The Cinema
Mario Bava



The Whip and the Body

Mario Bava’s Whip and the Body (1963) is without a doubt the great director’s most romantic, overwrought, macabre, and sexually provocative film. With a screenplay by veteran Italian film scribe Ernesto Galdi (who also wrote the equally disturbing, sexually brazen, necrophilic classic The Horrible Dr. Hichcock in 1962), Ugo Guerra and Bava himself, Whip and the Body centers on the sado-masochistic relationship between the prodigal son Kurt (wonderfully played by the stately Christopher Lee) and the beautiful Nevenka (played by the stunning Barbara Steele lookalike Daliah Lavi). Their master/slave relationship is so dynamic, complex, and erotically charged that it is no wonder that the censors had their way with the film.

Nevenka, who was once Kurt’s mistress and bride to be, is now married to Kurt’s brother Christian. But it doesn’t take long before Kurt and Nevenka are back acting out their master/slave relationship. Kurt brutally whips Nevenka (and more?) down by the seashore one sunny afternoon and reclaims what is his. That night, Kurt is murdered within his chambers and his death starts a domino effect of psychodrama and twisted resentments.

Though always a master of color and sound in his films, Bava displays an even more acute understanding of the medium for Whip and the Body. During the sequence in which Nevenka wakes from a night terror (after Kurt’s untimely demise) only to find herself confronting her own mental demons, Bava uses intricate splashes of red across her face and hands, signifying her possible involvement in Kurt’s death. And during the finale, yellow roses frame Kurt’s ghost as he beckons Nevenka one last time, the yellow color alluding to the flames that are simultaneously devouring Kurt’s corporeal bones. Though Bava’s use of colored gels would become even more pronounced in his following films, notably Black Sabbath and Blood and Black Lace, it is during this film that the colors truly gain a psychological significance.

One of the film’s main strengths is also its lush score, by frequent Bava collaborator Carlo Rustichelli. Though his work for Bava was always exceptional and sometimes playful, the music for Whip and the Body is majestic, orgiastic, and ultimately sublime. It’s a perfect accompaniment to Bava’s unwavering, almost confrontational challenge to the viewer to reject the film’s romantic bombast. One either embraces the film’s florid hysteria wholeheartedly, or detests it with equal emotion. There is no middle ground. You cannot simply pick and choose scenes that agree with one’s aesthetic report card.

But that all-or-nothing approach seems appropriate considering the subject matter. The pain-pleasure principle that dictates Kurt and Nevenka’s relationship is also one of extremes. Nevenka feigns hatred of Kurt’s whip, but she ultimately becomes possessed by the pain it inflicts upon her body and soul. She is marked by Kurt’s passion for her, branded by his love that masks itself as hate. Their unlawful marriage to one another truly is one of heaven and hell. Even after Kurt’s murder, Nevenka continues to live out their fantasies. She cannot face the reality of living life without her master. Her life with Christian is dull, uninvolving, stripped of all vitality. Though she acted out the role of slave with Kurt while he was still alive, she by no means lacked authority in their tumultuous bonding. Even after his death, Kurt was still bound to her, unable to rest in peace until she let him rest. But with Christian, Nevenka simply exists. A slave without even a chance at freedom.

Other films have also traversed this same material – Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), The Night Porter (1974), Nine ½ Weeks (1986) – but strangely enough few horror films have ever walked down this slippery slope in an open fashion. Sex, though forever linked with the horror genre, is usually regulated to subtext or adolescent innuendo. Rarely does a genre director tackle such material without shame. Thankfully, Mario Bava did not bed with angels.

VCI’s DVD of Whip and the Body fully restores the film to a glory it never previously possessed on home video. Though the film does occasionally show some wear and tear, the overall picture and sound (minus the occasional crackles and pops that are unavoidable for a film of this vintage) are exceptional. The disc includes an informative commentary track by Tim Lucas (editor of the home video bible for films of the fantastic, Video Watchdog), the original American titles sequence, bonus music soundtrack by Carlo Rustichelli, the French trailer as well as three theatrical trailers for other Bava films, a photo gallery, and best of all, two "Easter Egg" scenes of deleted footage. After highlighting the "Original American Titles" option, press the left arrow on your remote control and you will be rewarded with two short deleted scenes.

--Derek Hill


Blood and Black Lace

If there is a cornerstone of the Italian giallo, then Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace is surely it. Retreating from the dark moldy confines of the gothic horror film and into the mad urban rush of the city, where the beautiful people work, play and while away their days and nights doing as little as possible, Bava zeroed in on a rather atypical locale for a horror film – a fashion house. (Dario Argento even paid homage to Blood and Black Lace by directing a fashion show for designer Nicola Trussardi called Trussardi Action in 1988, where a killer knocked off the models on the runway.) Equipped with his colored gels and his predatory camera, Bava arguably created the slasher subgenre and kicked down the door for subsequent directors to stick in their cinematic blades as well, for better or worse.

Granted, Hitchcock’s Psycho was released in 1960 as was Michael Powell’s masterful Peeping Tom, but the ferociousness of Bava’s death scenes and his refusal to turn his camera lens from the Grand Guignol blood-letting ushered in a new wave of cinematic violence, especially against women in film. Hitchcock toyed with us, Powell showed us but kept his emotional distance, but Bava passionately reveled in the shock of it all. Camera as weapon; the masked killer as cipher upon whom the audience was almost gleefully invited to imprint their darkest animosities.

Blood and Black Lace – like many of Bava’s films – has little regard for character development, sense of story, or even logic. The plot is simple – a mad faceless killer, dressed in a black trenchcoat, stalks and murders various models in an attempt to recover a red diary which would implicate the killer in criminal activities. But regardless of the loopy plot contrivances, Blood and Black Lace is one of Bava’s most technically satisfying and overall strongest cinematic efforts -- from beginning to end, the film is utterly alive. Bava’s macabre enthusiasm for the material is infectious.

It’s appropriate that much of the film takes place in and around a fashion house because Bava is only concerned with style and the art of murder. But what style it is! Here, the style is substance. Bava’s mise-en-scene, an overload of colors and visual and narrative red herrings, ultimately lead nowhere. What mystery exists is inconsequential, for the film’s most memorable sequences are its lavish, brutally staged death scenes. Subsequent directors such as Dario Argento, Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and even Hitchcock for his film Frenzy (1972) understood this to varying degrees. The screenplay serves the murders, not the other way around.

Over the course of the film as we watch the six models meet their grisly fates, the camera presses in tightly, with no mercy for the victims. 37 years after its making, the death scenes remain chilling, vile, and angry. Women are slashed, drowned, beaten, and burned. But they always look splendid.

That is not to say that the film is an unpalatable experience. In fact, this is perhaps the most lively and utterly entertaining horror film Bava ever directed. Carlo Rustichelli’s score is stripped of any gothic overtones, employing instead a bossa nova-like rhythm throughout. From the opening credits where we meet our cast of nefarious characters, as they pose appropriately alongside faceless and torsoless mannequins, it is obvious that Bava’s intentions are to dazzle and have fun. A twisted fun, perhaps -- but fun nonetheless.

As with Whip and the Body, VCI’s DVD release is excellent. The film looks and sounds stupendous. Tim Lucas, once again, offers a telling and enjoyable look at this seminal horror film. The disc also includes the English and French theatrical trailers, an interview with the vastly underrated Cameron Mitchell and one with Mary Dawne Arden, who played Peggy in the film. The disc also includes a photo gallery and more.

--Derek Hill


Kill, Baby ... Kill!

After directing the science-fiction/horror film Planet of the Vampires (1966) and the ill-fated Dr. Goldfoot & the Girl Bombs (1966), Mario Bava made one of his best efforts and what is arguably one of the most effective and chilling supernatural gothic horror films of all time, Kill, Baby . . . Kill! (1966). It has influenced Federico Fellini’s "Toby Dammit" sequence in the anthology film Spirits of the Dead (1967), Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) (the Archangel who offers Willem Dafoe a second chance at life, instead of dying on the cross, comes in the guise of a little girl) and David Lynch in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1991), wherein much of that film’s sound design and Agent Cooper’s investigation into the town’s underbelly mirror or make direct quotes from Bava’s film. Kill, Baby . . . Kill! creates such a palpable mood of dread and oppression in its first few minutes and so effectively sustains the momentum until the last frame that it is easy to see why it has cast such a quiet legacy on other filmmakers.

In a Transylvanian village, a number of villagers have ended up horribly murdered, supposedly committed as retribution for a young girl who bled to death while callous villagers feasted within sight of her, unwilling or unable to save her from her grisly fate. Summoned to the village by the local police, Dr. Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) and his assistant Monica (Erica Blanc) begin to investigate the mysterious deaths and slowly uncover the stranglehold of occultism and terror which has plagued the villagers since the little girl’s tragic death.

Unlike most other horror film directors, Bava refuses to ground the film in the world of naturalism. Because the curse has already taken hold by the time Dr. Eswai and his assistant arrive, the village oozes the stench of decay and rot. In many respects, the village is already dead. It’s just that the villagers are the last to realize it. Their will to survive, or perhaps their denial of responsibility, continues to strengthen their illusions that they will overcome this spiritual scourge. Only the character of Dr. Eswai, with his belief in the sciences of medicine and psychology, bears the standard of all that is righteous, logical and normal. Yet, by the time his journey comes to an end, his belief in the material world has most certainly been challenged if not irrevocably altered.

The film contains many highlights and instances of dark power – the opening moments wherein we hear the blood-curdling cries of a woman as she flees her home across a field and ultimately to her doom; the silhouette of men rushing a coffin across a barren field to a graveyard, the sun slowly setting behind them; the visages of two village men as they stare at Dr. Eswai through the inn’s frosted window, their faces seemingly wraith-like and frozen; the ghost of the young girl swinging on her swing above the gravestones, her sick ebullient laughter echoing through the calm of night; Dr. Eswai’s first encounter with the little girl as she bounces her ball within the halls of the villa where the Baroness Graps spends her days and nights lost in haunted memories of what will never be again.

These images and moments carry the weight of countless gothic cliches, yet they somehow feel alive and potent again through Bava’s lens. And all of it punctuated with Carlo Rustichelli’s magnificent score, which includes a small sampling from his music for Bava’s 1963 film, Whip and the Body.

Kill, Baby . . . Kill! may lack much of Bava’s overt fetishism and penchant for stylized death-eroticism, but his insight into the good/evil dichotomy and how easily they can be transposed is handled with skill and relish for the material. Never again would Bava accomplish this feat as masterfully as he does here, nor would he ever display such feral delight in all that the realm of the gothic horror film could offer.

Unlike the other Bava films issued by VCI, their DVD of Kill, Baby . . . Kill! is a no frills affair. The picture has been cleaned up as well as possible, though it still looks a shambles in spots. But it does look better than it has in the past on video. Three trailers for other VCI releases are also on the disc, as well as bio of the director.

--Derek Hill


Four Times That Night

In the late '60s, many Italian film directors felt obligated to attempt at least one sex comedy in their careers. According to Mario Bava, if a director didn't attempt a sex comedy "rumors got around that you were homosexual." So in part to prevent any such accusations, Bava agreed to make a sex comedy. The resulting movie, Four Times That Night (1969), is like an Austin Powers wet dream. It's filled with chrome and vinyl; pink flesh and chain mail dresses. Barely clad go-go dancers gyrate from a dance club cage. Lovers embrace in a super modern shower. A lesbian uses a feather to introduce a beautiful young woman to the joys of woman-on-woman love. There's a little something here for everyone (considering you're in the mood for lusty, testosterone-fueled sex fantasies).

Bava wasn't completely new to this genre. An episode of Black Sabbath titled "The Telephone" featured a similar preoccupation with hip, modern interior design and sexual subject matter, but it took the form of a thriller instead of a comedy. Four Times That Night pushes into the ultra-chic, sex-obsessed territory mined by Radley Metzger--but without the explicit sex. Bava supplies lots of flesh, but most "naughty bits" elusively remain covered up. For example, when a couple cavorts in the nude on a living room sofa, a strategically positioned cactus obscures the below-the-waist action.

Four Times That Night is a coy come on. While Metzger was forging a path into new territory, Bava was largely just marking time in a genre in which he felt little attachment. As such, Four Times That Night is a curious dead end in Bava's career. If you're a Bava fan and you haven't seen this movie, you're not missing a thing. Yet, the movie is attractive and stylish and wonderfully kitschy, and it features Bava's customary attraction to bold color schemes and unexpected camera angles.

The story (not that is matters) is structured like Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. It tells the story of a young woman named Tina (Daniela Giordano) who arrives home early one morning with her dress ripped. What happened to her? Was she raped by a sex-hungry playboy named Gianni (Brett Halsey)? Or did she give herself willingly? What exactly happened at Gianni's swinging pad? Were Gianni's neighbors involved? They may have stopped by for some fun and games. And the apartment building's doorman, a leering slob who crawls down steep roofs to get a peek inside of Gianni's apartment, has a completely different version of the events.

Interestingly, everyone who tells what happened between Tina and Gianni tends to exaggerate, so the events on screen are always absurd. Even a psychiatrist steps forward to offer us the nonsensical solution: "None of it is true. Or, if you prefer, it all is."

Four Times That Night now makes its American debut on DVD. As part of Image Entertainment's "The Mario Bava Collection," the DVD features a photo/poster gallery and the customary Bava bio, filmography, and liner notes by Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog.

For Bava completists, Four Times That Night reaffirms Bava's versatility. While he is typically pigeonholed as a horror director, Bava actually made movies in several genres, including science fiction, viking dramas, sword-and-sandal fantasies, and Westerns.

--Gary Johnson


5 Dolls for an August Moon

With 5 Dolls For an August Moon (1970), Mario Bava became a director for hire. This wasn't a completely new role for him, but he typically had some degree of control during the filmmaking process (at least until the distributor or producers began tinkering in the editing room). This time, however, Bava agreed to a project just two days before cameras were scheduled to start rolling. According to Tim Lucas's liner notes for Image Entertainment's DVD release of 5 Dolls For an August Moon, the film's producers (Pietro and Mario Bregni) pleaded with Bava to helm their script (written by Mario di Nardo)--which Bava told them was nothing more than a redux of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians (a story Bava reportedly hated). But they were insistent and eventually Bava gave in and agreed to direct the picture--on one condition: he had to be paid up front. After several disastrous projects where Bava received little or no monetary compensation, Bava no doubt found the promise of certain money to be attractive.

Stepping into a production at such a late hour left Bava with no opportunity to tailor the script. He asked for extra time to rework the screenplay, but time was a luxury the producers didn't have. Actors and technicians were ready to start the production. So not surprisingly, in terms of characters and plot, the resulting movie bears little resemblance to Bava's other films. At one point a character says, "Everyone seems to be waiting for something that isn't happening," and these are the most apt words in the entire movie. Most Bava movies are about horrible events that happen in front of us. There is rarely any question that "something" will eventually happen in a Bava movie. However, with 5 Dolls For an August Moon, we aren't treated to the more horrific events. We don't witness the murders as the guests invited to an isolated island are killed one by one.

Whereas Rene Clair's And Then There Were None (the first screen adaptation of Ten Little Indians) had the benefit of a mysterious, gothic mansion, 5 Dolls For an August Moon is filmed in bright light, with bright colors and chrome and a kitschy lounge score by Piero Umiliani. With each murder in And Then There Were None, the survivors feel the noose tighten on their own necks. Who's next? Can anyone survive? But in 5 Dolls For an August Moon, there is little sense of building terror. The actors cavort on the island's beach as if they have few concerns. They treat being stranded on an island with a killer on the loose as little more than an inconvenience. And therefore we get a Bava thriller without any thrills.

Much of this blame must go on the screenplay--but not all. Bava's camera continuously reinforces the superficial. Without being given the opportunity to mold the story to fit his interests, Bava was forced to simply film the script; however, while the subject matter doesn't resemble typical Bava material, the movie definitely looks like a Bava movie. His camera continuously finds striking colors and surfaces. According to Tim Lucas's liner notes, one of Bava's additions was to cloak each corpse in clear plastic as they're hung in a freezer--to the accompaniment of a jangling calliope. The effect in these sequences is eerie. But more frequently, Bava seems intent on simply underscoring his own hatred for the characters and the story.

5 Dolls For an August Moon has its admirers. But then all Bava movie's (except maybe for Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs) have ardent supporters who love his idiosyncratic, super-stylistic approach to filmmaking. And even in a travesty like 5 Dolls For an August Moon, his supporters rejoice in the dazzling imagery--as when the struggles of two men upset a bevy of glass balls that roll down a staircase. The balls plunk into a bathtub at the bottom of the stairs, where a woman lies dead of suicide, her wrists slit. Unfortunately, though, 5 Dolls For an August Moon is sort of like mining especially poor ore: if you're persistent enough you'll reap some rewards, but those rewards hardly offset the time and energy expended.

Image Entertainment's DVD contains three audio tracks: English, Italian with English subtitles, and isolated music and effects. In addition, you'll find a brief photo/poster gallery, as well as the usual director and star filmographies (and trailers for the other titles in Image Entertainment's "Mario Bava Collection").

--Gary Johnson


Twitch of the Death Nerve

In 5 Dolls For an August Moon, Mario Bava created a murder mystery without showing us the murders take place. The following year, when he made Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971), he went the other direction entirely--giving us a movie that is all about showing us people getting sliced and diced. We see a man and woman speared through their abdomens as they have sex. We see a woman's head neatly sliced off courtesy of an ax. We see a nearly naked woman pursued along a lakeshore by a scythe wielding attacker. We see … and the list goes on and on. If you haven't seen this movie but one of the aforementioned murders sounds familiar, there's good reason: for better or worse, Twitch of the Death Nerve is one of the most imitated movies of the past 30 years. It helped kick start the slasher genre and several of its key scenes were repeated almost verbatim in the Friday the 13th movies. So while Bava's legacy primarily lies in gothic horror, his influence still resonates today (although somewhat dully) in movies such as I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream, and Urban Legends.

Twitch of the Death Nerve is made for people who derive pleasure from seeing other people killed. Imagine Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho if we didn't get to know Marion Crane before her death in the Bates Hotel shower. Imagine Psycho if we didn't get to know Norman Bates before he's revealed as the murderer. And tag together a dozen murder sequences, each only vaguely linked to the next. In Twitch of the Death Nerve, motivations are irrelevant. People only exist to be killed. If that's your idea of a good time, you'll no doubt have fun watching this movie, but I find it to be a horrifying development in the career of Mario Bava. The same director responsible for Black Sunday and The Whip and the Body had eschewed most vestiges of atmosphere in favor of a single-minded stream of explicit carnage. The resulting movie is guaranteed to make audiences squirm, but the violence is near pornographic. In the same way that pornographic movies reduce human interactions to the workings of genitals, Twitch of the Death Nerve reduces cinematic thrills to little more than knives slicing through flesh.

Bava, however, was quite enthusiastic about his new movie: "Thirteen characters, thirteen murders! I was interested in depicting a variety of approaches to murder, in presenting a definite catalogue of crime." And his enthusiasm was somewhat contagious, for Twitch of the Death Nerve was the first Bava movie in five years to be picked up for international distribution (the first since AIP's Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs). Hallmark Releasing Corporation retitled the movie as Carnage and promoted it as "Rated V for Violence." (Image Entertainment's DVD of Twitch of the Death Nerve carries the title Carnage in the opening credits.) Retitled yet again as Last House on the Left--Part II, it played the bottom half of drive-in bills until the late '70s.

--Gary Johnson


I Vampiri

Mario Bava's film career got off to an auspicious start in 1956 when he lensed Riccardo Freda's I Vampiri. Bava originally signed on as cinematographer, but after Freda encountered difficulties with the investors and quit the production, Bava was entrusted with directing the final two days of filming. As a result, Bava fans have paid close attention to this first Bava film for evidence of his influence.

Until Image Entertainment's DVD release of I Vampiri, Bava fans had to turn to generally inferior video transfers from video companies that dealt in public domain movies. The problem was compounded by the American release, titled The Devil's Commandment, having incorporated several minutes of footage of unknown origin. This footage featured an opening sequence where a woman prepares for a bath and slips into her tub--while a killer silently stalks her. And it featured an extended sequence where a distraught woman runs to a beatnik bar after an apparent encounter with an overly amorous boyfriend--and a black-gloved killer stalks her as she calls her boyfriend and apologizes. (Unlike the rest of this Italian-language movie, the actors are clearly speaking English in this scene.)

Image Entertainment's DVD clears up much of the confusion by presenting an uncut Italian version of I Vampiri. Gone entirely are the two suspect scenes. Yet this version is longer than the American release because several scenes in the American prints were shorn of footage. In some cases, only a few seconds had been deleted, but in other scences substantial dialogue exchanges were missing.

Adding further yet to the confusion, significant changes in the story apparently took place after scenes had been completed, causing viewers to wonder if the resulting gaps were the result of production/distribution company tampering. For example, surviving stills show the killer being executed by guillotine. But this scene doesn't appear in the movie; however, in at least one scene, we can clearly see sutures on the killer's neck--as if he had been pieced together and brought back to life (a la Frankenstein's monster).

Image Entertainment's DVD doesn't explain what happened to the execution scene (which was deleted at the request of Italian censors). but in virtually every other sense it's a revelation. Instead of forcing us to endure the dreadful dubbing of the American release, we get the original Italian-language version with optional English subtitles. The American dubbed release completely altered huge chunks of dialogue and in the process turned the hero into a strutting, insufferable martinet. In the Italian version, the hero is still somewhat irritating, but at least he's tolerable. And now we can see that several amateurish camera shots meant to provide shock effects weren't part of the original Italian release. For example, there is scene where a woman is kidnapped and held prisoner in a castle. She wakes and wanders into a room occupied by the decayed remnants of three corpses. Her eyes roll back and she faints. In the American release, some bright-minded individual decided the scene would work better with a close-up of rats crawling through a human skull--a close-up that immediately trivializes the horror. Image Entertainment's release restores some dignity to I Vampiri by eliminating these inserts entirely.

I Vampiri (English translation: "The Vampires") inaugurated Italian gothic horror cinema in 1957, a time when horror film production around the globe had slowed to a trickle. Only three years later, horror film production would rise to one of its highest points in history. What role did I Vampiri play in the rise of horror cinema? It's difficult to say. Few Italian horror films immediately followed in its wake. However, in a parallel development in England, Hammer Studios began work on The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula (American title: Horror of Dracula), with a similar emphasis on gothic ingredients (e.g. castles, musty passages, dusty curtains, dank crypts, etc.). The Hammer films would have a profound effect on the history of horror cinema. Without the great success of Hammer, I Vampiri may have had very little influence. It didn't do particularly well at the box office in Europe.

However, I Vampiri does contain a veritable grocery list of horror cinema ingredients: 1) it's part giallo thriller, with detectives and reporters searching for a serial killer (a genre which Mario Bava would explore in Evil Eye and Dario Argento would perfect in thrillers such as Deep Red); 2) it's part variation on the Countess Bathory legend (who as legend has it attempted to prolong her life by bathing in the blood of virgins); 3) it's part mad scientist movie (with a doctor who yearns to "discover the very energy that creates life.") ; and 4) it's part prototypical Italian gothic horror (with a magnificent castle filled with huge, cavernous rooms and flowing, tattered curtains).

The movie is somewhat hampered by the weak central character--a smug newspaperman named Pierre Lantin who insists (without any evidence whatsoever) that a vampire is responsible for the murders that shock Paris: "Vampire Continues His Killing Spree!" scream a newspaper headline. Compensating for the annoying presence of Dario Michaelis as Lantin, the movie gives us magnificent sets, atmospheric cinematography, and several strong supporting performances, such as Paul Muller's performance as the murderer.

The story itself is built around a recent murder spree in Paris. Several exotic dancers (the dubbing labels them "ballerinas" in the English language version!) have been drained of blood and dumped in the Seine. Now, a newspaperman named Lantin claims a vampire is responsible. He's obsessed with catching the killer: "I know it seems I'm obsessed, but I have to discover his identity!" Meanwhile, the camera shows us the killer (Paul Muller) at work. He isn't killing women randomly. A doctor, Professor Julien du Grand (Antonie Balpetre), urges him to kill in exchange for injections of an unspecified drug. However, the doctor is actually in cahoots with the Duchess du Grand, who herself still moons for her dead lover--the father of Pierre Lantin. The Doctor provides her with blood transfusions that reinvigorate her (she's actually over 100 years old) and allow her to masquerade as her own granddaughter, Giselle du Grand (Gianna Maria Canale). Once reinvigorated she caresses her face and looks at herself in a mirror: " I'm beautiful!" she says. But Lantin doesn't pay any attention to Giselle. His co-worker asks about Lantin's indifference to Giselle: "The most beautiful woman in Paris makes eyes at you … and you don't care?" "It's a long story involving our families," says Lantin. "I'm not interested in her." But Giselle is obsessed with love: "I became young again at the cost of human life … just for that man's love! I couldn't let him get away like I let his father get away!"

This strange combination of plot elements and characters doesn't always work well together. We don't get any characters that we can really care about. And the movie seems to be always pulling in five different directions at the same time. We don't get to see enough of Canale as Giselle. In fact she only appears briefly until the movie is halfway over. (Canale is a marvelous presence; dark and mysterious, she was a beauty queen in the late '40s and eventually married director Riccardo Freda.) We know virtually nothing about the college girl (played by Wandisa Guida) that Pierre develops a hankering for--until she's kidnapped and held captive by the Doctor and his clubfooted assistant. But the movie contains a stylish, dazzling mise-en-scene thanks to the work of director Riccardo Freda and cinematographer Mario Bava.

Riccardo Freda had been involved in the Italian film industry since 1937, as both a screenwriter and production assistant. He made his debut as a director in 1942 with Don Cesare di Bazan and his career prior to I Vampiri included Les Miserables (1947) and several historical dramas. Freda was never particularly interested in the horror genre. He disliked making movies about the supernatural. He found the evil within normal men and women to be much more horrific than ghosts and monsters. Maybe that's why I Vampiri is so plausible. It isn't about ordinary vampires. In fact, it doesn't give us any conventional vampires at all. Instead, it gives us a situation where a doctor lusts to discover the very energy that creates life.

Mario Bava's contributions to I Vampiri went far beyond simply choosing camera angles and setting up lighting. His presence is felt in the decrepit, decaying atmosphere of the Du Grand castle, where the crumbling stone walls and dusty passageways reflect the decadence of the Du Grands. Most impressively, Bava devised a fascinating lighting effect for the blood transfusion scene: without the use of special makeup or time lapse photography, the Duchess becomes reinvigorated as the new blood enters her veins-- her hair darkens and her wrinkles disappear.

Both Freda and Bava would both go on to create better movies than I Vampiri. Much of the movie's fame rests on its historical importance. The movie itself is somewhat disjointed and the big scenes feel rushed. But for fans of the genre, it's fascinating evidence of the birth of Italian gothic horror.

--Gary Johnson


Knives of the Avenger

Knives of the Avenger is arguably Mario Bava's best movie outside of the horror genre. He joined the project after it was well underway. Several scenes had already been completed by another director when the production ran out of money and closed down until additional resources were discovered. In the liner notes for Image Entertainment's DVD presentation of Knives of the Avenger, Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog speculates that Primo Zeglio, a veteran of spaghetti westerns, was the original director. But little evidence remains in the completed movie. Bava likely chucked everything and started anew.

From its first frames, Knives of the Avenger looks striking and unusual. In an early scene, we see a renegade warrior, his face in profile in the foreground, as he shouts commands to his followers, who sit aside horses in the background. The dramatic positioning of the characters in the frame immediately announces that the following movie isn't standard action fare. With striking visual compositions that arrange actors on two or three planes of action, Knives of the Avenger looks like no other Viking epic. In another impressively designed and photographed scene, Bava turns his camera on the interior of a tavern. In the foreground, a Viking general sits pensively at a table, while in the background a warrior enters through the tavern's front door (which is elevated on a platform). And once again both foreground and background are in sharp focus in a strikingly kinetic arrangement. Knives of the Avenger is filled with stunning compositions in which Bava arranges his actors and props in ways that imply motion and energy.

The movie's story is fairly familiar material--particularly for fans of Shane and The Odyssey. Cameron Mitchell stars as a lone warrior named Rurik (he's sort of like a samurai warrior) whose wanderings bring him into the home of a married woman and her son. Karin (Elissa Pichelli) is a queen who is now in hiding because her husband, King Harald, has been missing for many months. He led his men in a voyage across the sea and they never returned. Now another Viking wants to claim her as a wife and assume the role of king. Not realizing who this woman is, Rurik (Mitchell) becomes her protector while a strong friendship develops between Rurik and her son Moki (think of Alan Ladd and Brandon de Wilde in Shane). Meanwhile Rurik and Karin share longing glances. This situation becomes complicated considerably when Rurik's past is revealed. He was a vicious warrior who, several years ago, led an assault against this same community that he is now protecting--and during this assault, he raped the queen. So her son may actually be his own offspring (both Rurik and Moki have the same bleached hair, leaving the boy's paternity hardly in doubt). Rurik must face up to his past and the hopelessness of any future between him and Karin, while simultaneously serving as their savior.

Knives of the Avenger is marred by occasional bits of leaden dialogue, but the general thrust of the drama carries an elegiac, mournful sense of tragedy. The story may be overly familiar, but the story still has appeal. It's a compelling portrayal of a wandering warrior who is tired of his vocation and longs to settle down.

When Knives of the Avenger was released in 1966, the spaghetti western genre was going strong, and its influence occasionally echoes in Bava's film. Like James Coburn in The Magnificent Seven (an American western that left a strong impact on spaghetti western), Rurik is defined by his expertise with a knife. This predilection for identifying characters by their weapons became a hallmark feature of the spaghetti western.

Now available on DVD from Image Entertainment, Knives of the Avenger comes with an original theatrical trailer and a photo gallery (as well as Image Entertainment's standard Bava bio and filmography). The movie is presented in a letterboxed (2.35:1 aspect ratio) uncut version that has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The transfer features brilliant colors (although I noticed a slight reddening of the image), and the transfer exhibits little wear.

--Gary Johnson