Posts Tagged ‘Mario Bava’

Movie Reviews 439 – The Whip and the Body (1963)

June 26, 2020

I’ve been inordinately busy the last while and had to severely curtail my usual movie viewing habits to just one or two films a week so I decided to treat myself to the equivalent of a “sure thing”, a viewing of a Mario Bava film I have never seen before.

La Frusta e il Corpo has a few surprises, the first being the many alternate English titles it was released under. Mainly found as The Whip and the Body you can also find it as “The Whip and the Flesh”, “Night is the Phantom”, and, most bizarrely, titled simply as “What”. One smaller surprise is the appearance of star Christopher Lee, or should I say not his inclusion but his hairstyle. I’ve never seen him with a plain, side part cut and I actually had to take a double, even triple, take before I was satisfied it was really him I was seeing. But fans of Lee will be delighted to learn that his role is satisfyingly evil and right at home as he plays the part of Victorian era pariah in this multi-layered, dysfunctional family horror drama.

The emphasis on romance, spurned, feigned, hidden, and even violent, is evident with the seductive score from the very first few notes. Kurt (Lee), the outcast son of a elderly Count, returns to the family’s seaside castle to reclaim the entitlements he lost when he was disowned by his father. As it so happens one of the things he lost was the love of Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) recently wed to Kurt’s straight laced brother Christian (Tony Kendall).

Kurt meets up with Nevenka on the beach below the castle cliff and tries to seduce and rekindle her love for him. In doing so he viciously whips the sadomasochistic loving Nevenka as the surf crashes and her screams fade into the night. Despised and unwelcome by all, Kurt becomes the focal suspect when Nevenka fails to return that night. Not only is Kurt a scoundrel, but the very reason he was turned away in the first place was his role in the suicide death of the daughter of the Count’s servant. That girl’s memory is enshrined in a glass case containing a solitary rose and the dagger she used to commit her final deed.

Nevenka is found the following day on the beach, still alive but shaken and that night the very same dagger is used by someone to kill Kurt in his darkened room. The suspects include nearly everybody from Kurt’s dying father, his jealous brother, the servant mother of the girl who killed herself and even his brother’s mistress, his cousin Katia. But apparitions of Kurt and the fact that the dagger used to kill him inexplicably was the one encased point to a supernatural influence at play and even suspicions that Kurt is one of the ‘un-dead’.

While this is clearly a lurid tale with Bava’s signature kaleidoscopic color palette to match, the sexuality is rather surprisingly tame, relying on hints and suggestive dialogue. The film straddles being a Gothic horror and a whodunit mystery with just enough to satisfy both audiences. Many elements such as the seemingly incessant howling winds, slowly turning door handles, muddy boot prints and a swivelling fireplace work well for either genre. All in all, another solid Bava oeuvre.

My DVD from VCI Entertainment features a restored, uncut European version that includes the infamous beach scene (often censored), but oddly retains Bava’s directorial credit listed as pseudonym John M. Old and has opening credits that are a mix of English and Italian. Another peculiarity I’ve never seen before for such a short feature, a mere 88 minutes, is the film being needlessly segmented as Part One and Part Two. I’m sure there is a story behind all these weird aspects of this cut, but sadly the only Special Feature on the DVD was a commentary track by a critic and no separate interviews or featurettes.

Movie Reviews 410 – Shock (1977)

October 11, 2019

In the mood for a vintage giallo this week I perused my movie library and was happy to find Shock (original Italian title Schock and released in North America as Beyond the Door II) by none other than director Mario Bava, the patriarch of the giallo maestro triumvirate (the others being Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci of course). Sadly this, one of his last films, was mediocre at best, and nothing comparable to any of his classics such as Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, or even the quirky Sci-Fi horror Planet of the Vampires. This despite the contribution of Daria Nicolodi in the starring role.

As a young family is moving into a house we sense that the wife Dora (Nicolodi) who seems quite familiar with the place is nonetheless not happy about the move. We soon learn that this is because she once lived there with her former husband Claudio, now deceased. Her distress is more than just a reminder of Claudio, but an actual apprehension of the house harboring some malevolent entity. Moving back in was her new husband Bruno’s (John Steiner) idea, one she only reluctantly accepted.

Their young son Marco (David Colin Jr.) seems quite taken with the house, especially the cellar and Dora can at least enjoy his amusement. That is until he starts muttering things like “Pigs, pigs, PIGS!” when his parents engage in any hanky-panky, or when he innocently tells his mom “Momma, I have to kill you”. But Dora’s worries are not confined to her son’s sudden odd behaviour. She starts seeing floating drawings, a razor laced piano playing by itself and even learns that Bruno, a pilot, briefly lost complete control of the plane he was flying at the same time Marco was having a psychotic episode at home. All her torment seems to be related to her troubled past husband who was a drug addict before he disappeared. But what exactly were the circumstances of that disappearance?

While there is a decent payoff when we learn the truth of what happened, the reliance on cheap scares and the wavering between Dora being insane and imagining all these events or Marco really being possessed gets stale fairly quick. Putting all the clues together it isn’t really all that hard to see where things end up going, at least in the big picture sense. However some of the details of the ‘big reveal’ were surprising.

Rating the movie itself I would have to say that it is more for die hard giallo fans than for casual horror lovers. My Blue Underground DVD did include a number of features that were somewhat interesting, the main one being an older Bava interview. A second interview where son Lamberto Bava describes working on the production and learning ‘the chops’ (literally and figuratively) was fascinating in that we know he was on his way to becoming a respected director himself, eventually directing the classic Demons.

Movie Reviews 392 – Danger: Diabolik (1968)

May 17, 2019

Some of you may recall my review of Les Diaboliques the magnificent French thriller by director Henri-Georges Clouzot starring Simone Signoret. That film had it all. Dynamic performances. European easygoing, yet thought provoking pace which at the same time delivers a nerve-wracking murder plot.  A love triangle with a unique feminist twist. In a nutshell a groundbreaking classic.

Well the similarly titled Danger: Diabolik has none of that. And yet…

Sculpted from a completely different cinematic mold, this Italian production based on a fumetti (Italian term for comics) was brought to us by Dino De Laurentiis, the man who also produced  such campy fare as Flash Gordon, Conan the Destroyer, King Kong (the World Trade Center version), and notably in this case Barbarella. In the right hands, in this case being director Mario Bava, the patriarch of Italian horror cinema (Black Sabbath, Black Sunday and Planet of the Vampires), this cult-favorite anti-hero is faithfully transformed from print to screen without losing any of the outlandish premise, characterizations or artistry of the source material.

Thwarted by every attempt to capture him, Diabolik (John Phillip Law) and his statuesque sidekick Eva (Marisa Mell) stage elaborate high priced crimes across the land much to the chagrin of police inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) who also has to placate the politicians (one being everyone’s favorite gap-toothed comedian Terry Thomas) as he tries to apprend the headline grabbing foe. As Diabolik keeps one step ahead of each trap set – and making off with the bait – Ginko turns to another criminal, mobster Valmont (Adolfo Celi, the eye patched SPECTRE agent in Thunderball) to help him by capturing Eva. But one daring plane jump and a few theatrics later (including death itself) Diabolic and Eva are reunited only to fall for Ginko’s surprise backup plan. But does a molten gold body cast really spell the end of Diabolik?

Part Austin Powers with all the James Bond gadgetry, part Phantom of the Paradise, Bava’s colorful cinematography and use of fisheye lenses delivers an action packed story with all the rampant zaniness of the 60’s wrapped in the flamboyant fashion of the times. Speaking of the cinematography, comic readers will recognize how the framing of many shots in the film are indicative of comic panels, sometimes in the most clever ways. Aside from Andy Warhol zeitgeist, viewers will revel in Diabolik’s secret, subterranean lair, second  only to the Batcave. One thing that you probably could not pull off today is the concept of a sympathetic terrorist, but during the counterculture movement, this was palatable to a degree. All this and a music score by maestro Ennio Morricone to boot!

My Paramount DVD contained an exceptional special feature documentary in which comic artist, Stephen Bissette (clearly a huge fan of the film and original comic) presents many details that went into the adaptation, in some cases from original panel to scenes. And you have to check out the Beastie Boys Body Movin’ hommage video track.

Movie Reviews 273 – Planet of the Vampires (1965)

October 12, 2016

planet-of-the-vampires

Italian director Mario Bava will always best be remembered by his horror classics (Black Sunday, Black Sabbath) and his giallo movies (Blood and Black Lace).  But he also made an impression with Planet of the Vampires, an offbeat SF cult favorite featuring a cast of finely coiffed actors that would be just as well suited to parade a catwalk in Paris or make the cover of GQ.

Our tight leather wearing space farers are part of a two ship team of explorers set on determining the origin of a mysterious signal emanating from a volcanic planet. There they encounter a mind controlling race of aliens who have been seeking a means of escaping their planet and dying solar system. The aliens use their mind control to pit the newcomers against themselves and also to resurrect the bodies of the dead once killed by their peers. The newcomers even find evidence of this tactic in the forms of the skeletal remains of another giant humanoid race that also evidently fell for the beacon trap. If this sounds familiar it is because this is essentially the same plot as James Cameron’s Alien, only this was filmed a dozen years earlier and on a much skimpier budget. And in Italian.

Once the intentions of the mind controlling aliens has been divulged a silly game of cat-and-mouse is played out as the aliens and crew fight over a “Meteor Rejector” needed to safely escape the planet. I couldn’t help thinking about Marvin the Martian every time I heard “Meteor Rejector”. In the end the ship does escape but there is a great twist ending that salvages much of the puerile cliché “Our sun is dying and we need to escape” plot.

Visually Terrore Nello Spazio’s (Italian title) cinematography is a kaleidoscope of bright primary colors that is sure to please. Some odd choices in filming (excluding the aforementioned tight leather space suits) are fight scenes that are both perceptively sped up and slowed down for effect. Scant on special effects, the few that are there are decent enough.

Notably, Ib Melchior writer of the underrated Robinson Crusoe on Mars and the overrated The Angry Red Planet co-wrote the screenplay. Overall, this is your average American International, B grade movie. I just wish they’d muss up the perfect doos at least in the fight scenes. I was rooting for the evil aliens for that fact alone.

Movie Reviews 200 – Black Sabbath (1963)

November 23, 2014

Black SabbathCelebrating my 200th movie review, I thought it only fitting that I spotlight a special movie. So I chose 1963’s Black Sabbath from the patriarch of Italian Horror cinema, Mario Bava and featuring none other than Boris Karloff in his last hurrah before churning out mostly mediocre fare in his final years.

Not to be confused with the Heavy Metal band showcasing Ozzie Osbourne and his crew of misfit bangers who adopted the group name in homage to the english release, the original Italian version bore the title “I Tre Volti Della Paura” (which translates as “Three Faces of Fear”).

The movie is a three set anthology, a format not particularly unusual for horror movies at the time and a joint venture with Amicus films, who basically provided Karloff’s services to Galatea films in Italy. My DVD (from the Mario Bava Collection set) only had subtitles, so I’m not sure if a dubbed version is available, but don’t let that stop you. In fact hearing Boris speaking  Italian is almost worth it alone.

The  first piece is “The Telephone”, about a woman living alone and terrorized by a caller who seems to know her every move in her apartment. We soon deduce that a man she once helped imprison has just been released and she frantically calls one of her older friends with whom she had some sort of falling out years ago. The suspense grows as we learn the true nature of the events surrounding the characters, but even so, the ending comes as a surprise. The European flavour is most evident in this story with brazen sexuality from the very first scene featuring Michèle Mercier disrobing as she arrives home and then bordering on the taboo as the story progresses.

The centerpiece “The Wurdulak” is the story starring Karloff as the patriarch of a 19th Century Russian peasant family in a town who seems resigned to the fate of a local legendary vampire-like curse. As a noble visitor named Vladimir (Mark Damon)  takes refuge in the home of one family after finding a knife embedded in a headless body, he learns the tale of the curse of the Wurdulak. The grandfather Gorca (Karloff), has left to battle to Wurdulak and has ordered the family that if he does not return before midnight, he is not to be let back in, as by then he will have succumbed to the beast and as a ‘walking cadaver’ himself, he will pounce upon the next person he loves most. The family is indecisive as Gorca returns seconds after the stroke of midnight and starts behaving strangely. Vladimir has fallen for the young and beautiful Sdenka (Susy Andersen) but first the family has to figure what to make of Gorca’s sudden interest in his young grandson and the fact that the knife Vladimir found was Gorca’s.

Easily the best of the three stories (although all are powerful), the colors are lavish and bold throughout, with scenes saturated in reds, greens, blues and yellows. The movie poster says it all.

The final story, “The Drop of Water” is about a caretaker (Jacqueline Pierreux) who is called upon when one of her elderly patients has passed away late one night and takes the opportunity to pilfer one of the dead woman’s rings. She is of course haunted by the ghost of the old woman sporting a freakish death mask like you’ve never seen before. Her haunting is exemplified by the sound of dripping water and a pestering fly, both of which were present at the time of her crime.

Simply a masterful anthology that rivals anything from Hammer or other Amicus productions and one of the best Bava directorial outings rivaled only perhaps by Black Sunday.