“Movies are a magician’s forge, they allow you to build a story with your hands–at least, that’s what it means to me. What attracts me in movies is to be presented with a problem and be able to solve it. Nothing else; just to create an illusion, an effect, with almost nothing.” –Mario Bava
Mario Bava was born on July 31, 1914 in the coastal northern Italian town of San Remo. His father was a cinematographer in the early days of Italian cinema. Bava made his film debut in the early 1940’s working on films that featured such names as Gina Lollobrigida, Steve Reeves and Aldo Fabrizi. Bava was thrust into the position of director when then current director Riccardo Freda walked away from the set of the film I vampiri (aka The Devil’s Commandment) in 1956; Bava filled in and the rest is history.
In 1960 Bava directed his first feature film, Black Sunday, featuring cult film star Barbara Steele. Even though the film was in black and white, it was still chilling and gave filmgoers a taste of what was to come for the next twenty years. Bava is the father of director Lamberto Bava (Demons).
Click through the list to view some of his finest films…
1Black Sunday (1960)
In 1630 Moldovai, a witch named Asa (Barbara Steele) and her lover, is put to death by her brother. Before being burned at the stake, a metal spiked mask is hammered into place; Asa curses her brother and all of his descendants, so you know that she will be back to gain revenge. Two centuries later a pair of travelers are waiting for their coach to be repaired and they stumble upon the ancient tomb. An accidental cut on the hand unknowingly drips blood onto the ancient corpse and that is all it takes to awaken the sleeping horror.
Outside the two visitors meet Katia (Barbara Steele in a duel role); she tells the men that she lives in a nearby haunted castle with her father Prince Vajda and Brother Constantine. Now awakened because of the spilled blood, Asa awakens her pal and the two prepare to unleash a wave of revenge filled terror.
The real attraction here, besides the haunting beauty of Steele, is Bava’s atmospheric gothic filled sets and his sure fire direction of the action. I command you to seek this film out!
2The Girl that Knew Too Much (1963)
Another gorgeous black and white production from Bava, this time we are in modern Rome and Nora Davis (Letícia Román) is on vacation when she witnesses a murder. Unfortunately no one believes her, except for a young doctor named Marcello (John Saxon); soon the two uncover a connection between the current murder and a series of unsolved homicides called ‘The Alphabet Murders.’
This film, which owes a debt to the cinema of Hitchcock, stands on its own merits as what is now known as the genre Giallo (Italian for yellow). Many of the reappearing elements that appear in the genre received their start here: a black gloved killer whose identity is hidden from the viewer, a killer that favors a knife, an eyewitness to a crime who isn’t sure of just exactly did they see. Dario Argento and others would take this idea and run with it for sure: check out Suspira or Tenebrae to see how the genre has developed from Bava’s blueprint of mystery.
Make sure that you screen the Italian version of this film; the American version (The Evil Eye) has been re-edited and re-scored and the overall effect is lessened.
3Black Sabbath (1963)
Originally entitled The Three Faces of Fear in Italian, this is a French-Italian production that is comprised of three separate tales of the macabre. For this film, Bava had graduated to the use of color and it is here that we really can see the wonders of his compositions and set design.
Bava featured British actor Boris Karloff as a host and the horror actor adds an air of dignity to the film. First is a tale of menace through the telephone as a French call girl returns to her home only to be terrorized by a series of calls, each more violent than the previous, until the caller makes a personal appearance and dispatches with the girl. The next story is The Wurdalak, based on a Tolstoy novella; Boris Karloff really shines here as he portrays the head of a Russian family that has returned from the hunt apparently changed, and not for the better either. The third tale is The Drop of Water and it is the hair raising best of the trilogy, based on a Chekov short story.
Bava’s use of colored gels is incredible as he illuminates a scene so that it looks positively eerie, a common sitting room becomes a nightmare of shadows and creepy sound effects. Again I must warn against watching the English dubbed version of this film; seek out the Arrow version (Region 2) or the Kino Blu Ray version.
4The Whip and the Body (1963)
It was around this time that good old Roger Corman had started directing his Poe influenced gothic masterpieces on the cheap, so too is it Bava’s turn to produce a true gothic chiller complete with a large castle with endless corridors, lots of drapes and hanging tapestries, and a small cast that featured Christopher Lee and Daliah Lavi.
The plot here is concerned with a 19th century nobleman that has a sadistic streak; soon he is found dead, but his spirit returns to haunt the castle and torment the remaining family members. This film is Bava at his most Bava-esque; the haunted family estate, the vivid cinematography, the incredible and moody use of color, the element of De Saadian sexuality that inhabits the backstory. The ultimate result is a feeling of constant dread as the film continues; is Kurt (Lee) alive or dead; who is that is walking the hallways at night, and who will be the next to meet their demise?
Granted that this film is a bit of an acquired taste especially the beginning which can be rather disorienting, but once it gets under way, it is well worth the effort. Make sure that you spring for the Kino Lorber Blu Ray version to get the most of Bava’s fevered visions.
5Blood and Black Lace (1964)
A mysterious masked killer is stalking and murdering the models of the Christian Haute Couture fashion house in Rome. The owner of the house, the wealthy widow, Contessa Cristina Como (Eva Bartok) tries to keep everyone in line, but after the first body is found outside the building, panic ensues. The calm Inspector starts to ask questions and everyone is starting to look suspicious; perhaps they are selling more than just stylish clothes at the Haute Couture, perhaps drugs as well. Meanwhile the killer strikes again.
Bava hits a high mark with this stylish thriller, and the audience is kept on the edge of their seats guessing who the killer is as the body count grows, each murder more gruesome than the one before. This film really comes across more as a vivid painting thanks to Bava’s inspired use of colors and shadows and the soundtrack is excellent making use of a wonderful score by Carlo Rustichelli. Fashion truly can be murderous in Bava’s hands!
6Planet of the Vampires (1964)
Two spaceships make a stop on a seemingly empty planet after they receive a distress signal from there only to find more than they bargained for. The dead inexplicably rise from their graves, crew members suddenly begin attacking each other, and the crew are deep in a trap before they realize the repercussions of their actions. Misleadingly titled, there are no vampires, this film can be traced as a definite influence on the Alien series.
Bava does wonders with a low budget and a handful of optical effects that help camouflage the smaller budget however the film still delights the eye with its foggy landscape, hip space suits, and giant skeletons that hint at a world that has been abandoned. My only complaint regarding this film is that the script is rather lame and that none of the characters really come alive, so when they are in danger of being killed, I am rather bored than concerned. Nevertheless Bava still manages to produce a surprisingly likeable product and it is only 88 minutes long!
7Kill, Baby, Kill (1966)
Bava returns once again to familiar surroundings; this time a small village in the Transylvanian mountains is the setting. Here a series of mysterious suicides have occurred and it is being investigated by traveling physician, Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart). Apparently the superstitious villagers believe that the deaths are being caused by the ghost of a little girl that died in an accident 20 years earlier. The tight lipped villagers won’t disclose anything and the only clue may be found at Villa Graps, a rotting old mansion where the Baroness Graps (Giovanna Galletti) has mourned the death of her daughter Melissa for the past twenty years.
This is where Bava really exceeds: his camera restlessly moving as it roams through the empty corridors past cobwebbed mirrors and suits of armor, the creepiness factor is turned up high as we hear the sound of a little girl’s laughter on the soundtrack, or the music box motif that plays repeatedly signifying that the dead girl is near. In Kill, Baby Kill, Bava has created a cinematic ghost story that is almost perfect.
8Danger: Diabolik (1968)
Based on a comic book as its source material, Danger: Diabolik is pure faddish entertainment. Imagine a James Bond style thriller with over the top plotting and all types of high-tech gadgetry and a dash of sci-fi thrown in. Diabolik (John Phillip Law) is a master criminal that plots and executes all kinds of wild felonious acts only to the frustrations of local law enforcement in the form of Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli).
This film was produced by the Dino DeLaurentiis studios and was released at the same time as the Jane Fonda vehicle, Barbarella, except that Diabolik doesn’t take itself as serious and hence is a lot more entertaining. The entire film possesses the frenetic appearance of a comic strip come to life with Bava making use of all of his usual camera tricks, wild set designs, and a frantic zoom in and reversed zoom out that gives the film its wild 60’s appearance.
Fans of cinema of the fantastic should take note of this film.
9Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970)
A wealthy industrialist named Stark (No, not Tony Stark) invites a group of ten friends to his private island for a relaxing weekend, but soon enough danger intrudes and the bodies begin to pile up. Bava used Agatha Christie’s familiar plot from her story Ten Little Indians to adopt the screenplay for Five Dolls, and he would return to this device when filming Bay of Blood.
In this project, Bava was strictly talent for hire, but he still manages to imprint his own unique style upon a rather mundane thriller. Bava already known for his exceptional lighting and design style and here he has the usual prowling camera, the crazy zooming lens, and of course, his love of colors literally jumps out to the viewer. There’s plenty of eye candy on display here, including the wildly gyrating Edwige Fenech at the center of a swank party scene.
Bava displays his subtle sense of humor as the bodies are non-ceremoniously placed, wrapped in plastic sheeting into a large meat locker, like so many pieces of meat. And what was it that Hitchcock said about actors being merely cattle? This film also features a very groovy score courtesy of Piero Umiliani-get ready to shake your groove thing as the killer gets busy.
10Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970)
With his bold use of color, Bava returns to the world of high fashion once again, this time the setting is a bridal gown studio as John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth), the owner, narrates a voice over where he questions his own sanity. Apparently he is a total paranoid schizophrenic and has already murdered five woman, three of whom are buried in the greenhouse. Harrington is haunted by a childhood trauma, and he is trying to get to the bottom of it by murdering young models that work in his studio.
By placing us into the tortured mind of the narrator, Bava uses a warped psychology that makes us unwilling witnesses to the violent acts that he employs. “A woman should only live only until her wedding night,” is his tenent. “Love once and then die!” Harrington obviously has a beef with the fairer sex, and his wife (Laura Betti), who he kills, only returns to haunt him, bitterer and nastier than ever.
Bava makes great use of the various mannequins that fill the showrooms as his camera swoops around, their bodies occupying the screen with outstretched limbs, inducing goosebumps in the viewer for sure.
11Bay of Blood AKA Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971)
This is pretty much the beginning of the modern splatter film as character development takes a backseat to body count, grisly manners of death, and sex, gore and nudity; sounds like fun to me! We can easily trace the money making franchise of Friday the 13th series to Bava’s Giallo inspired film.
We start with the murder of reclusive countess Federica (Isa Miranda) which sets off a chain reaction of murder as the greedy relatives swoop in to get their share of the old lady’s estate (which is near a moody lakefront setting, hello Camp Crystal Lake), there is also a secondary story line involving some vacationing teenagers that are eager to get it on, the more the merrier, right? Thirteen characters are all summarily disposed of, but not all by the same killer, in lots of nasty ways, including machete, spear, and other clever means.
Many of these deaths were totally ripped off by Friday the 13th, Part II, but this is the source material for this and a plethora of splatter films to follow. This film also features an outstanding soundtrack by the talented Stelvio Cipriani; he and Bava would work together later on several more films. This film features a black humor that Bava was known for, and there are several scenes where the laughs will come uneasily. Bloody but good!
12Baron Blood (1972)
Bava is back to the creepy castle settings that he seems to favor once again. This time out Joseph Cotten is the star of the show along with Elke Summers who is along to look good tied to the rack and appropriately squirming. Peter Kleist (Antonio Cantafora), an American student on holiday in Austria, foolishly announces that he is dying to dig up some old family ghosts, and that is exactly what he gets when he recites an ancient incantation that brings the sadistic count Baron Otto von Kleist (Cotten) back to life.
This film, next to one of the master’s last, features his typical stylish camerawork, uneven pacing, an evocative score, the usual lack of plot and some dazzling atmospherics; in essence it is a Gothic Italian horror film. The plot does feature some holes and the story drags at time, but there is no mistaking that this is a Mario Bava film, featuring some great foggy chase scenes with atmospheric lighting imbuing the film with a sense of menace and gloom.
13Rabid Dogs (1974)
After a botched robbery and losing one of their gang, three remaining criminals kidnap a woman and flee in a hijacked vehicle that carries a father driving his sick son to the hospital. We are inserted into this claustrophobic scene by Mario Bava as he gives us a final change up after years of moody and colorful scenarios.
Replacing gothic mist filled crypts and abandoned castles, we are instead rather brazenly thrust into the modern world with all of its harsh aspects included as the three desperados take control of the car and its inhabitants. Tensions run high as all of the occupants are naturally stressed out by their situations and we as viewers are forced along for the ride with Bava’s subjective camerawork.
This film almost never saw the light of day as Bava died before its completion and its main investor was killed in an auto accident. It remained unseen until 1998, when its lead actress, Lea Lander, raised funding for the film and released a version in Germany. Then a few years later producer Alfredo Leone bought back the rights to the film and brought in son Lamberto Bava to supervise the project; he renamed it Kidnapped and added his own cuts, also he had orginal soundtrack composer Stelvio Cipriani re-score the film.
This version of the film is a lesser presentation in my opinion and doesn’t totally represent what the director had in mind, so buyer beware! The bad guys include scenery chewer George Eastman (Porno Holocaust)! I guess this is a suitable end to a incredible career, but no matter what this list gives one plenty of food for thought concerning this amazing talent!