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"A Short Biography of Mario Bava"
(article by Tim Lucas)

"Mario Bava: The Illusion of Reality"
(article by Alain Silver and James Ursini)

Black Sunday DVD review
(by Gary Johnson)

Baron Blood DVD review
(by Gary Morris)

"The Golden Age of Italian Gothic Horror"
a suite of articles
from Images issue #5

While Italian director Mario Bava is now widely regarded as one of the great directors of horror cinema, his movies were seldom treated with much respect in America upon their initial theatrical release. Distributors frequently redubbed and recut his movies, removing large sections and rearranging entire sequences. Lisa and the Devil (1973), for example, never found a distributor (even in Europe) until producer Alfredo Leone supervised the filming of a new storyline that imitated The Exorcist and featured characters not part of the original movie. The three main sequences of the omnibus shocker Black Sabbath (1963; original Italian title: I Tre Volte della Paura; English translation: The Three Faces of Fear) were reshuffled and intimations of lesbianism were removed. Shock (1977) was retitled Beyond the Door II to form a bogus alignment with Ovidio Assonitis's Chi Sei? (1974; American release title Beyond the Door). And The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) was retitled with the more horrific The Evil Eye and re-edited to include comedic material not used in the European release print.

Home video releases have typically perpetuated the alterations, being the only versions available in America, much to the disappointment of Bava's fans, who have long clamored for the original Italian versions of Bava's films. To the rescue comes Image Entertainment with a first-rate series titled "The Mario Bava Collection" that gives us restored versions on DVD, complete with photo galleries, trailers, biographies, and other extras. Black Sunday (GO TO REVIEW) and Baron Blood (GO TO REVIEW) were the first titles in the series, and recent releases include The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Black Sabbath, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, and Lisa and the Devil. In addition, Anchor Bay Entertainment has scored with a DVD presentation of Bava's final theatrical movie, Shock, complete with trailers, bios, multiple language soundtracks, and an illuminating interview with Bava's assistant director, Lamberto Bava (Mario Bava's son).

 The Girl Who Knew Too MuchTOP OF PAGE   

from The Girl Who Knew Too Much
[click photos for larger versions]
Mario Bava's reputation largely rests on his horror films, but he also directed movies in several other genres, including Westerns, sword-and-sandal fantasies, James Bond-ish adventures, and even a Viking tale. He's also known for directing the seminal "giallo" thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Named after a variety of Italian pulp novels printed on yellow paper ("giallo" means yellow in Italian), these thrillers frequently feature a hero or heroine who investigates a crime and finds himself/herself embroiled in a dangerous situation. Dario Argento's The Bird With Crystal Plumage and Deep Red are two of the most notable examples of this genre. But in 1963, Bava was treading in new territory when he created The Girl Who Knew Too Much. The American retitling--The Evil Eye--served to obscure the movie's rather obvious debt to Alfred Hitchcock's tale of foreigners abroad (i.e., The Man Who Knew Too Much).

Leticia Roman stars as an American named Nora Davis who is vacationing in Rome. She habitually reads mystery novels but has agreed to her mother's demand and will stop reading mysteries (after she finishes the one she's currently reading, anyway). She will stay with an elderly friend of the family. However, late one evening, the friend dies before her eyes. Horrified, Nora stumbles onto the streets of Rome, where she is soon mugged and knocked unconscious. She wakes in a haze and witnesses a murder before drifting unconscious again. She tries to tell everyone about the murder, but no one believes her. The doctor who treats her says she is suffering from "mythomania"--a consequence of a blow on the head. Nora decides to investigate the murder on her own and discovers a series of murders was committed ten years ago--the "Alphabet Murders." The victims were chosen in alphabetical order (e.g., Abbart, Beccati, and Craven). Nora's last name, Davis, suggests she may be next in line.

When released in America as The Evil Eye, the movie was re-edited to utilize footage not included in the European release. This footage (not included on Image Entertainment's DVD) gave the movie a somewhat lighter, more comedic tone (however, the difference in tone is relatively slight). One of the most noticeable differences is the presence of a narrator in The Girl Who Knew Too Much. He helps fill in the gaps in the story while lending the movie the aura of a pulp mystery. During one of the movie's highlights, Nora wraps string around her apartment furniture and sprinkles talcum on the floor in anticipation of catching a nightly visitor. The narrator explains what Nora is planning to do, but in The Evil Eye, the scene lacks narration and thus becomes somewhat puzzling. The Evil Eye also contains a photograph on the wall of Nora's bedroom. The portrait's eyes seem to follow Nora around her room--until she covers the photograph with a scarf. (It's Mario Bava's face in the photo!) In The Girl Who Knew Too Much, the photo is absent; however, if you look closely during the scene in Nora's room, you'll see a framed picture covered by a scarf. Among many numerous additional differences between the two versions, Roberto Nicolosi's atmospheric score for The Girl Who Knew Too Much is replaced by a Les Baxter score that sounds like the main theme music from the television sitcom Family Affair, and Adriano Celentano's pop song "Furore" is absent in The Evil Eye.

Overall, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is much preferable to The Evil Eye. Several of the changes in The Evil Eye only serve to confuse matters. For example, in The Evil Eye, we don't see the face of the man who pulls the knife out of the back of a murdered woman--but recognizing his face becomes important later when the camera gives us a close-up of a framed portrait on a piano: it's the same man! When we see the portrait in The Girl Who Knew Too Much, we instantly understand that Nora has stumbled into a very dangerous situation; however, in The Evil Eye, we can't make this connection and thus the movie is robbed of a crucial element of suspense.

Because The Evil Eye contains several minutes of footage not found in The Girl Who Knew Too Much, this DVD ideally would have included both versions of the movie. For example, the final sequences from both movies are completely different. But it's hard to argue about this DVD considering the excellent quality of the video transfer. The Girl Who Knew Too Much looks marvelous. This is one of Bava's best movies and it contains several astonishing images, such as an overhead view of Nora as she lies on a hospital bed. At first, we just see bobbing shapes, like balloons, and it's difficult to identify what Bava's camera is capturing. Then as the shapes part and we see Nora, we realize the shapes are habits upon the heads of several nuns/nurses.

Bava photographs Leticia Roman with great care. He casts ominous shadows across her face, yet she remains sensuous and evocative. John Saxon as her love interest looks somewhat lost, but that's by design. As he begins to fall in love with Nora, she hardly gives him any attention. She's totally absorbed in investigating the murder.

Image Entertainment's DVD presentation of The Girl Who Knew Too Much contains the Italian language version with optional English subtitles. The movie is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1.

 Black SabbathTOP OF PAGE   

from Black Sabbath
[click photos for larger versions]
When picked up for distribution in the U.S.A, American International Pictures (AIP) rearranged the three main episodes of Black Sabbath, saving the most substantial episode (which stars Boris Karloff) for the conclusion. In addition, because AIP targeted the release of Black Sabbath for teenagers and children, they excised a substantial portion of a subplot from "The Telephone" episode, eliminating any reference to lesbianism and further distorting the story by altering the dialogue. In the original Italian version of "The Telephone," the killer has escaped from prison. He seeks revenge on his old girlfriend, who helped put him behind bars. However, in the American release, redubbing and re-editing suggests that the killer has returned from the grave. (The American release also contains a nonsensical "stinger" ending courtesy of an opportunistic overdub.)

It's exciting to see Black Sabbath restored to its original Italian version, but with the restoration also comes a major setback: the loss of Boris Karloff's voice. His voice was dubbed by an Italian actor for the Italian release, so on Image Entertainment's DVD, you won't hear Karloff himself speak. Considering his voice is one of the most distinctive voices in the history of cinema, this comes as a major disappointment.

Karloff serves as the narrator in the introduction. While the American theatrical release of Black Sabbath contained introductions before each of the three episodes, the Italian version only contains one introductory sequence. However, the Italian version also contains a humorous peek behind the scenes during the final credits: we see a close-up of Karloff riding a horse (as he appears during a scene from "The Wurdulak" episode), but as the camera pulls back, we see the artifice. Karloff isn't moving. No horse exists. The illusion of movement is created by tree branches that stagehands carry past the camera.

Of the three stories included in Black Sabbath, the opening credits indicate the screenplay was "freely adapted from stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Maupassant," but as Tim Lucas points out in his DVD liner notes, you would find it difficult, if not altogether impossible, to find copies of the stories that inspired the three episodes. At this time, AIP and Roger Corman were mining the works of Edgar Allen Poe in extremely loose adaptations and reaping tremendous profits. So in likelihood, the famous monikers were chosen for Black Sabbath to help legitimize the proceedings.

The Italian version of Black Sabbath begins with "The Telephone," an elegant, tension-filled thriller. It's the tale of a glamorous party girl named Rosy (played by the gorgeous Michele Mercier) who, late one evening, receives a telephone call. The caller claims to be her old boyfriend Frank, who has recently escaped from prison. He swears vengeance on her. But everything isn't what it seems. Bava's camera soon reveals the deception. Rosy's lesbian ex-lover Mary is making the calls in hopes that Rosy will come to her for protection from Frank. The ruse works and Rosy makes the call to Mary, but Frank is indeed on the lam, as a newspaper story tells us. Will he come after Rosy?

The American release completely obscured the lesbian content--making both women past lovers of Frank. He gave up one for the other. However, in the Italian release, the women openly talk about their past relationship as Rosy resists the gentle strokes of her ex-lover. (In the American release, these strokes--thanks to judicious editing--become reassuring pats instead of a come-on.)

The movie's second episode features some of Bava's finest filmmaking. Filmed in gothic excess, it shows us what Black Sunday might have looked like if Bava had used color film. This episode, called "The Wurdulak," gives us a hero (Mark Damon) who wanders into a countryside beset by "wurdulaks" (undead creatures very similar to vampires). He stumbles upon a family awaiting the return of their patriarch (Boris Karloff) who has ventured outside to kill a wurdulak. He has given explicit instructions that if he fails to return within five days he should not be allowed inside. When he arrives home only a few minutes after midnight, the family members share terrified looks but they allow him into their home--a decision they soon learn to regret.

This episode of Black Sabbath survived relatively intact in the American version; however, AIP chose to remove a shot of Karloff holding aloft the severed head of a wurdulak. This deletion is rather baffling because when AIP promoted Black Sabbath their movie posters prominently featured a headless man holding a severed head.

"The Wurdulak" contains several astonishing sequences, such as the return of a kidnapped child who pleas to be let back inside the family's home: "Mama. Let me in. I'm cold. I'm cold." The family realizes the child is very likely now a wurdulak. However, the mother shrieks for the child to be let inside and eventually she gets her way.

In "The Wurdulak," Mario Bava's love of colored gels is given free reign. He fills the frame with deep blues, purples, and reds. The film glows with color. For my taste, Bava overdoes the gels. They attract far too much attention and look artificial. However, "The Wurdulak" remains a stunning achievement. From the very first moments, the tension builds as an overpowering sense of death and destruction hangs over the proceedings.

Black Sabbath ends with a sequence called "A Drop of Water." In his DVD liner notes, Tim Lucas suggests this episode "may well be the most chilling short film ever made." This claim strikes me as hyperbole. The story itself is familiar stuff. It features a woman who prepares the body of a recently deceased old woman for burial. She decides to pocket one of the woman's rings--leading to an intense climax where she has visions of the dead woman returning for her property. This type of crime-and-retribution horror was a staple of '50s comic books such as EC's Tales From the Crypt. In "A Drop of Water," the story never rises far above the level of cliché.

Part of the problem with this episode is the horrific model created to represent the old woman. It's grotesque but rigid. With little flexibility, the model must be pushed like a mannequin on wheels. Without any intimations of life, the old woman and her ghost never become a real threat.

"A Drop of Water" served as the opening chapter for the American release of Black Sabbath, followed by "The Telephone," and finally "The Wurdulak." This order makes some sense, saving as it does the best episode for last and therefore leaving filmgoers with the strongest buzz once the house lights were turned back on.

Image Entertainment's DVD is the first U.S.A. release of the original, uncut Italian version of Black Sabbath. The soundtrack is only available in Italian; however, you can turn on optional English subtitles. The print has been letterboxed at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.78:1.

 Hatchet for the HoneymoonTOP OF PAGE   

from Hatchet for the Honeymoon
[click photo for larger version]
After completing Danger: Diabolik, a relatively high-budgeted movie made for a major European producer, Dino DeLaurentiis, Mario Bava was eager to shake free of interference from meddlesome studio executives. So even while Danger: Diabolik was an immediate financial success (Bava completed the film for less than $1,000,000 when the budget was set at $4,000,000), Bava retreated to a small project that allowed him great freedom. The resulting movie, Hatchet for a Honeymoon, isn't among Bava's best. It's sort of like Psycho if the camera had focused on Norman Bates in every scene. That means there is no hero to root for. The effect is overwhelming and claustrophobic--and not particularly fun to watch. Hitchcock wisely gave us other characters to watch in Psycho, and those characters served as our guides into a morbid world of murder and obsession. But Bava leaves us alone with the killer and the effect is stifling.

Stephen Forsyth plays a fashion magnate named John Harrington who specializes in wedding gowns: "A woman should live only until her wedding night--love once and then die," he says. He stares at himself in a mirror: "I am completely mad…no one suspects I am a madman, a dangerous murderer." Within a room in his mansion, he keeps a battalion of mannequins bedecked in wedding gowns. He caresses and kisses them. He dances with them and quite possibly makes love to them (although it's never shown explicitly in this "GP" rated movie: "all ages admitted, parental guidance suggested"). Meanwhile, his wife sneers at him for not performing his husbandly duty with her. Laura Beti plays the wife. She had recently won the prestigious Volpi Cup for her performance in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema, so Bava built up her role. In the process, however, the movie takes off in a direction that makes little sense. After she dies, her ghost invades Harrington's mind. He can't get away from her. But she has little to do with the story's psychological ramifications, for the movie revolves around Harrington's mother and a late night tryst that he stumbled upon when he was a young boy. Bava teases us with flashbacks leading up to the conclusion of this sequence (which is saved for the final moments of Hatchet); however, the final revelation is neither surprising nor particularly convincing.

At this point in his career, the gothic excesses of Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, and Kill Baby Kill had been phased out of Bava's films in favor of a palpable funereal decadence. Bava would push further in this direction with Lisa and the Devil.

Image Entertainment's DVD is in English and the video transfer is presented in the theatrical aspect ration of 1.66:1.

 Lisa and the DevilTOP OF PAGE   

from Lisa and the Devil
[click photo for larger version]
No Mario Bava film has a more troubled history than Lisa and the Devil (except possibly Rabid Dogs, which was never released theatrically). Producer Alfredo Leone gave Bava the opportunity to make a movie with a relatively small amount of studio interference; however, the resulting movie languished on the shelf. Even after a favorable reception at Cannes, no distributors expressed interest (although one distributor offered the laughable amount of $6,000 for the entire Far East rights). Eventually Leone decided that he had to present investors with a salable product in order to recoup the costs.

Reading about audience reactions to The Exorcist, Leone urged Bava to fly to London and catch a screening. He wanted to take advantage of the recent fascination in demonic possession. Leone planned to film new sequences with Lisa and the Devil's star Elke Sommer, in which she would become possessed and a priest would exorcise the demon. Initially, Bava complained, "We can't cut it; it's too beautiful!" But with few, if any, alternatives, Bava eventually agreed to the plan. Meanwhile, Leone turned to friend Robert Alda to play the priest. The filmmaking process wasn't easy. Bava refused to personally direct the more lurid scenes, as when Lisa spews toads and pea soup. According to Leone's own audio commentary on Image Entertainment's presentation of the altered version of Lisa and the Devil, titled The House of Exorcism, Bava did the camera setups and rehearsed the actors for the lurid scenes, but then he left the set, leaving Leone in charge. Not surprisingly, the resulting movie is one of the great travesties of Bava's career. However, during the audio commentary track, Leone argues for the relevance of the exorcism scenes. But these scenes have nothing to do with the original movie. The exorcism scenes don't grow out of the action. They're merely grafted onto the story.

Image Entertainment's DVD contains both Leone's altered version and Bava's original version, which allows us a superb opportunity to witness how the complete character of a movie can be changed by production interference. Sommer plays a vacationer in Italy who becomes separated from her tour group. Matters quickly move from bad to worse as Sommer becomes lost in a maze of back alleys. Near frantic she accepts a ride with a rich couple. When their car breaks down, they look for help at a nearby mansion, where a blind Alida Valli lives. Telly Savalas plays the butler. He's a dead ringer for the devil painted on a wall in the nearby village, and Lisa immediately recognizes the similarity. Meanwhile, Valli's pretty-boy son (Alessio Orano) takes a hankering to Sommer, but their romance moves along uneasily thanks to a killer loose in the mansion, slowly eliminating the mansion's inhabitants and guests. (In The House of Exorcism, these scenes become flashbacks. They are supposedly the rationale for the demonic possession of Lisa.)

In his liner notes, Tim Lucas writes in glowing terms of Lisa and the Devil and in the Overlook Encyclopedia of Horror, Phil Hardy writes that "the director's morbid romanticism achieves intensely beautiful effects." However, I struggle with this movie. While the early scenes effectively establish a powerful sense of dislocation, the movie eventually drifts in several directions, forgetting about Sommer for several minutes at a time. In one scene, we're treated to a softcore sexual liaison between the rich woman and her chauffeur. But this scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. (Image Entertainment has generously supplied several outtakes from this sequence, of near hardcore intensity. This footage adds nothing and is totally expendable.) On the DVD's audio commentary track, Leone confesses that Bava refused to direct the scene in which the lady and her chauffeur frolic in the nude, bringing to question just how much of Lisa and the Devil is Bava and how much is Leone. Bava certainly wasn't given complete creative freedom if he was forced by Leone to film scenes that he didn't agree with.

I think Lisa and the Devil is a complete mess. While it conveys a palpable sense of death and decay, Bava displays little control on the narrative. He starts with Lisa as the central character, but he lazily lets other characters intrude upon her vision. The movie is similar to a "waking dream" (Tim Lucas' words), but this dream vision becomes fractured when other characters steal the spotlight from Lisa. While it's fascinating to see how the original movie was altered for release in America, Lisa and the Devil itself is a definite disappointment.

Image Entertainment's DVD contains English language versions of both Lisa and the Devil and The House of Exorcism. Both movies are presented in their widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The DVD includes audio commentary by producer Alfredo Leone and star Elke Sommer, theatrical trailers, a deleted scene, and a photo/poster gallery.

 ShockTOP OF PAGE   

from Shock
[click photo for larger version]
When released in America in 1978, Shock was retitled so as to draw an allegiance with Ovidio Assonitis's Chi Sei?, a blatant rip-off of both The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby that was released in America as Beyond the Door. Assonitis's film had garnered good box-office returns and the distributor was eager for another hot property. So Shock was retitled Beyond the Door II. Nevermind that Shock had absolutely nothing to do with Assonitis's film. You won't find any pea soup or revolving heads in Shock. Instead, you'll find a relatively low-key tale about a woman (recently released from a mental hospital) whose young son begins talking to an unseen presence. Eventually we learn that the boy's father committed suicide--at least that's what the mother claims. But maybe it wasn't suicide. Maybe the mother was responsible for his death. And maybe the ghostly presence that the boy talks to isn't just a figment of the boy's imagination. Maybe it's the ghost of the father.

Whereas most of Bava's horror films take place in darkness and shadows, Shock largely takes place in daylight, but Bava's creeping camera forever keeps us off balance. Rarely does the camera stop moving. It prowls around corners and peers through bookshelves. As a result, unsettling noises, as simple as the screech of a wooden crate being opened, make us jump and set our nerves on edge. While the camerawork is unmistakably the work of Mario Bava, the story itself is atypical Bava material. An interview with Bava's assistant director Lamberto Bava (the elder Bava's son), included on Anchor Bay Entertainment's DVD release of Shock, reveals why Shock is different: Bava turned over the direction of many sequences to his son. He felt it was time for Lamberto to start directing on his own and thus gave his son an extra push. In addition, the screenplay was largely written by Lamberto Bava and Dardano Sacchetti. They were influenced by the fiction of Stephen King and strived to create a contemporary horror film. They wrote a story with several King-like elements: the boy, for example, is exceptionally sensitive, with near-psychic powers. The mother is haunted by a past event. Her hold on reality becomes increasing tenuous. And finally a pickax becomes the weapon of choice in a key scene. (Lamberto Bava and Sacchetti were evidently thinking of Stephen King's The Shining when they concocted the story for Shock.) However, the story's indebtedness to King never overpowers the characters or the situations.

Shock pales in comparison to Bava's best movies, but it's an effective thriller with an oppressive atmosphere that reeks of decay and death. It may well be his best movie of the '70s.

Anchor Bay Entertainment's presentation of Shock is available with English, French, and Italian soundtracks (but no subtitles). The video transfer is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The disc includes an exclusive interview with Lamberto Bava, an international trailer, and TV spots.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Black Sabbath, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, and Lisa and the Devil are now available on DVD from Image Entertainment. Suggested retail price: $24.99. Lisa and the Devil is also available with The House of Exorcism on a double-feature disc for $39.99. For more information, check out the Image Entertainment Web site.

Shock is now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment. Suggested retail price: $24.98. For more information, check out the Anchor Bay Entertainment Web site.