In 1914 the fittingly picturesque coastal city of San Remo, Italy became the birthplace of perhaps the most underappreciated, yet one of the most influential film-makers of the 20th Century. His name was Mario Bava. His father, Eugenio Bava, was a revered special effects artist and cameraman on several silent Italian epics, most notably Cabiria (1914). By eighteen he had developed a passion for fine arts and attended university to study the classics. He left, however, to avoid the gymnastic courses which were mandatory in Mussolini’s Italy and follow his father in a career within film.
To anyone exploring Bava’s filmography, his upbringing in an arts environment will come as no surprise; the magic of his films often stem from his outstanding talent to conjure a truly otherworldly atmosphere though very clever but simple visual tricks. Whether this is the use of colour gels with filters or ingenious combinations of matte backgrounds, glass sheets and perspective, the results are truly magical, especially considering the budgets he was often forced to work with. As he was once quoted;
“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.” –
At the outbreak of World War Two Bava received his first film credit on Robert Rossellini’s early short subject Il Tacchino Prepotence, translated as The Bullying Turkey, but did not make any moves toward directing until the late 40’s with examples such as L’orecchio (1946) and Santa notte (1947).
I Vampiri (1956) and Caltiki: The Immortal Monster (1959), were the films where audiences would have caught the first true glimpse of Bava’s talents. The former, loosely drawing inspiration from the real life case of Countess Bathory, was Italy’s first Italian horror film of the sound era. Horror films had been banned under the country’s fascist rulers. Following the regime’s fall, foreign genre films, including Andre De Toth’s House of Wax (1953) were big box-office hits. I Vampiri, a collaboration with Bava’s friend and fellow film-maker, Riccardo Freda, with Bava as cameraman and cinematographer, was born from an artistic desire to capitalise on this trend. When Freda left the film’s production after 10 days Bava stepped in and finished the film.
Despite his talents, domestic audiences were unwilling to accept that their fellow countrymen could make a film in the same dark vein and it was a domestic failure. It was, however, a success overseas and ultimately influenced a Gothic revival within Italian cinema. Bava’s use of deep-focus, elaborate compositions and inky lighting all lend a distinct visual identity to the film, techniques he would perfect in Black Sunday with stunning impact.
Caltiki came from another idea of Freda’s after noting the success of Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). Here a shapeless Mayan entity takes the place of Quatermass’s alien form, with Bava again handling special effects and cinematography. His contribution here produces striking sequences, such as a doomed character’s introduction through a highly expressive, back-lit background. Freda left the film early, as he did with I Vampiri, to help showcase Bava’s extraordinary skills to its producer, Lionello Santi. He felt that Bava’s talent and work were not recognised by other film-makers, due to his humble and shy nature. Reflecting on this fact, it is perhaps due to my own shy nature that I identify with both Bava and his films.
After further special effects work on Hercules and Hercules Unchained Bava became involved in Jacques Tourneur’s The Giant of Marathon when the original director abandoned directing duties. As he had done so many times before, he finished directing the film, including the major battle sequences. Due to his impressive contribution, he was finally given the opportunity to direct his own feature film by Lionello Santi.
Black Sunday (1960) is an adaption of Nicolai Gogol’s “The Viy” with notable alterations by Bava and his co-writers. It is considered by many to be his masterpiece. With the greater control Bava possessed, he was able to convince the producers, Galatea film, that he would film it in black and white rather than colour. This was key to the Gothic and dreamlike atmosphere that is conjured through the contrast of dark shadows and pale mists. It was also vital in achieving the ageing and rejuvenating effects of its main characters, the evil witch Asa and her descendant Princess Katia. Another aspect which was key to the film’s success was the powerful screen presence of English actress Barbara Steele, who introduces both a dark sexuality and ethereal beauty as the evil vampire/witch Asa. Through these characters, Bava explores such themes as family guilt and the doppelganger.
For all my praise, however, I would be remiss to suggest that Mario Bava didn’t have his own influences, as the title of his 1962 pyscho-thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much suggests. The title is, of course, a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. The film follows an American tourist in Rome called Nora, played by Letica Roman, who unwittingly becomes involved in a murder mystery. The cities iconic sights provide the opportunity for Bava to once again create striking visual compositions with use of deep, long shadows and expressive lighting in real-life locations. This includes a wonderfully atmospheric night sequence through Rome’s Spanish Steps, as Bava’s camera follows the flight of our protagonist. With this approach, Bava cleverly distorts the picture-postcard view of Rome popular with tourists to a world more familiar in a film-noir. Yet, alongside suspense and it’s themes of paranoia and surface image, you will also find hints of the director’s unique wit and touches of light comedy.
From 1963-64 Bava made 3 horror pictures, including Blood and Black Lace, Whip and The Body and his own personal favourite, the anthology Black Sabbath. Of these Blood and Black Lace is the most influential. It’s beautiful fashion-house setting and black gloved killer would become a blueprint for countless Italian Giallo’s of the late 1960’s and early 70’s. These took their name from the term for the mystery novels being published in Italy around the same time which had yellow covers; Giallo is Italian for Yellow. Black Sabbath or, as it known in its original and superior Italian edit, The Three Faces of Fear, marked Bava’s first Technicolor film and he lost none of his visual storytelling powers through the transition. Indeed, in this original form, it contains some of his most beautiful combinations of sound and imagery. With the last tale of supernatural guilt and revenge, his visual talent combines with an understated score and psychologically driven narrative in a final and highly effective crescendo of terror.
Planet of the Vampires (1965) shares eerily similar imagery and narratives with Ridley Scott’s classic; Alien (1979). Essentially, their plots can both be summarised as follows; a spaceship’s crew receives a distress call from a nearby planet and go to investigate with horrifying consequences. This film is notable for being Bava’s sole effort in the science-fiction genre.
Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) or Operazione Paura is arguably his most effective gothic horror picture. Here the story is set in a fictional European village cursed by a ghostly child seeking vengeance for her death by drunken villagers. As with Black Sabbath, Bava conjures a dreamlike atmosphere through his use of colour, composition of imagery and clever visual tricks, all of which create a uniquely warped sense of time and space. This includes a striking scene where the film’s protagonist chases his own mirror image through a succession of identical hallways. Martin Scorsese would later use its other key image of a ghostly white little girl as inspiration for sequences in The Last Temptation of Christ. Bava’s 1971 proto-slasher Bay of Blood, meanwhile, would prove extremely influential to the cycle of American slashers during the 1980’s. This can be seen most clearly in the case of the popular Friday the 13th series, which outright copies two scenes for its second instalment.
Lisa and The Devil (1973) is his most personal film. It came about after the producer on his penultimate Gothic picture Baron Blood (1972), Alfredo Leone, asked Bava what he would do if he were given unlimited funds and creative freedom. Here another tourist gets lost, this time in a Spanish village, and trapped in a strange mansion with Kojak tv star Telly Savalas as the family butler. With this Bava presents some of his most surreal imagery, as the devil-like Leandro is slowly revealed to control the other characters like puppets within his own dreamworld at the film’s end. Unfortunately, Lisa and The Devil would suffer from serious distribution issues despite a warm reception at Cannes. Bava was heartbroken at this and his last completed film before his death in 1980 would be Shock (1977).
Though largely unrecognised in his own time, renowned directors, from Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Joe Dante and Guillermo Del Toro, to Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow contains many visual homages to Black Sunday) have all discussed Bava’s influence on their own work. Scorsese would pay further homage by referencing a scene from The Girl Who Knew Too Much in his 1991 remake of Cape Fear. Another example is Tarantino’s episodic structure in Pulp Fiction. In the video below how he talks about how he caught Black Sabbath at an early age through a showing on late night telly.
Check out my next blog where I will explore my very favourite Mario Bava films in more detail, including examples of his work outside of the horror genre.