Bava, Baby, Bava! Three Films from Italy's Horror Maestro

by Michael Barrett

6 October 2017

Kill Baby, Kill (IMDB) 
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Erik the Conqueror

Director: Mario Bava
Cast: Cameron Mitchell, George Ardisson

USDVD release date: 29 Aug 2017

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Roy Colt and Winchester Jack

Director: Mario Bava
Cast: Brett Halsey, Charles Southwood

USDVD release date: 10 Oct 2017

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Kill Baby Kill

Director: Mario Bava
Cast: Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Erika Blanc

USDVD release date: 10 Oct 2017

Credibility is clearly not so important as color, pageantry, pace, and spasms of sadistic display.

As Halloween approaches, let’s consider new Blu-rays of films by horror maestro Mario Bava—but only one of them is a horror film.

Erik the Conqueror (1961) is a giddy Italianized re-imagining of Richard Fleischer’s 1958 hit The Vikings, in which Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis play half-brothers who battle over a kidnapped princess (Janet Leigh). In Bava’s version, two full Viking princes, equally blond and brawny, grow up on opposing sides after a bloody battle routs the Vikings from Scotland.

Presumed dead by the Vikings, lost scion Erik (George Ardisson) has been adopted by Scotland’s historically fictitious Queen Alice (the supremely regal Francoise Christophe). Twenty years after the opening carnage, Erik’s ship is sunk by Viking invaders under the command of his brother Eron (Cameron Mitchell), and Erik miraculously survives to be washed ashore in “the land of the Vikings”. It’s a good thing they all speak Italian.

The miracles don’t end there, for he’s discovered by Rama, a beautiful vestal virgin consecrated to the gods—a Roman idea transplanted with wholesale absurdity into Viking-dom, and why she’s got a Hindu name is anybody’s guess. The virgins’ primary task seems to be staging interpretive dances at gaudily colored sacrifices in front of a giant Yggdrasil-like tree when one of their number lapses from her vows and dallies with a lover. To judge by this plot, that happens a lot.

Rama is one of twin sisters (played by Alice and Ellen Kessler), the other of whom is claimed as Eron’s bride while Rama serves as handmaiden to the imprisoned Queen Alice. As well she might, Rama sees the hand of the gods in all these coincidences, or at least of the screenwriters, and helps Erik and Alice to escape for a final brouhaha in England. The viewer understands that at some point the brothers must finally get around to recognizing each other by the snake tattoos on their pecs, and we wait for this long-lost reunion with as much anticipation as in any Bollywood picture, which are also full of mythically resonant separated siblings.

Credibility is clearly not so important as color, pageantry, pace, and spasms of sadistic display—like the mother and babe pierced by a spear in the grim opening battle, or the twin virgin threatened by a contraption with an hourglass and a tarantula. Bava splashes his typical swathes of luscious color across the wide screen while quietly using his skills with glass mattes and forced perspective to create production values out of thin air that most viewers won’t realize are pure visual trickery.

Sometimes it’s all just a big fight, but certain images and characters have a mythic resonance that seems to come naturally to this filmmaker. Bava historian Tim Lucas provides one of his reliably informative and friendly commentaries that calls attention to effects shots, connects images and themes with other Italian films, and provides background on the actors and other artists. Full discosure: Lucas is a former editor of mine at Video Watchdog, but that just means I know whereof I speak. In an email to me, he speculated that this film’s occasionally blurred edges, in a print struck from the camera negative, are probably the result of being shot in a curved scope format combined with the shrinkage that occurs over time.

We have the choice of watching with the Italian dub or the English dub, neither of which uses Mitchell’s voice. Bonuses on this Blu-ray/DVD pack include a visual essay comparing and contrasting the film with The Vikings, and a one-hour audio recording of Lucas’ interview with Mitchell, who rhapsodises about Bava as a person and a director. Mitchell worked with him more than once, including yet another Viking picture, Knives of the Avenger (1966).

* * *

There’s much less to say about the spaghetti western Roy Colt and Winchester Jack (1970), though Lucas says it so well that viewers may wish to consider going directly to his commentary to save 90 minutes out of their lives, for only genre completists or Bava auteurists will be drawn to this admittedly minor project. That said, it focuses on three very attractive actors and maintains a bumpy light-heartedness and sexiness that aren’t so common to this genre.

According to Lucas, Bava accepted this assignment at the last minute, threw out the script, and announced that they were going to make it up as a spoof as they went along. Lucas points out foreshadowings of Sergio Leone’s Duck You Sucker (1971), a.k.a. A Fistful of Dynamite, and I wish to observe what seem to me stronger links to George Roy Hill and William Goldman’s 1969 hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with which Bava must have been familiar. There’s the easy-going vibe of a virtual romance between two hunky male outlaws who seem to share a woman, there’s the use of dynamite, there’s a brothel scene, and there’s a score of decidedly anachronistic pop motifs. Even the title would seem to echo the earlier film.

Roy (Brett Halsey) and Jack (Charles Southwood) can’t keep their hands off each other, so they habitually express their feelings with fistfights that invariably leave Jack lying exhausted on the ground, twitching and licking his lips. I’m not making this up. They briefly part ways as Jack rescues an Indian woman named Manila (Marilu Tolo) from bounty hunters and she proceeds to both give him a cold bath and take him to the cleaners in exchange for sex.

She’s accused of killing her husband, but she explains that he deserved it. She’ll spend the movie switching her allegiance to whichever male is in control at the moment, all the better to exploit them for her own purposes, making her by far the smartest and most resourceful figure in the picture—and the one with a large phallic bone that she constantly displays—while the handsome boys go back to wrestling in the dirt.

Piero Umiliani’s music uses a pleasant “twist” theme, and there’s an opening prog-folk-type song by a group called Free Love. These are among the most enjoyable elements in a film that doesn’t display Bava’s visual panache, though Lucas points out some of his economical trick shots and draws thematic connections to other Bava projects. I’ll add that the use of a man in drag during the brothel scene, in which the film’s homo-erotic subtext briefly and literally bursts through the screen into the foreground, perhaps unwittingly calls forth the horror masterpiece Bava made the same year, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, and possibly another film we’re about to mention.

* * *

The Bava Blu-ray that’s sure to attract viewers is the long-delayed release of Kill Baby, Kill, or to give it the full punctuation loaded upon it by AIP’s American distribution, Kill, Baby, Kill Its previously scheduled Kino Lorber DVD of several years ago got quashed at the last minute by rights issues. Those are evidently cleared, and here it is all lush and spooky and looking better than I’ve ever seen it.

Of the three films discussed here, this is the one most worth watching and the one we’ll discuss the least, for this gothic ghost story is more or less about atmosphere itself, about its own tone of graceful and colorful unease. The emphasis on ambiance matches its Italian title, which translates to “Operation Fear”, as the film demonstrates how fear creates and fulfills itself through conviction, stylistic and otherwise. Bava’s mastery of lighting and movement, combined with his taste for the macabre, orchestrates several chilling and uncanny moments best discovered for yourself.

The deceptively simple story involves a civilized doctor (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) scoffing at superstitious Carpathian villagers who believe they’re being terrorized by the malevolent ghost of a little girl. Naturally, modern science doesn’t know its elbow from a void in the fabric of reality, but at least the good doctor gets to meet a local hottie (Erika Blanc) who’s somehow connected to the increasingly palpable aura of fear and hysteria that eventually dislocates the narrative into a form of delirium.

That stereotypically innocent-looking, ball-bouncing, giggling little blonde girl has resonated through the history of horror, most immediately in Federico Fellini’s “Toby Dammit” segment of Spirits of the Dead (1968), and more recently in the endless series of Japanese spirit-girls with long black hair. She serves as a link between the deadly moppets of Village of the Damned (1960)  and the imminent wave of demonic children kicked off by Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and coming to fruition with The Exorcist (1974), which had its own effect on Italian horror. She also inspired Martin Scorcese’s conception of the Devil in The Last Temptation of Christ  (1988).

Just to further mess with our heads, the little girl is actually played by a little boy, and Lucas reports that the kid wasn’t too thrilled with the role. It’s too much to project the horror as confusion over sexual identity, since the audience isn’t supposed to recognize a deception that belongs to Bava’s roster of meticulously disguised effects, but we can’t help observing that this is neither the first nor the last killer in drag in horror cinema.

The Blu-ray offers the option of the English or Italian tracks, plus Lucas’ commentary (also on Arrow Video’s UK edition of this title), an interview with Blanc, and a visit by Lamberto Bava (Mario’s son) to the film’s locations. Pleasant dreams.

Erik the Conqueror

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Roy Colt and Winchester Jack

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Kill Baby Kill

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