Spring has (mostly) sprung; the birds chirp and the salt coats the cars, so I thought we would look at a film that is light, frothy, and fills the lungs with the smell of blood-splattered pine cones and fresh water memories. I’m speaking of course about Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971), Mario Bava’s notorious ‘body count’ film that was ground zero for our beloved ‘80s slashers.
Why was it notorious? Well, this was not the elegant gothic tinged giallo audiences were expecting from the master of such; in fact the gritty and unpleasant shocker threw a lot of critics for a loop when it splashed across the screen first as Bay of Blood in Italy. Stateside it was picked up by Hallmark Releasing Corporation and renamed Carnage; when that didn’t play, they called it Twitch, which is the default moniker it goes by. Unless you have A Bay of Blood release. Or just Bay of Blood. Let’s not forget Ecology of a Crime, Bae of Blood, Chain Reaction, Blood Bath, Bloodbath Bay of Death, and Last House on the Left II. These are just the English titles, and don’t worry, there will not be a test later.
Why so many handles? Was Twitch on the lamb from the authorities? Well, as beloved as it is now, for the longest time it was considered the black sheep, an outlier, of a somewhat classy and respected resume. This was not the pristine horror that reveled in the baroque through beautiful eyes.
Twitch is none of these things; instead, Bava offers up a quickly shot, low budget Outdoorsman’s Guide to Slaughter, with 13 kills executed with gory glee by Carlo Rambaldi (Alien). This isn’t to say it’s not stylishly made (how could he do otherwise?), but this is Bava working on instinct and just looking to have some ghoulish fun.
Have I mentioned the story yet? I guess not. (Avoidance, perhaps?) It’s a corker. We open at a lovely bayside estate, where a wealthy, wheelchair bound woman sits and admires the view. Before she can even wheel around, a noose is placed upon her head and her chair released, causing her to hang, ever so low. Who did it? Her husband, of course; he sets down a suicide note by her nightstand, but before he can put the pen down is stabbed to death in the back.
We then meet a real estate investor and his girlfriend, who were in the process of trying to buy the bayside estate – but they find out the matriarch is now dead, so he sets off to get the necessary signature from the master of the house. (We know he’s dead, everyone else just knows he’s missing.) Meanwhile back at Destination Death, we’re introduced to several characters that will (perhaps) provide fodder for the movie gods: a handyman, a retired entomologist and his wife who live on the property, the matriarch’s estranged daughter and her husband, and some lascivious padding in the form of four partying free spirits who trespass and crash in a dilapidated part of the estate. Before you can say 13 Little Indians everyone starts dropping like lakeside horseflies in a futile quest to take over the estate. But the question is, will anyone survive to claim it?
Twitch of the Death Nerve is an Agatha Christie drawing room whodunit with plastic wrap covering all the furniture; it gets way messier than anything Hercules Poirot ever encountered. And even he would become exasperated trying to solve this case – everyone is a red herring and a potential victim.
This is part of the ample charm of Twitch, however; it isn’t so much that the entire cast is laid out by the end, it’s the absurdity of the mechanisms that has them arrive at their inevitable demise. I’ve seen this film a few times, and I always have to check off a scorecard to keep track of all the deception and back stabbing (figuratively and literally). Bava and co-writers Guiseppe Zaccariello and Filippo Ottoni (with uncredited work by Laura Betti, Sergio Canevari, and Franco Vanorio) seem to be playing a giddy game of Telephone, adding on to and morphing a laundry list of lies and triple crosses. And surprisingly, it makes sense, if only from a blurry and cock-eyed view.
But for graphic horror fans, Bava had liberated himself from the cobwebs and ghostly visages for something decidedly more earth bound, in an era where realism was taking root in macabre cinema. Twitch is very visceral, from glorious beheadings to stabbings and much phallic piercing (including, but not limited to, a double whammy that Friday the 13th Part 2 lifted wholesale), made all the more effective by his decision to shoot the film himself – there’s an urgency to his work behind the camera, with less of his noted composition, more roaming, and killer POV’s that again, would be co-opted later in that decade and on to the next.
But at the end of the day, Twitch of the Death Nerve is a dark comedy about man’s basest impulses, especially greed; as we know, it almost always leads to murder. Or in this case, murders. So, so many murders. Campers, this is where you sign up for slasher registration.
Twitch of the Death Nerve is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber and Arrow Video, both as A Bay of Blood. But Twitch is the best title, so there.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE MEDUSA TOUCH (1978)