More Mario Bava Treats!
by Kristin Battestella
More than just horror, Italian director Mario Bava took on a variety of vikings, swords, sandals, and oh yeah, scares, too!
Hercules in the Haunted World – The late Christopher Lee joins Reg Park for his second eponymous 1961 Italian adventure, this time written and directed by Our Man Bava. Although the picture is a little flat now, the pleasant village, deadly raids, strong men, and tunics immediately set the Greco-Roman mood. So what if there's no real introduction until nameless bad guys comically flee at the name Hercules. Delightful colors and murky music shape the villainous scenes with red spotlights and green glows, complimenting the orange mists and colorful Styx storms. Such older entries in the sword and sandal genre are often perceived as hokey haha or Hollywood happy, so it's interesting to have the spooky amid a psychedelic oracle and this underworld quest to save an ethereal soon to be bride. The trials and task sequences, however, are uneven – some are more drawn out while others happen too easily and some are tedious, unnecessary side tracks with seriously bad looking monsters. Fortunately, pretty ladies in need of rescue fill the 90 minutes without resorting to saucy or nudity, and it's bemusing to go along with the mythical Theseus, Persephone, and Deianira for some unexpected conflicts. Lee is of course a suspicious guardian king with ulterior motives, a sly antagonist to the Buff despite his voice being dubbed. There doesn't seem to be English subtitles, either, which would have helped with the names or nonsensical dialogue. Obviously, this is more low budget than some of the earlier American epics and made for the visuals rather than the story, but the tone remains family fanciful even when the fantasy turns dark. This is a better He-Man than the Masters of the Universe movie and a poor man's Conan the Destroyer, however that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Besides, when was the last time we had purple special effects in a film, seriously? I wish modern films would forgo the absurd muscles, ridiculous CGI, and slow motion battles in favor of this kind of Bava lighting, shadows, flair, and mythological feeling.
Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre – Family, friends, and filmmakers including John Carpenter, Tim Burton, Joe Dante, and John Saxon recall the stylish and ground breaking flair from the Man of the Hour in this 2000 documentary. The childhood roots, bemusing anecdotes, and Bava's early camerawork move quickly with rare photographs and movie footage before setting the scene for the visual, violent substance and pushing the erotic horror envelope to come with the likes of Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, Baron Blood, Bay of Blood, and more. The lack of Bava respect stateside and later copycat stylings are also discussed – from poor dub jobs, chopped editing, artistic compromising, and watered down releases to the Lisa and the Devil versus House of Exorcism debacle and shot for shot similarities from Friday the 13th and Alien. Bava's progressive special effects, film trickery, and metaphorical fears were precursors to the slasher genre, and his sword and sandal work, westerns, science fiction, and comedies like Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine are also given note. The time here, however, is unfortunately a little too uneven – we don't learn much about the man himself or even see Bava all that much because too much is spent on giving away great scenes from the aforementioned films. The narration is stiff, several accents and translators may be tough for some viewers to understand, and this career summary isn't anything die hard fans didn't already know. Thankfully, this hour fittingly recognizes Bava's legacy and gives some long due respect. Clip shocks and spoilers aside, this is a nice introduction in giallo education for budding scary enthusiasts.
Shock – Director Mario Bava's 1977 final film opens with a fresh start in old house – but of course, a second husband and happy family times can't compete with dangerous clutter, dusty antiques, and leftover first husband messiness. Though some kid aspects are a little annoying, the psychic tuning, ghostly possession, and scary required for this seemingly aware villa with a spooky basement, creaking doors, claustrophobic brick walls, mysterious objects, and strange occurrences is pretty heavy. Daily child's play and household accidents with glass shattering, crashing shutters, piano slams, sharp scissors, and nasty rakes take on voodoo doll precision as the deadly intentions toward our parents mount. Previous abuses and breakdowns endured, however, cloud whether this supernatural seeing and feeling is real or all in one's mind. The picture quality is somewhat flat, dark, and drab, too, which makes the production look bad or lower budget than it was. Fortunately, there is still a fine color design alongside trademark Bava styled mirrors, lighting, stairs, and shadows with ominous piano music and record players to match. Intercut editing parallels swings, a ticking metronome, and dangerous piloting while moody dreams and hazy past memories add uneasy ambiguity to the nudity, showering, Oedipal shade, icky hands, and beneath the sheets bizarre. This near forty year old familial plot seems ahead of its time and recent attempts on the theme aren't always as good. Yes, a slicing and dicing switchblade flying about is hokey, but we don't have in your face ghosts destroying the illusions here. A frenetic, stressful unraveling contributes to the final unexpected revelations, and the small cast and minimal locations do quite well with the escalating human fears and paranormal hysteria.
A Skipper for Me
Knives of the Avenger – Epic scoring, coastal pretty, Odin worship, prophecy, pillage, and vengeance set the spirit for this 1966 Bava helmed viking adventure starring Cameron Mitchell (also of Blood and Black Lace). For an hour and a half picture, things are slow to start with a lot of padded time before anything actually happens. Confusing anglicized names, uneven dubbing, and contradictory exposition make it tough to tell who is who despite a simple western designed plot. The titular slicing and violence spices up several battles, but this would be good guy defending an exiled mom – who's peasant disguise and regal secret are obvious – and her son ingratiates himself too quickly and conveniently compared to the doom and gloom introduction. Flashback battles with critical backstory should have been fully shown rather than snippet told and narrated. Naturally, this isn't the spectacle of today, but the small scale and low budget is much more hampered than usual. Guilt ridden voiceovers don't gloss over the expected but no less upsetting violence against women, and plot twists make it tough to like the supposed hero even if he is trying to rectify past wrongs. Is it meant to be endearing or quaint if a boy takes to a man who may be his father from a rape or if the queen can't recognize her masked rapist? Would she be interested in her new protector and conflicted over waiting for her husband if she knew he was her past attacker? This isn't romantic – actually, it's repulsive that her violation and point of view are treated as inconsequential plot points. It's tough to enjoy Bava's nuances in color, zooms, and camerawork for the big battle finale when the eponymous avenger is avenging the death of his family by raping another and calling it love. This could have been a sweeping, fun tale, but the story and pace are at best muddled and at worse offensive.