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Mario Bava and the golden era of Italian low-budget cinema

As a teenager I went through a phase of collecting horror / exploitation movies. This was the pre-DVD pre-internet era so I was literally tape trading VHS tapes with fellow collectors around Europe. I had a strong preference for Italian and Spanish movies, with the odd bit of Jean Rollin thrown in (best softcore lesbian vampire movies of the 1970s – an acquired taste).

Black Sunday

Like every other teenage boy with a taste for the forbidden I started out by collecting the “video nasties” made famous by the 1984 Director of Public Prosecutions list. Back then the newspapers had led a moral panic claiming horror movies on the new unregulated video format were driving kids to violence and murder. It’s a clear case of the media amplification spiral and several books document this particular shameful exercise of government meddling in the liberties of free-born Englishmen. So I was collecting low-budget grot such as Anthropophagus the Beast, Gestapos Last Orgy, Driller Killer and so on. Very quickly I realised that the Italian entrants on the list were frequently good movies from genuinely talented directors such as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci.

It was from Bay of Blood that I stumbled onto the greatest of all low-budget genre directors – Mario Bava.

“Movies,” Bava once explained, “are a magician’s forge, they allow you to build a story with your hands… at least, that’s what it means to me. What attracts me in movies is to be presented with a problem and be able to solve it. Nothing else; just to create an illusion, and effect, with almost nothing”

His impact on the movie industry includes:

      • Directing the first Italian horror movie The Devil’s Commandment when contracted director Riccardo Freda walked out.
      • Shooting the first Peplum movie Hercules.
      • Invented the Giallo genre with The Girl Who Knew Too Much
      • Invented the Slasher genre with Bay of Blood. There’s one twenty minute section near the beginning when a group of teenagers show up at a lakeside camp which was in microcosm the entire genre when later ripped-off by Friday the 13th.

Bava was legendary among producers for his ability to wrap up competent movies on time and under budget but more impressive to me is his versatility across genres. He made gothic horrors, sword and sandal, westerns, sex comedies, noir slashers and psychological thrillers. All beautifully shot with oodles of lavish atmosphere. My personal favourites are his brooding whodunnit set with a house of high fashion Blood and Black Lace, and then the movie that inspired Ridley Scott’s Alien – the 1964 sci-fi Planet of the Vampires. Sam Ishii-Gonzales writes:

“A near abstraction on colour and movement, Blood and Black Lace is Bava’s cinema distilled to its cruel essence. This film develops with complete abandon what Bava more tentatively explored in The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La ragazza che sapeva troppo, 1962) and “The Telephone” episode of Black Sabbath. From the opening image (an unhinged sign for Christiana’s Haute Couture banging in the wind) to the last (a telephone receiver off the hook swinging like a pendulum, back and forth) we have a remorseless, inexorable movement, a dissipative force, that levels everything in its path. This movement becomes, in the case of Nicole’s murder in the antique shop, a pulsation of light, by which one means not only the neon sign which flickers off-on, off-on as the woman meets her demise with a medieval iron hook (a variation on the death mask of Black Sunday; later, Mary’s demise by way of a red-hot furnace will duplicate the searing of Asa’s flesh), but Bava’s use of primary colours which throb with an intensity all their own. That Bava’s source of inspiration was a lurid type of pulp magazine itself identified by a specific colour, giallo (yellow, the colour of terror, of fearfulness), couldn’t be more appropriate.”

Watching B&BL is like stepping into a timewarp of a Europe that never really existed where the women are beautiful, forests dark and rainswept, and offices are in gothic country homes dripping in oversaturated colour. I imagine Count Cervantes dating one of these young models.

The Italian movie industry of the 1960s-70s is a treasure trove of unusual boundary-pushing cinematic oddities. A bustling profilific era, every time a major western movie proved to be a hit then suddenly dozens of production companies would churn out hundreds of clone movies within a few years. So for example when Kurosawa made Yojimbo, Sergio Leone remade it in the American West. That movie struck gold and kicked off the whole spaghetti western cycle (which in ironic symmetry was then emulated by the Japanese chanbara movies of which Yojimbo was an example). Other examples:

      • A Man Called Horse inspired the cannibal cycle
      • The Night Porter inspired the Nazi love camp cycle
      • Emmanuelle inspired the softcore love cycle
      • Dawn of the Dead inspired the zombie cycle
      • Caligula inspired the roman decadence cycle

Truly bizarre. In this era of DVD and torrents you can easily lay your hands on obscure oddities that back in my tape-trading days often took years just to track down a grainy 5th-generation copy. Transport yourself back through time. Get some friends together, put a crate of beers on the table, and have a real grindhouse night. Here’s some sample triple bills:

US theatrical posters for Bay of Blood, Deep Red, Flavia the Heretic

1. Italian bloodiness: Bay of Blood (Mario Bava) / Deep Red (Dario Argento) / Flavia the Heretic (Gianfranco Mingozzi

2. Italian freaky atmospherics: Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Lucio Fulci) / The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci) / Caligula the Untold Story (Joe D’amato)

3. Spanish timewarp: Tombs of the Blind Dead (Amando De Ossorio) / Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (Jorge Grau) / Justine: Marquis de Sade (Jess Franco)

One response

  1. You should check out Rossellini’s “Paisan” from 1946, I think.

    I’d like to add you to my blogroll.

    April 6, 2012 at 6:14 pm

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