Let me first talk about why I use the term “underdog” in describing a rather prolific and respected Italian-horror director, because many of you might already be saying, “Hey, Mario is not underrated! How can you make a bold claim such as that?” Well, I did and I have my reasons. When a critic discusses Italian-Horror or if anyone discusses it for that matter, we already have preconceived notions as to what that is. I would see the poster for Opera or the cover art for Deep Red pop up in the back of my brain, not anything by Mario Bava. The big names like Agento and Fulci seem to dominate the discussions and most articles (not that it’s a bad thing), so I wanted to write about someone different and not talk about his biggest movies either. Bava is probably (my opinion) most known for his iconic film Black Sunday (1960 film, not the one about the stadium in the 70s) which is considered one of the more influential early horror films. So I won’t be covering that but a couple of other films in his catalog that might not be as well known or popular.
Mario Bava was born in Sanremo, Liguria, Italy in 1914 to a father who was a sculptor and involved with the movie business himself. Mario at first wanted to be a painter and tried to make revenue off of his work but was unsuccessful. Giving up his initial dreams, Mario went to work with his father in the movie business by becoming a cinematographer which he did a phenomenal job at. After being a cinematographer for about 30 films, he made his directorial debut with I Vampiri, which is (you guessed it) about a vampire (of sorts). From 1959 to 1979, Bava directed a large portfolio of films that influenced many American directors and even fellow Italian directors. Though he was extremely prolific, Bava never got the “mainstream” success like Agento or Fulci. Mario Bava died at the age of 65 in 1980 of a heart attack, a few days before Hitchcock let the curtains close on his own life. Bava made plenty of weird and entertaining films because he wouldn’t compromise his artistic style, which is evident in the selection of movies I was able to watch. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Black Sabbath (1963)
This title may lean a little more towards a film that you may know or even seen, but it’s a great flick that combines three separate stories all introduced by that old fiend, Boris Karloff. The first story is entitled “A Drop of Water” which involves a young nurse who steals a ring off the hand of a dead woman. This “dead woman” happened to be a medium and cursed her body incase people grave robbed her. The dead woman then haunts the nurse with some of the most frightening imagery out there. It may look a little dated now but it’s still creepy, her dead body has this weird doll appearance and I don’t do well with dolls.
The second tale called “The Telephone” tells the story of a young widow who keeps getting phone calls in her house one night. At first there is no one on the other end but after awhile the voice of her dead husband is speaking telling her to disrobe and also about how he knows that she was the one who put him away. It is a rather boring entry to the anthology and probably the weakest of all the stories. Anything with telephones (outside of Scream) tend to not do anything for me, it can just be rather annoying. I find it bothersome in this entry, it is just my least favorite.
The last story is called “Wurdalak” and stars the same man who introduces all the stories, Mr. Boris Karloff. A lone man comes across a house in a snowstorm and asks to stay. The owner of the house is said to be back soon and all the help are nervous at his impending arrival. The lord of the manor is played by Boris Karloff and when he comes back home in the middle of the night from a long adventure, it’s apparent that he has been turned into a vampire. Everyone at some point becomes infected and it develops into a story of eternal love between the lone man and the lord’s daughter, who actively become vampires in order to be with each other.
I love anthologies because the stories tend to be just long enough for me to care and if you don’t like one, no worries, another will play soon. Bava was able to present his cinematic surrealism through these stories as well with long shots and fast zoom-ins. A classic by every means, this is a film that you want to see if you just want the tip of the Bava-ian iceberg.
Planet of Vampires (1965)
Do you like old school Sci-Fi? Do you like old school vampires? Do you want them in the same movie!? I am guessing you answered “yes” to all of those because well, who wouldn’t? Combining two genres and making an enjoyable twist on something that was played out a decade before (the Flash Gordon years), Bava was able to take an established market and throw his own style into it. The vampires don’t really look like vampires, they (the vampires) just use the human body as a vessel to do their own work, yet there is zero indication as to what makes them a vampire aesthetically. The ending is fantastic because you believe that the characters got out alright and everything is copasetic but it turns out that the two crew members who you were rooting for are vampires themselves. The last scene has the two anti-heroes heading towards earth in which we assume they will take it over with their supreme intelligence and utter deception. I really enjoy those old cheesy yet endearing sci-fi films, so this one was a blast but with an already rather short run time, Bava used most of those minutes with shots that took too long before cutting. It’s a wonderful cheese fest of a film that would great on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966)
This title is probably the most different of all the examples on my list and though it stars Vincent Price, it does not attribute any real “horror” qualities. It is a spy-spoof film that makes fun of the genre films of its time but mostly attacks the likes of James Bond. Though it is a sequel, they provide enough information in the beginning that this can act as a stand-alone film. Consisting of mostly physical gags and comedic one liners, it plays more closely to the humor of the Pink Panther series. The main gist of the story is that you have the evil Dr. Goldfoot (Vincent Price) who created these robotic women to blow up when kissed by specific NATO generals. Goldfoot’s plan is to create chaos and start World War III by instigating nuclear war. Of course his plans are thwarted by the bumbling main protagonist who gets by with his good looks and moral agenda. Probably my least favorite film that I had to watch on my list, which is mostly due to me not particularly caring for slapstick humor but it’s a great time nonetheless.
The most Italian-horror-genre film on this list, it plays more closely to the work of someone like Agento (who was a good friend of Bavas) and maybe Bava felt the need to start pushing himself into that market. Unfortunately this is the last film of Bava’s before his somewhat early death and from what is seen in this film, he might have been getting in the groove of what really worked for him. A family moves back into a house in which the mother previously lived with her now-dead husband. Her new husband is trying to help her get along after she had a long bout with heroin addiction. Soon creepy things start happening in the house and the dead father is channeling his spirit through the young boy. Turns out, the mother murdered the husband after a drug induced fit and he wants revenge. Creepy zombie hands are prevalent as well as some good gore. The mother has a great scene in the end in which she slits her own throat out of guilt for fully accepting what she did, and it’s believable too. It’s just a straight up weird haunted house story with that Italian feel and the moments of intense violence. Bava was really beginning to find out who he was as a director at this point. Sadly, he died a couple of years later.
There you are a brief look at Bava and some of his lesser known films. Even the movies that were not horror related or directly horror related still contained that surreal style that is prevalent in Italian Horror films. He creates the feeling that it’s a dream or that you are watching a parallel universe that only happens when we sleep. Bava might not have been the biggest name out there and probably not talked about as often but he was cinematic master and is worthy of a few minutes of your time.