A Short Biography of Mario Bava
Mario Bava: The Illusion of Reality
I Vampiri
Black Sunday
The Whip and the Body
The Girl Who Knew Too Much
Black Sabbath
Blood and Black Lace
Knives of the Avenger
Planet of the Vampires
Kill, Baby ... Kill!
Four Times That Night
Hatchet for a Honeymoon
Five Dolls for an August Moon
Twitch of the Death Nerve
Baron Blood
Lisa and the Devil



What Man that see the ever-whirling wheel
Of Change, the which all mortall things doth sway
But that hereby doth find, and plainly feele,
How MUTABILITY on them doth play
Her cruell sports, to many mens decay?

--Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, VII, I, 1-5

A carved sarcophagus reposes in a high-arched, tenebrous crypt. After a montage in which the corpse-woman within it has undergone a metamorphosis from the bony remains of necrosis to newly-moving flesh, the camera has pulled back to view the entire chamber. From this vantage, the viewer familiar with the vampire genre might anticipate a hand stretching out painfully from the enclosure in the manner of Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Instead the virulent energy which has reformed the ashes is suffused into the cinerary stone itself. There is a crack. Then an explosion. The granite fragments break away and crumble into heaps on the floor of the vault. The cloud of dust, disturbed after hundreds of years, settles again and reveals the body lying still unmoved on the catafalque.

The coffin explosion scene from Black Sunday.
[click photo to view an animated GIF of this scene (20 frames, 166KB)]

This sequence from Mario Bava's Black Sunday (La Maschera del Demonio, 1960) illustrates the expressive power of his directoral style. The scope and invention of his visual scheme create a Baroque atmosphere which is both evocative in its own right and entirely appropriate to the characters and subjects of the horror genre. Coleridge described stylistic invention in Biographia Literaria as a process which "dissolves, diffuses, and essentially vital, even as all objects [as objects] are essentially fixed and dead." For many filmmakers the "fixed and dead" objects are the conventions of the genre. In a vampire film, the cobwebs, the creaking doors, the rubber bats flapping their wings at the end of all-too-visible strings can be suffocating restrictions and overused to the point of becoming laughable clichés. Bava's tactic was a reliance on fresh rendering or novel manipulation of traditional images. The intricate series of dissolves in Black Sunday through which a skull re-acquires flesh implies an unseen energy. Details are added to help externalize the metaphysical reality of the moment. As each layer of skin reappears, the punctures in the face left by the demon's mask close into fine circles then recede altogether. The black, empty sockets slowly refill to disclose the whites of eyes enraged by centuries of death. Finally the nostrils flare, the neck constricts, and the whole body arches up under the sting of renewed life. This new vitality--and the simultaneous apprehension which the sequence engenders in the viewer--builds to a point at which it can no longer be contained and the stone itself must rupture to release it.

Poster artwork for Black Sunday.
[click photo for larger version]

The unusual and disquieting visuals of Bava's films seem rooted in a conception of life as an uncomfortable union of illusion and reality. The dramatic conflict for his characters lies in confronting the dilemma of distinguishing between the two perceptions. In the black-and-white Black Sunday, Bava captured the apprehension of a figure moving down a corridor by a device as simple as a shifting sidelight. As this light strikes first one half of the face and then the other, it is easy to equate with the mixture of fear and curiosity that drives the character forward. In his later color films, Bava frequently compounded this equation by changing the light from blue to red with their respective connotations of cold and warmth.

While the plot lines of Bava’s movies often contain the presence of an extraordinary being or object in an otherwise natural environment, that is seldom the narrative focus. Instead Bava led his central figures out of their normal lives into a world of lurking phantoms or psychopaths. With allusions that ranged from Dante to Hitchcock--the Italian title of the suspense-comedy, The Evil Eye is La Ragazza che sapeva troppo or The Girl Who Knew Too Much--Bava situated his protagonists in a mutable world, composed of opposing spheres of influence, of shifting colors and times, of complements and atonalities. This world moves, like Spenser’s ever-whirling wheel from reality to illusion and back again, from life to death and death to life through a landscape littered with phantasmagorical sights and sounds. On both symbolic and sensory levels, Bava’s dramatic personae are thrust into the unstable middle ground between these two existential extremities, where figures glide through misty, opulently decorated but ultimately illusory and insubstantial settings. This spectral passageway linking the natural and supernatural worlds was, for Bava, a world of semi-darkness in which shadows and hallucinations can be real and, more importantly, in which the path forward or back, the way out, is unmarked.

The oracle Medea from Hercules in the Haunted World.
[click photo to view an animated GIF of this scene (7 frames, 76KB)]

The oracle Medea in Hercules in the Haunted World (Ercole al Centro della Terra, 1961) typifies one stranded in this limbo. The masked form of the woman is combined with an eerie, labored voice, modulated as if she were calling from a chamber deep below ground. She is separated from the camera, or real world, plane of view by a curtain of glimmering beads. While she sits swaying between two worlds, a series of green, blue, and gold lights successively cut through the frame, alternately striking her body and falling behind her to throw her into silhouette.

Although Bava developed this photographic style of high contrast and/or saturated primary colors early in his career as a cinematographer, the application of such mood and texture becomes ever more vigorous in his films as a director. Even if the dramatic conflicts are primarily psychological, when characters confront the dilemma of distinguishing between reality and illusion, Bava’s emphatic style externalizes the experience for the viewer. In Black Sunday the protagonist is faced with the choice between a seductive vampiress and a virginal young woman who happen to be identical in appearance. At the conclusion of What (La Frustra e il Corpo, 1963), the heroine dies without resolving the ambiguity: has she been haunted by an actual phantom of her murdered lover or conjured up his vindictive shade out of her guilt-ridden subconscious? In Hercules in the Haunted World, the travelers to Hades are explicitly warned about the illusory nature of the underworld by the Hesperides ("Do not believe what you think you see."), and armed with this knowledge, Hercules and Theseus can dare to dive into a sea of flames which they suspect is only water.

The paradoxes of Bava’s films are not all as metaphysical as these. Some confusions of identity are deliberate deceptions. Other are simply murder-mystery conventions. Some are staged for suspense; others to render a sense of the supernatural. For example, the plot device of physical doubles in Black Sunday reappears in Erik the Conqueror (Gli Invasori, 1961), where there is nothing supernatural about the twins. One, Rama, rescues Erik after a shipwreck and inspires his love. The other, Daja, is the wife of Erik’s lost brother, Iron. The confusion is purely mechanical and the irony is purely dramatic when the two rivals, Erik and Iron, discover they are brothers. In Black Sunday both the hero and the audience are unable to differentiate between the vampire sorceress Asa and her descendant Katia (both portrayed by Barbara Steele). In this instance the introduction of physical doubles is central to the film’s supernaturalism. The individual viewer, in order to suspend disbelief and to participate in the hero’s point of view, is compelled to accept the "reality" of Black Sunday’s unnatural twins.


A ghostly child beckons to her relatives in Kill, Baby, Kill.

Kill, Baby, Kill (Operazione Paura, 1966) contains an even more disorienting doppelgänger. Bava isolated his protagonist, a young gentleman like the one in Black Sunday, in a manor house which is reputedly haunted by the ghost of a young girl (who strikingly anticipates the child-demon created the following year in Fellini’s episode of Spirits of the Dead). The initial confusion caused when the young man encounters the child’s still-living mother, who has surrounded herself with the toys, clothing and other physical remnants of her daughter’s life, is compounded by the appearance of what may be the child herself or her specter or another child altogether. In a climactic scene, the young man pursues an assailant through a series of identical doorways and rooms; but when he finally catches him, he discovers that he has been chasing himself or, at least, an apparition that resembles him. After having played the viewer’s genre awareness repeatedly throughout the film and having characters discuss the nature of the haunting, Bava inserted this event without an explanation. In the fantasy sequence which follows, a dream image reveals a man entangled in a huge web in front of a painting of a cathedral. This shot fades, and the man awakens, now free of the web but standing before the actual building. Is this a dream or not? As with Roger Corman’s ending to the Tomb of Ligeia, Bava exploited the dream context to freely intercut between real and hallucinatory events and compel the viewer to create the distinction between the two. A similar manipulation occurs in What. Not only does Nevenka, a young woman with sado-masochistic proclivities, claim that she is being tormented by a dead lover, but the audience sees several visits to her bedchamber by a dark figure who chastises and caresses her. Of course, the audience is free to assume that these visitations are merely projections of her disturbed mind; but there are certain external, physical manifestations. The lover’s footsteps are heard in one scene; his laugh , in another. In a third, the footprints of his wet boot soles are left behind. As in Black Sunday, the reality of the apparition is reinforced when the spectator is compelled to assume Nevenka’s point of view at key moments through the use of subjective camera. In the final scene, Nevenka is seen kissing her ghostly lover from one, quasi-subjective perspective. A cut to another, more objective angle reveals her embracing the empty air.


Scenes from The Whip and the Body. Shot #1 (left) shows the subjective view of Nevenka: she belives Kurt, her dead lover, is with her. Shot #2 (right) shows the view of Nevenka's husband, who is barred from reaching her by an iron gate. Notice the knife in her right hand.

In most of Bava’s work, this manipulation of reality and illusion was character driven. The visceral impact of particular and peculiar techniques, such as the snap zooms and over-rotated pans, stand alone as part of an overall horror/suspense style but may also be keyed dramatically to the emotions of a character. Bava could quickly evoke his genre on a formal level with stylistic resonances to precedent films of his own and others, that is, through standard genre indicators and expectations. What sets Bava’s work apart from most other genre filmmakers is the creation of metaphor and dramatic irony through the interplay of subjective and objective viewpoints and the linking of visual disorientation to character emotion. In the first episode of Black Sabbath (I Tre Volti della Paura, 1963), a nurse steals a ring from the corpse of a woman over whom she has kept a death watch. In the same manner as Poe’s "Tell Tale Heart," her guilt distorts her perceptions, and she is driven mad by her amplified awareness of everyday objects in the house around her. First, she is assaulted by the crashing sound of a drop of water. Then, as she shivers in wordless apprehension, that emotion is objectified by the intermittent glare of a cold blue shop light blinking on and off outside her window.


Blue light surrounds a man returning from killing a vampire in Black Sabbath.

In the third episode of Black Sabbath, a similar blue light envelops a figure returning from killing a vampire. The light, which grips him like an aura of death, makes it clear to his apprehensive family that he has become one of the undead himself. In Black Sunday‘s colorless world, the simple fear of a character who moves down a corridor without knowing where it leads is underscored by an alternating side light that strikes first one side of the face then the other even as the impulses of fear and curiosity drive the figure hesitatingly forward.

Bava reused this staging in What with the added element of color. As Nevenka walks towards a room where she thinks her dead lover awaits, the sound of a whip and her sensual gasps are overlaid on the soundtrack. As she continues, uncertain what is real and what is illusion, in anticipation of pleasure and pain, the alternating side lights are blue and red, cold and hot.

Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) in the hallway scene from The Whip and the Body.
[click photo to view an animated GIF of this scene (13 frames, 133KB)]