Sunday, April 29, 2018

ITALIAN EXPLOITATION EXPLOSION VOL. 2:
"WHOLE LOTTA BAVA"


Sometimes, the best movie recommendations come from the sketchiest places. 

Years ago, before my 10+ year run of work-from-home freelancing, I labored on-site in an actual office in Burbank. Like every cubicle hellscape out there, this office came fully equipped with the prerequisite Office Blowhard. You know the type: the schlubby, overly-chatty drone who seems perfectly content to wile away his waking life in Dilbert Land, has *opinions* about everything under the sun and a burning need to stop by your desk and share them unsolicited every hour on the hour because, basically, he's made the office his living room and you are the trapped guest at his sad eight-hour mixer, like it or not. My particular Burbank OB was a sweaty, corpulent gentleman who had come to California via South Carolina with a fondness for extra-greasy McDonald's Super Value Meals, "the new 3D," retrograde conservative politics, and his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Probably not in that order though--who knows?--the guy did wolf down a lot of Big Macs. He also WOULD NOT SHUT UP about early Mario Bava films.

At the time, I was less appreciative of horror and absolutely unappreciative of his clockwork proselytizing on all things God-fearing and Al Gore-debunking. How could I believe anything he said about films/film directors when all his other *opinions* were so bad? And so I turned a deaf ear and turned up my work headphones, the better to drown out his Bava/God/Big Mac worship and get some work done. But still his yammering to other co-workers bled through. Even when I could take no more of his bloviating and turned in my resignation, I did not get away scot-free. This OB approached me on my way out and told me he would "pray for me." I told him if it made HIM feel better to go right ahead, though it would do nothing for me.

As it turns out, my bloviating Burbank OB was right about one thing. I'll let you take a guess which thing (hint: I still believe in climate change, still do not go to church or sup beneath the Golden Arches). Mike B, if you're still out there somewhere (probably trolling liberal celebs on Twitter), please forgive me. It took me about 12 years, but I finally see the light. Mario Bava is indeed a cinematic deity. Pray for me, wretched sinner that I be. Here are the 14 heavenly alms in this, my second helping of Italian Exploitation, that finally convinced me...


#8 - THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1963)

In what most Italian film scholars consider "the first giallo," Bava delivers a playful whoddunit about a vacationing American crime novel buff named Nora Davis who travels to Italy to be with her dying aunt only to witness a murder in the town piazza as soon as she gets there. She comes to believe she will be the next victim of a reputed Alphabet Killer (A, B and C have already been snuffed). The local authorities are gaslighting her, suggest she's hallucinating because she's read too many mystery novels. She's also hearing voices, which turn out to be anonymous tape recordings chock-full of clues. Meanwhile, she's striking up a romance with her aunt's doctor (John Saxon). There's a running joke about a "marijuana cigarette" that a passenger plants on her during the flight over that later gets tossed over a veranda to land beside a very fortunate priest. Apparently too racy for U.S. audiences, these scenes were cut from the Americanized AIP release re-titled Evil Eye. With or without the doobie humor, this is a fun early Bava joint, a self-aware spider's web made of Silly String.

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#9 - THE WHIP AND THE BODY (1963)

Bava's sadomasochistic spin on Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum. Christopher Lee plays the cruel-hearted "Kurt," the son of a count who returns home to the family castle to steal his younger brother's bride, Nevenka, through amorous floggings in lieu of flirtation. It seems Nevenka likes the rough stuff, and Kurt is more than happy to provide. Even after he dies (sort of), she hears the lash of his whip echoing throughout the castle corridors. Is Kurt now a ghost flagellating from the grave?! This humorously dated thwack-happy gothic thriller is good for a few laughs but mostly fails out on the story front, especially once the already chilly Lee becomes a probable denizen of the afterlife. Not top-shelf Bava but not terrible. Let's call it Fifty Shades of Okay.

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#10 - BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964)

If there was a prize for Most Most Magenta in a Movie Ever, this early fashion world slasher would certainly take the black-laced cake. Blood is bursting with color, like a variety bag of Jolly Ranchers exploded onto a Clue board game. The garishly lit mannequins. The murderer(s) with opaque pantyhose faces. A shocking Technicolor bathtub drowning to rival Hitchcock's black and white Psycho shower scene. A good thing there's so much to look at because plot is mostly giallo boilerplate: a stolen diary full of secrets, one too many suspects with reasons for seeing it destroyed, a high society setting peopled with various fashion industry hangers-on. The actors are all compelling and keep the mysterious proceedings hopping, particularly Eva Bartok and Cameron Mitchell. It's easy to see how Argento's Suspiria is deeply in debt to this movie. Modern horror hacks take note: you don't have to de-saturate your color palette for things to look scary.

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#11 - KILL, BABY...KILL! (1966)

Creepy dead girls who can't stop laughing. Creepier dolls with missing heads and limbs. Spiral staircases that go on forever. Rooms with enough infinitely replicating entrance doors to make M.C. Escher wince. This Bava classic establishes many of the spine-tingling tropes that would later be ransacked by a host of J-horror helmers, not to mention contemporary surrealists like David Lynch. There's a music cue in Kill (a low buoyant bass thrum that sounds like a strip of elastic slowly being plucked) which I'm pretty sure Lynch and Badalamenti repurpose note for note in Twin Peaks' Red Room. Scorsese calls this Bava's best film, "gothic horror meets bad acid trip," and says it influenced a few scenes in Last Temptation of Christ. Even if creepy blonde children, haunted dolls and tabloid-sounding titles aren't your bag, committed cineastes may want to check out Kill, Baby...Kill! just for the homage-spotting.

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#12 - DR. GOLDFOOT & THE GIRL BOMBS (1966)

The only (ahem) bomb of the Bava bunch I watched. This is James Bond parody done poorly. Worse, perhaps, than Goldmember or The Spy Who Shagged Me (Verne Troyer, R.I.P.). Even Vincent Price mugging for the camera and million golden bikinis cannot save it. This was purely a contact job for Mario, and it shows. Forgive him. His heart was not in it. He did not put his best goldfoot forward.

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#13 - DANGER DIABOLIK (1968)

Bava more than atones for his Goldfoot fail a few years later with this deliriously entertaining super-thief heist movie based on an Italian comic book series. If the Marvel movies were even 1/4 the fun of this one, I'd probably give a shit that a small handful of the Avengers just met their demise. Boasting a very groovy Ennio Morricone score and a revolving door of ludicrous '60s outfits to rival Barbarella, Danger Diabolik is a kitsch lover's dream while also delivering the suspenseful caper movie goods. It's also got the best trapped-in-molten-gold cliffhanger ending this side of the Han Solo carbonite fridge in Empire. Such a shame that this one isn't on Blu-ray yet. I need to see Marisa Mell on a circular rotating bed of hundred dollar bills in hi-def! It's more of a shame that Bava never got to make a sequel. If there's one movie in his filmography that screams for the reboot/franchise treatment, this is certainly it.

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#14 - FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON (1970)

After a brief foray into spy parodies and superhero kriminal films, Bava returns to his hallowed ground of the giallo with mixed results. You know the score: a bunch of people on a tropical island, a murderer among them picking them off one by one, a freezer stocked with bodies both human and bovine. As always, Bava frames the grim proceedings with much baroque visual panache. Otherwise, August is Mario operating largely on auto-pilot.

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#15 - HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (1970)

Did you (like me) enjoy Phantom Thread but secretly wish it had more kill scenes and fewer fastidious dress fittings? Do you wish Alma had at least once tried to knock off Reynolds Woodcock with an axe instead of a dubious mushroom omelette? Then, boy oh boy, have I got the Bava masterpiece for you! Hatchet tells the deliciously perverse tale of a Paris wedding dress designer (Stephen Forsyth, lounging decadently and monochromatically above) who, due to a mysterious childhood trauma and a raging Oedipal complex, is obsessed with murdering brides on their most special of days. Imagine that...a Woodcock who chops up the newlyweds that he himself just dressed then dresses in their clothing too! The Thread comparisons don't end there. There's even a scene where Forsyth reprimands his aging wife for buttering her toast too loudly. I kid you not not! PTA must have screened Hatchet before penning Phantom, right? If he didn't, it's a sure thing that Mary Harron did, because this movie has American Psycho fingerprints all over it. If Hitchcock and Dostoyevsky had a baby and swaddled it in a blood-stained leisure suit, Hatchet would be that baby. Hands down my favorite Bava movie I've seen...even if the "hatchet" of the title is technically more of a cleaver.

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#16 - A BAY OF BLOOD (1971)

If memory serves, I gave this one a try many years ago one late night when it was only available on pan-and-scan VHS under the title Twitch of the Death Nerve. I think I was only one or two kills in before I fell fast asleep. Man, what a difference presentation makes! I gave it another try streaming on FilmStruck in HD, and this time I was riveted. Plot-wise, it's your typical stalk-and-slash horror flick, the template for a thousand Friday the 13ths, Halloweens and Screams still to come. A bunch of sacrifical lambs vacationing near a scenic body of water, some legal documents and deed ownership intrigue to mix things up. It's the relentless way Bava photographs it that makes all the difference, not to mention the shocker ending that plays like a perverse wink to the audience (and without setting them up for an inevitable slew of sequels!). After decades of being numbed by CGI blood spray, it sometimes takes a swift scythe to a latexed neck to remind you who's the boss.

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#17 - BARON BLOOD (1972)

Let's be honest: I barely remember what happened in Baron Blood. I watched it a few weeks ago, and all I get is flashes of Joseph Cotten in a wheelchair and a few architectural gargoyles atop ancient buildings. From what I do recall, a weaker castle-bound retread of the creepy Kill, Baby...Kill! minus the stylistic innovations.

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#18 - LISA AND THE DEVIL (1972)

Bava follows his muse (and the lovely Elke Summer) into dream logic territory in a sometimes confounding narrative about one woman's surreal dalliances with her doppelganger and The Devil Himself. The Devil here is played by none other than the original Kojak (Telly Savalas, with lolliop), and it seems like he's having a whale of a time. So will you, if you have a high tolerance for untidy, free associative storytelling. This is the closest I've seen Bava tread into Bunuel territory, and it mostly worked for me. Apparently, it didn't work for the majority of the '70s moviegoing public who were perplexed to the point that a re-edited version called House of Exorcism was released two years later, replete with newly filmed head-spins and pea soup upchuckings to cash in on the recent Exorcist craze. I haven't seen that version yet, but, then again, I haven't seen Friedkin's new The Devil and Father Amorth yet either. I wonder whose truncated Exorcist rip-off will be better...

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#19 - FOUR TIMES THAT NIGHT (1972)

If there's one Mario Bava movie ripe for a post #MeToo reimagining, this Rashomon-inspired sex comedy may be it. Four Times puts the slippery truth of one blind date gone wrong (or possibly right?) to the test by filming it from four different perspectives. Was Tina's torn dress the next morning evidence of non-consensual sex or a harmless garden mishap? Are those scratches on John's head due to Tina's attempt to fend him off or a completely unrelated bump on the noggin? Depends on who you ask...John, Tina, Tina's mother, the nosy doorman. Everyone will have their say at some point (including Bava's "objective lens" at the end). At the very least, it could make for a fine Master of None episode (wait, will there even be more Master of None now that Aziz is, well, you know...). I can almost hear the frivolous think pieces being typed away already.

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#20 - RABID DOGS (1974)

And, if there ever was a Mario Bava film more UNRIPE for a post #MeToo reimagining, I give you Rabid Dogs. The mayonnaise smearing/chest grope scene alone is enough to land it smack dab on the Consensual Condiments Blacklist. The only way it could get any worse is if the chauvinist pig criminal in question had slathered his poor kidnapping victim with Baconnaise, thus landing it on the Vegan Sex Crimes Manifesto too. I kid but also...do not kid. This movie is kinda hard to watch in the current socio-political climate. Or any climate, really. It's mostly leering kidnappers being shitty to their hostages for a solid 90 minutes and proof that Bava was on less sure footing in the ripped-from-the-headlines poliziotteschi genre than on his home turf, the giallo. The only saving grace for Rabid Dogs is its final few minutes, a gut-punch of a twist ending I didn't see coming at all though I really probably should've. It's so good that it alone earned an otherwise one-star movie an extra plate of ratings spaghetti.

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#21 - SHOCK (1977)

For some reason, Bava's last theatrical feature seems to get a relatively bum rap online. I'm not sure why that is, given that Shock has supplied that ungrateful beast called the Internet one of its most enduring and GIF-worthy memes (see "shocking" boy-to-man jump scare below). It's got everything you could possibly ask for from a late '70s horror movie: a creepy Slinky descending the stairs, a levitating box cutter, distorted mirror images galore, forcible heroin injections and LSD dosings, a blonde-haired moppet more disturbing than the Babadook kid, a leading lady (Daria Nicolodi) who kinda resembles Kathy Griffin but more attractive, especially when her flowing red her hair floats directly into the camera's lens. What's not to love, unfeeling chatbots? Is it because the craven producers originally pawned it off as unofficial sequel to an unrelated and not very good film (Beyond the Door II)? Is it because Mario was in poor health by that point and son Lamberto was called in for the assist? I don't get it. I grok Shock! And the most shocking thing about Shock is just how much fun it is when it didn't have to be. 

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Aaahhh!! Instant Puberty!!!!!

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