On the occasion of his 96th birthday, we revisit this profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.
Best known as a director for his seminal Italian horror films, Mario Bava (1914-80) was also a celebrated cinematographer—like his father, Eugenio—and dabbled memorably in the SF genre in both capacities. The father of another prolific horror director, Lamberto (who assisted Mario from 1965 on), Bava was trained as a painter, and began his filmmaking career in 1939.
Bava shot Ennio de Concini’s breakthrough pepla (sword and sandal films), Le Fatiche di Ercole (The Labors of Hercules, aka Hercules; 1958) and Ercole e la Regina di Lidia (Hercules and the Queen of Lydia, aka Hercules Unchained; 1959). He also served as the uncredited co-director on two films he was photographing for Riccardo Freda, which blended elements of horror and SF.
I Vampiri (The Vampires, aka The Devil’s Commandment, Lust of the Vampire; 1956) told of a modern-day Elizabeth Bathory kept youthful by transfusions from unwilling women. Caltiki, il Mostro Immortale (Caltiki, the Immortal Monster; 1959) was a Mayan “god” discovered in a cave by treasure-hunting archaeologists, a flesh-eating blob that is ultimately unleashed in Mexico City.
In between, Bava photographed Paolo Heusch’s La Morte Viene dalla Spazio (Death Comes from Outer Space, aka The Day the Sky Exploded; 1958), in which an astronaut accidentally creates a climate-altering shower of asteroids that threatens the entire world. He must then persuade all the nations of the Earth to unite, using their atomic arsenals to blow the asteroids out of the atmosphere.
Bava’s skill at salvaging Freda’s films and another peplum he had photographed for Galatea with Steve Reeves, Jacques Tourneur’s La Battaglia di Maratona (aka The Giant of Marathon, 1959), led the studio to offer him carte blanche on his official directorial debut. (Freda reportedly urged them along by deliberately abandoning Caltiki in midstream, thus allowing Bava to strut his stuff.)
Said debut, La Maschera del Demonio (The Mask of the Demon, aka Black Sunday; 1960), was based on Nikolai Gogol’s “The Vij,” and remains unsurpassed. It launched the career of Italy’s “scream queen,” British-born Barbara Steele, who was unforgettable as 200-year-old vampire witch Asa and her look-alike descendant, Princess Katia, but with whom Bava sadly never worked again.
Through 1977, Bava directed almost two dozen features in various genres, leaving a unique visual stamp on each, and sometimes prefiguring an entire subgenre. He photographed and/or co-wrote many of his films (often without credit), working miracles of style over substance on limited budgets, and was the first to admit that the scripts foisted upon him were occasionally beyond help.
Bava’s own peplum, Ercole al Centro della Terra (Hercules in the Center of the Earth, aka Hercules in the Haunted World; 1961), lacked Reeves as Hercules, but compensated with abundant atmosphere and Christopher Lee as the vampiric villain, Lico. Lee returned opposite Daliah Lavi in La Frusta e il Corpo (The Whip and the Body, aka What; 1963), one of Bava’s finest horror films.
La Ragazza che Sapeva Troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much, aka The Evil Eye; 1962) formed a clear template for the horrific crime thrillers known as gialli, popularized in the 1970s by Dario Argento. Another influential early giallo was Bava’s tale of a faceless, black-gloved serial killer, Sei Donne per l’Assassino (Six Women for the Murderer, aka Blood and Black Lace; 1964).
The latter starred Cameron Mitchell, as did the Viking epics Gli Invasori (The Invaders, aka Erik the Conqueror; 1961) and I Coltelli del Vendicatore (Knives of the Avenger, 1966). Bava was able to secure the services of a bigger name, Boris Karloff, to host and play a Russian vampire in his anthology horror film I Tre Volti della Paura (The Three Faces of Fear, aka Black Sabbath; 1963).
Bava was less suited to such spaghetti Westerns as La Strada per Forte Alamo (The Road to Fort Alamo, 1964) and Roy Colt & Winchester Jack (1970). One of his efforts in this genre, Ringo del Nebraska (Ringo from Nebraska, aka Savage Gringo; 1966), was directed primarily by Bava but credited for legal reasons to Spanish director Anthony Roman (Antonio Román), whom he replaced.
Widely regarded as one of the unofficial inspirations for Alien (1979), Terrore Nello Spazio (Terror in Outer Space, aka Planet of the Vampires; 1965) was Bava’s most overt SF effort, yet its scenes of astronauts rising from their graves rivaled those in many a horror film. It concerns a pair of space crews who answer an interstellar distress call and are then taken over by alien intelligences.
Le Spie Vengono dal Semifreddo (The Spy Came from the Semi-Cold, aka Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs; 1966) brought back mad scientist Vincent Price from Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), now creating explosive female androids. SF elements also appeared in Diabolik (aka Danger: Diabolik; 1967), based on the comic strip about a thief who uses high-tech gadgetry.
Bava’s last period horror outing, Operazione Paura (Operation Fear, aka Kill, Baby…Kill!; 1966) had ravishing visuals that influenced no less a filmmaker than Federico Fellini. He continued to work in the genre, with Una Hacha para la Luna de Miel (Hatchet for the Honeymoon; 1969), as well as outside it, with the sex comedy Quante Volte…Quella Notte (Four Times That Night; 1969).
Bava disliked the script of Cinque Bambole per la Luna d’Agosto (Five Dolls for an August Moon; 1969), a rip-off of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. Anticipating Friday the 13th (1980) and its ilk, the series of creative deaths in Reazione a Catena (Ecologia del Delitto) (Chain Reaction [Ecology of Crime], aka Bay of Blood, Twitch of the Death Nerve; 1971) seems almost his rebuttal.
Producer Alfredo Leone was so delighted with Bava’s work on Gli Orrori del Castello di Norimberga (aka Baron Blood; 1971) that he was once again given carte blanche. Using the same leading lady, Elke Sommer, Bava created Lisa e il Diavolo (Lisa and the Devil; 1972), a poetic and surrealistic horror film so unusual that—to his dismay—it proved initially impossible to distribute.
In the wake of The Exorcist (1973), Lisa had many of its scenes replaced with new material featuring Robert Alda as a priest exorcising Sommer, and was released as La Casa dell’Esorcismo (House of Exorcism; 1975). The original surfaced at last, but Semaforo Rosso (aka Cani Arrabbiati [Rabid Dogs]; 1974) stayed uncompleted and unreleased for decades because of financial problems.
Such disappointments plagued the end of Bava’s career, with his final feature, Shock (1977), being dumped on the U.S. market under the misleading title of Beyond the Door II; he also provided uncredited visual effects for Argento’s Inferno (1980). But he has left us with a rich legacy of splendid visuals, and a new generation is discovering his work on DVD, often in its intended forms.