• [The Daily] Mario Bava at the Quad

    By David Hudson

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    “To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mario Bava's horror classic Kill, Baby...Kill!,” begins Dustin Chang at ScreenAnarchy, “New York's newly renovated Quad Cinema has organized a near-complete retrospective of the highly influential Italian horror maestro's filmography. But the main draw here is the world premiere and full theatrical run of the 2K restored (courtesy of Kino Lorber) Kill, Baby...Kill!, a gothic masterwork that influenced Fellini, Lynch, Argento, del Toro, J-horror, and countless others.”

    The retrospective Mondo Bava runs from July 14 through 25, but Kill, Baby...Kill! opens today. This “new restoration brightens the corners of Mario Bava’s superb gothic 1966 freak-out, crisply rendering each open grave, rotting skull, Limeade cobweb, and tendril of swirling mist,” writes Alan Scherstuhl in the Village Voice. “The movie is an immersion as much as it is a narrative. As such, it might not be the most thrilling of Bava’s thrillers—I’d name Black Sunday (1960) or A Bay of Blood (1971), both showing on 35 mm prints at Quad Cinema’s 21-film salute to the director—but it’s a powerfully controlled one, inventive in its hauntings, innovative in its camera work (dig that ghost’s-eye POV shot from a child’s swing!), disorienting in its whirl of locations.”

    “Luchino Visconti purportedly led a standing ovation of the film at its Italian premiere,” noted Ed Gonzalez at Slant in 2003. “Indeed, what with all its violent explosions of colors and labyrinthine, almost-monochromatic alleyways seething with expressionistic shadow-play, Kill, Baby…Kill! often plays out like Bava’s answer to Visconti’s equally artificial, sensuous, and deliriously campy Senso.

    Kill, Baby...Kill! whips up a flurry of associations for Fernando F. Croce as well: “This arcane poem of tolling bells and colored mist has its Baudelairean side (‘Sì, evviva a morte!’) . . . A note from The Virgin Spring is adduced for an exceptional long take culminating in the witchy healer wielding thorny branches to exorcise a village girl's fears, the same terrified lass is later stalked in her bedroom by the prowling camera in what could be a lost passage from Tourneur's The Leopard Man.

    “Mario Bava was an experienced cinematographer who worked with the likes of De Sica and Raoul Walsh before becoming a features director around the same time as Sergio Leone,” wrote Roderick Heath some time back at Ferdy on Films. “Bava’s background is obvious in his films, with their creative camerawork and orchestrated lighting. Bava is still far less famous than Leone, partly because of the genre he worked in, partly because of the vagaries of distribution that made his films hard to see, and because he rarely worked with the same level of acting collaborators (one notable exception being Telly Savalas in Lisa e il Diavolo, [1972]). So the realms of artistry found in Mario Bava’s work still rank as hidden treasure to most filmgoers.”

    “What are the most common misunderstandings about Bava and his work?” Dave Canfield asked Tim Lucas in 2007 for what was then Twitch (and is now ScreenAnarchy). The occasion for the question was the publication of Lucas’s gorgeous 1128-page book, Mario Bava: All the Colors of Dark, with an introduction by Martin Scorsese and a forward by Riccardo Freda. Lucas on those misunderstandings: “That he was a hack, that he was zoom-crazy, that the English language versions of his work are representative of his intentions, that he never made a good movie after Black Sunday (as Danny Peary's book Cult Movies once claimed), even that Black Sunday was his debut. When I started writing this book, it was rare to find any positive commentary about Bava.”

    Lucas once wrote a short biography to introduce a special issue of Images, “The Cinema of Mario Bava,” which includes sixteen reviews and an essay by Alain Silver and James Ursini: “The unusual and disquieting visuals of Bava's films seem rooted in a conception of life as an uncomfortable union of illusion and reality. The dramatic conflict for his characters lies in confronting the dilemma of distinguishing between the two perceptions.”

    “Bava never tries to hide his debt to Hitchcock, from his suspense setpieces to a recurring theme of people who can't help themselves from looking at evil, thereby inviting it into their lives,” wrote Keith Phipps at the A.V. Club in 2007.

    In 2012, Budd Wilkins noted at the House Next Door that Bava “displayed a marked affinity for economical, and often improvisatory, effects work, especially the exquisitely detailed matte paintings that often help to enrich the pictorial density of his films.”

    “He had the eye of a great painter and the imagination of a psychopath,” wrote Drew Hunt in the Chicago Reader in 2015.

    “If there was to be a Mount Rushmore-style monument dedicated to four directors whose work pioneered a new form of big screen chills and thrills,” wrote Martyn Conterio in a Bava primer for the BFI, “those giant faces etched in granite on the mountainside would be: Bava, Alfred Hitchcock, Georges Franju and Michael Powell.” And for Little White Lies, Conterio’s written about Bava’s influence on Nicolas Winding Refn, Francis Ford Coppola, and Quentin Tarantino.

    “If Bava manages, more often than not, to transcend the limitations of his material,” wrote Sam Ishii-Gonzales for Senses of Cinema in 2004, “it is because of the strength of his imagery, as well as the evident pleasure he derives from exploring the expressive potential of the medium itself: the ability of film to generate a variety of emotions—most of all, wonder and fear.”

    Updates, 7/8: “The Quad's programmers showcase Bava's versatility and range as a director just by including work from multiple genres, like ‘peplum,’ or sword-and-sandal (Hercules in the Haunted World, Erik the Conqueror, Knives of the Avenger); ‘giallo,’ or murder-mystery (Blood and Black Lace, Evil Eye, A Bay of Blood); and western (Roy Colt and Winchester Jack),” writes Simon Abrams at RogerEbert.com. “Bava was the first Italian director to extensively storyboard his films, as he did with Black Sunday, his first solo directorial credit. He chose and had final say over many creative decisions on his productions, especially the careful blocking and lighting of his films, and the use and creation of many maquettes and multi-layered matte paintings. But Bava was famously shy, and did not always take credit for his various artistic contributions. He took after his father Eugenio in this way . . . Eugenio was also a sculptor turned filmworker that contributed to such historic Italian films as Cabiria and Quo Vadis.

    “Bava’s final theatrical film, 1977’s Shock, doesn’t break any new ground when it comes to story,” grants Chris Shields at Screen Slate, but here, “Bava reveals himself to be not merely a pop-minded colorist and fantasy genius, but a master of camera placement and trickery of the most economical and brilliant sort.”

    Update, 7/12: “Bava was a founding father of the slasher film,” notes Andy Webster in the New York Times. “His Blood and Black Lace (July 16 and 25), from 1964, is a dazzlingly art-directed account of fashion models stalked by a homicidal predator.”

    Updates, 7/15: Nick Pinkerton for Artforum:

    Bava’s Black Sunday appeared the same year as Michelangelo Antonioni’s revolutionary L’Avventura, and though it was assigned a very different level of cultural cachet, Bava’s film was in its own way also an essay on the possibilities of an unchained camera, one whose movements didn’t always need to be obeisant to what characters in the frame were doing. The décor in many of Bava’s contemporary-set movies suggests that he had a more than glancing acquaintance with gallery trends from Op to Pop—Danger: Diabolik, based on a comic series by Angela and Luciana Giussani, particularly has a Zip a Tone feel—though his “modernism” seems more intuitive than intellectual. At times he recalls no one so much as Josef von Sternberg in his gluttony for beauty and his devotion to creating a sense of depth in the film image through layering of textures or delineation of multiple distinct planes of space within a single frame.

    Adrian Curry presents a gallery of posters in the Notebook: “Whereas the European posters are torrid and colorful and painterly, the American posters tend to go for the jugular with exhortations and warnings to the audience: ‘Stare into these eyes!,’ ‘Not since Frankenstein have you seen such horror!,’ ‘Every ticket holder must pass through the final warning station. We must warn you face-to-face!,’ and my favorite: ‘Guaranteed! The 8 Greatest Shocks Ever Filmed!’ I’ll be counting them.”

    Update, 7/17: “A fascinating entry point into Bava’s filmography, Kill, Baby…Kill! exudes all the visual thrills of the director at his extravagant, atmospheric best,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema. “Cited by Scorsese as Bava’s masterpiece, it’s an integral bridge between early and late Bava, but may not satisfy those in search of Bava’s more over-the-top flourishes.”

    Update, 7/22: “Let's remember that Barbara Steele (who screamed rarely in her films) was twenty-two when Mario Bava's Black Sunday first appeared in 1960,” write Daniel Riccuito and David Cairns in the Notebook. “Yet there she was, a virtual child, realizing the ungovernable dream of surrealist impresario André Breton—she made him a prophet six years before his death: ‘Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.’ That fanboys ‘melt’ in the passive act of worshiping Steele is an issue hardly worth discussing. Another matter entirely is Steele's presence (or omnipresence), which, after nearly sixty years, ‘convulses’ our collective devotion.”

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1 comment

  • By Ross McLeod
    July 09, 2017
    04:04 AM

    Great work on the great and still unappreciated Mario Bava !!!! Italian Horror giant alongside Argento and Fulci.
    Reply