July 31 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of director Mario Bava. If this means something to you, feel free to skip the rest of this blog. If the name is unfamiliar to you, let me bend your ear for just a few minutes. Here are just a few of the reasons why horror (and, to a lesser degree, SF) owes him so much.
1. Black Sunday (1960). Bava’s directorial debut kicks off the age of Italian horror cinema. The film’s extraordinary beauty would be reason enough to celebrate it, but it also brought horror stardom to Barbara Steele. Steele is one of the few women to become a horror icon for playing both victim and villain — sometimes both in the same film, as is the case here.
2. Black Sabbath (1963). In the first place, where would the world of heavy metal be without this movie, from which the band took its name? As well, though 1968 is often given as the year when evil first triumphs in a horror film (Rosemary’s Baby), the Boris Karloff story here gives the forces of darkness the upper hand five years earlier.
3. Blood and Black Lace (1964). The film that defined the giallo: the faceless, black-gloved killer; the convoluted motive; the stylishly shot but brutal (even by today’s standards) murders. Dario Argento would make the form his own, but Bava was there first, and the blueprint is here.
4. Planet of the Vampires (1965). Stop me if this sounds familiar: drawn to a fog-shrouded planet by a distress beacon, our heroes suffer a disastrous landing. As they begin falling prey to a malevolent force, they discover the wreck of an alien spaceship, and the huge skeleton of one of its crew. Yep, while It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) is frequently (and correctly) cited as one of Alien‘s models, the first act of Ridley Scott’s film owes a lot to Bava’s effort, which achieves great beauty and menace on a minuscule budget.
5. Danger: Diabolik (1968). With its dazzling mise-en-scène, eye-popping colours and frantic pace, this remains one of the best comic book adaptations going, perfectly capturing the spirit of its source material.
6. Lisa and the Devil (1973). More stunning, funereal, perverse beauty. But apart from that, here is the devil played by Telly Savalas, sucking on lollipops before Kojak.
7. Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971). Hard to know what the slasher genre would have done without this definitive body count film. Friday the 13th Part 2 went as far as essentially to plagiarize two of its murders. But its merciless anatomy of capitalism (everybody is killing everybody to gain possession of a valuable tract of land) is something few of its many imitators have ever approached.
8. Shock (1977). Bava’s last theatrical film is a disturbing ghost story, and gives Daria Nicolodi perhaps her greatest role.
I could go on. In all good conscience, I should. Grazie, maestro.