Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1960-1961)

Well, here it is, (mostly) as promised, the Mario Bava director report card which I first promised, oh, about a year ago. My work method makes Frank Miller look punctual.

Keeping in line with the rules I set out a long time ago, this card won't cover everything Bava touched. His uncredited works, including "Giant of Marathon" and "Caltiki the Immortal Monster" which he more or less directed single-handedly, are excluded. (And I've actually seen "Giant of Marathon," so I've really got no proper excuse for that one.) As are a number of films that are unavailable or otherwise hard to find, such as "The Wonders of Aladdin," "The Road to Fort Alamo," or "The Venus of Ille." My goal has always been to focus on a director's "main cannon," not the minutia of his career. While laziness and a lack of time can be blamed for some of this, some of the titles listed above are just about impossible to get a hold of. I might publish reviews of some of them should they ever get a wide release. My love of Bava actually trumps my laziness.

1. Black Sunday
Despite most of his famous work involving vivid use of color, Bava started out in black and white and, using that color palette, made one of the most atmospheric horror films of the sixties. Gothic horror, by its very nature, relies on stormy nights, brooding castles, creepy portraits, and foggy graveyards for its chill. While we’ve seen all of these things before, Bava’s camera instills a new urgency. The shadows are constantly creeping up on the light. There isn’t a frame here that isn’t at least partially infected by darkness. Among these shadows, Bava places striking, haunting, almost dream-like imagery. A carriage riding through a darkened woods in slow-motion, a large stone door closing in a dark room, the remaining light washing over the surface like water, two men appearing behind an empty fire place, shadows passing over the faces of victim and attacker as they run through the hall… There are countless moments that will stay with you forever.

It's not just the gothic atmospheric that is so startling, as, in its uncut form, the movie features some surprising violence for the time, like nails stabbing an eye, a man burning in a fireplace, or rotting corpse with the face of a young woman.

Some have commented about how the movie refers to its monsters as both vampires and witches. I, personally, like this touch. “Black Sunday” isn’t about vampires or witches. It’s about superstition and curses. How the rotting, old evils of ages long since passed can creep up on our current lives.

Barbara Steele would become a horror icon following this, the scream queen of her time. Her performance(s) are less about actual acting then screen presence. With her heaving bosoms, curling raven hair, and, especially, her penetrating expressive eyes, Steele is the perfect actress of the role. Her old fashion European beauty invites mystery and intrigue. Even more then the oppressive shadows and dreary sets, its Barbara Steele that truly invokes the gothic ghost stories of the past. The rest of the cast is fairly unremarkable and the dubbing makes it difficult to judge their performances. (“Black Sunday” was a multilingual production, with cast and crew members speaking English, German, and Italian.) Andrea Checchi and Arturo Dominici both cut intimidating figures, especially in the darkened lighting.

The movie does drag a bit in the middle, when Steele and Dominici are largely off-screen, and the romantic subplot was unnecessary. The musical score isn’t very good and there are a few too many of those damn zooms.

All the flaws are forgiven by the excellent conclusion, which wraps everything up perfectly. “Black Sunday” (Also known by its original, and far more appropriate title, “The Mask of Satan”) is one of the best gothic horror films of the modern age, if not the best. It announce the arrival of Mario Bava as one of the genre’s maestros and Barbara Steele as one of its most unforgettable presences. [Grade: A]

2. Hercules in the Haunted World
Silly, colorful, and fun, “Hercules in the Haunted World” is probably the best sword and sandals film I’ve seen. Bava takes what was probably just another studio assembly line film and makes it his own. The scenes in the underworld make a great use of color, as should be expected, and has a sense of visual playfulness and occasional moodiness to them. The task Hercules and his sidekicks must complete are directed nicely and fun to watch. The budget was obviously very low and the plot isn’t always coherent. That only matters so much because everything is kept very loose and carefree. Bava's creativity is on display in a number of scenes, most notably when Hercules and his pal must cross a rope over a river of fire.

Even those that are strictly fans of Bava’s horror work will find something to like here, such as the climatic sequence in which Hercules battles an army of flying zombies, which has plenty of atmosphere to it. Probably the most memorable sequence in the film involves Hercules having an all-to-brief scuffle with some sort of weird tree monster.

As far as Italian Herculeses go, Reg Park isn’t the best but he does have enough charisma and physical presence to carry the weight. (If you’ll excuse the pun.) Christopher Lee seems to be having fun despite being dubbed for some inexplicable reason. George Ardisson, despite playing the broad comic relief, manages to avoid being annoying and even gets few good moments to him self. There are also some Italian beauties on display, another trademark of the genre, most notably Leonora Ruffo and Rosalba Neri. While nothing too spectacular, “Hercules in the Haunted World” is fun, easy to digest, and, visually speaking, as strong as the rest of the director’s work. [Grade: B]

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