Mario Bava
Mario Bava
article by Alain Silver and James Ursini -- page 4 of 4
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Elke Sommer (left) runs from the Baron in Baron Blood.

In Baron Blood, Bava also added another layer of contrast between the modern characters and objects and the architecture, antiques, and icons of the past. The "haunted" castle of Baron Blood is a maze of stone and iron. Through Gothic arches and down spiral staircases into dungeons decked with iron maidens and racks, characters descend from a modern world into the chambers of the past where ancient horrors still lurk. Bava reinforced the disequilibrium with his usual off-angled shots, spinning pans, and cross-zooms, sometimes dizzyingly repeated as many as four times, and straight cuts from tight long lens close-ups to distorted wide angles of the old castleís expanses. Sustained sequences such as the reanimated Baronís pursuit of Eva through the fog-enshrouded passageways and courtyards at night is vintage Bava, but so are subtler visualizations. When the child Gretchen flees from an unseen presence in the woods, the camera assumes the pursuerís point of view. Then at a pivotal moment, a low angle captures Gretchen clambering up a gully and over a ridge just before the Baronís black cape cuts across the foreground and blots out the frame. Decor, costuming, and optical effects work with camera movement in the seance scene to invoke Elizabeth Holly. A tight shot on an amulet in the mediumís hand slowly focuses. Then a zoom and dolly shot are combined to pull back to a wide angle, revealing the other characters around a pyre by the monolith where Holly was burned as a witch by the Baron. Finally, her spirit appears, superimposed over the flames at frame right and speaking through the medium at frame left.


  The heroine of Evil Eye faints on the streets of Rome.

Ironically, Bava could portray those characters whose distrust of every shadow and stray sound helps them survive as semi-comic and slightly paranoid. The heroine of The Evil Eye becomes such a figure in self defense. After witnessing the death of a stabbing victim, she faints and comes to her senses in a hospital where she has been admitted for chronic alcoholism. Her story is dismissed as a case of delirium tremens. This sets in motion a central series of scenes in which the significant details are designed to be misread. In a visit to a rural locale and an antique Roman site, ominous low angles and traveling shots follow her while she tries to evade a suspicious-looking man. He catches up and reveals that he merely wants to pick her up. In a later sequence, she constructs a maze of thread and talcum powder in a living room to trip up the knife-wielding killer she believes is stalking her. She succeeds in almost breaking the neck of a smitten young doctor trying to cure her delusions. In a final scene, after the killer has been caught, she and the doctor are riding a funicular railway and witness a jealous husband shoot his wife and her lover. He is aghast; but, because she has promised him to forget all about murders, she refuses to admit seeing anything. It is simultaneously one of the most humorous and one of the darkest endings in Bavaís work.

Seriously or satirically, all of Bavaís films question the permanence of commonplace reality. Given this recurrent theme, there are no restrictions on figurative potential of his visual usage. The catalogue of Bavaís style is as broad and eclectic as the genres in which he worked. He may use a long take to build dramatic tension, as in the fashion show which is prelude to the first murder in Blood and Black Lace. He may use a low angle on a figure to suggest dominance, as in the initial encounter between Rurik and the villainous Augen in Knives of the Avenger. He may use montage for a "traditional" symbolic rendering, as in the third episode ("The Wurdalak") of Black Sabbath, cutting from a vampire embracing her lover, to her undead family, to the victimís frenzied horse, whinnying, rearing up, and breaking his tether to flee. An isolated detail which is used for suspense in one film, such as the killer peering through a curtain in Baron Blood, may be transmuted for comic effect in another, as in the eyes of a portrait that seem to leer at the heroine of The Evil Eye as she undresses. The make-up and special effects that give a photographic reality to the revivification of the vampire in Black Sunday are reapplied sardonically in Danger: Diabolik (1967), where exaggerated costuming and matte shots make the characters stand out in relief, like comic-book figures. Even the most bizarre images may be used to evoke a frisson, as when the dead astronauts stand up in their shallow graves and tear out of their plastic shrouds in Planet of the Vampires, or laughter, as in the close-up shot of the supposedly dead Diabolik encased in translucent gold and winking at his female accomplice.


Left: The dead astronauts rise from their graves in Planet of Vampires. Right: Superspy Diabolik becomes covered with gold in Danger: Diabolik.

In many instances, Bava had to rely on visual invention to conceal his limited budgets. To create a raid on a Viking village without scores of extras, he assembled a montage of individual spear thrusts, death blows, figures falling back towards camera, and hurled firebrands, all moving in the same direction and ending with a panning long shot as the last of the raiders rides out of the smoldering remains of the village. In other instances, he expended a considerable amount of production value merely to add a novel touch to a mythic form. For the duel in a huge, torch-lit cave in Erik the Conqueror, Bava used an establishing long shot and a prologue in which the participants must forge their own weapons, delaying and enhancing the action of the combat itself. In moments of narrative terror the montage, zooms, cross-traveling, acute angles et al. are typically supported by equally unusual sounds. If the image was the nexus of metaphor for Bava, the soundtrack is reserved for the literal discord. The noises that add counterpoint to music or dialogue are part of any Italian foley artist's bag of tricks, but Bava's positioning gives them an edge. The underscores may be as insistent as Bava's accelerated zooms, forcing the spectator into a fixed perspective. In the Les Baxter re-scores for Bavaís Black Sunday and Baron Blood, the drums, cymbals, and brass constantly assault the circular measures of the strings with dissonant chords. An eerie plaintive flute or a few piano keys find their voice for a few bars then are displaced by insistent timpani. In the original Stelvio Cipriani score for Baron Blood, a pre-disco main title theme gave a pop/travelogue feel to the shots of a jumbo jet flying and setting down. The irony of jingle-like melodies with a lilting chorale backup opening a horror film was an aural equivalent to some of Bavaís visual jokes. The mutable and animated reality of Bavaís films may even extend to props, as in the claw-like knife shaped like the fingers of a skeletal hand in Hercules in the Haunted World or the whip in What, which writhes in the surf when Nevenka is raped by her ghost lover. That same whip curls and chars like a living thing writhing in agony when the loverís corpse is consumed by flames.


See the burning whip,
an excerpt from What.
(Animated GIF, 3 frames, 33 KB)

Although the visual style of his motion pictures may be unmistakable or even unique (and on those several productions where he receives credit under a pseudonym that style is Bavaís real and only signature), no director can completely transcend his narrative material. For Bava, who labored exclusively in a system where even A-budgets were small, where multiple cameras and post-synchronization of dialogue were not options but standard operating procedures, where shooting schedules were short, and post schedules even shorter, the odds against excellent results were always even greater. That the sea battle in Erik the Conqueror, staged in a studio tank with two prows, a fog machine, and speed rail, should be much more convincing than the clash of custom-made miniatures in Ben Hur is a tribute to Bava the technician. That one man working against such limitations could become one of the most striking of genre stylists may seem hard to believe. The proof, beyond the often stilted, dubbed performances, creaky sound effects, and tinny music, beyond the panned and scanned, retimed and sometimes reedited videos, is in the images themselves. No matter how feeble the character development may be or how far-fetched the plot, Bavaís visual style is the cornerstone of a sensory package that envelops the audience and sends them on a journey into the undiscovered country.
 


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Alain Silver is an independent film producer and sometime critic, who has previously written about Kiss Me Deadly for Images. His books with James Ursini, who is a lecturer and educator, include The Vampire Film, More Things Than are Dreamt Of, David Lean and his Films, and the forthcoming The Noir Style and Roger Corman: Metaphysics on a Shoestring. Together they edited Film Noir Reader and the most recent edition of Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference.