The absolute nucleus, the atomic chain of Italian horror begins with Mario Bava. Filmmakers from Scorcese to Tarantino have praised the lurid, awe-inspiring artistry (and artwork) of such classics as Black Sabbath (1963) and Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971). However, Kill, Baby, Kill(1966) may be his crowning achievement, a fever dream of shadows and fog, illusion and menace.
Released in July in his native Italy (but not until 1968 in North America), Kill was a financial success back home. Bava was very prolific, with Kill being his ninth film in six years. This is all the more shocking, because his films don’t scream ‘rush job’, but rather seem meticulously planned and executed.
Kill falls right in line with the horror of the day, gothic du jour, served steamy and sensuous. Beautiful women (usually in low clingy bodices) swooning and/or screaming, usually pursued through a dark and gloomy castle by some evil doctor, scientist, or vampire. Possibly an evil vampire scientist. Bava’s gothic gauge was calibrated differently however – a lot of strong, independent, even ferocious women traipsed through his cobwebbed corridors of castles and villages alike.
The story, straightforward and sinister, goes like this: Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart - Last Man on Earth) is called to a tiny village to do an autopsy on an unfortunate girl who was practicing acupuncture on a nearby fence. Everyone in the village is terrified to speak to the doctor, afraid to tell him what is going on, lest they be punished by an unseen (to him) force that threatens to tear the village apart. When returning villager Monica (Erika Blanc – Mark of the Devil 2) helps Dr. Paul, they discover witchcraft, revenge, and one very naughty little ghost of a girl are responsible for the ever growing pile of corpses. Italian horror means never having to say sorry for a high body count.
Mario Bava started out as a cinematographer, and there will never be a better set of eyes in the world of horror. Almost every scene in this film could be a screen saver – beautifully framed, with eye popping primaries bleeding through the screen. Browns and reds duel with blues to create an otherworldly tapestry of cacophonic color that disorients the viewer with unease much the same as the fear that permeates the poor villagers. Hats off to cinematographer Antonio Rinaldi for seeing Bava’s vision through the same blood soaked lens. This is a gorgeous looking film – no less can be expected (and accepted) from Bava.
Several ideas at play in Kill mutated and manifested into iconic horror moments. For instance, Danny Glick’s window serenade in ‘Salem’s Lot (1979) is directly inspired by the ghostly girl Melissa taunting the villagers outside their windows, her hands caressing the pane as fog dances all around. It’s striking imagery, a totemistic trope passed down that never fails to terrorize. The card of science versus the supernatural is played, Dr. Paul looking for logic and reason in the murders when there is only disbelief and disingenuity. This theme has rippled throughout the horror timeline in such horror landmarks as The Exorcist (1973) and well, every haunted house film that pits tactile against intangible, and reason against insanity. Vengeance rears its ugly head here as well, as a mother seeks to avenge her daughter’s death at the hands of the drunk, negligent villagers. And while Mrs. Vorhees, I mean Baroness Grap, has a hand in the murders, it’s her dear departed Melissa ultimately responsible for the slaughter. J-Horror ‘s fascination with relentless rascals hell bent on revenge clearly has been influenced by Bava’s giggling, ghostly little waif.
The performances are effective in conveying the moonlit mayhem, and importantly, the dubbing is simpatico with the feel of the film. In Italian horror the English dubbed acting is sometimes heightened to the point of distraction. Here, the dubbing is modulated and compliments the actors quite nicely. Usually visuals rule in Italian horror but Bava always manages to pull out sympathetic performances from his cast.
The violence is more implied than portrayed, which always works as there are great reveals and sleight of hand on display. When Bava does pull out the red stuff, however, he’s never shy about it.
Carlo Rustichelli’s hip, romantic orchestral score accompanies the fog enshrouded phantasy from the first dusk to the final dawn beautifully, conveying longing, terror and remorse. It is a lovely, tragic piece of work.
Kill, Baby, Kill (a hep title for the times, daddy-o) has lost none of its power over the years. The spell it has cast will endure, as long as shadows and fog continue to fill our dreams. And now, please excuse me, as there is a tapping at my window...
Kill, Baby, Kill is available on DVD from Anchor Bay as part of the Mario Bava Collection Vol. 1Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: WESTWORLD