According to Wikipedia, the IMDb and others, Mario Bava was born on July 31, 1914, but Tim Lucas, author of the definitive Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, has posted his “Felice ‘Centi,’ Maestro!” entry today. So that’s what we’re going with. Regardless, we could spend all week celebrating the 100th anniversary, and in fact, the Mario Bava Centennial retrospective has been on at the AFI Silver Theatre in Maryland since July 4 and will run on through September 17.
And as we read there, the cinematographer-turned-director, who died in 1980 at the age of 65, is, “one of the most influential visual stylists of late-20th century cinema. Although working exclusively in Italian genre cinema—most famously gothic horror, but also giallo thrillers, swinging ’60s spy spoofs and crime capers, sci-fi/fantasy spectacles, spaghetti Westerns and sword & sandal epics—his stylish visuals and aesthetic sensibility (even after becoming a full-fledged director, he continued to oversee his own cinematography) have been cited by celebrated auteur filmmakers including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino.”
“Bava turned 1960’s Black Sunday into an experience akin to wandering into someone else’s nightmare,” wrote Keith Phipps at the AV Club in 2007. “The shadow-drenched, black-and-white film is ostensibly a gothic tale of vampires and witches, but the lurid, overheated, sexually charged, and (for its time) graphically violent images soon overwhelm the plot, suggesting what might have happened if Val Lewton and Alfred Hitchcock had ever teamed up.” And as Gary Johnson noted in Images in 2009, “Black Sunday served as our introduction to one of the crucial icons of Italian horror: the face of Barbara Steele.”
“Definitely one of the high points in Italo horror is Bava’s Black Sabbath,” writes DVD Savant Glenn Erickson. By 1963, “professionals that had respected Bava’s camera and special effects work now saw him as a director of high quality. As documented so thoroughly by Tim Lucas, even director Federico Fellini was deeply influenced by Bava’s haunted visions.”
“As I edited clips from Blood and Black Lace and The Whip and the Flesh,” wrote Kevin B. Lee last year of two films also made in 1963, “the danger and sexiness of Bava’s cinema kept bringing to mind the music of The Weeknd, one of my favorite acts of the moment.”
“The Whip and the Body is a gothic horror fantasy that finds Bava at the peak of his visual prowess,” wrote Slant‘s Ed Gonzalez in 2001. “What with its captivating lighting schemes, ghostly death sequences and lurid compositions (passageways are downright vaginal), it’s no wonder that Bava’s fetishistic film has attained cult status.”
Jerry Renshaw for the Austin Chronicle some time back on Blood and Black Lace: “The high-fashion setting complements his stylistic flourishes, many of which will be recognized by fans of shock director Dario Argento, who has cited Bava as an influence. The black-gloved masked killer also became an Argento staple, though the plot of Blood and Black Lace is much more linear, without Argento’s wild, dreamlike leaps of logic and self-referential asides.”
J Hurtado at Twitch on Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970): “[Stephen] Forsyth‘s over the top performance, Bava’s impeccable direction, and the fantastic art design of the film combine to create a fun giallo to rival the best of the genre.”
Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) “is a veritable catalog of Italian pop style of the period, all lovingly rendered with Sirkian lighting and gorgeous compositions,” writes Bright Lights editor Gary Morris. “The story is a shameless lift of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians—this time it’s some nonsense about people being killed off over a ‘million-dollar formula.’ But really, it’s just an excuse to feature unbelievable architecture, décor, wigs, and furniture.
For Kevin B. Lee, Five Dolls is “an uncharacteristically loose but revealing work with distinct charms all its own.”
“Despite being one of Bava’s simpler works,” writes Wes Greene for Slant, “or perhaps because of that very reason, A Bay of Blood has proven to be the foremost progenitor of the slasher film, the one in which the Jason Voorheeses and Ghostfaces owe their blade of choice to. But it’s only the basic tenor of a psychopath slaying victims one by one that’s remained intact within the subgenre in the 40-plus years of this film’s existence. It’s in this film’s elementary plotting that Bava, by withholding information and leaning more on animalistic themes dictating bizarre character motivation, unveils a deceptive depth that A Bay of Blood‘s acolytes can’t discern among the copious amounts of blood spilled within its frames.”
“Mario Bava’s 1972 film Baron Blood was a surprise hit that bought him the opportunity to make 1974’s Lisa and the Devil, a movie that went virtually unreleased at the time,” writes David Cairns for Electric Sheep. “Ironically, the latter film’s reputation as a baroque, surreal masterpiece has now entirely eclipsed the former’s more modest and conventional virtues, but both films should give pleasure of some kind to horror aficionados…. As always with Bava, the photography and special effects [in Baron Blood] do conjure up some memorably lurid and exotic imagery, and if this isn’t his most enthusiastic job, it’s still a fascinating late work: one could say that while this film acts as a compendium of his influences in the horror genre, its spicier follow-up serves as a summation of his personal obsessions.”
With Kidnapped, aka Rabid Dogs (1974), we return to Tim Lucas, who, writing for Images, suggests that it “is to Bava’s career what Detour (1945) is to the filmography of Edgar G. Ulmer, a minimalist noir masterpiece that shows how much drama he was capable of conjuring onscreen with little or no means. In fact, Bava had far less to work with than Ulmer.” Kidnapped‘s “compositions often have a dynamism that suggests comic book art…. Without a doubt, had Rabid Dogs been completed and released in 1976, it would have been recognized as one of the best Italian crime pictures of the ’70s, and might have given Bava’s career a new lease on life—but such a success would have been inconsistent with a career inexorably tied to death and irony.”
In the doc embedded below, Joe Dante, Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton, John Landis, Roger Corman and others talk about Mario Bava—in English; the rest is in Italian, but still:
Suggestions for further reading. Sam Ishii-Gonzales‘s entry on Bava in the Senses of Cinema “Great Directors” database and, at Images, “Mario Bava: The Illusion of Reality” by Alain Silver and James Ursini and “The Golden Age of Italian Horror, c. 1957-1979” by Gary Johnson. And here in Keyframe, Dennis Harvey has written about Bava twice.
Listening (64’49”). A couple of weeks ago, we pointed to an episode of The Projection Booth featuring Troy Howarth, author of The Haunted World of Mario Bava, talking about Planet of the Vampires (1965).
Update, 8/1: “Bava has long been one of my favorite filmmakers so I couldn’t let this important anniversary pass without acknowledging his artistry,” writes Kimberley Lindbergs at Movie Morlocks, where she’s posted a series of some of her favorite images from Bava’s films.