Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 3, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1974-1976)

20. Rabid Dogs
“Rabid Dogs” is Bava at his most trimmed down and gritty. It’s an intense, vulgar crime thriller. A trio of criminals commit a robbery, their heist quickly exploding into violence. A woman is abducted, another innocent woman brutally stabbed to death, before the criminals high-jack a car, driven by a man with a sick child. The man is forced to drive the trio to their hideout. This set-ups the next ninety minutes, which unfold in real time.

The movie is uncompromising. The violence is direct and fierce, without the stylized finesse of Bava’s other films. The characters are nasty, as vicious as the title suggest. Bava rarely used profanity in his films but “Rabid Dogs” doesn’t hold back, with Don Backy’s character unleashing a shocking tirade of vulgarity early in the film, as if to let the audience know that no punches will be pulled. A riveting chase scene in a cornfield, featuring a jazzy saxophone score, is the movie’s least forgiving moment, recalling the infamous “Piss your pants” scene from “Last House on the Left.”

As the story builds towards its conclusion, more and more inconveniences are thrown in the characters’ path. Fidgety toll booths, a fender-bender, a pit stop is confounded when one of the robbers hits on a passing-by woman, the gas tank empties and a crotchety gas station attendant refuses to serve them. An irritating, vocal woman bums a ride to the nearest mechanic. An angry grape farmer with a rake gets involved. What could have been a simple trip is complicated at every turn. Bava never misses a chance to introduce another inconvenience and drive the intensity level up even further.

Bava’s direction is completely stripped down. None of his usual flourishes appear and the majority of the film takes place in one location, a cramped car. Heat is an important element in the film. Every character sweats profusely and the viewer can easily feel the boiling heat of the hot, long summer day.

The small cast further drives home the frenzied focus of the film. We aren’t really given a proper name for any of the criminals. Maurice Poli plays Doctor, the leader of the thugs, who seems controlled and coldly calculated, but only too aware of how he could loose control. Don Backy, as Bisturi (which translates to Blade), is unpredictable, deviously curious one minute, and a completely unhinged psychopath the next. Later on, he even shows a delicate insecurity. The towering George Eastman, best known to Italian horror fans as the title villain in Joe D’Amato’s “Anthrophageous Beast,” plays Thirtytwo as a lascivious, amoral thug, a nasty clown that could explode into violence at any minute. Lea Lander gives a lot as Maria, the film’s only true victim, never backing away from portraying the character’s humiliation honestly. Riccardo Cucciolla is the pin holding the movie together, preventing a complete descent into madness. He keeps his head the entire time. Considering the presence of a child in the story and Riccardo’s cool head throughout, the twist doesn’t come as a huge surprise, but it does make for a nihilistic final statement.

The story behind “Rabid Dogs,” about how it went unfinished in Bava’s life time because of the producer’s death and was later reassembled after Bava’s passing, is well known. The version available on DVD is actually a polished work print with a temp score. In 2002, Lamberto Bava recut the picture as “Kidnapped,” adding some new footage and an inferior score. The furiousness of the film is still evident in that cut, but I prefer the “Rabid Dogs” version. Though lost for many years, “Rabid Dogs” is Bava’s most startling film, totally different from the rest of his work but nonetheless impressive and vital. [Grade: A-]

21. Shock (with Lamberto Bava)
The film starts off a bit slow and the first thing you notice is the lack of color, relatively stationary direction, and the grainy picture quality typical of late seventies/early eighties Italian horror. You begin to wonder if Bava wasn’t going soft in his old age. However, following a sequence involving a porcelain sculpture moving on its own, we are led on our way to creepy-ville and the movie never looks back.

While this is most definitely a ghost story, the film holds back on any actual supernatural content until the finale. Most of the spooky elements come from Marco, the little boy. He seems like a pretty normal kid at first, with a close and very sweet relationship to his mother. However, he slowly begins to show some disturbing behavior that becomes progressively creepier as the story goes on. Creepy little kids are one of the hardest horror archetypes to convincingly do. You never want to lay down more cards then are necessary. Bava and his team understand this and the subtle way Marco’s transformation is pulled off is the most frightening aspect. David Collin Jr. doesn’t always seem aware of what he’s doing but is good in the part anyway.

(If you’ll allow me to digress… Young Mr. Collin also acted in the Italian “Exorcist” knock-off “Behind the Door” three years earlier. When “Shock” was first brought to America, it was re-titled “Behind the Door II.” Collin’s presence is the only connecting thread and the two films are otherwise completely unrelated.)

Daria Nicolodi is given a rare chance to play a fully developed character and really shines. She is convincing as a mother struggling with her son’s upsetting changes. She brings vulnerability, warmness, and a surprising sexiness to the part.

The music is interestingly varied. Though we get the expected prog-rock guitar tinglings (Not from Goblin but from one-time band, I Libra, which features Goblin’s former drummer!), it’s the softer piano driven moments and overwhelming cacophony of noise that are really impresses. The slow-burn atmosphere leads into the finale, which has at least two jump-out-of-your-seat shocks leads to the chilling ending.

Granted, not everything in the film works. The floating box-cutter nightmare is pretty laughable and, as mentioned above, Bava’s direction isn’t as exciting as usual. (His son, Lamberto, a relatively bland director in comparison to his dad, did some uncredited work here and I’m blaming the weaker stuff on him.) Luckily the number of zooms here are limited.

As the last theatrical work of a legendary director, “Shock” is a fantastic ghost story and shows that Mario Bava never lost his spark. [Grade: A-]

So, there it is, the Mario Bava report card, finally finished. This ended up taking a lot more time then I expected. But it was a great journey. Bava is one of my all-time favorite directors and I always look forward to his films. More Halloween horror madness tomorrow!

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