducing imagery haunted by the piercing dead eyes of the restless corpse, with a playful coda to remind us that it’s only a movie. Bava sighted this as his favorite of his films.

The hauntingly beautiful Black Sunday established the foundations of the giallo – sex, sadism, and high style – and Black Sabbath added rich, vivid color. The Whip and the Body (1963), directed from the most psychologically fascinating script of Bava’s career, adds grand guignol gore to the macabre poetic beauty and sexual perversity to create a true masterpiece of the fantastic. Shot in delirious color and baroque elegance, this is a ghost story wracked with guilt, sadism, and mad passions. Christopher Lee lends his iconic presence as a sexual sadist turned gray faced ghost but the real star is Daliah Lavi, whose hungry, haunted eyes dominate the perverse thriller.

“Blood and Black Lace”

With Blood and Black Lace (1964), the giallo came into full bloom. If Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch turns violence into a ballet, then Blood and Black Lace is murder as ballroom dance. Forget the plot, about a masked stalker hunting the gorgeous models of a Rome fashion house, and just take in the color and style. Bava lovingly conducts every elaborate killing like a dreamy dance of death choreographed with sadistic precision, executed in lurid color, and captured with a restlessly gliding camera. There’s an undeniable edge of misogyny to the whole thing, but the psycho-thriller aspects seem beside the point as the narrative melts into abstract moments of dreamy, disconnected beauty. This is the seed from which Dario Argento’s baroque ecstasies of style and sadism grew.

Planet of the Vampires (1965) takes his eerie imagery into sci-fi territory for a haunted spaceship story on a misty otherworldly planet. Despite the title, there are no bloodsuckers to be seen, merely an unseen force that kills the astronauts (led by a craggy Barry Sullivan) that land on the primeval landscape of jagged rocks, bubbling lakes of lava mud, and purple skies. If you like Italian sci-fi, with its shiny, phony plastic miniatures and sprawling Cinecitta studio sets, this is one of the best, with unbelievable black leather fashions with yellow piping and headhugging skull caps. Though never particularly scary, Bava has a cool way with the alien eerieness of it all and ramps up the atmosphere in two stand-out scenes: the buried dead pushing back their steel slabs, sloughing off their plastic wrap, and rising from the grave in an interstellar take on the classic vampire resurrection; and an ancient shipwreck where the enormous skeletons of alien creatures look suspiciously like the ancestors of Ridley Scott’s Alien.

The spooky little girl who is death – “Kill, Baby… Kill”

Kill, Baby… Kill (1966) harkens back to the gothic style with a delirious colorscape. Bava floods the streets of his turn of the century Italian village with red, blue and green light, a surreal day-for-night look that only enhances the otherworldly atmosphere of the eerie Gothic ghost story with a homicidal edge. This fanciful nocturnal world becomes the stage for virtual pageants of death in which the victims become tortured puppets forced to murder themselves by a malevolent spirit. The murders are grotesque and sometimes grueling, but not gory (this is before his shift to more sadistic slasher style pictures), and he manages to bring a chill to every appearance by the spooky little girl who is death, a creepy vision in white whose giggles become chilling as she pulls the strings on her victims. This vision surely inspired Federico Fellini’s chapter of Spirits of the Dead.

Bava continued to play in other genres throughout: Viking pictures (Erik the Conqueror, 1961; Knives of the Avenger, 1966), western (Roy Colt and Winchester Jack, 1970), sex farce (Four Times That Night, 1969), spy spoof (Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, 1966), and the breezy, playfully lighthearted “American abroad” thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). Danger: Diabolik (1968) is a wild standout of the period. Produced by Dino de Laurentis as the stylistic follow-up to his international hit Barbarella, Bava’s adaptation of the iconic Italian comic book series is an anarchic, surreal mix of spy movie, heist thriller, and anti-establishment satire. The master thief anti-hero (a deadpan John Philip Law with eyes in a permanent state of furrowed intensity) doesn’t merely steal from the rich, he flaunts his anti-establishment credentials by heisting government bills in transit, blowing up tax offices, and then planning his heist-de-resistance: stealing the government’s entire gold reserve, which has been melted into a single Godzilla-sized brick for transport. Tongue-in-cheek when it isn’t simply, madly absurd, it’s a fab op-art design-fest drenched in comic-book color, directed with campy energy, and set to a goofy pop-weird soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.

But the horror film made Bava’s reputation and he kept returning to add more colors to the genre. “My name is John Harrington. I am 30 years old. I am a paranoiac,” begins Hatchet For The Honeymoon (1968). Stephen Forsyth’s blue eyed psycho-killer is a bridal fashion designer who gleefully kills young brides as a form of radical therapy. Bava’s thriller is a gorgeous film full of delirious imagery – Stephen kissing and dancing with his bridal mannequins, murder scenes melting into visions – slight on narrative but truly and beautifully insane. As we creep further into Harrington’s paranoid existence reality and madness intertwine in a subjective nightmare he may never escape. Bava’s mod murder mystery 5 Dolls For An August Moon (1970) is a silly thriller from a tired script attacked with bravura cinematic style: a brilliant rack focus from the barrel of a rifle to the eyeball literally floating in close-up in the scope, a cascade of glass bubbles down a flight of stairs and into the bathtub where the next victim lies, and the surreal spectacle of victims wrapped in plastic and hung in a meat locker. It’s all in the execution: great color, cool style, a groovy score by Piero Umiliani and a wonderfully wry coda.

The Gothic atmosphere of “Baron Blood”

With Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood, 1971), Bava takes a harder, more coldly brutal approach to the gory spectacle. Dubbed the godfather of the modern slasher genre (a dubious honor), Bava’s gruesome horror picture is like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians set free of logic. The cascade of murders isn’t so much a campaign as a competition, the prize being the oceanfront land left by the countess (memorably and brutally killed in the first scene). It’s all rather confusing and mostly an excuse for a series of stylish but gory murders, notably a couple in coitus speared clean through (an effect recreated in the original Friday the 13th) and a beheading punctuating with a close-up of the spewing stump, but even that won’t prepare you for the coldly shocking coda. The proto-slasher picture is for fans of the genre only, but it is one of the best of its kind.

Baron Blood (1972) returns Bava to his Gothic horror roots with this ghostly thriller: a magnificent castle, an ancient curse, a cruel killer from the past resurrected by his ancestor to continue his reign of terror. It’s like a throwback to Roger Corman’s Poe films shot through with gory killings and gorgeous imagery a la Bava. “Sadist. Murderer. Merely matters of terminology,” smiles a reincarnated Joseph Cotten with an ominous tremble in his voice that belies his seemingly frail, wheelchair-bound body, as he shows off the “fake” bodies that adorn his tower spikes and tape recorded screams fill the soundtrack.

Elke Sommer - lost and delirious in "Lisa and the Devil"
Elke Sommer – lost and delirious in “Lisa and the Devil”

On first glance the murder melodrama Lisa and The Devil (1973) looks like a typically lush Bava shocker, but there’s something much more sinister under the surface. Sardonic, lollipop sucking butler Telly Savalas manipulates his own behind-the-scenes psychodrama for the benefit of innocent American Elke Sommer, and his motivations – as well as his identity – become part of the game. It was a passion project for Bava and the passion can be seen in every exquisitely composed, deliriously surreal image. Mixing slasher movie and ghost story conventions in a puzzle box of a script full of devilish mindgames, Bava drops the bottom out of genre expectations and creates a genuinely surreal nightmare horror film. When the lovely but uncommercial dream shocker proved unreleasable in the US, new scenes were shot with Robert Alda as a priest exorcising the devil in Miss Sommer and The House Of Exorcism was clumsily cobbled together from it, a bizarre mess that nonetheless features a couple of delirious new scenes. Both are available on DVD.

Bava was unable to finish his penultimate film, the gritty, brutal crime thriller Rabid Dogs (1974), after his producers declared bankruptcy and the workprint was impounded. It was eventually released in 1997, 17 years after his death in 1980 at the age of 65. But he did complete one last film before he died. Shock (1977) was co-written with his son, Lamberto Bava. Lamberto had been an assistant to his father since Kill, Baby… Kill and later assisted Dario Argento before staking out his own prolific career as a horror director in his own right (most notably on the Argento-produced Demons and Demons 2). Mario, like his father before him, taught his son the family business, and if Lamberto lacks the elegance and eye for imagery of his father, he at least learned a thing or two about staging a murder for the camera from his dad.

In Bava’s horror films, murder becomes an elaborate, usually sadistic, tightly choreographed dance of death. Plot and character is secondary to spectacle, delivered in lurid color and brought to life with a gliding camera. But his legacy is more than simply the magnificent choreography of murder on screen. He was a craftsman whose gorgeous cinematic textures are far more involving than the “realism” that took over the genre in the 1970s, and an artist who consistently created terror from simple but unnerving images: the dead eyes of a corpse staring accusations at a thief in Black Sabbath, a ghostly girl reminding a village of its sin in Kill, Baby… Kill, corpses hanging like sides of beef in 5 Dolls For an August Moon. He was a dedicated professional within the “low” culture of Italian exploitation cinema who lifted every project with his commitment to excellence and his passion for sculpting art from the materials at hand. When offered materials of higher grade – the psychosexually-charged script of The Whip and the Body, the resources production of Dino de Laurentis for Danger: Diabolik, the opportunity to dream up his own labyrinthine puzzle-box of mind games and nightmare logic in Lisa and the Devil – he created some of the most entrancing and surprising genre pieces of his time. At his best, Bava was able to channel that passion through his characters to create giallo horror operas the likes of which have never been equaled. The rest is a delirious dance of death from the genre’s master choreographer.

Copyright © 2008 Sean Axmaker

For more on Mario Bava, check out these pieces:

A Short Biography of Mario Bava by Tim Lucas

Mario Bava: The Illusion of Reality by Alain Silver and James Ursini

Mario Bava on Senses of Cinema by Sam Ishii-Gonzales

UPDATE:

Mario Bava @ 100 – A roundup of articles from David Hudson at Keyframe