The second part of a diary of watching Mario Bava films over a week.
It was January, cold, and everyone was dying. I chopped enough wood for the week and stored it against the wall with the kindling. There were frosts every night at Castle Bleasdale – my current residence, a shuddering pile located on the River Piave where the plains meet the first mountains of the Dolomites – but while my wife and children slept fitfully upstairs, I would get the fire roaring, turn out all the lights and watch a film by Italian horror director Mario Bava. Prior to this week, I’d never seen any of his 30-odd films. This is the second part of my scientific record of the Mario Bava season at Castle Bleasdale.
Friday, 15th of January, 2016
The funeral took place in the local cathedral and outside the sun was strangely, unseasonably warm. I know I’m not going to stir up controversy on my next assertion but I don’t like going to funerals. This one was not the worst. My student, although not old-old, was not young either. He filled a cathedral with family and friends and because of my damned atheism I stood outside and listened to singing of the choir of Alpine soldiers coming from the church. Afterwards they brought out the coffin and people tried not to be too loud when they met friends they hadn’t seen for months, years in some cases. Funerals have this strange social substratum. I wandered home depressed, stopping at the supermarket to stock up on firelighters and food for the weekend. I was going to stay inside and watch as many Mario Bava films as I could. I wanted nothing to do with the sunshine and blue skies. I would close the shutters and keep going. The film I took to next was Black Sabbath – from whence the name of Ozzy Osborne’s heavy metal band – an anthology that is a little too in awe of its Hollywood legend Boris Karloff and young American star Mark Damon. The first film is about a beautiful woman who is bothered by a telephone call from a stalker – possibly her ex who has escaped from prison. It’s a Tale of the Unexpected and highly effective in a sinister voyeuristic way. The second is a classic tale of vampirism and possession but it is fairly rudimentary. The colours are excellent. Mario Bava colours everything with the vividness of boiled sweets. Reds and greens, blues and vermillion. The last story is the one that is really creepy as a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) is called to a house to prepare the body of a dead medium for burial. The rictus grin of the freshly dead is off-putting enough to ward anyone off but our nurse spies a ring that she would like to steal.
Saturday, 16th of January, 2016
It has just occurred to me that I haven’t seen my wife or my children since the end of last week. Could it be they aren’t upstairs after all? I’ve been eating alone. Bowls of boiled potatoes sprinkled with vinegar and black bread with white butter. The same meal again and again. Hatchet for the Honeymoon does away with any vestige of mystery and takes on the murderer’s point of view. Blessed with the kind of Crystal Ken handsomeness that only existed in 1970, Stephen Forsyth plays John Harrington, the owner of a haute couture house that specializes in bridal wear. Unhappily married to Laura Betti, Harrington is also a self-aware psychopath who kills brides-to-be with a cleaver – not, note, a hatchet. Bava takes a slender plot with many familiar genre elements – a suspicious police detective circulates, Mrs Harrington has a séance – and makes it into something stylish and weird. Harrington’s objectification of women, his impotence and his mania are coolly represented. His charisma and his honesty make him a proto-Patrick Bateman. He watches his prey with a set of binoculars and then, sitting with his wife, reverses them so she is far away. This kind of visual originality is something I’ve come to expect from Bava and the murders are all used as moments of striking invention, each one vaguely trippy as the screen dissolves into a liquid state, colours explode and the soundtrack lays it down heavily. Each murder also brings about a further flashback, a little like Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West (1968), to the kind of Freudian backstory that Hitchcock loved. At the end of Black Sabbath, Bava pulled his camera back to reveal that Karloff was in a studio riding a fake horse and surrounded by stage hands moving the scenery about him. Bava likes to show that he’s not taking everything seriously, and here again he uses one of his own films on television as an excuse for the screams the policemen heard. Does watching horror films cause violence? No. But they can be handy in getting away with it. I also watched The Evil Eye, an early film about an American woman visiting Rome and witnessing a murder. It was black and white and John Saxon was in it, the way he pops up in films all over the place. He stars in a Dario Argento movie but I’m too tired to type his name into IMDb tonight. The fire died and the room is full of smoke.
Sunday, 17th of January, 2016
The bells in the village toll for another death. This time the 90-year-old mother of a friend. I can tell that it is her. She’s been at death’s door since Christmas. The bells toll once for a man, twice for a woman, and they toll twice so it must be her. It can’t be anyone else. They bury the dead quick in Italy so the funeral will be tomorrow or Tuesday at the latest. Today is the last day of my Mario Bava season and I still have many films to get through. I begin with Rabid Dogs. Completed in 1974, the incomplete film was seized following a bankruptcy wrangle and didn’t get cut and released until the late 90s. Bava is trying his hand at the Polizia genre, which exploded in the mid-70s in Italy and told brutal, violent stories of cops and robbers. Following a heist gone wrong, three bandits grab a hostage and carjack an unsuspecting father who is taking his son to the hospital. The atmosphere is laden with tension and the claustrophobia of a sizzling car in the middle of a Roman summer gets progressively more uncomfortable. The bandits are a psychopath, a leering, sweating rapist and one icy professional. A fantastic twist elevates the film. The same is true for Bay of Blood, a slasher often cited as a primary inspiration for all the Friday the 13th style movies that were to follow. A complex legal case regarding a piece of property on a bay is the MacGuffin, but essentially Bava produces a daisy chain of stylish, elaborate and occasionally ridiculous kills with a variety of weapons and murderers capped off with one of the funniest and most daring twists of any of his films.
Monday, 18th of January, 2016
I woke up early this morning. I just lay in bed and listened to the sound of the wind that always blows strongly in the valley in the morning following the river down from the mountains. I wonder about the morality of what I’ve done. Mario Bava took time to make those films. A lot of time. Poured a lot of effort into them. But I just watched them in a week. Half a lifetime’s work probably. And I watched it in a week. It seems unfair, disproportionate somehow: the asymmetrical warfare that criticism wages against art. I can’t help but hope that people stop dying now. January has been so fatal. I don’t want to get out of bed. I don’t have the strength to lift myself, like the corpse in the ‘Drop of Water’ sequence of Black Sabbath. Maybe I too wear a horrid grin. I wonder if the wind blowing outside is the same Italian wind that blew in Mario Bava’s imagination. It is blowing so strong that it almost takes away the sound of the bells tolling. This time they only toll once.