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 a scientific record of the Mario Bava Season at Castle Bleasdale.
Monday, 11th of January, 2016
David Bowie died last night. An inauspicious beginning to the week, to the year in fact. I resist the temptation to watch The Man Who Fell to Earth – there’ll be time enough for that later – because tonight I must begin my journey into the cinema of Mario Bava. I’ve put it off too long and now it calls to me. All the wonderful titles: lots of blood, lots of black, covens of witches and parties of demons. I eschew the synopsis and trailers and pick Blood and Black Lace from 1964. In Italian (and I watch it in Italian) the title is Six Women for the Murderer. The first thing I notice is the wind. A wind blows through the film as a series of murders are committed around a fashion house. The models and the owners are somehow involved. Throughout there is an air of scandal and the diary of a victim becomes a focal point for many of the characters. There is a widespread guilt. The women fear exposure as much as they do the murderer who stalks them with his strange cloth mask, as if he (or she) were fashion itself. The murders are brutal and the sadism of the killer mixes with obvious misogyny, as the fear of the women is accentuated and one of the women has her face thrust against a red hot stove. Everyone is trapped in or about the creepy villa and Bava is obviously attuned to the Gothic. The wind slams windows and billows curtains. Mannequins stand frozen waiting to come to life. There is drapery and blood and the grotesque comedy of death which leaves the women in poses without poise, eyes bulging, faces ruined, mere things to be carted around. This is the very beginning of the giallo, a whole genre dedicated to the fascination of what beautiful women look like when they’re frightened, and later when they’re dead.
Tuesday, 12th of January, 2016
Last night I tweeted about my first Mario Bava film and Massimo B. sent me a message from Amsterdam. They’re making a horror movie: would I submit a treatment? I base it on Blood and Black Lace and send it off. He gets back to me. Read it, liked it, will be in touch. Heartened, I build the fire up. It’s almost too hot. Outside there is a full moon casting sharp shadows. The cold is so intense, it’s like you’re immersed in freezing water. My daughters and wife sleep upstairs. I have chosen Kill Baby Kill (1966). A title that Roger Corman might have been proud of. Operazione Paura in Italian! But the film opens like something out of Hammer. A village is approached. There’s a terrible secret. The young doctor arrives to assist with the investigation of a grisly death. The local villa houses a Miss Haversham of sorts, who in the ruins of her former glory, surrounded by the dolls of her lost child, leaks a malign influence onto the village. The corruption of the locals see them hounded to death if they spill the secret. Inside the corpse of the young girl – an apparent suicide – a coin is found. The investigating policeman is found killed and the coroner, played by the impossibly square-jawed Giacomo Rossi Stuart, teams up with a local girl (Erica Blank), who has returned after a long sojourn away to find out what is going on. Bava is extremely good at the traditional elements of the horror story. As with Blood and Black Lace, the wind moans and shutters slam. A little girl wanders the film, a terrifying precursor to the little red riding hood of Don’t Look Now and a ball bounces down a spiral staircase and we could be forgiven for thinking it settles in a corridor of the Overlook Hotel. As the film slides effortlessly into the surreal, the haunted house becomes increasingly psychotic and beguiling. As I turn off the lights and lock all the doors before going to bed, I catch sight of my own reflection and recoil at the lurid grin that contorts my face.
Wednesday, 13th of January, 2016
One of my students died. Death comes by email these days, or worse still, Facebook. I learned of a suicide via Facebook two years ago. Last year Twitter alerted me to the massacre in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. The world we live in death comes tweeting. The fire is lit early this evening. The Planet of the Vampires (1965) was Bava’s foray into science fiction. He also directed comedies and Spaghetti Westerns. Two space ships land on a mysterious planet after they pick up an SOS message. As they land, the crew are gripped by a mass psychosis and set about trying to kill each other. Once recovered they find that the crew members on the other ship were similarly affected but had gone the whole hog and murdered each other. The film was made on the cheap with only a couple of rocks, some slow motion and a wind machine with which to make an alien planet. The wind blows again and seems to be a crucial element to the Bava universe, that invisible force that we all take for granted but which moves and affects the world. Likewise there are invisible beings on the planet that can only be perceived by their effects on others as they reanimate the corpses of the dead crew and attack the living. Bava regular Barbara Steele joins US TV actor Barry Sullivan in trying to make the sets and the situation credible. The creepiness is well done and although everyone involved denies it, there is more than a germ of Alien here, though Bava’s film borrows liberally from Forbidden Planet (1956) as well it must be noted.
Thursday, 14th of January, 2016
I’m rehearsing a play to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday when I get the news that Alan Rickman has died. I saw Rickman in St. George’s Hall in Liverpool perform Hamlet in the mid-90s. He was a wonderful Dane and I walked back to my student digs blathering fake Shakespearean verse. I take the rest of the day off and decide tonight I will double bill Mario Bava. The fire is lit and the wood is consumed, the flames, reaching high into the chimney as if they’re trying to grab something. Just as Dario Argento – influenced by Bava’s Blood and Black Lace is claiming the giallo for his own, Bava lurches back towards the Gothic, which lies at the heart of his concept of horror. Baron Blood has the Italian title Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga. Peter Kliest (Antonio Cantafora) visits the castle of his ancestors where he meets Eva (Elke Sommer), a student who is studying the ancestral pile, which is due to be sold. A series of murders coincide with the arrival of the wheelchair-bound Alfred Becker (played by an ageing Joseph Cotten), the new owner of the castle. There is gruesome murder, an Iron Maiden gets some use and a wonderful foggy chase. Joseph Cotten can’t really compete with the grisly make-up of his un-rejuvenated Baron, but it doesn’t really matter as it is the Austrian castle that is the true star of the film. Released the same year – 1972 – Lisa and the Devil also starred Elke Sommer, this time as Lisa, an American tourist in Spain. Here she meets a strange man (Telly Savalas) in a mannequin shop. He bears a striking resemblance to a fresco depicting the devil on the wall of the local church. Lisa loses her group and is given a lift by a rich couple and their chauffeur, who in turn find themselves stranded near a fog-shrouded villa, the butler of which is the mannequin-lugging devil. Invited in, the travellers find themselves part of a weird role-playing game as a mother and son see in Lisa a resemblance to a sweetheart long dead. There is necrophilia, sadism and black magic at play as Leandro (Savalas) manipulates everyone in the house like the mannequins he positions, which come to life. Leandro could be seen as a stand-in for the director himself, manipulating pain and grief and exhuming memories in order to make his own entertainment. Savalas sucks on a lollipop throughout the movie, a detail that he liked so much he used it for his iconic TV detective Kojak, which he filmed the following year.
Friday, 15th of January, 2016
The funeral took place in the local cathedral and outside the sun was strangely, unseasonably warm.