Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1965-1966)

8. Planet of the Vampires
He’s best known for his gothic horror and brightly colored thrillers, but Bava was willing to work in just about any genre that was handed to him. “Planet of the Vampires” was his stab at sci-fi horror and is widely recognized as a classic. Its influence on “Alien” is acknowledged and obvious. A group of astronauts wind up on a strange planet, where they discover the giant fossilized remains of an alien race before a deadly force picks them off one by one. The similarities end there but I’d say that’s enough.

Taken on its own, it’s a very spooky creep show that just happens to be set in space. The set design for the alien planet is incredible. Through brilliant color and a generous amount of fog, what was probably a few caves and rocks is transformed into a truly otherworldly environment. I’d say its closer to Bava’s portrayal of Hell in his Hercules movie then what most sci-fi worlds look like. Either way, it’s fantastically pulled off.

Several scenes are incredibly moody and creepy, two in particular stand out. When the vampires (who really don’t have much in common with classical concept of vampires) pull themselves out of their graves, tearing plastic wrapping from their bodies, all in slow motion, it sounds ridiculous, but Bava imbues the scene with his trademark gothic horror. Another noteworthy moment is when the captain and the hot chick in the tight space suit stumble into the old derelict ship. The giant skeletons aren’t exactly convincing but the overwhelming colors, combined with the elevating threat level, makes it the most intense moment in the movie.

The cast is large and none of the actors are really given a chance to stand out. The characters are really more archetypes then anything else, loosely defined. More over, the dubbing makes it even harder to grade their acting ability. It’s a testament to Bava’s skills for creating atmosphere that this isn’t detrimental to the film at all. The costume design comes off, at first, as a little campy, especially by today’s standards. However, I actually think this helps the film seem even more out of place. It’s not really the future, it could be any time. The downbeat ending is certainly unexpected and wraps things up on an unsettling note.

“Planet of the Vampires,” which I’m thinking probably had a better title in Italian, is another homerun for Bava, one more classics from his golden period. [Grade: B+]

9. Knives of the Avenger
Going into this movie, I knew it was about Vikings. But, considering the time and place it was made, I was expecting a typical sword and sandals experience which just trades Greece for Norway, togas for bearskins, and Zeus for Odin. I was surprised to find, the movie doesn’t fool around in that regard. It goes to a bit of effort to create the look and feel of a proper Viking epic.

The story is surprisingly complex. Flashbacks and voice-overs are both used nicely. Thematically speaking, the film deals with loyalty, guilt, redemption, motherhood, and other in-depth concepts. Things do drag a little at the end of the second act, when the father character is brought back into the act but it picks up once again for an exciting conclusion. I didn’t realize this until I read the DVD case, but this is basically a Viking version of “Shane,” right down to the ending.

As long as the action is kept up close, its quite captivating, with a nice savage edge to it. Later on, there are far too many scenes of our hero throwing knives and some random goon grasping his chest and falling down. (A note on the dub here. It’s amazing what sound design can do for a movie. Without the excellent sound editing of the original, the American version’s fight scenes are castrated and come off as quite weak.)

The cast is serviceable, with Cameron Mitchell doing well as the conflicted hero, Lisa Wagner as a beautiful damsel in distress, and a somewhat campy Fausto Tozzi as the villain. The music is exciting and heroic, despite the main theme being played a few times too many throughout. Bava’s direction is a bit muted here. The ending is the only time we get any of his trademark color. It was the third time before I got through “Knives of the Avenger” uninterrupted. I don’t know if it was worth that much effort but it’s still a quality piece of pulp cinema. [Grade: B]

10. Kill, Baby… Kill!
By all accounts, Bava was something of a superstitious person. Those beliefs obviously resurfaced throughout his career. Perhaps, no film summed up Bava’s concerns about the spiritual world around us more then “Kill, Baby… Kill!” For a fact, the movie features many of the director’s trademarks and interests. The brooding color gothic look of decaying old buildings, creeping fog, and darkened corners continues to evolve. The haunted Villa Graps is a foreboding piece of work, especially its winding spiral staircase which is the centerpiece of several impressive sequences. Those spooky old portraits show up again too.

The concept of forced suicide, one touched upon briefly in past films, is given a full showcase here. People dive onto pointy gates, impale themselves on candlesticks, and other gruesome surprises, all due to the influence of a little girl’s ghost. The sinister child, another concept that appeared one or twice throughout Bava’s career, is one of the creepiest aspects of this picture. Peering in through windows, gliding into view on a swing, and always staring blankly and silently, Melissa the little ghost girl is an enduring image of horror and its surprising that the character isn’t more iconic. The way she is often preceded by a bouncing ball obviously influenced Peter Medek’s “The Changeling” and is almost a cliché by now.

The story itself is interesting as well. It starts off by facing science and reason up against superstition and irrational fear. However, towards the end, the movie reveals a surprising, and sort of brilliant, plot twist that deals with how people handle grief and the guilt many feel over the death of a loved one.

There are a few too many characters but the conclusion brings them all together and wraps up the story in an extremely satisfying way. The cast is a great collection of solid actors. Erika Blanc, Fabienne Dali, and Micaela Esdra are all the sort of gorgeous heroines that the Italians love to put in there movies so much. Piero Lulli and Max Lawrence are both bring a certain physicality to their parts. Giovanna Galletti gives the best performance as the grieving clairvoyant Baroness Graps, who is driven either by a group of vengeful spirits or her own grief.

I might not have given much attention to how creepy this movie is but, believe me, the creep factor is high in this one and I recommend, from personal experience, not watching alone at night. “Kill, Baby… Kill!” might not be the director’s most well-know but, in many ways, it encapsulates many of Bava’s favorite obsessions and concepts into one tidy creepy package. [Grade: A-]

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