Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, September 30, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1970-1971)

15. Roy Colt and Winchester Jack
Oh, the spaghetti western. Any Italian filmmaker worth his salt made at least one. But the Spaghetti Western sub-genre, despite being fairly short-lived, was still so huge and present that eventually parodies of Spaghetti Western became a sub-sub-genre all of its own. It’s in the latter category that “Roy Colt and Winchester Jack” really falls into.

The movie has several intentionally absurd aspects. It opens with a gunslinger quitting a gang because they’re too nice to make any money. Later, Winchester Jack rescues an Indian woman, that looks about as Indian as Sydnay Portier, who pulls a gun on him and then charges him an hourly wage. The movie gets wackier from there. A search for gold and a demented Russian villain who calls himself the Reverend provides the main driving force for the stories. Love triangles, double crosses, whorehouse fight scenes, and wacky slapstick jokes follow.

The Italian style of humor can be pretty hokey at times. The movie is never quite hilarious. Both the big brothel battle and the wacky Russian come off as more abrasive then funny. The movie only has two really funny bits, a joke where some crutches get shot off and a bit involving a deaf guy. What makes the film work more then anything else is strictly the cast and characters. Roy and Jack are old pals who inevitably end up fighting over something. Brett Halsey, who looks like he could be Roy Lioletta’s dad, is a charming rascal, one of those always-a-step-ahead heroes the Italians love so much in these movies. Charles Southwood is the more stoic of the two who usually winds up the butt of all the schemes. Maril├╣ Tolo gives a pretty good performance, as one of those rare female roles in these sort of movies who just refuses to play nice. The movie is pretty light on the gun play and seems to insert these scenes into the story, roughly, including the betrayal subplot that goes nowhere. Bava’s direction is pretty subdued, for the most part. There’s not a lot of color on display here. Mostly just rough zooms and one great shot of a reflection in a puddle of water.

Most of my problems with this one has to do with it just trying too hard to be wacky. If it played as more of the character-oriented humor, the movie would’ve been stronger over all. What problems I have with it resolves themselves very nicely in the last ten minutes. The ending of the film is by-far the most entertaining moments in it and sends us out on a high mark. “Roy Colt and Winchester Jack” is a weaker entry in the Bava ouerve, focusing less on his personal style and more on the conventions of the genres he’s working in. But even it it works for the majority of the run time. [Grade: B-]

16. Twitch of the Death Nerve
Here it is, folks, the very first slasher movie ever, “A Bay of Blood,” also known by the far cooler title “Twitch of the Death Nerve,” as well as “Carnage,” “Chain Reaction,” and literally a hundred other different titles. It’s been homaged and rip-offed more times then can be counted and, perhaps unknowingly, completely predicted where the genre would go over the next twenty years.

What I notice when re-watching it this time is just how mean this movie is. It’s by far Bava’s most mean-spirited film. A guy gets a face full of machete, the blade buried deep within his skull. A couple, locked in the throes of lovemaking, is brutally impaled. The camera lingers over shots of people as they cast their dying breaths. Moreover, the violence is cynical, almost sarcastic. Beautiful music plays over many of the death scenes and, following one brutal slaying, the camera cuts to the front of a yellow Volkswagen, its headlights and bumper resembling a smiling face. All of the above is stylish, captivating.

The film opens with a long pan across the bay itself, establishing it as both the setting and a character onto itself. We then go to a wonderfully stylish segment of an old rich-looking woman in a wheelchair, looking out the window of her home at the lake and forest outside. She is then brutally strangled to death by her husband. The husband is then stabbed to death from behind by an unseen assailant. This sets up a mood of distrust and suspicion that prevails the whole film. We are introduced to a cast of characters who all want their hands on the bay and forest for different reasons. None of the characters are generally likable. Paolo, the eccentric bug collector, is mildly amusing but his marriage with his tarot card reading wife is clearly a bitter one. Simon is clearly a psychopath, Frank and his girlfriend greedy and opportunistic. Claudine Auger, while beautiful, is a vicious Lady Macbeth, goading her husband into murder, all the while ignoring their children. The four teenage partiers are harmless but vapid and not developed enough for us to care. Where some directors might see some potentially interesting characters, Bava only see suspects and victims. In the hands of a different director that might expect us to like these characters, the film could come off as contemptible of the audience. However, Bava is along with us the whole ride. He holds contempt only for the characters, not the audience.

The movie was criticized as overly sadistic when it first arrived. Indeed it is. Bava said before he only wanted to create a sequence of stylish murder scenes. He wasn’t interested in characters and only interested in story as long as it could set up those kills. The movie does have a message though, one that brutally dismisses the assholes of the world and suggests that nature and its innocent children know how to take care of themselves. Bava hacks away all the fat here, leaving behind only his beloved trademarks of graphic murder scenes infused with dark humor, animated direction, gorgeous women, beautiful location, rich color, and a jazzy musical score. It’s Bava extracted, an 85 minute exercise in Grand Guignol, a perfect starting place for new fans and a total treat for old ones. [Grade: A]

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