Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1961-1963)

3. Erik the Conqueror
How many Italian Viking movies are there and how many of them starred Cameron Mitchell? Sword-and-sandals and spaghetti westerns are widely known and many of those films are on R1 DVD, while the Viking films seem comparatively obscure. I don’t have much exposure to the genre but “Erik the Conqueror” will be hard to best.

Though released in America under that title, “Erik the Conqueror” is a completely inappropriate title. Even the DVD print uses the title “The Invaders.” (Erik isn’t even a Viking!) This is a classic tale of brothers separated at a young age, one growing up to become a great Viking warrior, with the other being adopted by a British queen. Naturally, the two meet on the battle field, totally unaware of their relationship. Through other complications, both brothers wind up falling in love with a pair of twins, played by the beautiful Kessler Twins. The story is surprisingly forward-thinking. Neither the Vikings nor the English are shown as out-and-out bad guys. Cameron Mitchell plays the Viking brother, Eron, who strives to throw off the boundaries of harsh tradition and sees no need for blood sacrifices. Meanwhile, the English brother, Erik, is a faithful, thoughtful warrior, loyal to his queen and his heart. The villain of the film is the traitor Sir Rutford, played with villainous glee by Andrea Checchi, an opportunist willing to screw over everyone to further his own power. Later on, when the brothers become aware of their connection, the violence between the two groups immediately halts and both clans turn towards the real enemy. The way the brothers immediately make-up happens too quickly for my taste.

The strong, pulpy story with some surprising depth is good, but it’s Bava’s direction that really shines. The same strong reds, greens, violets and blues that appeared in “Hercules and the Haunted World” and later in “Knives of the Avengers” show up. (Indeed, some sets and props are shared among the three films.) The Vikings, in particular their cave strongholds, are all filmed in strong, intense colors while the English are contrasted against blue skies. (One fantastic scene is of warriors running off to battle, silhouetted against a bright blue sky.) On a visual level, this film is a huge success. The battle scenes are energetic and brutal, including characters violently shot up by bright red arrows.

You might expect those battles to be the most memorable scenes, but not so. In one scene, the Vikings decide a political decision via democratic vote… With an axe-throwing contest. (Something we could use more of in American politics, if you ask me.) This scene uses some obvious reverse footage, causing a surreal effect.

Early on, before a sacrifice, a group of temple virgins dance around the bound prisoners. A wedding sequence is beautifully punctuated by glitter floating around in the air. One of the brothers lay dying and request to see his lover, who is currently captured. Her twin steps in to take her sister’s place, in a touching, sweet scene.

Mitchell and George Ardisson are both great as the two brothers, using their matinee idol looks to good use. The beautiful Francoise Christophe has a fantastic supporting role as Queen Alice. The movie makes a misstep with a wacky comic relief character who is distracting and wisely cut out all together in some edits. Bava often used his fantastically colorful direction to elevate middling material. When the material is actually pretty strong on its own, like in “Erik the Conqueror,” it makes for an even better time. [Grade: B+]

4. The Girl Who Knew Too Much
“The Girl Who Knew Too Much” is generally regarded as the first giallo, something I don’t exactly see. The bare bones of the genre are laid down but it would still be a few years more before we got the first real example. Either way, this is a satisfying little mystery.

It feels like Bava’s most Italian project. The story takes place in Rome and the spirit of the city is everywhere. From the groovy opening theme to the prominence of both modern and ancient architecture to the presences of Catholicism, there isn’t a moment here that doesn’t scream Italy. His last black and white feature, by now Bava has mastered the use of shadows in creating mood. The direction is also more playful, with the caps of four nuns taking up the screen or a head popping up between the legs of a statue.

The story, with its conspiracies, constant suspicions, and suggestion of psychic powers, is a bit on the convoluted side and winds through quite a few different sub-plots. There are several extra characters, many of them blatant red herrings. Ultimately, anyone familiar with the workings of the mystery genre should be able to guess who the killer is. What is more interesting is how we come to that realization throughout the numerous winding plot lines. Despite being confusing sometimes, the writing is playful and lightweight and ultimately very easy to get caught up in.

The cast helps things along. Leticia Roman is a great lead with her impish facial features and unexpected sexuality. Once again, Bava focuses in on his leading lady’s wide eyes and expressive face to put the audience in her shoes. A very young John Saxon is good too, though it’s disappointing to hear his immediately recognizable voice dubbed over in Italian. The title is a Hitchcock allusion and I feel the Master’s spirit comes through more in the charming romantic subplot then in the murder mystery. Indeed, Roman and Saxon together can’t help but remind the viewer of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. (The movie has an alternate title, “The Evil Eyes,” which, despite being generic, still makes a great deal of sense and is brilliantly referenced during the finale, with the image of two gun shot holes in a door.) Valentina Cortese has a nice supporting role though she doesn’t shine until her manic side comes out. The resolution of the story is a cute scene and captures the overall mood quite well.

The movie does have an all-seeing narrator for some reason that is unneeded and distracting. There are about one too many zooms for my taste and the story is a bit slow to start. Still, this is classic Bava and the director at some of his most charming and playful.
[Grade: B]

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