My brief mention of Mario Bava the other day (see “Tim the Enchanter”) reminds me that I’ve given him short shrift here, which is regrettable not only because of my affection for his work, but also because I’ve failed to sing the praises of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. Written by Video Watchdog publisher Tim Lucas, this twelve-pound tome is a titanic trove of words and images, a must for any admirer of its long-neglected subject (although, during the decades it took Tim to finish it, Troy Howarth came out with The Haunted World of Mario Bava, which is impressive in its own right). This is one of the most awe-inspiring pieces of cinematic scholarship I’ve ever seen, and I’ll be the first to admit that Richard Matheson on Screen, for all of the twelve years I put into it, will look like the merest pamphlet by comparison.
For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Bava (1914-1980) was a cinematographer and special-effects expert who later turned to directing, and although he worked in numerous genres such as space operas, spaghetti Westerns, and comedies, he is most revered for his horror films. A self-effacing craftsman, he often worked unacknowledged in various capacities on other people’s projects just to keep his hand in, and served as both cinematographer and uncredited co-director on Riccardo Freda’s The Vampires and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster. His best-known work as a director of photography was on the seminal pepla (sword-and-sandal films) Hercules and Hercules Unchained, which put Steve Reeves on the cinematic map and helped burnish Bava’s own credentials.
Twice in his career, Bava was given carte blanche: with his solo directorial debut, Black Sunday (see “Bradley’s Hundred #1-10”), which he was awarded for salvaging Freda’s films, and after the success of Baron Blood, when he was allowed to make Lisa and the Devil. All too often, however, his work was compromised by a lack of time (preventing him from rewriting the lame scripts with which he was sometimes saddled) and/or money…but never of imagination. Famous for making something out of nothing, and for economizing with low-tech in-camera effects, Bava created a body of work in which style frequently triumphed over substance, and at its best offered an atmosphere and visual splendor that were uniquely his own.
I have in my archives a formal profile of Bava that I wrote for the late, lamented Scifipedia website without the benefit of Tim’s book (in which, after some 400 pages, I’m only up to his third official film…crazy, man!). But rather than unearth that—as I will be inclined to do with various pieces, now that the original Scifipedia is no longer accessible—I thought it might be fun, as with Tim Burton, to take a highly subjective, albeit much less comprehensive, tour through some of his work as a director. This is by no means The Complete Mario Bava, or even The Best of Mario Bava; just think of it as The Most of Mario Bava.
I Vampiri (The Vampires, aka The Devil’s Commandment, Lust of the Vampire, Evil’s Commandment; 1956): It’s interesting to note that both Freda and Bava went on to direct influential films starring Barbara Steele (The Horrible Dr. Hichcock  and Black Sunday, respectively). But this, too, was a trend-setter, prefiguring the Gothic revival of Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and the plots of both their Countess Dracula (1970) and the many medical thrillers spawned by Jesus Franco’s The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962). The murders of a series of young women found drained of blood put a reporter on the trail of an aged Countess kept artificially youthful by her mad scientist cousin.
Caltiki, il Mostro Immortale (Caltiki, the Immortal Monster; 1959): This low-budget Italian horror/SF film seems to have been inspired by both The Blob (1958) and Hammer’s The Quatermass Experiment (1955). It features great photography by Bava, including some truly creepy underwater footage, and surprisingly gruesome makeup for its day. Scientists probing the exodus of the Mayans centuries ago discover the titular goddess, a flesh-dissolving blob, which emerges from a pool in a cave to wreak varied havoc.
Ercole al Centro della Terra (Hercules at the Center of the Earth, aka Hercules in the Haunted World, Hercules Vs. the Vampires; 1961): Having photographed the first two Hercules films, Bava got kicked upstairs into the director’s chair for the fourth entry, with Reg “Slab o’ Beef” Park returning in the role he inherited from Reeves with Hercules and the Captive Women. It’s appropriately great to look at, and features Christopher Lee as the villain, Lico, but alas, as in Bava’s La Frusta e il Corpo, his voice is dubbed. The only other noteworthy element is the evil Procrustes, who appears in a side-splitting “rock-man” outfit that had us all on the floor the first time we saw this.
La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much, aka The Evil Eye; 1963): After the first of his several Viking films, Erik the Conqueror (1961), Bava made this early example of the giallo horror/thrillers later popularized by Dario Argento. Most notably, it features Argento’s frequent (perhaps even overused) plot device of a character—in this case an American girl visiting Rome—who witnesses a murder and spends the rest of the film trying to interpret the clues they saw subliminally. John Saxon stars as the local doctor who takes a fancy to her.
I Tre Volti della Paura (The Three Faces of Fear, aka Black Sabbath; 1963): Bava’s anthology horror film was much altered by its co-producer and U.S. distributor, AIP (which released Black Sunday in the U.S. to great success, and struck up a lengthy relationship with Bava). Unfortunately, in the uncut Italian print, host Boris Karloff is dubbed, so either version is a proverbial half-loaf of the most frustrating kind. A greedy woman is terrorized by the ghost of a dead medium, whose ring she stole, in “The Drop of Water”; a girl is stalked by her ex-lover in “The Telephone”; and Karloff effectively plays a Russian vampire in “The Wurdalak.”
La Frusta e il Corpo (The Whip and the Body, aka What!, Night is the Phantom; 1963): This is considered one of Bava’s best films. Israeli actress Daliah Lavi from Casino Royale (1967) is coiffed and costumed to look a lot like Barbara Steele as a woman haunted by her dead lover, Christopher Lee. Alas, Lee’s voice was once again dubbed by another actor, so his impact is lessened, but it’s still a splendidly twisted, atmospheric thriller about a sadomasochistic relationship that continues beyond the grave.
Sei Donne per l’Assassino (Six Women for the Assassin/Murderer, aka Six Femmes pour l’Assassin, Blood and Black Lace, Fashion House of Death; 1964): Another Bava film to prefigure the gialli of Dario Argento, this concerns a masked killer who systematically and sadistically wipes out a series of women connected with a fashion house in order to suppress certain evidence. Star Cameron Mitchell bracketed this film with appearances in Bava’s Erik the Conqueror and Knives of the Avenger.
Terrore Nello Spazio (Terror in Space, aka Planet of the Vampires, The Demon Planet; 1965): After the spaghetti Western The Road to Fort Alamo (1964), Bava made his only entry in the space opera subgenre that his countryman Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony M. Dawson) pioneered with Assignment: Outer Space (1960) and Battle of the Worlds (1961). Invisible beings take over astronauts’ bodies, making them vicious killers (although not, as advertised, vampires). The scene of the dead astronauts rising from their graves, shrouded in transparent plastic, is unforgettable; the ending echoes those of Richard Matheson’s “Third from the Sun,” adapted on The Twilight Zone, and Planet of the Apes (1968).
Operazione Paura (Operation Fear, aka Kill, Baby…Kill!, Curse of the Living Dead; 1966): Bava’s last great period horror film followed the spaghetti Western Ringo from Nebraska, credited to a different director, and another Viking film, Knives of the Avenger (both 1966). Italian genre mainstay Giacomo Rossi-Stuart stars as a doctor investigating a rash of mysterious deaths in a small village; ostensibly suicides, they turn out to be the work of a vengeful witch. Fellini later borrowed the image of an evil, rubber-ball-bouncing little girl for his “Toby Dammit” segment of Spirits of the Dead (1968).
Cinque Bambole per la Luna d’Agosto (Five Dolls for an August Moon, aka Cinco Muñecas para la Luna de Agosto, Island of Terror; 1970): Bava was, in effect, a hired gun on this project, which came after the excruciatingly unfunny Vincent Price comedy Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Bombs (1966) and the sumptuous comic-book adaptation Danger: Diabolik (1968). Once again, he was unable to rewrite the script, because it was penned by the producer, but his distaste for this lame Ten Little Indians knockoff is evident, as even the multiple murders lack his usual visual flourish; in fact, most of the killings are committed offscreen, with the discovery of each a tame anticlimax. The only aspect that seems to spark his interest is the blackly humorous shots of the bodies, sheathed in clear plastic—sadly evoking his far better Terrore Nello Spazio—and lined up next to a side of beef inside a deep-freeze that seems to be about as big as a one-bedroom apartment. The obligatory Hitchcockian macguffin, leading to the deaths of a group of people stranded on an island, is the proposed sale by scientist William Berger of his valuable formula for a revolutionary new resin; the title is totally meaningless, and the equally obligatory plot twists far-fetched in the extreme. Among the mostly no-name cast is Edwige Fenech, stubbornly refusing to strut the stuff she showed in Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark (1972), from which Tim Lucas took his otherwise apt title. This is most interesting when considered in the overall context of Mario’s career, as it’s easy to see how the experience could have colored his Ecologia del Delitto.
To be continued.