When movie nerds discuss Italian films, the first name that comes up is Federico Fellini, followed by perhaps Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica. Those were the five directors to whom Martin Scorsese paid tribute in his wonderful four-hour documentary My Voyage to Italy (1999). From there, more die-hard film buffs might throw in the political Gillo Pontecorvo, or the controversial Pier Paolo Pasolini, or Bernardo Bertolucci, who only made a few Italian films before swapping to English for good. Someone might even remember that Max Ophuls once made a couple of films in Italian. After a moment's recollection, someone might recall the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci. The Italian horror films would get mentioned last, and hardly anyone would suggest that horror director Mario Bava was the greatest of them all.

There are three reasons why Bava is not considered as highly as he should be. The main one is that he made mostly horror films, and we are not trained to see the artistry in that genre, just as we're not trained to see any artistry in erotic films or comedies, or any of the "body genres." Another reason is that, due to the Italian cinema's practice of dubbing, Bava's films have an "unprofessional" quality; the lips don't match the actor's line readings. This is commonplace in Italy due to many factors, but mainly due to the casting of actors with various dialects or from other countries. For example, see Luchino Visconti's dazzling epic The Leopard (1963), starring Burt Lancaster. On the Criterion DVD, viewers can watch either the Italian version with Lancaster dubbed by another actor, or the English version with Lancaster's voice and every other actor dubbed. Bava himself worked a roster of non-Italian stars, some of whom appear dubbed: Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, John Savage, Joseph Cotten, Elke Sommer, Telly Savalas, Michel Piccoli, Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele (the latter of which went on to appear in Fellini's 8 ½).

More so than horror films, however, viewers are very simply not trained to look at movies on anything beyond a basic story level, and Bava was generally not much of a storyteller. His supreme skill lay in other areas: mood, atmosphere, movement and emotion. Perhaps his greatest achievement was his use of color. No other filmmaker before or since used such a rich palate and splashed color about the frame with such precision and power. That's why I've chosen to talk about Kill, Baby... Kill! (a.k.a. Operazione paura) (1966) rather than the more popular Black Sunday (1960), which was filmed -- albeit beautifully -- in black-and-white.

The rudimentary story in Kill, Baby... Kill! has Dr. Paul Eswai (played by the almost comically bland Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, with his helmet of shellacked, sandy-brown hair) summoned to a small village to perform an autopsy. Instead he finds that the superstitious locals are terrified of the ghost of a little girl. The doctor and his cutie-pie love interest Monica (Erika Blanc) try to solve the mystery behind the legend. A mysterious, bald burgomaster (Luciano Catenacci, credited as "Max Lawrence") may or may not be trying to help. A young woman (Micaela Esdra) has been marked as the girl's next victim and a beautiful sorceress (Fabienne Dali) does things like place coins in the hearts of the dead.

The actual mystery pales, however, beside the sequence in which the doctor finds himself sucked into the nightmare. He runs through rooms and around corners only to find himself re-appearing in the same place. He sees the little girl, playing with a ball. These are pretty simple tricks, admittedly, but Bava pulls them off with incredible power. Every Bava frame is something unique: spirals or tendrils in darkness with a burst of blue or red light behind, or a partially blocked view of something sinister. He paints the set in multicolored pools of light and shadow, and as the doctor moves through the frame, we can feel terror, confusion and curiosity, all with a dreamlike wave. A lesser filmmaker would have cut between these various emotions, but Bava gets them all in one take. Likewise, the movements of the ball suggest something slightly more controlled -- and less real -- than a real girl with a real ball would imply.

Earlier this year, I substitute-taught a class on horror films, and the class seemed impressed whenever I showed a Bava clip to illustrate how he had pioneered certain horror elements. In short bursts, that is; I suspect the reaction would have been different if I'd shown the entire films. Perhaps Bava should have given up the plot thing entirely and gone completely "experimental," but at least now he has the adoration of a small -- and perhaps growing larger -- band of horror fanatics. Quentin Tarantino is an acknowledged fan, as is Martin Scorsese. Even though Scorsese consciously excluded Bava from his aforementioned documentary, he has elsewhere cited Bava as an indispensable influence on his career. Back in the 1970s, he published a list of 100 'guilty pleasures,' and included Kill, Baby... Kill!, followed by the parenthetical, "or any Bava." And when it came time to visualize the devil for The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Scorsese turned to Kill, Baby... Kill! for inspiration and made him a little girl.

Bava began as a cinematographer, often worked for little money, sometimes finished jobs that other directors had started, and took on last-minute assignments. Thus his filmography is anything but neat. But it contains several masterworks: Black Sunday (1960), Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), Black Sabbath (1963), Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965), Danger: Diabolik (1968), Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) and Bay of Blood (1971), and all of his films are at least worth seeing.

(Note: Kill, Baby... Kill! has been released in several shoddy, public domain DVDs, but the version included in this year's The Mario Bava Collection Vol. 1" from Anchor Bay is first rate.)

categories Features, Cinematical