James Whale. Alfred Hitchcock. John Carpenter. Wes Craven. George Romero.
When people are asked to come up with their favorite or the most iconic filmmakers with a penchant for scaring the ever living hell out of their audience, these are the top of that greatest horror auteurs list. These are the cream of the bloody, gore filled crop, and yet there is one name that is sadly left of many a list.
Kino has recently released three Blu-rays from Spaghetti horror auteur and giallo icon Mario Bava. The man behind some of the most intriguing and visually enthralling horror films of his generation, Bava has become lesser known than some of his counter-parts, be it Argento or even Lucio Fulci, but while he’s rarely been as kinetic as the Suspiria filmmaker or as gore-loving as Fulci, there may not be a single more esoteric filmmaker in the genre.
The crown jewel of not only this collection of films found here in HD via Kino, but also of the director’s entire canon also happens to be his first feature. After ghost-directing a couple of films, he was finally given the keys to his own castle with the 1960 masterpiece Black Sunday. Telling the story of a woman who, a good two centuries earlier, is burned at the stake and condemned, but not before cursing those who did this to her. And as with any good curse, she spends the entirety of the film making good on that promise of death and destruction. In one of the most original and visually stunning horror films from the ‘˜60s, Black Sunday is truly one of the greatest horror films ever put to screen.
And it’s entirely because of Bava.
Starting off his career as a production designer, Bava’s greatest attribute is his eye for style, particularly the Gothic tinged aesthetic he would make truly famous. Very much similar in the length to which his films are driven by style to something like early German expressionism (think of this as a modern Gothic take on Caligari stylistically) the mood and atmosphere here are far more assured than a first time filmmaker would normally give his or her viewers. Featuring stunning black and white photography from Bava and Ubaldo Terzano, the film thrives when the lavish sets and top tier production design are allowed to be the main focus of the frame.
A relatively simplistic narrative, the film offers up a great palette for Bava’s style to play off of, as well as a handful of really solid performances. The film stars the world shattering and gasp inspiring Barbara Steele as the witch at the center of the picture, as well as John Richardson, Andrea Checchi and Ivo Garrani all giving really great performances. The script, penned by Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei is deeply mood driven, offering up a standard horror narrative that is given vitality due to solid performances and a director who was ultimately never better than the first time he hopped behind the camera.
From the film’s opening sequence, still one of the most bombastic and chilling openers to any horror film, to the very last sequence, Black Sunday is every bit a mood piece as any horror film made before or after. Relying entirely upon an aesthetic of pure and icy chills, the film’s beautiful black and white photography and Bava’s definitive Gothi horror design makes Sunday one of the most underrated horror films of all time.
And that was just the beginning of Bava’s career.
When taking a deep look into Bava’s filmography, one notices the various quirks that prove just how particular and abstruse a filmmaker he was. Be it his great design pieces or his brilliant use of music (the aforementioned Sunday‘s score is still one of the greatest horror scores ever), there is one thing that becomes more apparent than most; his use of reflective surfaces, with no film being a better example of that than Hatchet For The Honeymoon.
Released a decade following Sunday, Hatchet is a far different feature. Starring Stephan Forsyth as John Harrington, the film follows a fashion house head and his penchant for women wearing wedding dresses and veils that is so off the charts, it drives him mad. Driven inherently by the eroticism and sexuality that drove almost every single film Bava ever made, Hatchet is one of Bava’s most visually inspired works.
Forsyth is fine here as Harrington, but as with much of Bava’s canon, the performances feel out of place. Often times veering towards the campy side of things, he is a tad over the top, as is Laura Betti, the woman who plays his divorce-refusing wife. The performances are fine, but seem to be ripped right out of a different film. A lesser film. A film that would seem to be inspired by these pictures, but never quite live up to them. However, Bava lived up to every bit of the hype.
Able to keep his budgets low while keeping the product high, Bava’s greatest attribute was his ability to give his viewers the most atmospheric and believable horror features, with his use of reflective surfaces being a perfect microcosm of this attribute. Without special effects or any use of makeup, Bava is able to skew the viewer’s line of sight, throwing their balance off entirely. Something as simple as seeing a woman through a glass becomes the most chilling and beautiful thing that the viewer has ever or will ever see, and Hatchet is chock full of these moments. Never one for simple jump scares, Bava’s films were born and bred on atmosphere and mood, both of these aforementioned films are perfect examples of this.
Then, three years later, came one of Bava’s first major run ins with creative issues.
Released in 1973, the final Blu-ray released here recently by Kino is a pair of films, both closer to one another than one would think. Lisa and The Devil and The House Of Exorcism share more than just the fact that they have great titles. In what can best be described as one of Bava’s most impenetrable releases, Lisa follows the story of a young woman on vacation in Spain, who is tossed into the middle of a world led by a mysterious man, played by Telly Savalas. However, when distributors got a hold of the film and discovered just how truly off the wall the film was, they decided, along with Bava’s assistance, to reshoot much of the film, and then released it as a film entitled The House Of Exorcism.
Now, both films are admittedly a tad messy. Both feel like solid singular entities, with Lisa being the stronger, far more experimental piece of work. This is arguably the most singular work collected here in Kino’s ‘Mario Bava Collection’ but it’s also one of the most entertaining. Savalas is a riot here, and he plays such a wonderfully enticing creep. House on the other hand is great, but it’s a different beast. Both films are vibrant and really quite a charming and thrilling possession film.
And thankfully, for those not familiar with the world of Bava, Kino hasn’t slacked on these releases.
All four films come with absolutely breathtaking transfers, particularly Sunday, what with its ever so gorgeous black and white filmmaking. They feature commentaries by Tim Lucas, a Mario Bava historian and creator of Video Watchdog, with only House being the exception, as that film comes with a commentary featuring the film star Elke Sommer and producer Alfredo Leone. The commentaries are really entertaining and insightful as there truly isn’t a more knowledgeable source on this subject than Lucas. Toss in a collection of trailers (including a brilliant trailer for the great film Baron Blood) and an interview with Lamberto Bava, his son, on House, and you have a trio of Blu-rays that will make this Halloween all the more enjoyable for fans and novices alike.