No discussion of Italian cinema should be conducted without making reference to one of its most legendary artists, The “Maestro of the Macabre” Mario Bava.
Bava, the son of a special effects maker, worked in the Italian film industry as a cinematographer throughout the 1950’s. Bava’s hard work, artistic flair and talent for composition eventually earned him a place in the director’s chair, and he would become one of the country’s premier film-makers for the next two decades.
Bava’s films are characterised by their luscious beauty, unsettling photography and vivid use of colour and light. Best known for his work in the horror genre, his sinister and lurid pictures would inspire many movies of the late 70’s horror boom. Celebrated auteurs, including Scorsese, Tarantino and Dario Argento have credited Mario as an influence, and today, 35 years after his passing, that influence is still visible in many contemporary horror films that choose visual splendour over cheap jump-scares.
Though it’s difficult to select just five films from his solid body of work, listed below are the movies that represent the trademark style of Bava’s nightmarish fantasies (as well as his penchant for the words “Black” and “Blood”)
Black Sunday (1960)
One of Bava’s earliest directorial films is among his most recognised. Black Sunday is a gothic classic, and tells the story of a Moldavian witch, burned at the stake, who returns to exact cruel revenge on the her executioners’ descendants.
Bava uses black & white photography to his advantage to create a frightening atmosphere of light and shadow. Doom pervades every shot and malice seeps from every crevice. The beautiful Barbara Steele plays a dual-role, and embodies the witch Asa with unnerving satanic glee. Banned in the UK on release, Black Sunday was unleashed in the same summer of Hitchcock’s Psycho, with the two films declaring a statement of intent that the horror landscape would be changing forever. Black Sunday put Bava on the map, and remains his most critically acclaimed film.
Bay of Blood (1971)
The grandfather of every “bodycount” picture you’ve ever seen. Conceptually groundbreaking, Bay of Blood has a group of detestable human beings slaughtering each other at the worst family reunion ever, all over ownership rights to a piss-poor piece of land and some shitty lake.
Featuring beautiful girls, skinny-dipping teenagers, bizarre plot twists and crazy kills, all set against the backdrop of a menacing woodland, Bay of Blood would set the precedent for the hundreds of campside slashers and teenage wastelands to follow.
The film was also released under a barrage of alternate titles, including Twitch of the Death Nerve, Blood Bath, Carnage and even Last House on the Left II.
Rabid Dogs (1974)
A nihilistic and claustrophobic movie. Rabid Dogs was Bava’s final film and his personal entry in the Eurocrimi sub-genre. A home invasion flick set in a tiny Italian car, Dogs sees a trio of armed robbers hijack the vehicle with two hostages and a sickly child. What follows is a sleazy, violent and very, very sweaty summer drive through the countryside, as the occupants of cinema’s cutest deathwagon play cat-and-mouse games to survive the perilous situation, and each other. The film is relentless, and an unwavering assault on the senses.
Rabid Dogs remained incomplete until Mario’s son Lamberto sellotaped the available footage together in 1998. In 2014 it was finally released in a fully restored director’s cut.
Black Sabbath (1963)
Considered by some to be Bava’s masterpiece, Black Sabbath is an anthology of three sinister tales of the supernatural. The Telephone sees a young woman menaced by a caller whilst alone at home. The Wurdulak is a gothic story of vampirism set in 19th century Russia, and showstopper The Drop of Water has a spiteful nurse receive comeuppance from beyond the grave.
Featuring an international cast, including Boris Karloff, and with a dizzying style and grotesquely beautiful palette of colour, Black Sabbath saw solid success and has become a cult favourite. Today, the stories are a little predictable and The Telephone doesn’t play as well as it once may have, but there’s still no denying the artistry and technical brilliance on display.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
A gorgeous (gore-geous?) lurid and standard-setting slasher, Black Lace is one of Bava’s classiest films. The bodies start to mount at a couture fashion house, where a team of models and designers attempt to keep their darkest secrets under wraps, whilst a faceless killer stalks them all in scenes of taut suspense and grisly murder.
Elements of the film can be seen in almost every slasher picture made since, particularly in the giallo genre. Featuring masterful use of colour and light, an industry-changing attitude toward violence, and fearful set photography, Blood and Black Lace is a must-see for all horror fans and budding film-makers.
The above films are all available in the UK on Blu-ray.
Kill, Baby, Kill (1965)
Planet of the Vampires (1966)
Danger: Diabolik (1968)
Baron Blood (1972)