Horror Spotlight: Mario Bava Part 1

Shaun Huhn (CineNiche)

Mario Bava

Welcome to the world of Mario Bava, in this two part series we will examine the maestro’s legacy and the films that have been inspired by his artistic vision.

Before the slasher boom of the eighties and before the Italian greats: Michele Soavi, Dario Argento, Ruggero Deodato, and Lucio Fulci there was Mario Bava. There are not many filmmakers who can say that they have created entire sub-genres, let alone spark a genre with nearly each film they made.

Mario Bava considered a career as a painter and received extensive training, but ultimately his father’s profession imbued him with more passion. Mario’s father, Eugenio Bava, was a bit of a renaissance man during the silent film era. He produced sculptures, special effects, matte photography, and was an innovative cinematographer. Mario began to assist his father with camerawork and effects. In the late 1930’s Mario helped Roberto Rossellini shoot two short films, and with Rossellini’s assistance Bava’s name became known throughout Italy. From 1943 to 1956 he shot over 30 films for various directors.

In 1956, Bava was working on I Vampir (The Devil’s Commandment, Lust Of The Vampire) for the filmmaker Riccardo Freda. The film was the first Italian horror production within the sound era. Horror was banned by the Fascist regime throughout the war and the ban wasn’t lifted until the mid-fifties. When Freda found that he couldn’t finish the film on time he walked away from the project. It was then that the studio asked Bava if he could complete it. Bava not only finished the film in days, he also created many of the film’s special effects. The basic premise for I Vampir involves a mad scientist character who kidnaps women and siphons their blood for his crazed lover. There are no traditional Dracula characters, which makes the film extremely different from the Hammer horrors that were being produced at the same time.

In 1958, Mario Bava and Paolo Heusch created Italy’s first science fiction film titled The Day The Sky Exploded. The film acts as a very early precursor to Deep Impact and Armageddon. The narrative unravels with the horrific discovery that a group of meteors are on a collision course with Earth. The irony within the story lies in the fact that we have caused this catastrophe due to our own space exploration. On a mission to the moon, the ship carrying the astronaut malfunctions. The pilot uses the escape pod, and the rocket crashes into an asteroid belt. The explosion throws the meteorites off course and head straight to Earth. To save humankind every nation decides to arm all the nuclear warheads in existence and fire them at the space rocks. The 1950’s were filled with morality tales, whether it was mutations caused by radiation or mad scientists who wanted to play God. Across the globe we were told to fear the advancement of science. In The Day The Sky Exploded our astronaut gives us the moral of the film: “At this moment, the safety of the human race is entrusted to the very weapons that were created for its own destruction. Let us commend ourselves to God.” Due to Bava’s lack of directing credits, Heusch was the sole credit on the film.

Snubbing Bava a name in the credits became a tradition. It continued with Caltiki: The Undying Monster (1959). Again, Bava was working the camera while Riccardo Freda directed. And again, Freda left the set and the studio asked Bava to complete the film. Caltiki involves a blob creature that archaeologists uncover while digging through the Mayan ruins. They are able to kill the beast with fire, but not before it grabs one of the men. A piece of the blob attached itself to him and when they remove it there is little left of his arm. They keep the chunk for further investigation. Scientists learn that the blob grows when it is near radiation, and it just so happens a comet is about to pass Earth and emit large doses of radiation. This is the same comet that passed around the time the Mayan civilization disappeared. By mixing science, history, mythology, and astronomy Caltiki became a rare form of 50’s sci-fi.

In the same year as Caltiki, Bava worked as cinematographer on Jacques Tourneur’s The Giant Of Marathon. Tourneur also stepped away from the production and Bava had to complete it as director. After saving the studio countless times, they offered Bava the chance to create anything his heart desired.

Black Sunday or The Mask of Satan (1960)was Mario Bava’s solo directorial debut. It sets a tone for all of Bava’s work to come. The premise is simple: a vampire witch and her accomplice are condemned to death and wake up two centuries later to drain the blood of her descendants. Italian horror cinema was merely five years old when Bava unleashed his grotesque film. The UK banned it until 1968 and the US made a few cuts and re-dubbed the dialogue for its 1961 release. Even with the cuts, Black Sunday became an international success. After years of being behind the scenes, Bava was finally given the opportunity to direct.

Originally, Black Sunday was conceived from the Russian realist author Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Vij.” In the end, the two stories share nothing in common. Bava refashioned the gothic look of the Universal Studios films from the 1930’s while providing a wholly unique vision. Always the cameraman, Bava created a trend for Italian horror. For better or worse, the filmmakers that followed Bava would sacrifice narrative in lieu of arranging a visual masterpiece.

Black Sunday’s opening shows Princess Asa (Barbara Steele) and her accomplice being burned at the stake. Prior to setting the witch on fire she curses her descendants. A mask is then revealed. The inside of the metal mask is filled with long sharp spikes. They cover Asa’s face and a large mallet comes into frame. They strike and – depending on the version you see – blood sprays out The first few minutes of Black Sunday shocked audiences, and the sequence still stands the test of time.

Two hundred years later we meet Dr. Kruajan and Dr. Gorobek. Their carraige breaks down and while they await its repair the two of them investigate an old cemetery. Dr. Kruajan enters the tomb of Princess Asa and curiosity gets the best of him. He pries off the iron maiden and sees a perfectly preserved princess. When the doctor cuts his hand, the blood spills on Asa, and it begins her revival. Meanwhile, outside the crypt, Dr Gorobek meets the alluring Princess Katia (also played by Barbara Steele). He falls in love with her and vows to protect her. On a parallel timeline, Kruajan becomes enchanted by Asa. She offers him immortality in exchange for his assistance in exacting her revenge.

Through astonishing black and white cinematography, Bava’s tale of duality and the supernatural comes alive. Allan Jones describes Black Sunday perfectly:

“From the fog-shrouded mausoleums to the shadowy castle interiors, Bava elevated tired motifs and the new renditions sparkled.” – from Rough Guide To Horror Movies 2005 Rough Guides Ltd. New York

The same year Bava created Black Sunday he also co-directed Esther And The King (unaccredited). The two films couldn’t me more different. While Black Sunday deals with the supernatural and the occult, Esther And The King was a biblical drama. Esther was not his first foray into the sword-and-sandal. Bava actually had a hand in creating the genre in 1957 when he was the cinematographer on Hercules, then again in 1958 when the genre really began with Hercules Unchained. These films, also known as Peplum, were popular between 1958 through 1965 when they were mainly replaced by the Spaghetti Western. The idea behind these films was to emulate the huge Hollywood productions of films like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, and The Ten Commandments. Any costume drama that was thematically historical or biblical in nature was considered a sword-and-sandal films. After Esther, Bava continued creating these films until he returned to horror in a big way in 1963. His contributions to the genre include Hercules in the Haunted World, Erik The Conqueror, The Wonders of Aladdin, and The Last of the Vikings all released in 1961.

In 1963, Bava secured himself as a horror maestro when he created Black Sabbath, The Whip and The Body, and The Girl Who Knew Too Much. That year, an entirely new sub-genre for horror emerged. The Girl Who Knew Too Much initiated the Giallo cycle that would continue in Italy into the 1980’s. The word Giallo is synonymous with the word yellow. Italy’s post-war era became littered with detective stories. These pulp novels always wore yellow covers, hence the term Giallo. They were incredibly popular, and a lot of the stories were derivative of Hollywood’s Noir films. In their cinematic form, Giallos became known for their explicit violence, red herrings, black gloved killers, scantily clad women, psychological explanations of madness, stylish camerawork, exceptionally robust scores, promotion of tourism, and showing the torment of alienation. Bava transposed the themes featured in the books and ushered in a new market of horror.

The title, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is an allusion to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). The two films have nothing else in common. Bava merely celebrates Hitchcock’s thrillers by using the title. Later versions would cut the film and re-title it The Evil Eye – a far less informative title. Between The Girl… and Bava’s 1964 film Blood and Black Lace all the tropes of Giallo were born. The Girl Who Knew Too Much is Nora Davis (Leticia Roman) and begins with her traveling to Rome. On the plane she reads a Giallo book, which is a clever ploy to set up not only Nora’s inquisitive nature but also to acknowledge the type of film we are viewing. Her trip is supposed to be a holiday, but upon arriving at her Aunt’s home she learns that her aunt is very sick. She meets Dr. Marcello Bassi who is played by a young John Saxon. Later, still her first night in Rome, Nora’s aunt passes away. She goes to inform Dr. Bassi. On her way to the hospital she descends one of Rome’s most famous tourist attractions The Spanish Steps, but along the way she is mugged and knocked unconscious. When she wakes up, she sees a woman stumbling toward her. The unknown woman falls to the ground and we realize she has been stabbed in the back. Nora instinctively moves into the shadows. She sees a bearded man retrieve the blade, and she faints. She wakes up in the hospital and attempts to tell the police what she saw. They don’t believe her: no body, no crime. Nora then takes it upon herself to solve the case.

While The Girl Who Knew Too Much does not feature a black gloved killer and scantily clad women, Bava would include these elements in Blood and Black Lace. The Girl… does feature another famous element of Giallo, the act of perception and what the mind cannot recall. This would be a theme throughout Argento’s work years later. This was Bava’s last black and white film. Later that year he directed Black Sabbath and The Whip and The Body in stunning technicolor.

Black Sabbath is an anthology tale, and each section is directed by Bava. The first story, “The Telephone,” has been edited again and again, so that it is difficult to find the original version of the film. The story involves an upper class call girl who receives threatening phone calls from a pimp that she put in jail. He claims to have escaped and is seeking revenge. The call girl is terrified so she reaches out to her ex, Mary, feeling as though she’s the only one that can help. Unknown to the call girl, Mary has been making the phonecalls herself in an attempt to get back together. Mary comforts her ex and gives her a sleeping pill to calm her nerves. After she’s asleep, Mary decides to write a confession. She doesn’t hear the escaped pimp enter the room. He strangles her, then realizes it is the wrong woman. He then moves on to the sleeping beauty, but she has a knife under her pillow that she uses to kill him. When she sees Mary’s body, she has a complete breakdown. “The Telephone” is the closest to the Giallo films he would be known for in the future. The other tales feature vampires and ghosts.

The Whip and The Body is in essence one of cinemas first depictions of a sadomasochistic relationship. This is the main reason the film had difficulty finding distribution. The film tells the story of Kurt Menliff played by Christopher Lee who is a terrible nobleman. He returns to his family’s castle to wreck havoc on his father, brother, and sister-in-law. Nevenka, his brother’s wife, was once his own love. When he returns, he picks up the whip and begins where he left off. When Kurt is found dead the family rejoices, but not for long. Nevenka’s flogging continues via Kurt’s ghost.

When we continue our look at Bava we will start off with Blood And Black Lace – the perfect Giallo masterpiece. See you soon.

1 Comment

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      1. Maxwell Dean April 6, 2014 at 11:37 pm

        Great article. Mario Bava is my favourite director period.