By Sean Axmaker
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 the country'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 Esther and 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 a good 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 US release.
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. 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 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 cited this one as his favorite of all his films.
The hauntingly beautiful Black Sunday established the foundations of the giallo - sex, sadism, and high style - and The Telephone 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. But it's with Blood and Black Lace (1964) that 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. This is the seed from which Dario Argento's baroque ecstasies of style and sadism grew.
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