Written by – ANDREA RIZZO
To speak about Mario Bava in an objective way is no petty enterprise. A lot has been said of this great filmmaker who, perhaps more than anyone else, managed to give an evolutive push to the Italian cinema, showing without ostentation (but with a touch of genius nonetheless) how to make the infinite worlds fantasy is able to create emerge.
The label of “cinema artisan” that was attached to him is actually diminutive for an artist that made of his directing a poetry still recognized at a worldwide level, except for our “Bel Paese”. Bava has been, in fact, envied and exalted by the grandest directors for his mastery of creating, from scrap, tricks and optical effects that not even the greatest of conjurers would be able to reproduce.
In this sense, it is not wrong to compare his figure to one of his famous colleagues, which made of the cinema a perfect toy to express the need to go beyond the boring tangible reality, French Georges Melies.
Upon the 100th year after the birth of Mario Bava, it is interesting to make an excursus of his artistic path, of the genres by himself remodeled and revolutionized, of the innovations and the intuitions that made of him an undisputed master of the seventh art.
In spite of receiving little recognition in his homeland, Bava has been the father of the “gothic Italian horror”, a film genre only the Master could bring on with genuine poetry, even though with years passing he ended up repeating himself and caging himself in his own stylistics. With “Black Sunday”, each concept and structure of the classic film with gothic setting was revolutionized, bringing on the screen a story with palpable tension and with a gloomy, morbid atmosphere. He understood, with great acuity, that the principal element of a horror film is not the creation of frightening situations, nor of gory scenes (even though he has been the first to bring in movie theaters scenes with explicit violence), but had the intuition that each scene must be “lighted up” in the right way.
An example of masterful use of photography is “The Girl Who Knew Too Much”: with a flavor of Hitchcock, beginning with the title, it however takes its distance from the structure typical of the English master of chills, adding a touch of unforeseeable in the middle of the action, as in the final plot twist (which was then reused by Dario Argento in its prized Deep Red). It is here that Mario Bava “lights on the Sixties’ Rome like no one ever did before”.
Mario Bava wants more, nonetheless: he plays and has fun molding the image on the screen as he feels like, like a prankster god playing with the world he created. It is the case of the underestimated “Danger: Diabolik”, one of its best-realized films from an imaginative point of view. In spite of the film having commercial purposes, having been commissioned to him by Dino De Laurentis with a ridiculous budget, Bava managed to recreate inside of it hallucinatory scenographies via particular lenses that could make the depth of the field of view stand out, thus tricking the eye of the spectator.
Among other things, Bava gave birth to what nowadays is (sadly) defined cinecomix, an expedient of sort reused in his sci-fi horror “Planet of the Vampires”, in which Bava declares its love for the cinema of genre, without leaving behind the disturbing and claustrophobic situations typical of his style. We’re talking about a sci-fi film with alien zombies that, directed by his talented hands, could not be but a masterpiece. For its visionary genius, the film will strongly influence Ridley Scott when directing the illustrious “Alien”.
To be noted, also, different works set together by the “expressionist” use of color, that brings on an opus of innovation of the way to use lights and colored filters. “Blood and Black Lace”, “Lisa and the Devil”, “Kill, Baby, Kill”, “Black Sabbath” and the unloved “Five Dolls for an August Moon” bear an indelible and recognizable mark, a sort of firebrand of the director, in which lights and colors could negatively chip away the atmosphere, with a loss of scenic pathos; indeed, Bava plays with chiaroscuro, bestows vitality and fervor to the image, adds a “pop” touch typical of those years without making everything sickening.
It is in fact in the lighting, in his imaginative and “anarchic” camera movements, that Bava can express the peak of his creative estrus. It is necessary to locate all this in a situation characterized by suffocating cinematographic production, in which the “buona la prima” had to be the working dogma. Bava was the inventor of the genre that nowadays goes by the name of “slasher”, in which the assassin commits gory chain murders, which he shaped in the enlightening “Twitch of the Blood Nerve”. The structure of this film will then be reused by other famous American directors, such as Wes Craven and John Carpenter, who had always had the Italian director among their inspiration sources.
Another title that shows how much of an innovator Bava was, was “Rabid Dogs” (“Reservoir Dogs” from Tarantino does make a bell ring?), an on-the-road “poliziesco” with thriller shades.
During his career, Bava directed films that could not impose themselves among the numerous low budget productions of the time, however maintaining an authenticity of their own. We’re talking about “Le Spie Vengono dal Semifreddo”, “Hercules in the Haunted World”, “Roy Colt and Winchester Jack”: films that the Master directed because of marketing purposes, more than true inspiration.
And after all this writing and praising, what are we left with? His films. A hallucinating and psychedelic world, at the same time raw and violent, as a sort of warning that the Master wanted to give us: the world is beautiful under the sun, but its true nature is ruthless and defiled, and everyone tends remorselessly to their own personal survival.
Perhaps they are just speculations upon films that do not pretend to teach anything, and perhaps Bava never felt to call out human nature. Perhaps. But it is enough to watch another one of his films “e passa la paura”.