Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1972)

17. Four Times That Night
Oh, Il Maestro, what couldn’t you do? Yes, Bava took a break from horror to make, of all things, a sex comedy version of “Rashomon.” How does it stand up to his genre work? Is it funny? Is it sexy? Is any of this interesting at all? Ah, all questions that will be answered in time.

Certainly, if nothing else, Bava’s style is constant. The movie is full of color and playful camera movements. The scenes in a dance club is appropriately colorful and a notable moment later on occurs, when the leading lady passes a red glass in front of the camera’s lens. The movie’s opening credits run over some odd pieces of animation, some of which are completely unrelated. However, the fluttering butterfly like Rorschach tests are all presented in blinding technicolor. Furthermore, this is undeniably such a product of late sixties Italy. The outrageous fashion design, gorgeous woman, and general playful tone makes it impossible not to think of sporty cafes, Vespas zipping through Rome’s streets, and a bunch of other clichés. Even outside of his normal genre, Bava creates an entertaining film.

The movie is not laugh-out-loud hilarious. Out of the four stories presented, the first one is the only one that really generates any number of laughs. Daniela Giordano is a beautiful woman and the camera has no problem lingering on her shapely form. She plays innocent in this segment and is quite amusing. The attempted-rape-as-comedy skit is a bit uncomfortable but, even then, the movie never comes off as main spirited. It’s clear it’s never going to cross that line. The second segment is more focused on out-and-out eroticism, featuring the most sex and nudity out of the entire movie. Brett Halsey gets to play it both ways here. In the first segment, he is a lecherous creep, but purposely plays up his own innocence here. While Daniela is a virginity obsessed Puritan in the first segment, she is a sex-crazed nymphomaniac in the second. Her mother also undergoes a nearly hilarious transformation in the second skit.

The third segment runs on very long and meanders quite a bit. The sweaty doorman doesn’t prove the most captivating storyteller. Here the story’s focus shifts from our male and female couple to a gay man and a lesbian. Both are more annoying then interesting. There’s a sequence inside some strange club with whips and cage dancers that is completely extraneous and just slows the story down. After this very long bit finally ends, the movie steps back a bit. A scientist (who I first thought was played by Bava himself but is actually played by Calisto Calisti.) steps in to explain the differences of viewpoints, using Noah’s Ark and talking cartoon animals (seriously) as an example. We then get what might be the actual sequence of events.

I’m not exactly sure if “Four Times That Night” is attempting to make some sort of point about gender relations or if its just content to be an amusing, naughty little distraction. Yes, the master of horror did manage to make a pretty decent sex comedy. Go figure. [Grade: B]

18. Baron Blood
“Baron Blood” opens with a misleading sequence in an airliner while a peppy, upbeat pop song plays on the soundtrack. Is Bava being ironic? Or, as I suspect, is he intentionally contrasting the modern world with the old, gothic horror we’re about to be presented with? “Baron Blood” is a return to “Black Sunday” territory, at times, a direct homage to that film. Bava substitutes his usually colorful palette with a far more subdued, creepier one, replacing the bright blues and reds with either deep violets or complete shadows.

The best thing about the film is the atmosphere and much of which is owed to the brilliant castle set. The movie was shot in an actually ancient castle, a relic from the 12th century, a dusty, legitimately spooky location. Bava adds a great deal to this already fantastic location with his creeping, ominous shadows and deep, rolling fog.

The other strongest aspect of the film is its titular villain. When Baron Blood himself first appears, he pulls himself out of his ancient grave, fog rolling over the ground, in a moment that recalls both “Black Sunday” and “Planet of the Vampires.” A Puritan-style hat pulled down over his rotting visage, the Baron strikes an intimidating figure in his cape. He stalks the castle ground, grisly picking off anybody who gets in his way in a style somewhat reminiscent of later slasher films. A brutal neck snapping and a fantastic iron maiden kill are two great deaths. Italian special effects master Carlo Rambaldi, uncredited, created the monster make-up which is heavily shadowed throughout but is never the less hugely effective.

Bava’s use of camera is up to snuff. Two scenes of Elke Summers being stalked by the Baron, one in the shadowed corridors of the castle and the second in the fog covered streets of the town, are easily the highlights of the picture, both thrilling and intense, with Bava’s camera skillfully navigating around Elke’s panicked figure. Earlier, Bava’s seem to cherish exploring the castle, peeking around corners, over balconies, and down winding, spiral staircases. Bava does lean on his zooms too much, leading to some lazy jump scares.

Disappointingly, after those fantastic chase sequences, the film goes on a tangent, in which our heroes track down a medium’s help. While the sequences is interestingly shot and does feature the stunningly cold Rada Rassimov, the moment is wildly at odds with the rest of the film’s tone, less gothic, and more psychedelic. Later, the information in this scene only becomes important at the very end, making the scene seem an odd divergence. The moment Christina the Medium is dispatched by the Baron is a much better sequence. This leads into another chase scene, this one taking place in the woods and involving a little girl, that, while intermittently intense, also feels out of place. Basically, any time the movie moves away from the castle or the Baron himself, it falters.

Despite these down moments, the movie does have a great cast to keep it afloat. Elke Sommers, who seemed to assume the role of Bava’s muse in his later days, is quite good and stunningly beautiful if nothing else. Antonio Cantafora makes a convincing hero and Nicoletta Elma, who also played another strange little girl in Argento’s “Deep Red,” has some great moment. The show is stolen though by Joesph Cotton, another great American actor who slummed it in Euro-horror flicks late in his career. He hams it up, especially near the end. He reminds me a great deal of Vincent Price, in a role apparently originally meant for Price. His character’s true identity is obvious and the film makes no attempt to hide this. Cotton is so self-satisfied in his evil acts, joyously devious.

“Baron Blood” is not Mario Bava’s best film. The director seemed increasingly scatter-shot in his later years and developed some issues with pacing. However, “Baron Blood’s” best moments are so strong that it almost makes up for its shortcomings: a sluggish middle act and a cheap deux ex machina in the climax. It’s another film that could have used some tightening but Bava, nevertheless, brings his A-game. [Grade: B]

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