Weíve been so inundated by adaptations of Marvel comic superheroes thatís itís understandable thatís what we think of when we hear ďcomic adaptation.Ē Yet, comics have proven far more diverse a medium than we often think. Both Road to Perdition and A History of Violence got their inspiration from graphic literature. Long before all those, however, there was Euro oddity Baba Yaga. Based on the work of Guido Crepax, Baba Yaga is actually part of a miniature wave of comic adaptations from the late 60s and early 70s. Crepax had been publishing his adult oriented strip in Europe since the late 60s but didnít break in North America until the late 1970s publication of his strip in Heavy Metal magazine.
Itís Italy in the early 1970ís and the air is ripe with social upheaval. Protesters and armed police uneasily stand shoulder to shoulder in the streets and the government is bringing the full force of its censors down on artistic mediums. Photographer Valentina (Isabelle De Funes) and her filmmaker boyfriend Arno Treves (George Eastman) exist in the smoke filled rooms of pretentious art circle parties, observing the world from a position of detachment.
On her way home from one such party late at night, Valentina saves a dog from being hit by a car. The driver, a mysterious and strangely hypnotic woman in black, steps out from behind the wheel. Her name? Baba Yaga (Carroll Baker). Baba offers Valentina a ride home, which she reluctantly accepts. In the comfortable and familiar surroundings of her apartment, Valentina tries to shake off her encounter with the strange woman, but later that night her sleep is troubled by disturbing dreams of being sexually humiliated by Nazi captors.
The next day, Baba Yaga returns to Valentinaís apartment under the pretense of returning an object of Valentinaís but it seems sheís more interested in Valentina herself. When her none-to-subtle advances are rebuffed, Baba Yaga curses Valentinaís camera. The camera causes harm to Valentinaís subjects and her dreams get wilder and more realistic to the point where it gets difficult to discern between reality and fantasy. To end her waking nightmare, Valentina must confront Baba Yaga on her own turf.
Or, at least thatís as much of a story as I can discern. Baba Yaga is not real big on narrative, trading instead on style and surrealistic imagery. Itís not entirely successfully at what it seems to be attempting but still manages to keep the viewer entertained throughout its 83 minute running time.
Baba Yaga touches on a lot of subjects but itís not really about anything. The characters like to talk a lot about big subjects: government censorship or striking the balance needed to make art commercially successful, but they seem to be talking about these issues in the abstract. Thereís never any sense that these characters lives are effected by anything other than what is immediately happening to them.
Baba Yaga, far from being the product of Crepaxís mind, is a character from Slavic folklore. The character has been appropriated many times before and after Crepaxís use, most recently familiar to anime fans as one of the main characters in Miyzakiís Spirited Away. Again, one would suspect that this particular legend had been appropriated from some greater purpose and again it never really pans out. The film could have just as easily been called Wicked Witch of the West and it wouldnít have made the slightest difference. Like the social issues it touches on, Baba Yaga invokes the subject matter but always seems to be trying to stay at armís length from it at the same time. The result is strange: every scene is tinged with a sense of awkwardness or unease, like the actors had rocks in their shoes at all times or something. Iíve never really seen a movie quite like Baba Yaga.
Director Corrado Farina seems to be striving for a sort of dream logic. The problem is that even dream logic has an internal coherence and consistency. From Bosch to Dali to David Lynch, the artists best able to evoke dream logic are the ones who understand that no matter how outlandish or disparate the elements are, they need to be connected by a common unifying thread. Corrado Farina throws everything that he can into the witches brew that is Baba Yaga but he isnít able to pull the incongruent elements together though, to be fair, he doesnít seem to be trying very hard. When, at the eleventh hour, the film takes a detour into unpleasant S&M imagery the filmís overindulgence has already thoroughly diluted its own capacity to shock or surprise. As a result, the film doesnít linger in the back of your mind the same way a potent dream can, and that is probably its biggest shortcoming.
I have to admit my experience with Blue Undergroundís releases has been fairly limited, but Iíve always been aware of their reputation for stellar presentations of obscurities that wouldnít warrant lavish treatment from other companies. Among the Blue Underground discs I have watched, however, Baba Yaga ranks among the best transfers Iíve yet seen. Struck from what seems to be pristine source material, Baba Yaga boasts bold, eye-popping colors, rich blacks and strong grain reproduction. Due to the soft focus style in which itís shot, fine detail is somewhat lacking in some backgrounds but thatís to be expected. Honestly, canít think of a genuine criticism of the transfer thatís not due to the source material. This is top flight work.
Both English and Italian DTS-HD mono tracks are included and theyíre about equal in quality. Dialogue is slightly sharper in the English track while the music sounds a bit more robust in the Italian track. Six of one, half a dozen of another. Either way, youíll be getting a strong audio track, free from the sort of hiss or clipping that youíd expect from a film of this provenance.
A very frank interview with director/co-writer Corrado Farina is the aptly titled Farina & Valentina (21:40). Covering quite a great amount of material in such a short amount of time, his recounting of the production of Baba Yaga is nothing short of exhaustive. Refreshingly, Farina makes no bones about what he thinks did and did not work in his adaptation of Crepaxís strip. Actress Anne Heywood was originally cast in the titular role before backing out after shooting had started to do a bigger budgeted American film and star Carroll Baker was brought in last minute to fill the role. The filmís ruminations on art and censorship proved prescient, as Baba Yaga ran into trouble with the censors and two nude scenes had to be cut.
The inaccurately titled, vintage documentary Freud in Color (12:06) serves as an informative primer on the history of comic strips in Italy. It does a good job of helping set the stage for Crepaxís emergence in the mid 60s. Of particular interest is the in depth manner in which the layout of Crepaxís comics are compared to film editing. Iím not sure exactly when this feature was produced but I find it strange that Crepaxís pioneering work in Europe isnít compared to the similar groundbreaking work Robert Crumb was doing in America at the same time.
A collection of Deleted and Censored Scenes (10:01) in pretty rough shape, including the nude scenes that fell to the shears of the censors, are the obvious highlight of this disc. Even forgetting the nudity, the other scenes are packed with potent dream imagery, as well. Considering the filmís Spartan running time, some explanation behind the deletion of these scenes would have been nice.
A very European, very 1970ís Theatrical Trailer (3:33) doesnít do a helluva great job letting audiences know what the film is about but, like the film itself, itís silly, retro fun. Thereís also a very brief clip of Carroll bakerís deleted nude scene thatís in much better shape than the footage in the deleted scenes section. Skin hounds, take note and be ready with the pause button.
Thereís a poster and still gallery. Itís not very comprehensive; there are only three posters, four video covers and a few dozen production and promotional stills, but itís here for completists to enjoy.
Finally, the Comic Book-to-Film Comparison is a bit of a let down. Itís so small itís difficult to appreciate the similarities. Really, the main menu and the sections of the Freud in Color documentary do a better job at comparing the two than this feature does.
The film is messy, stylish euro trash nonsense. Luckily, itís also entertaining euro trash nonsense. Iím kind of the fence about it. On one hand, I enjoyed watching it, on the other, I canít exactly recommend it, either. Hereís a good litmus test: if you find the screen caps included with this review interesting, amusing or in any way fascinating, then youíll probably find value in Baba Yaga. If not, then not. If you do partake of this obscure slice of comic book history youíll be rewarded with the exceptionally fine presentation of this Blu-ray release. Film aside, this disc is an unequivocal homerun.
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