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BAMcinématek’s recent Mario Bava series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinemas showcased the work of a wonderfully talented and overlooked filmmaker whose career influenced some of the best-known directors of recent decades. Many of the films here would have languished in obscurity without the restoration efforts of Bava producer Alfredo Leone, who closed the series with a Q&A session.
Mario Bava specialized in the Italian horror genre — giallo — that combines erotic thrills with an excess of gore, and which gave rise to U.S. slasher films like the Friday the 13th series. Not limited to gialli, Bava also made science fiction films, psychedelic sex comedies, action epics, and a spaghetti Western; moreover, his work has inspired B-movie devotees Tim Burton, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven.
Unlike these luminaries, however, the shy Bava never quite achieved the critical success he deserved in his lifetime. Since his death in 1980, he has become a cult figure revered for his pioneering odd camera angles; psychedelic color schemes; expressionistic lighting; and the “shock zoom” technique (to frightening and hilarious effect). Compared to the recent resurgence of the U.S. horror films (corny thrillers that try so hard to be creepy, like Identity, The Ring, or The Mothman Prophecies), the Bava retrospective offered a refreshing look at one of the most sophisticated and humorous innovators of the genre.
Trained as a painter, Bava’s techniques were honed during his many years as a cinematographer and special effects designer. A master illusionist, Bava repeatedly made films about deceptive appearances. In most of the 10 films in “The Baron of Blood” retrospective, superficial signs of “goodness” (beauty or wealth) often mask avarice, decay, sadism, and ancient ancestral horrors.
Four films in the series — Black Sunday, Baron Blood , Planet of the Vampires, and Roy Colt and Winchester Jack — demonstrate Bava’s talents as a director, scenarist, and lighting and special effects technician. They are also testaments to the range of styles and subject matter in Bava’s canon. The first two are gialli; Planet of the Vampires is a sci-fi/horror hybrid that was the blueprint for Ridley Scott’s Alien; and Roy Colt and Winchester Jack is a Western spoof that trades Bava’s characteristic gothic thrills for campy slapstick.
A loose adaptation of a Gogol story, Black Sunday marks Bava’s solo directorial debut (he had helmed two previous features after their directors jumped ship). An erotically charged, gothic masterpiece, Black Sunday also jumpstarted the career of 1960s British horror diva Barbara Steele, who plays dual roles here — the virginal princess Katya and her ancestor, the evil vampiress Asa. In the film’s brutal opening, a 17th century Moldavian mob nail a spiked iron mask to Asa’s face. Two hundred years later, city doctor Kruveian (Andrea Checchi) and his protégé Gorobec (John Richardson) come upon Katya in her family castle when their coach breaks down. In the decaying family chapel, they come upon a massive catafalque and inadvertently awaken the rotting Asa, who summons from the grave her companion Javutich (Arturo Domincini), a mustachioed Prince Valiant look-alike. While Asa turns their ancestors into living dead, Katya swoons over the young Gorobec.
With the Asa/Katya duality, Bava explores familiar tensions. As Katya laments her passing youth, Asa spends a good part of the film desperately fighting her way back to eternal youth and life. The two eventually become linked when Asa finds a way to suck the vitality from her descendent, and Asa’s vampirism suggests the lengths to which the self-obsessed Katya may go to preserve her own youth. In his very first film, then, Bava sets up the themes of eroticism and decay that he would use throughout his career, using vampirism to expose the emptiness of cultural values.
In Baron Blood, Joseph Cotton plays another resurrected villain returned to haunt his ancestors, but where Black Sunday is all 19th-century literary romance and ruin, Baron Blood mixes lounge music, psychedelica, and Germanic Renaissance art, appropriate since the film is set in 1970s Austria. This time, a scion awakens his evil ancestor, the homicidal maniac Baron von Kleist. The descendent Peter (Antonio Cantaforo) arrives in Austria from America to visit the Baron’s legendary castle and tries to impress blond beauty Eva (Elke Sommer) by bringing the Baron back to life with an ancient spell. The spell works — both on Eva, who falls in love with Peter, and on the Baron, who rises from the dead — and soon enough, Baron Blood is back in the killing business.
Hideously disfigured from his death by burning, the Baron assumes the guise of the rich and mysterious Otto Bekker (Cotton) through some vague black magic. Though the ugly Baron evokes little sympathy, the Baron-as-Bekker easily gains the confidence of Peter and Eva. Where beauty masked decay and narcissism in Black Sunday, in Baron Blood, wealth and sophistication are fronts for sadism and bloodlust.
In the midst of all this obvious evil, Bava’s “innocents” are never mere bystanders, but implicated by their desires. In Black Sunday, the horror begins when Gorobec decides to investigate the haunted castle and is drawn into the world of beautiful depressive Katya. In Baron Blood, wealthy sophisticates Eva and Peter awaken the Baron because they’re fascinated by his legend. Whether the aphrodisiac is beauty, wealth, or power, the result is carnage, and lots of it.
Carnage abounds in Planet of the Vampires (1965), a weird, colorful, and frequently goofy sci-fi, horror hybrid. Spaceship Captain Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan) leads his leather-clad crew of the Argos to their doom when he responds to a distress call from a mist-shrouded planet and finds a sister ship, the Galliot, in dire circumstances. Something on the planet has forced the Galliot’s crew to kill each other, and nearly makes the Argos shipmen do the same. While exploring the planet, the crew discovers the crew of the Galliot has risen from the grave.
Captain Markary learns that they, like the Galliot before them, have become hosts for an alien race of parasites. Markary confronts Captain Sallis (Massimo Righi), apparently the only survivor of the Galliot crew and, conveniently, Markary’s brother. Though Sallis appears “normal,” the captain tears open his brother’s uniform to reveal nothing but rotting flesh underneath. He at first seems horrified, but it turns out that Markary has himself long been an alien host, and has manipulated the crew into trusting him to further his sinister motives. In Planet of the Vampires, there are no “good guys.” Corruption runs all the way to the top.
Roy Colt and Winchester Jack (1970), though stylistically an upbeat departure from Bava’s usual gore fests, is yet a harsh critique of human nature. Bandits Roy (Bret Halsey) and Jack (Charles Southwood) hardly bother to conceal their selfish motives — to get the gold and the girl. In a desert treasure hunt, they tangle with a Russian Reverend with a thing for dynamite (Teodoro Corra), and tussle over a Native American prostitute (Marilu Tolo, looking every bit like the teenage Cher), who ultimately drives off with the gold.
Although Roy Colt and Winchester Jack seems like campy fun, it reveals Bava’s usual pessimism in characters who may look “good” on the outside, but inside (not too far, in this case) are greedy and violently antisocial. Bava’s work consistently reveals a deep distrust of surfaces. It is this incessant probing into layers of human motivation that makes Bava’s films so enduring, important, and influential.