Mario Bava Collection: Volume 1, The
Mario Bava. The name ranks right up there along with his followers, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, as Italy’s, and Europe’s premier horror autuers. While Bava’s name may be universally known, his films may not, considering their limited (and expensive) availability on home video. It has been seven years since Image’s roll-out of many Bava favorites, when in such time most of Argento’s and Fulci’s careers have been released and re-released a few times. Anchor Bay starts here what hopefully will become a long and satisfying trend with this new “The Mario Bava Collection Volume 1”. Five films, restored transfers, and new extras. Is it a horror fan’s nightmare come true? Let’s splash some light on this Bava quintology.
Black Sunday begins with a scene that would forever remain iconic in horror: a witch, Katia Vajda (Barbara Steele), having Satan’s mask bludgeoned onto her before being burned at the stake. By a miracle the fires are put out by rain, and instead her body is preserved in a casket with a cross looming above to keep her there. After a doctor and his apprentice accidentally disturb her resting place (where spilled blood brings her back to life) she and her old Satanic lover attempt to once again wreak havoc on the locals. It turns out one of the locals is a distant relative, and one with the same looks as the witch. Katia would do anything for that new body – including sucking the blood of anyone who stands in her way!
Although incorrectly labeled his first feature (I Vampiri was done a full four years prior), it may as well be considering how esteemed it has become in Bava’s canon. Although Vampiri is equally as good, it lacks those marketable moments like the aforementioned opening, or Steele’s memorable rise from her grave. Bava was never one to direct actors, which makes Steele’s scene-stealing performance all the more commendable. She has a ball playing dual roles, and her few scenes as a witch stand out more than almost any other actor in Bava’s films before or since. The script is right out of the Universal lot, with terribly choreographed plot developments and plenty of dull exposition, but in each and every scene she’s in, Barbara steals it.
Bava’s camera is by comparison restrained here, but his uncredited effects work certainly isn’t. Bava was a magician of all kinds, and here he does some great gore work, from blood spurting during the mask placement and several decaying cadavers (by air or by fire), at a time when gore was hardly even a word. Even if the story and Bava’s stylistic restraint date the film, his effects work here makes the film seem miraculously fresh when held against contemporaries. There’s always a whimsy in watching an early filmmaker delighting in the new possibilities of a medium, and even if he still hadn’t hit his prime yet, Bava’s early work was still brimming with life.
Black Sabbath begins with a cryptic introduction by Boris Karloff, the kind that would appear earlier in his career-making Frankenstein. What follows is an anthology of shorts, all done by Bava, designed to cash in on the trend happening in the artier side of Italy. The first film, “The Telephone”, is your standard woman being threatened by asexual telephone prankery yarn with a bit of homoeroticism thrown in the mix. “The Wurdalak”, Karloff’s segment, sees a rich patriarch returning home to his family…except instead of traditional gifts, he bears only a severed head. He’s clearly crazy, and potentially a vampire, and it’s up to family member Vladimire (Mark Damon) to stop him. The third and final entry, “The Drop of Water”, sees a nurse stealing the beautiful ring from one of her corpses…only to have the corpse steal it back! Although the corpse is dead, through one pestering fly and several atmospheric drops of water, the insanity drives her to an untimely demise.
While Bava achieved major success with his earlier forays into the giallo, he is much less successful here with his early horror anthology. Black Sabbath of course has some provocative flourishes that distinctly stamp Bava all over it. “The Telephone” is laced with the female homoerotic subtext that would often underpin his many female killer plots. “The Wurdalak”, with its creepy child seduction, hanging severed head and leering vampire finale, certainly offers the most memorable moments. And finally the skin crawling sound design, staring cadavers and twisty finale make “The Drop of Water” yet another atmospheric example of Bava’s cinematic prowess. Yet for every effective auteur moment, there are ten others that extend on long past their welcome.
Because of the inherent short length of anthology segments, most episodes can risk losing their originality in the face of the beginning-middle-end clichés of necessity. With Black Sabbath, Bava knows how to speak with originality – his style is certainly iconic, it is what he is saying that is so unappealing. All three stories are essentially rehashes of better films and stories, with “The Telephone” picking up Sorry, Wrong Number, “The Wurdalak” riding the story and tone of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, and “The Drop of Water” a bug’s eye view of Poe’s “The Black Cat”. None have the pointed commentary afforded to his more memorable pictures, each playing out instead like forgettable Tales From the Crypt episodes. The only truly great moment in the film comes at the end, when the camera pulls back from Karloff riding a horse to reveal the movie magic that creates that illusion. It is for that brief moment you remember the kind of magic Bava is capable of, since for the previous 91-minutes he shows us none.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much humorously begins on an airplane, where a young woman infatuated with mystery novels, Nora Davis (Leticia Roman), is offered a cigarette by her persistent neighbour. It turns out the smoke she just had was laced with marijuana, as her flight mate was arrested shortly thereafter, and what happens afterwards is fittingly fantastical. Upon arriving in Rome, Nora is witness to a brutal stabbing. She takes it up with the cops, but they tell her that event happened more than ten years ago. That must have been some really good pot. Or not? She decides to prolong her visit to Rome in hopes of solving the mystery (as all good heroines do in her giallo novels), but ends up hurting her love interest, Marcello Bassi (John Saxon) more along the way. Eventually the plot falls into alignment, but you’ll be forever wondering what is truth and where you can get some of that hash.
Almost everyone agrees that Bava started the giallo. What remains in question though, is with which film. Blood and Black Lace? The Girl Who Knew Too Much? Another still? If we are to go with Anchor Bay’s claims on the back that it was The Girl Who Knew Too Much, then what a way to start. With this film Bava did more than just introduce the genre – he was already trying to subvert it. Those trashy yellow novels had been popular in Italy for years before (and after) The Girl, and in introducing it here to film, he also pokes fun at its already convoluted conventions. The film is narrated much like a novel, with plenty of questions thrown out to the reader, and with purposely on-the-nose exposition to mock the fact-driven nature of these novels. Bava has fun too, with having his leading lady setup a booby trap based on a murder mystery she herself read. So much like the wink wink of the later slashers, and of post-modernity in general, Bava already has his characters privy to the conventions of the genre she exists within. If Wes and Sean were ripping off Kill, Baby…Kill! with Friday the 13th (more on that later), then Wes was certainly building on The Girl for Scream.
This post-modernism talk isn’t to say Bava isn’t taking his subject matter seriously – he is. What sets this apart from the usual giallo is not merely the style with which he executes the film (there are many more stylish examples of the genre), but the way he seamlessly works bits of comedy within the narrative too. John Saxon is his screwball foil, the victim of several physical jokes whether involving his broken finger or his falls in halls. While that’s funny enough, it is the tongue and cheek way Bava approaches the giallo genre that makes it so enduring. After playing it straight with the film for most of the runtime, Bava has the audacity to lampoon the ludicrous resolves of the genre with a real howler of an ending. Not only does he redefine the giallo descriptive “hallucinary”, but he also executes a pretty irreverent potshot at religion all in one virtuous swoop. Il Maestro proves here with The Girl Who Knew Too Much that not only can he define a genre…he can redefine it simultaneously too.
Knives of the Avenger follows our titular hero, Rurik (Cameron Mitchell), on an odyssey to come to terms with his tragic past and vindicate the people he once tragically impacted. As king of his people, Rurik was forced to vengeance after the evil warrior Hagen (Fausto Tozzi) murdered his allies in the name of King Harald (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart). Rurik terrorized Harald’s people under false pretense during Harald’s honeymoon with Karin (Elissa Pichelli), and nearly killed Harald in the process. After later vowing to punish Rurik for his actions, Harald lead a team out to sea. They lost their way and were quickly pronounced dead, giving Hagen a chance to forcefully marry Karin, thereby gaining control of the land. Hagen has some vicious plans for Karin and her son after marriage, and it is up to Rurik, now a lone drifter, to purge his guilt and throw a shitload of knives into his adversaries.
The litmus test of a true auteur is whether or not they can leave a personal stamp over a wide range of genres. For true auteurs are unable to sidestep their desires; the themes of their movies eat away at them, demanding to be let out. The genre comes secondary to the vision. Consider Fulci, whose work spanned several genres, from horror to comedy, but were always filled with surrealism and excess. Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese, they all scream the name of their director over all else. Bava put himself to the test with this, Knives of the Avenger, his departure into sword and sandal territory. Even with his own script and an actor he had worked with several times, Cameron Mitchell, he sadly does not rise above the material. The conventions of the genre supersede Bava’s voice as an auteur. Even though Bava reportedly came in late in the game to reshoot another director’s botched job, he should still be held accountable for what is a relatively uninteresting picture.
This is not to say Knives of the Avenger is substandard. As a film of its genre, it stands above most other Italian offerings, but as a film by “Mario Bava”, it is nevertheless a voiceless disappointment. His expressive use of color is non-existent here, with the browns of fur and sand taking precedence over those trademark Bava hues. His camera is just as lazy, letting action play out in front of it, rather than engaging with the action like Bava films usually do. This seems more a work for hire than the work of a distinctive voice, and like with Sergio Martino in the later stages of his career, with his Fenech sex comedies and dreck like The Big Alligator River, the traces of the auteur seem almost completely lost in the face of a paycheck. Fulci was able to transform his sword epic, Conquest, into a surreal nightmare of macho brutality and Homer-like fate, but here Bava plays a pop song.
Kill, Baby…Kill! begins with a woman throwing herself on a number of very sharp spikes, but as the title suggests, it was hardly an accident, and hardly done by an adult. Several years ago, a little girl was trampled to death by horses during a fair, while all the attendees failed to pay notice. Ever since, the town has been haunted by sightings of the girl, and apparently those who see her die shortly thereafter. Medical doctor Paul Eswai (Giacomo, again) is brought in for the autopsy of the girl from the opening murder, but quickly finds himself in much deeper than he imagined. He is dealing with something outside the realm of reason, where ghosts live on, and reality is never what it seems.
Kill, Baby…Kill! may be the last of Bava’s gothic horror films, but oddly enough it seems one of the most contemporary of all his works. The whole “creepy dead girl” genre that drove J-Horror and is now killing modern horror all stems back to this, where Bava somehow makes scary a girl putting her hand on a window (and does it a number of times, no less!). If Twitch of the Death Nerve dictated the setting and the kills for Friday the 13th, then Kill! dictated its theme and resolve. Without giving too much away, Alice’s final quandary, “The boy…is he dead too?” Wouldn’t seem all that out of place in the conclusion to this film.
Mention of course must also go to his kaleidoscopic use of color here, which the back of the box tells us has influenced “Fellini, Scorsese, Argento, David Lynch and Guillermo Del Toro”. His use of greens here draw upon another esteemed auteur though, in the way they evoke the childhood tranquility and innocence found in Douglas Sirk’s Written in the Wind. Bava uses green light, deceptively shone on cobwebs and castle walls, to contrast the run-down present with the better times before Melissa’s death. He doubles between the past and the present not only through light, but through subject matter too, often having his characters (most memorably Paul in the finale) seeing doubles of themselves, and reiterations of the past. He proves with color, perspective shifts in camera (think that iconic swing scene) and storytelling that the tragic past can live on, supernaturally or not, in the minds of those who let it happen.
All five films in this box set have been released before (the first four by Image, and the last unofficially by Dark Sky) and Anchor Bay bests all the previous transfers…but not by much. Rather than the full fledged new restorations one would expect for updates of transfers now 7 years old, Anchor Bay has instead just patched up all Image’s old releases. The anamorphic transfers are all the same, with the abundance of grain and occasional softness intact, but with everything now a whole lot cleaner. As evidenced in the comparisons below, color rendition, contrast, and grain structure all remain the same, but most of the white specs and other noticeable print anomalies have been suppressed or removed altogether. Even if they aren’t much different than their Image counterparts, they are much cleaner, so kudos to Anchor Bay for that.
Still, the problems that plagued Image’s previous releases plague these ones too. The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1.77:1) looks worst, with the same doubling effect that plagued that release obvious several times here. Much of it looks shot through a screen door and can appear quite soft. That said, the contrast is still very good, even if some pixels dance around in those darker scenes. Black Sunday (1.66:1) has a lot of grain and the occasional artifact mulling about in its many dark shadows, and is easily the grainiest of the lot, although clearer than The Girl, and overall fine looking for a film of 47 years. Black Sabbath (1.77:1), even with the clean-up, still has some print damage, but overall looks good. Knives of the Avenger (2.35:1), even if it has been cleaned, still has the most print damage, likely because of the amount of opticals present in the film. The black levels are fairly weak, and the grain can get heavy in moments. Lastly, Kill, Baby…Kill! (1.85:1) has a fair grain throughout, and one distracting scene at the end (likely culled from a different print because of its subject matter) with a high contrast crushing out much of the detail. This is only a minor segment though, and shouldn’t hold too distracting.
Those are the bad bits that appear on both releases of each film, but thankfully all the good stuff remains. And by good stuff, I mean the colors. Three of the five films are presented with Bava’s trademark frenzy of color (Knives more muted, but whatever), and they show up here with the vibrancy expected of those early color films. Each and every color used here, from his green pot lights to his red key lights, all come in with the saturation one would expect with Bava, and make for a great picture. The colors in this version of Kill, Baby…Kill! versus the unreleased Dark Sky disc are also more pleasing, with more accurate flesh tones. The black and whites in Black Sunday and The Girl Who Knew Too Much have solid contrast too. So while the grain and softness of some of these films may at times be an issue, at least they all look newly cleaned and with Bava’s trademark colors rightfully intact.
All films in the box are presented in their original mono mixes (and indistinguishable from the Image mixes), but for anyone familiar with these films, that can mean a whole multitude of things. Black Sunday mixes the less bombastic (and more desirable) Italian score with the English dubbing suited to the native tongue of leading lady Barbara Steele. Black Sunday is all in Italian, which is preferable for the score, but a little off-putting for the dialogue when you hear Boris Karloff introducing the film in Italian. The English language film was once announced for this set (which would include alternate segment introductions with Karloff not included here), but was sadly dropped. Also dropped was the extended (and preferable) English cut of The Girl Who Knew Too Much, which adds more laughs and a better flow to the already solid story. What is included here is the Italian track, which is again a tad bizarre considering Saxon’s recognizable English drawl. Knives of the Avenger is in both English and Italian, which is welcomed, considering while mostly Italian, it does feature a prominent American in the lead. The Image release never offered subtitles to the Italian track, but Anchor Bay does here (as they do for all the other films in this package). Too bad they picked the worst film to offer such lavish selection on. Lastly, Kill, Baby…Kill! is presented in its Italian language, which is a step-up from the English-only version (not) available from Dark Sky. Still, it would have been nice to include both here.
Sound is generally clear and without distortion, and sounds perfectly fine. You don’t come to Bava for the dialogue, that’s for sure!
New to this set are two new commentaries with Tim “The Watchdog” Lucas, and two new interviews with John Saxon and Mark Damon. Lucas’s commentary from the previous Black Sunday has been ported over, but Lucas’s commentary from Dark Sky’s Kill, Baby…Kill! is sadly missing. Otherwise, it is trailers and bios that make up each disc in this handsomely packaged set. The discs are housed in slim cases, which all sit in a folder that pulls out of the main box, similar to Anchor Bay’s Sleepaway Camp set. While the paper holding the discs could be thicker, at least it is that nice textured, double-sided finish, unlike the comparably cheap Warner Brothers box sets.
As for the actual DVD supplements, prepare for knowledge with these Lucas commentaries, as his words on Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, and The Girl Who Knew Too Much provide a multitude of information on all facets of the film. Lucas has been prepping his Bava book for years, so you likely won’t find more researched commentaries on any other non-Criterion releases. That said, Lucas can at times be dry, clearly reading from prepped notes, making the whole thing sound like a paper with his formal citations of the year preceding every film he bares mention. Even if he at times sounds like the book he’s written, it nevertheless sounds like a wonderfully informative book, so Bava fans will be delighted with these.
What is surprising is how good the two included interviews are, too. Saxon is no stranger to supplements, but here he sounds his most open, and his 10-minute recounting of his time in Italy is open and sometimes very funny. He explains how a thick accent brought him oversees to make what he thought was going to be an art-film, and then how Bava apparently berated him because of an apparent jealousy over the leading lady. Funny stuff, and Saxon again memorably explains how translation problems in Cannibal Apocalypse had him set to eat human corpses without his knowing.
The Mark Damon interview, which I thought initially would be standard filler, actually proves itself to be one of the best (or at least most candid) of its kind. If all Damon’s claims are true, he has lived quite the memorable life, and should, if he has any sense, transcribe it into a series of memoirs. By his claims, he called up Clint Eastwood for the part in A Fistful of Dollars, approached Roger Corman to direct his Poe series, came up with the idea for White Orchid, and even directed the Corman-credited Pit and the Pendulum. That, and he also talks about the challenge of producing Hal Ashby’s final film, 8 Million Ways to Die, and how he marketed Monster to investors by touting lesbian sex between Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci. That’s only the tip of the iceberg with this guy, whose life as an actor is also explored with dozens of rare film clips from his varied work. Running 20-minutes, I kind of wish this was a feature.
There’s no doubt that Bava’s a masterful filmmaker, but the film selection for this first box set isn’t quite the stellar line-up one would hope for. The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Kill, Baby…Kill! are two very important gialli that deal with more than just your average horror conventions, subverting them with great story and style. Black Sabbath features style in the search of substance, with three lackluster stories told in grand fashion. Knives of the Avenger is probably the least “Bava” of all his films, so its inclusion here in a showcase of the director’s work is questionable. Black Sunday, at least, is the memorable, if routine, classic that put Bava on the map. Even if this set is batting three for five in terms of film quality, its attractive price and the out of print status of all other versions of each film, still make this a must for Bava fans. The cleaned-up transfers and great new extras won’t deter prospective buyers either. All in all a nice tiding over until Anchor Bay gets to the real meat that would come in Bava’s mid-career prime.
Movie - B+
Image Quality - B
Sound - B+
Movie - C+
Image Quality - B+
Sound - B+
The Girl Who Knew Too Much
Movie - A-
Image Quality - B-
Sound - B+
Knives of the Avenger
Movie - C+
Image Quality - B-
Sound - B+
Movie - A-
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B+
Supplements - A-
Bad news about Black Sabbath--I had hopes that they would include the English version, as that was the one I remember from Saturday matinees...ALthough it's kind of cheesy, there was definitely something about the way they scored the segment with the nurse, sound effects and obvious climactic music arrangements etc. I miss that version.
Thanks for a fine review.This will arrive any day now!
Since I only own Black Sunday, I can easily see myself getting this someday. Maybe at the next DDD sale.
Rhett,you mistakenly wrote Black Sunday when you obviously mean Black Sabbath.Happened a few times actually.
No biggie but it gets a bit confusing that way :)
Fixed. Thanks for the heads up, my man.
great box set, despite the lack of the American versions.
Thankfully Kill Baby kill has the english track included although there is no mention of it on the Disc package. it also states 80 minutes when the actual running time is slightly over 83.
the thing that is puzzling me is the small color blocks on the spines of the DVD cases. One is Black, 1 Green, 1 yellow and 2 are purple. What is the significance? anyone care to guess? Why do Black Sabbath and Knives of the Avenger share the same color?
Finally able to sit down with a cigar and give this a read. Really enjoyed the Image Quality section. I'll wait until volume two before I start investing and just rent the two best-scored films above. Great read.
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