Planet of the Vampires (1965) takes his eerie imagery into sci-fi territory for a haunted spaceship story on a misty otherworldly planet, a primeval landscape of jagged rocks, bubbling lakes of lava mud and purple skies. It's a triumph of atmosphere and alien design over tension, and enormous skeletons of alien creatures in an ancient interstellar shipwreck look suspiciously like the ancestors of Ridley Scott's Alien.
Kill, Baby... Kill (1966) harkens back to the gothic style with a delirious colorscape. Bava floods the streets of his turn of the century Italian village with red, blue and green light, a surreal day-for-night look that only enhances the otherworldly atmosphere of the eerie gothic ghost story with a homicidal edge. The spooky little girl who is death, a creepy vision in white who drives her victims to gruesome ends with a chilling giggle, surely inspired Federico Fellini's chapter of Spirits of the Dead.
Meanwhile Bava continued to play in other genres: Viking pictures (Erik the Conqueror, 1961; Knives of the Avenger, 1966), western (Roy Colt and Winchester Jack, 1970), sex farce (Four Times That Night, 1969), spy spoof (Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, 1966); the breezy, playfully lighthearted "American abroad" thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much, 1963). Danger: Diabolik (1968) is a wild standout of the period. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis as the stylistic follow-up to his international hit Barbarella, Bava's adaptation of the iconic Italian comic book series is an anarchic, surreal mix of spy movie, heist thriller, and anti-establishment satire. The master thief anti-hero (a deadpan John Philip Law with eyes in a permanent state of furrowed intensity) doesn't merely steal from the rich, he flaunts his anti-establishment credentials by heisting government bills in transit, blowing up tax offices, and then planning his heist-de-resistance: stealing the government's entire gold reserve, which has been melted into a single Godzilla-sized brick for transport. Tongue-in-cheek when it isn't simply, madly absurd, it's a fab op-art design-fest drenched in comic-book color, directed with campy energy, and set to a goofy pop-weird soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.
But the horror film made Bava's reputation and he kept returning to add more colors to the genre. With Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood, 1971), Bava takes a harder, more coldly brutal approach to the gory spectacle. Dubbed the godfather of the modern slasher genre (a dubious honor), Bava's gruesome horror picture is like Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians set free of logic. Baron Blood (1972) returns Bava to his gothic horror roots, but plays like a throwback to Roger Corman's Poe films shot through with gory killings.
On first glance, the murder melodrama Lisa and the Devil (1973) looks like a typically lush Bava shocker, but there's something much more sinister under the surface. Sardonic, lollipop-sucking butler Telly Savalas manipulates his own behind-the-scenes psychodrama for the benefit of innocent American Elke Sommer, and his motivations - as well as his identity - become part of the game. It was a passion project for Bava and the passion can be seen in every exquisitely composed, deliriously surreal image. Mixing slasher movie and ghost story conventions in a puzzle box of a script full of devilish mindgames, Bava drops the bottom out of genre expectations and creates a genuinely surreal nightmare horror film.
Bava was unable to finish his penultimate film, the gritty, brutal crime thriller Rabid Dogs (1974), after his producers declared bankruptcy and the workprint was impounded. It was eventually released in 1997, 17 years after his death in 1980 at the age of 65. But he did complete one last film before he died. Shock (1977) was co-written with his son, Lamberto Bava. Lamberto had been an assistant to his father since Kill, Baby... Kill and later assisted Dario Argento before staking out his own prolific career as a horror director in his own right (most notably on the Argento-produced Demons and Demons 2). Mario, like his father before him, taught his son the family business, and if Lamberto lacks the elegance and eye for imagery of his father, he at least learned a thing or two about staging a murder for the camera.
In Bava's horror films, murder becomes an elaborate, usually sadistic, tightly choreographed dance of death. Plot and character is secondary to spectacle, delivered in lurid color and brought to life with a gliding camera. But his legacy is more than simply the magnificent choreography of murder on screen. He was a craftsman whose gorgeous cinematic textures are far more involving than the "realism" that took over the genre in the 1970s and an artist who consistently created terror from simple but unnerving images: the dead eyes of a corpse staring accusations at a thief in Black Sabbath, a ghostly girl reminding a village of its sin in Kill, Baby... Kill, corpses hanging like sides of beef in 5 Dolls For an August Moon. He was a dedicated professional within the "low" culture of Italian exploitation cinema who lifted every project to excellence with his commitment and his passion for sculpting art from the materials at hand. When offered materials of higher grade - the psychosexually-charged script of The Whip and the Body, the resources of Dino de Laurentis for Danger: Diabolik, the opportunity to dream up his own labyrinthine puzzle-box of mind games and nightmare logic in Lisa and the Devil - he created some of the most entrancing and surprising genre pieces of his time. At his best, Bava was able to channel that passion through his characters to create giallo horror operas the likes of which have never been equaled. The rest is a delirious dance of death from the genre's master choreographer.
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