Mario Bava

I have been watching several Mario Bava films in the last months, starting with Planet of the Vampires (1965). In the midst of this flurry of films, I watched a short documentary that labeled him the “master of the macabre”. The documentary did much to expand the neglected director’s reputation. First, he was immediately compared to Alfred Hitchcock, no doubt stimulated by Bava’s 1963 film, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (starring John Saxon). Even further, Planet of the Vampires was dubbed a precursor, if not direct inspiration for, to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). The most time was spent on Bava’s first credited directorial effort, Black Sunday (1960), which raised the horror genre to a new level and created Barbara Steele as an instant horror icon.

In 1959, Bava got his first real break, after many years as a cinematographer, to complete Caltiki, the Immortal Monster. I have a special affection for this film, having seen it years ago on Double Chiller Theater (Philadelphia’s Saturday night/Sunday morning movie offering). Indeed, I remember (or mis-remember) it being the first movie I watched on Double Chiller, although the dubious honor could be held by an even greater classic, The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1958). Bava’s specialty was creating gory and strange special effects. The Caltiki monster was made from cow intestines, into which one of the cast must sink.

A much later encounter with Bava when I watched Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966) starring Vincent Price and Fabian. I wrote about the Girl Bombs, not quite flatteringly, in an article titled “Unwatchable“:

I have seen both Dr. Phibes movies, not to mention the unutterably (thus its saving grace in the cinematic imagination) embarrassing duo, also starring Vincent Price, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) and its over-conceptualized [sic] sequel, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966). The latter Goldfoot might resemble an unwatchable film so incomprehensible is the idea that anybody seriously or enthusiastically watched the other Goldfoot; so wretched they contained episodes that made one wonder what the actors/writer could have been thinking when obviously this was not a good idea for a movie gone bad during production.

And:

A plausible reason for Girl Bombs incomprehensibility (and, yet, the fatal fascination which makes it watchable) is a pair of Italian comedians (Ciccio Ingrassa and Franco Franchi) whose routine certainly doesn’t improve in dubbed or subtitled translation.

Yes, I watched it and learned a lesson. I wasn’t aware and wouldn’t, until recently, take seriously Bava’s ability to work outside the horror and slasher genres. The efforts might not have been superlative, but he took chances. Indeed, his final film, Rabid Dogs (1975), a face-paced action film, might be one of his best.

Bava was 60 when he filmed it 1974. It wasn’t released until 1995, 15 years after he died. Filmed in three weeks, this fact is more remarkable when you tick off the major problems encountered.

  1. It had a very small budget and after a week Bava fired the cinematographer and took over the job himself because he couldn’t afford him.
  2. Al Lettieri (Solozzo in The Godfather) was hired to be the driver for the robbers. He showed up drunk for work each day, apparently smelling so thoroughly of alcohol that Bava stayed clear of him. Because much the action takes place in Rome in August inside a car, Lettieri’s drinking became intolerable and he was fired. Bava lost a week of shooting. Thus, the film was actually completed in two weeks.
  3. He had to resort to guerrilla filmmaking in and around Rome, not being able to afford the permits to have the police regulate traffic. Another economical solution had the car being transported on a flatbed truck, helping to avoid the scrutiny of the city administration.
  4. A few days before filming was complete, the producer died and the courts stopped production. Rabid Dogs was shelved. Bava never had a chance to get a final edit. In 1995, through the financial effort of one of the actresses (Lea Lander) and editing by Bava’s son, the film was released under another name, Kidnapped. If you get the Netflix disk, both versions of the film are available. Kidnapped is said to be more crisply edit but the accompanying score is inferior to the original. Worse, the original’s ending, a very cynical twist, was changed.

Another interesting aspect of the movie was that it was shot in real time, one of the first Italian movies to do so. It compares well to some of the best of this type: Rope (1948), The Set-Up (1949), High Noon (1952), 12 Angry Men (1956), Nick of Time (1996).

In the Bava documentary, one comparison to Hitchcock was pertinent. A producer recalled seeing the premier of Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) and his friend remarked that it looked like the work of a young man, not someone 72 years old. The same observation is relevant for Rabid Dogs, and Bava hoped that it would regenerate his career.

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