Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1970)

13. Five Dolls for an August Moon
“Five Dolls for an August Moon” plays like a test run for “Twitch of the Death Nerve.” It lacks the police procedural aspect of a proper giallo. Its premise is straight up slasher, in a way. A group of sexually promiscuous people gather in an isolated location where they are picked off one by one. The majority of the actual kills actually happen off-screen, leaving the cast to deal with the aftermath. However, the similarities are enough for me to classify it as a proto-slasher.

The story is a pretty standard Agatha Christy style yarn. There’s a scientific formula, everybody wants it, and somebody is willing to kill for it. The movie even seems to invite this comparison. In the opening scene, the lights go down and, when the room is brightened back up again, somebody is “dead.” The murder mystery isn’t exactly mind-blowing but it does suffice and pulls one twist out.

The direction is naturally stylish. A fantastic sequence at the end, involving a prison hallway, is by far the most beautiful frame. Another moment, where the last man standing stalks through the house, gun pulled, is also fantastic. Bava seems to have much more invested in the character’s death then the character’s themselves. Several of the characters are very similar looking and few of them aren't given any sort of proper introduction. So, we have scenes were people are going around looking for Jack and we, the audience, aren’t exactly sure who Jack is. It isn’t until about halfway through that we figure out who everyone is and, by then, the bodies have all ready started to pile up.

Or should I say hang up? One of the best aspects of the film, and by far it’s most Bava-like, is that every time another dead body turns up, it gets hung up in a meat locker, a clear plastic bag draped over it. These scenes of dead bodies swaying back and forth are almost always accompanied by a loopy, droning piece of music. A sense of sarcasm floats underneath these and many other scenes and seems to confirm that film is more of a dark comedy then a serious murder mystery.

The music over all is quite good, highly danceable, and clearly inspired by Italian pop music of the day. What’s best about the movie is, I’m slightly ashamed to admit, all the half-naked beautiful women that are paraded around throughout the movie. Women walk around in their underwear, in bathing suits, in see-through nighties, and sometimes even less. Bava’s camera isn’t ashamed to float around them, leering at their buxom curves. As with everything though, Bava even imbues this with a certain style. “Five Dolls for an August Moon” is a delicious exercise in style. It’s pretty empty on the inside, but it’s got such a fun, exotic tone to it. It’s a funky swinging party filled with sexy women, a beautiful location, and some murder too. [Grade: B]

14. Hatchet for the Honeymoon
One master’s tribute to another. More so then any of Bava’s other films, “Hatchet for the Honeymoon” is an extended riff on Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” While it plays into many of the conventions of the giallo genre, there is one important difference: The serial killer is the main character. Like Norman Bates, John Harrington is a handsome, charismatic, likable psychopath. Unlike Norman Bates, John’s murderous intentions are made clear right from the beginning. After a nice opening sequence, in which he hacks up a young bride and her lover aboard a train, John explains his murderous desire and his fixation on newly married women in an interior monologue. His obsessions steams from an event in childhood and his business, a wedding dress modeling agency, gives him plenty of opportunity to indulge his desires.

Another big difference is that John is married to a shrewish, séance obsessed woman who refuses to divorce him. A curious police detective and a beautiful young model/love interest pad out the film’s subplots. Anybody familiar with the genre probably won’t find a lot of surprises here. The secret of John’s Freudian childhood trauma isn’t hard to figure out, neither are the specifics of the detective’s plot to gaslight him.

As always though, Bava has a fantastic stylistic grasp on the material. The opening credits, a beautifully colorful montage of the actor’s faces appearing in sand then being wiped away, makes it known immediately that this is Bava in his prime. The movie is set in Paris (though it looks a lot like Italy to me.) and color and architecture are used fantastically. Bava includes a number of unusual little sequences seemingly just to add to the film’s style. A back room is filled with mannequins wearing wedding dresses, which John sometimes dances with. Later on, he lures a young victim back there, essentially seducing her before hatcheting her. A séance is shot in a small, black room, with Mildred’s face the only thing visible. John’s garden, where he also burns his victim’s bodies, is filled with bright orange and purple flowers.

In my favorite moment, our killer retrieves his favorite weapon, marches up the stairs back to the bed room, the camera focusing on the blade’s reflection the whole time. The film holds off on showing his face as long as possible before revealing the killer wearing a wedding veil and lipstick. It’s a hilarious, bizarre little addition that is never explained. Following this scene, a surprising supernatural element is introduced. While it’s unexpected, and feels like yet another addition simply to spice up the material, it does add another quirky touch to the film. Another beautiful scene shows an empty post-wedding banquet, draped in deep, soulful blues.

The film is also helped by its game cast. Stephen Forsyth makes for a charismatic serial killer. John certainly is a fun psycho to watch, a precursor to Patrick Bateman in his meticulous vanity. Laura Betti, in a role written specifically for her, is fantastically bitchy as the wife. Dagmar Lassander, who would later show up in Fulci’s “House by the Cemetery” looks gorgeous as the love interest, Helen, and has nice chemistry with Forsyth. As usual, the roles of the feminine victims are filled with some substantial eye candy, particularly Femi Benussi. “Hatchet for the Honeymoon” came out of a period where Bava was taking routine material and turning it into something special. It’s not exactly a classic, but it is classic Bava. [Grade: B+]

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