Posts Tagged ‘Mario Bava’

Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970)

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is an odd entry into Mario Bava’s parade of insanity, not least because it suddenly shifts about halfway through to something far weirder and more supernatural than it initially appears. But that in itself lifts it above the better but messier movies of the giallo canon, giving it a humor and gleeful malevolence all its own.

The film begins with John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth), a devilishly handsome young man who inherited his mother’s upscale bridal boutique. He divides his time between fashion shoots, fittings with brides, arguing with his wife Mildred (Laura Betti), and violently murdering young women on their honeymoons. Rather than concealing Harrington’s psychosis, the film puts it front and center, starting off with a vicious murder and then Harrington’s voiceover, in which he frankly admits that he’s a psychopath. The reason for his need to kill? With every murder, he experiences a flashback to his childhood and the death of his mother, and it is only through killing that the memories get clearer. As time goes on, we begin to understand that Harrington is impotent, and the murders of the brides take on even more psychosexual overtones (as if they needed any).

Bava injects this giallo plot with a hefty dose of humor (in my limited experience with giallo, Bava seems to be the director most aware of the inherent campiness of his work). That humor cuts through some of the more graphic depictions of murder, not to mention Harrington’s underlying misogyny and fear of sexuality. While the camera gleefully captures every lurid detail of the killer’s hatchet work, it also throws in some lovely ironic twists and tricks, focalizing through Harrington’s eyes as he handles his victims and his less victimized wife. Mildred, in fact, begins the film as a vicious harpie and ends it as the same, but her presence is also the saving grace–she despises her husband and plans to torture him for all of eternity, no matter what he does to escape her.

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is far more style than substance, of course, but somehow that doesn’t condemn it. The lurid photography, constant voiceover, and somewhat predictable twists are all part of what makes giallo so very entertaining. Then, without apparent warning, it turns into a ghost story and seems to delight even more in the torture it wreaks on its protagonist than it did on his murder. Where 0ther giallos have a tendency to dwell for so long on the poetry of violence that the humor and sympathy ebb away, Bava instead pays greater attention to the actual psychosis going on beneath the surface. Harrington is searching for an answer to his madness by indulging it, and so is something of a victim himself, but he’s never figured into the hero–he’s the villain, and he’s going to be made to pay the price, in a most delightful and satisfying way.

Bava’s work here closely resembles Roger Corman’s, or the Hammer horror films being made in England around the same time – he even references his own films, when Harrington uses Black Sabbath for an alibi. If Hatchet for the Honeymoon becomes repetitious after a while, it’s worth sticking it out for that shift in the second half of the film, which twists ghosts and ghost stories into a simple but impressive shape. A brilliant film? Hardly. But man is it fun.

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is available to stream on Shudder.

Evil Eye (1963)

*Evil Eye is available to stream on Shudder.

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Continuing my probably unhealthy love affair with the films of Mario Bava: Evil Eye, Bava’s 1963 film that combines psychological horror, sexploitation, and some stylized horror to become the first true giallo. The Italian title is La ragazza che sapeva troppo, or: The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and that actually makes more sense than the American title tacked on, I suppose, to give the film more supernatural horror credentials that it doesn’t really have. The Girl Who Knew Too Much is very much in keeping with the film’s underlying satire on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, who is referenced a few times with tongue quite firmly in cheek.

Evil Eye opens with Nora Davis (Letícia Román) traveling to visit her ailing aunt in Rome. Nora’s obsessed with murder mysteries, turning her life into a romanticized pulp novel. After a rather nightmarish experience at the airport, she arrives at her aunt’s house to find the old lady seriously ill in bed, attended by the good-looking doctor Marcello (John Saxon). During a terrible storm that night, the phone and electricity flickers out just as Nora’s aunt goes into cardiac arrest, leading Nora on a desperate run through the rain down the Spanish steps to contact Marcello at the hospital. She’s mugged and knocked out, and awakens just in time to witness the violent stabbing of a young woman.

Nora spends the next few weeks going in and out of consciousness, attended by the kindly Marcello, who tells her that there was no murder victim: she must have been hallucinating. More or less recovered but still convinced that she witnessed a death, Nora attends her aunt’s funeral, where she runs into Laura Torrani (Valentina Cortese), a friend who lives in the Piazza di Spagna, right where the murder occurred. Rather than cutting Nora’s trip to Italy short, Laura offers to let the young American stay in her house. A series of somewhat confused events prompt Nora to believe that she’s still being pursued by the shadowy murderer she saw the night of the storm. She enlists Marcello’s help in tracking down the killer and possibly saving her life.

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Evil Eye certainly earns its title as the first giallo – not overly bloody, it’s still a bizarre, nightmarish film, full of extreme emotions and stylized cinematography. The imagery emphasizes the psycho-sexual pulp of the details while not being fussed with developing a particularly coherent plot. The film wanders from point to point, introducing weird characters – like a doctor who convinces Nora that she has second sight – who suddenly vanish. Nora’s parade of bizarre experiences have a comedic edge to them, as Bava proves himself aware that this story is really just a ridiculous piece of camp.

The humor is the most unnerving element in Evil Eye. Nora’s hysterical terror is played partially for laughs, as in a scene where she prepares an elaborate trap to catch the killer. She’s also quite right to be scared, as the viewer knows, but Bava punctures some of his own stylization by calling attention to just how silly it all really is. Evil Eye, like Black Sabbath, bears more than passing resemblance to Corman films of the same era, taking the terror seriously while simultaneously allowing the audience to delight in the camp.

Evil Eye is a bit boring spots, especially the transition between Nora witnessing the murder and becoming convinced that she’s actually in danger. The secondary romance with Marcello, while amusing, takes up too much time, as do the pair’s endless investigations into the possibility that Nora actually had a vision of a murder that occurred ten years ago. The meandering, dream-like nature of the film might place it in the giallo tradition (anyone who has watched enough Argento knows that those films aren’t exactly coherent), but unfortunately that doesn’t make it altogether interesting.

I was told that Evil Eye was secondary Bava, and I’ll certainly go along with that assessment. While interesting for those of us who want to trace the foundations of Italian horror traditions, it’s not compelling enough to warrant a second viewing. Still, the combination of humor and the horror is so weird that I found myself giggling about the film long after I’d finished it. That’s as good a recommendation as any.

Evil Eye is streaming on Shudder, so there’s no excuse not to give it a shot.

Black Sabbath (1963)

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Mario Bava, where have you been all my life? The Italian horror maestro really is just worming his way into my heart, especially after Black Sabbath, his 1963 horror anthology film. When you put Boris Karloff, vampires, and floating corpses in the same film, you’re guaranteed to get my attention.

Black Sabbath comprises three stories of about a half hour each, making up three different subgenres of horror. The first is “The Telephone,” about a young woman who keeps receiving threatening phone calls from a stalker late one night. The second, starring Karloff, is “The Wurdulak,” a vampire story about Gurca (Karloff), the patriarch of a family who has successfully killed a vampire that’s been terrorizing the countryside, only to become a victim of the creature himself. Finally, “The Drop of Water” is a ghost story about a woman who steals a ring from a corpse and is subsequently haunted in the weirdest and creepiest way.

All three stories take fairly standard horror narratives and give them a creepy spin. “The Wurdulak” in particular introduces some interesting elements to the vampire story, with the vampire longing for the blood of those he loved the most during life. Unfortunately, it’s also the dullest of the three episodes, drawing out the narrative to an unnatural length and introducing a mild love story into the mix that fails to summon any heat. “The Telephone” is a precursor to what would become the more prevalent giallo style – deeply stylized with perverse psycho-sexual undertones, it’s a delicious little aperitif before the meat of the other two episodes.

But the best of the three is undoubtedly “The Drop of Water,” a tight, intense piece of horror filmmaking that makes the most out of its short runtime. It’s actually quite a scary episode, showcasing a grotesque narrative quite similar to Corman’s Poe adaptations. And while the conclusion is extreme – even a bit silly by today’s standards – most of the episode is remarkably subdued, relying more on pulsing lights and eerie noises than on cheap jump scares. It’s an excellent piece of horror filmmaking, and could stand on its own as a short without the support of the other two.

Black Sabbath has forced me to appreciate Bava’s work, and to actively seek out more of it. And I’m a bit excited to indulge in the oeuvre of a new director.

Black Sabbath is available to stream via Shudder.

Black Sunday (1960)

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Mario Bava is another one of those classic horror filmmakers whose work I have (unforgivably) managed to miss. Considered the grand-daddy of Italian giallo – and one of the most influential of Italian horror artists – Bava married Corman-esque gothic sensibilities with more extreme (for 1960) horror gore. Black Sunday was one of his biggest critical and popular successes, and remains a touchstone for horror filmmakers to this day.

Black Sunday features Barbara Steele as Asa Vajda, a beautiful vampire/witch sentenced to death by her own brother. Following the execution of her lover Javuto (Arturo Dominici), Asa vows vengeance on her brother’s descendants, right before a devil’s mask studded with spikes is pounded into her flesh (the original title of the film was The Mask of Satan). Two hundred years later, we meet the descendants of the cursed family: Katia (Steele again), her father Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani), and her brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri). They become acquainted with two traveling doctors who stumble upon Asa’s tomb one stormy afternoon. Investigating the crypt, the elder doctor Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) accidentally awakens Asa after cutting his hand and dripping blood on her corpse. This sets off a chain of events as Asa attempts to take back her life – and her beauty – while wreaking horrible vengeance on her descendants.

Black Sunday is very similar to a 60s Corman film, down to the involvement of Steele (who appeared in Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum one year later), the gothic trappings, and the use of more gruesome violence than we expect from a black and white horror movie. Corpses ooze pus and blood, masks are nailed into living flesh, and witches are burned alive. While the black and white takes away some of the impact, the chiaroscuro is so deep and pulsating that it makes up for the lack of lurid splashes of red and green. The opening execution in particular is perfect horror filmmaking, the camera unflinching in documenting all the nastiness. In some ways, Black Sunday more closely approximates the weird sadism of 18th and 19th Century sensationalist literature than do the more sanitized versions of Frankenstein and Dracula produced by Universal.

Black Sunday fits right into the context of the horror films made by Corman in America and Hammer Studios in England, becoming a precursor to the far nastier films made by Dario Argento and Bava himself. And it’s a good film, if read in that context. But, Black Sunday misses the key ingredient that Corman managed with his Poe adaptations by failing to hire even one competent male actor as a lead. Vincent Price made Corman’s films wild-eyed and palatable, chewing the scenery with such loving gusto that one wants to enjoy the luridness just as much as he does. Neither the romantic lead John Richardson, playing the young doctor Andre, nor the actors in the villainous roles are of any real note. Steele is the real draw here, but a girl can only do so much.

Black Sunday is a perfectly enjoyable horror film. Does it make much sense? No. Is the acting all that great? Not really. But there’s a reason it’s a classic.

Black Sunday is available to stream on Shudder.