The House of Exorcism (1975): restrospective review

House of Exorcism Elke Sommer and Robert Alda
In cults circles (especially among fans of Italian horror cinema in general and director Mario Bava in particular), THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM is probably the most (in)famous alternate film version in existence – a complete do-over of Bava’s excellent and ethereal LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973) with added scenes of (you guessed it!), exorcism and all that entails: bile, vomit, and profanity. What may make HOUSE OF EXORCISM unique among alternate versions is that (as its producer Alfredo Leone is fond of pointing out) it actually has a separate copyright date, distinguishing HOUSE OF EXORCISM as a separate film unto itself. The irony here is that, if HOUSE OR EXORCISM holds any interest at all (a position seriously open to debate), that interest lies not on the merits of the film itself but on its relationship to LISA AND THE DEVIL.
The original is an atmospheric, ambitious work, filled with suggestion and ambiguity about a tourist named Lisa (Elke Sommer) who loses her way and ends up in a chateau with a strange family, who seem to recognize her as someone named Helena. Is she a reincarnation of a dead woman, or are these the ghosts of the past? Is Leandro (Telly Savalas) simply a butler, or is he an incarnation of the Devil, tormenting Lisa by making her relive events of her previous life over and over?  In the manner of many such movies, which combine artistic aspirations with genre obligations, it’s not a fully satisfying experience in a conventional sense, and it’s sometime hard to determine whether the questions lingering over the narrative are a part of an intricate puzzle box or simply a matter of sloppy screenwriting. Fortunately, the film bravura visual qualities pull you into its weird world, so that any puzzling plot developments become part of the dreamlike experience.
Apparently this was too much for U.S. distributors, who passed on LISA AND THE DEVIL after it was completed in 1973. Hoping to get some return on his investment, Leone went back and shot more footage (apparently directing the additions himself) featuring Sommer and Robert Alda as a priest. The result was THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM, which was released in Italy in 1975 and in the U.S. in 1976 – a film that mimics THE EXORCIST (1973) only close enough to remind viewers how inferior the ripoff is.
HOUSE OF EXORCISM begins with a much more bombastic opening music cue, beneath a completely revised opening credits sequence, with graphics emphasizing crosses against garish red backgrounds. After that, there is some attempt to simulate the visual style of the original, and the new footage blends relatively seamlessly at first (though sharp-eyed viewers will note that Leandro is shot only from behind to disguise the absence of Savalas). In the added scenes, instead of simply losing her way and hitching a ride that takes her to the chateau, Lisa suffers some kind of fit; taken to a hospital, she exhibits signs of possession, so Father Michael (Alda) performs an exorcism, which more or less lasts the rest of the film, with footage from LISA AND THE DEVIL intercut like flashbacks or dreams.
The possession scenes pilfer THE EXORCIST’s bag of tricks, adding little new and nothing worthwhile. There is some stunt work with a contortionist that’s halfway creepy and some belabored attempts to use adult nudity and innuendo show the evil spirit tormenting the priest with his guilty feelings over an affair from before he took to the cloth; a particularly risible moment occurs when Father Michael’s dead girl friend materializes to seduce him – in a room whose walls are covered in puke (it doesn’t help that the hospital set, where the exorcism takes place, looks more like a toolshed). Like almost every other film that followed in the wake of director William Friedkin’s version of William Peter Blatty’s best-seller, HOUSE OF EXORCISM eschews any attempt at grappling with its subject matter in a realistic way, instead simply serving up a bunch of recycled cliches like so many obligatory genre elements: Lisa contorts, pukes, and levitates on cue because that’s what happens in a film with “exorcism” in the title – but it’s all gratuitous mayhem, with no thematic underpinnings.
There are a few transitional bits to visually justify cross-cutting between the two narrative threads (i.e., as Lisa wanders lost in a scene from the original, the camera zooms in on a broken pocket watch, before cutting to a closeup of someone looking at his wrist watch in the hospital to which Lisa has been taken in the new footage). However, the logical connection between the two threads remains elusive. In one early addition, a repairman, working on a mannequin for Leandro, notes that Lisa looks exactly like Helena, suggesting that Leandro plans to “use” her tonight, instead of Helena – presumably in the drama about to unfold at the chateau. Later in the hospital, the possessed Lisa declares to no one in particular, “You won’t use me in your games tonight!” The implication seems to be that the scenes in the chateau represent events that the spirit of Helena is somehow avoiding by possessing the body of Lisa. Or something like that…
What is mildly interesting is that the film eventually feels some obligation to spell out, however incoherently, what is happening. In between hurling profanity and invective at Father Michael (“Don’t break my balls, priest!”), Helena, speaking through Lisa, offers a sort of running commentary on the events in the chateau, spelling out not only what is happening but also why. In a sense, she becomes the Greek Chorus, explaining the story to the audience.
The completely unexpected result of this is that HOUSE OR EXORCISM emerges feeling less like a ripoff of THE EXORCIST and more like DAUGHTER OF HORROR, the re-release version of DEMENTIA (1955), which added narration to clarify a nightmarish scenario that was originally intended to perplex audiences with its dreamlike surrealism. Is this enough to make HOUSE OF EXORCISM interesting, even if not worthwhile? Not really. The explanation proffered by HOUSE OF EXORCISM makes little sense. Unlike DAUGHTER OF HORROR, whose narration may actually have enhanced the movie, providing answers that did not feel tiresome or trite, HOUSE OF EXORCISM does not emerge as an intriguing alternate version; its exposition simply reminds us that we would have been better off watching LISA AND THE DEVIL and figuring things out for ourselves.
In HOUSE OF EXORCISM, Helena is speaking in the past tense about things she has experienced, but she also insists that these events at the chateau are taking place again tonight, though it is not completely clear how that could be possible without her participation. Are we to assume that Helena and Lisa’s spirit have traded places and that Lisa is now in Helena’s place, trapped in some kind of limbo where the events of the past repeat endlessly? If so, the explanation is unsatisfying – why should Lisa suffer for Helena’s sins? As elusive as the original film was, the implication ultimately was that Lisa and Helena were the same, and the events in the chateau represented her past – perhaps another lifetime – catching up with her.
With this element obliterated, the ending pushes Lisa aside to focus on Father Michael as he travels to the chateau to exorcise the house itself. Why? No particular reason, except perhaps that placing this new character in the setting from the old footage would forge a slightly stronger link between the film’s two narrative threads. This leads to a relatively uneventful climax in which the priest wanders around the building, assaulted by wind and threatened by snakes, while shouting to cast out the devil.An abruptly edited flash of lightening seems to show him going up in a puff of smoke, but by that time viewers are past caring.
HOUSE OF EXORCISM is, top put it bluntly, an abomination. Back in 1975, when there was no other way for  U.S. viewers to see LISA AND THE DEVIL in any form, there may have been some justification for the existence of HOUSE OF EXORCISM; now, however, the film is nothing more than a historical footnote, a curiosity for Bava fans who want to see the their idol’s masterpiece bastardized into one in a long line of EXORCIST ripoffs. As understandable as producer Leone’s intentions were (was it better to leave the film unseen in  a vault or get it on the screen in some form?), HOUSE OF EXORCISM takes Bava’s intriguing original and spoils it with crude vulgarity. If you really want to see a marriage of LISA AND THE DEVIL and THE EXORCIST, rent both of them and watch them back to back.
house_of_exorcism_poster_01THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM (1975). Produced by Alfredo Leone. Directed by Mario Bava and Alfredo Leone (as Mickey Lion). Written by Mario Bava, Alberto Cittini, Alfred Leone, Giorgio Maulini, Romano Migliorini, Roberto natale, Francesca Rusishka. Cast: Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina, Alessio Orano, Gabriele Tinit, Kathy Leone, Eduardo Fajardo, Carmen Silva, Franz Von Treuberg, Espartaco Santoni, Alida Valli, Robert Alda. Rated R. 92 minutes.

Blood and Black Lace: Spotlight Podcast 5-11.2

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A fashion institute becomes a charnel house of death when a masked madman stalks a sextette of glamorous models, each of whom has come in contact with a diary containing a secret that the killer must – at any cost – keep from prying eyes…

It’s time for a 50th Anniversary Podcast celebration of Mario Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (a.k.a., Sei Donne per L’Assassino – i.e., “Six Women for the Assassin”). This horrifying 1964 thriller, which sets violent murder in a world of high-fashion glamour, set the template for the Italian genre known as Giallo, which would percolate throughout the cinematic bloodstream for decades to come, offering violent murder-mysteries populated by beautiful victims and masked, black-gloved psycho-killers. Yet Bava’s original stands above the rest, all these decades later, thanks to the director’s genius for stylization – ranking among the best efforts ever in the horror genre.
With two-thirds of the regular Cinefantastique podcasting crew on hiatus, Steve Biodrowski hosts guests Keith Hennessey Brown (Giallo Fever) and Roderick Heath (This Island Rod) in a detailed discussion of what makes BLOOD AND BLACK LACE stand the test of time.


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Laserblast Podcast 3:46.2: Universal Soldier, Red vs. Blue, Jack & Diane, Bava

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The Cinefantastique Laserblast Podcast returns, bringing you news and reviews of the latest horror, fantasy, and science fiction films on home video – DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, and instant streaming. Dan Persons and Steve Biodrowski take a look at new releases for Tuesday, November 20, including the Japanese anime title GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES, now on Blu-ray for the first time, and the DOCTOR WHO LIMITED EDITION GIFT SET on DVD (featuring the three most recent doctors: Matt Smith, David Tennant, and Christopher Eccleston).
But wait, there’s more! Dan Persons reviews Season 10 of RED VS. BLUE. Steve Biodrowski reviews two films in limited theatrical release that are also currently available via Video on Demand: JACK & DIANE (a teen romance with weird, artsy horror elements spliced in) and UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING (the film that asks whether the UNIVERSAL SOLDIER franchise can successfully incorporate elements of MEMENTO and APOCALYPSE NOW). And things wrap up with a look at some titles from the late Italian horror specialist Mario Bava, which have recently become available on Netflix Instant Viewing.


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The Alternate Worlds of Recycled Sci-Fi Footage: CFQ Post-Mortem Podcast 1:27.1

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After a passionate discussion of SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, Dan Persons and Steve Biodrowski leave the recorder running as they delve deeply into the minutia of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. This week focuses on films that recycle plots and/or footage to create alternate versions and/or whole new movies:

  • THE EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING and DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST
  • Digging for GOLD, the 1934 German science-fiction film cannibalized for the final act of the low-budget 1953 sci-fi flick THE MAGNETIC MONSTER
  • SUPERMAN II: The Donner Cut on DVD

Also, the RiffTrax version of CARNIVAL OF SOULS, Cinematic Titanic, and listener mail on the joys of Mario Bava and the wisdom of target release dates .


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Bava & Black Sunday: Cinefantastique Post-Mortem Podcast 1:26.1

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Following up on the Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast 1.26, Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski delve deeper into the mysteries of director Mario Bava and BLACK SUNDAY, not to mention the distinction between giallo and Gothic horror. BLACK SUNDAY was Bava’s directorial debut, and its reputation is so grand among fans that many think he never topped it; however, the CFQ Podcast crew suggest a few subsequent titles worthy of standing side-by-side with Bava’s black-and-white masterpiece: WHAT?, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, DANGER: DIABOLIK, BAY OF BLOOD, and LISA AND THE DEVIL.


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Black Sunday (1960): The Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast 1:26

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No new genre films hit theatres this weekend, but fear not: Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski once again rev of the time machine and take you five decades into the past, for a look at one of the greatest horror films of all time, director Mario Bava’s masterpiece of black-and-white Gothic horror, BLACK SUNDAY (a.k.a. THE MASK OF SATAN, 1960), starring the Queen of Horror, Barbara Steele. It’s all part of Cinefantastique’s on-going celebration of 1960’s Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Films. Also on the menu: a weekly round-up of news, upcoming events, and home video releases.


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Deep, Deep Down from "Danger: Diabolik"

Tim Lucas at VideoWatchblog points us to this YouTube clip of Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane performing “Deep, Deep Down,” the opening title song from Mario Bava’s excellent comic-book-based fantasy-action-adventure, DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968). I have always loved the song (which was composed by Ennio Morricone, who also scored the film) and regretted that it never appeared on a soundtrack album (on the audio commentary for the DIABOLIK DVD, Lucas says the original tapes were destroyed). Consequently, it is a real thrill to hear it performed with all the gusto and attention normally lavished on a well-known classic.
Though not as big a fan of the song as I am, Lucas claims to have been moved to tears by the performance, and I can believe him:

I’ve always liked the song, with its Christy vocal, without giving it too much thought — it’s not even my favorite musical cue in the picture — but seeing it performed live by such an expressive vocalist, a full choir and orchestra brought tears to my eyes.
It’s like seeing an entire city rise up in tribute to Mario Bava, Ennio Morricone, Marisa Mell and John Phillip Law. It’s like seeing a modest film made forty years ago by humble artisans, shrugged off by most people at the time of its original release, triumphing over time by spreading the wings of a glorious phoenix.

Amen, Brother Lucas!

Laserblast: Last House, Bird with Crystal Plumage, Four Flies, Akira

It’s a busy week for DVD and Bluray releases, with titles from such classic and cult genre names as Wes Craven, Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Barbara Steele and Tod Slaughter arriving in stores.

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Last House on the Left (MGM/UA DVD)
Wes Craven’s landmark 1972 shocker gets a second DVD go-around with a much more comprehensive set of extras, but the recent UK DVD release easily trumps all previous entries. Few horror pictures have had as checked a history on home video as Last House; two different edits appeared on VHS, courtesy of the beloved Vestron Video, the second of which was billed as ‘complete and uncut’, running roughly 83 minutes. MGM/UA’s first go around with the title on DVD, back in 2002, offered the most complete version yet, along with commentary by Craven and Cunningham, featurettes on the production and Hess’ music, and several minutes of outtakes, some of which feature extra moments of intestine-pulling that was best left on the cutting room floor.
Last year, the UK was finally able to see the film without cuts in a nation-wide release (it had previously held a place of honor at the top of the BBFC’s “video nasties” list) via a massive 3 disc set from Metrodome, featuring an additional commentary track with baddies Hess, Lincoln, and Sheffler, a brand new 40-min production documentary produced by Blue Underground (”Celluloid Crime of the Century”), which provides an extensive look into the making of the film; the interesting “Krug Conquers England,” which covers the first uncut theatrical showings in the UK; an excerpt from the short film “Tales that’ll Tear Your Heart Out ,”which reunited Craven and Hess; all of this in addition to the same set of outtakes and general ballyhoo from the previous release. However, the main selling points that might drive interested parties to double-dip are housed on the second disc, which includes a marginally different cut of the film under the title “Krug & Company” (which contains some footage found in no other version and has at least one astounding plot difference regarding the fate of Mari), and some the infamous soft core sexual footage shot during the forced copulation of Mari and Phyllis. Like much of the film’s more extreme footage, it had fallen victim over the years to the vagaries of local “decency laws”, with theater managers excising out any would-be offending material (and saving it for their own personal collection, of course) and few prints making it back to the distributor’s office intact.
MGM/UA’s newest offering is geared to take advantage of Rouge Pictures’ upcoming remake, and cherry picks several features off the Metrodome set, while leaving off the Krug & Company alternate cut and the “Krug Conquers England” featurette to fit onto a single disc (the 3rd disc on the Metrodome set was devoted to a documentary, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film). Unfortunately, the new MGM release continues the tradition of no-thought, Photoshop paste ups for the cover art; Last House has some of the most memorable promotional artwork ever made for a horror film (much of which is retained on the Metrodome set), but MGM’s disc makes it look like a DTV Wrong Turn sequel. Read a complete review of the film here.
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The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Blue Underground Blu-Ray)
It’s hard to remember a time when a POV shot of a knife-wielding, black-gloved killer stalking through a European cityscape wasn’t considered cliché, but Blue Underground’s gorgeous Blu-Ray edition of Dario Argento’s classic goes a long way towards transporting the viewer back four decades to experience what made this movie such a sensation. It’s a shame that a film which relies so heavily on its visual punch has had to suffer so many years of lackluster presentations. Previous editions have been beset with both image and sound issues, and it wasn’t until Blue Underground’s DVD presentation in 2005 that we finally had an edition that could be called definitive. Their stunning new Blu-Ray transfer, however, trumps all contenders with a 1080p image that squeezes out an amazing amount of detail and clarity without the (apparent) application of excessive digital noise reduction. Also present are a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 7.1 Dolby TrueHD English tracks, either of which works fine even without 17 speakers. The Italian language track is available as well, but since the lip movements for most actors are clearly in English (and Musante and Kendall dubbed their own voices on the English track), there’s no need to get sniffy about watching the show in its “original” language. All extras from the previous edition are ported over as well, including a terrific commentary track featuring journalists-authors Alan Jones and Kim Newman, and featurettes on Argento (“Out of the Shadows”), cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (“Painting with Darkness” – and thank God that neither Argento nor Blue Underground have let him get his hands on the transfer and pimp-smack it into his beloved universal aspect ratio of 2:1), composer Morricone (“The Music of Murder”), and the late Eva Renzi (“Eva’s Talking”). Read a complete review of the film here.
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Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Mya Communications DVD)
Having just released an international smash with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970, Argento followed up with 1971’s Cat ‘o Nine Tails and 1972’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet. Although Four Flies is a fairly conventional thriller – particularly in light of Argento’s later, edgier work – the beginnings of the visually audacious style that would come to full fruition in Deep Red, Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). The director has a ball with camera placement, and even uses an early variation of the bullet-time slow motion sequence, later made famous (and ubiquitous) in the Matrix pictures. Much of Four Flies on Grey Velvet’s reputation stems from its unavailability on home video. US residents have had to live with dodgy bootlegs of questionable quality while pleas for a proper DVD release fell on deaf ears at rights-holding studio Paramount Pictures. We don’t know what strings were pulled, but Somehow Mya Communications has managed to secure domestic DVD rights, and the results are glorious – an uncut print (sourced from an Italian negative) with excellent color and detail that finally allows for a proper evaluation of the show. There are both English and Italian tracks available (both in mono), though as was the case with most of Argento’s films of the period, the vast majority of the actors (including the leads) were clearly speaking English. The package is rounded out with a collection of fascinating vintage trailers, including one without dialog or narration that is decades ahead of its time. Read the complete review here.
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Akira (Bandai Blu-Ray)
Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, based on the director’s own series of comics (or Manga, if you’re nasty), is set in Neo-Tokyo in the year 2019, roughly 3 decades after it was destroyed by a nuclear blast at the beginning of World War III. Newcomers to the film (or to Anime itself) will find that Akira pleasingly breaks from the typical cost-cutting practices, with incredibly detailed animation (even going so far as to sync lip-movements to dialog, a rare practice in Japan at the time). If, like me, you owned Criterion’s towering (and pricey) laserdisc of the film and yearned to see its myriad extras duplicated on Bandai’s new Blu-Ray, you’ll likely be disappointed. Aside from a collection of trailers there’s little else in the way of extras – a real shame given the rich production history of the film and a real lost opportunity to introduce new viewers (for whom Akira may well be the only Anime title in their collection) to the genre with supplemental materials. But the important thing is the presentation, and the Blu-Ray looks fabulous, bringing unprecedented detail to the title (enough even to expose the limits of the source materials, an increasingly common problem). Read a complete review of the disc here.
The rest of the week’s considerable releases include:

  • The Haunting of Molly Hartley. This low budget ghost story generated little positive word of mouth when it received a limited platform release last Halloween.
  • Blu-ray releases of Friday the 13th Part 2 (reviewed here) and Friday the 13th Part 3 (reviewed here).
  • A double-bill DVD of The Whip and the Body/Conspiracy of Torture. The former is a colorful and atmsopheric effort from Mario Bava, who reuses many of his old tricks from Black Sunday in this tale of S&M from beyond the grave; it’s beautiful to watch, but molassas could outrun the pace of the story.
  • Another double bill DVD, this time of two features starring cult horror queen Barbara Steele, The Long Hair of Death/An Angel for Satan. The first is atmospheric and entertaining, providing a good opportunity for Steele to shine, even if the storyline is muddle. The second is a rare title that seldom if ever showed up on U.S. shores before the advent of home video. (Don’t hold me to this, but I think it never received a theatrical release here, and I never saw it showing up on late night television or on Saturday afternoon Creature Features.)
  • And yet a third double bill disc, this one showcasing melodramatic Victorian villain Tod Slaughter in Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barbar of Fleet Street/Incredible Crimes at the Dark House. You can read a review of the former here, including a sketch of Slaughter’s career.
  • Tales of the Unexplained is an old British television anthology, featuring horror icon Boris Karloff (FRANKENSTEIN).
  • Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder arrives on Blu-ray and DVD, and also as part of the Futurama Movies Collection.
  • And lastly, Noah Wylie returns as the Librarian in Curse of the Judas Chalice.

Steve Biodrowski contributed to this article.

Bay of Blood (1971): DVD Review

BAY OF BLOOD is one of the least reputable films from the late Italian cult figure Mario Bava, a genre specialist best known for the black-and-white horror classic BLACK SUNDAY (1960). There is a tendency to compare Bava’s later horror films – which utilized colorful photography and lurid subject matter – unfavorably to his early masterpiece; this is perhaps nowhere more evident than with 1971’s BAY OF BLOOD – a film that wallows in as much gore and violence as the worst piece of exploitation trash cinema. Jeffrey Frentzen, reviewing the film (under one of its many alternate titles “Twitch of the Death Nerve”) for the Fall 1975 issue of Cinefantastique, wrote:

The latest Bava work available for American viewing is the director’s most complete failure to date, heaping graphic violence onto one of his more ridiculous scripts. If you were appalled by the gore and slaughter of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, this latest film contains twice the murders, each one accomplished with an obnoxious eye for detail (faces split open in loving close-up, decapitation, and murder of the axe variety). The raw violence is only an excuse to propel a silly story reminiscent of an Edgar Wallace cloak-and-dagger mystery

It is easy to sympathize with Frentzen’s sentiments: BAY OF BLOOD does look garish and exploitative side-by-side with the moody BLACK SUNDAY, and in retrospect, the film is clearly the forerunner of “body count” movies like FRIDAY THE 13TH (there is even a group of dumb young guys and gals, two of whom are impaled while having sex, as in the later FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II).
However, Frentzen’s assessment puts the bath before the blood: the silly story is only an excuse to propel the violence. Bava, the consummate visual stylist, uses the scenario the way a virtuoso musician uses a simple chord progression as an accompaniment for an inspired solo: the script sets the overall structure and tempo, but within that structure, Bava can squeeze in as many notes as he likes, creating something worth watching. The complex harmonies that would come from a well-devised script are nowhere to be found, but the improvised melodies are more than enough to sustain interest.
To be fair, the contrived scenario is not completely without interest. Throwing away the traditional “rules” of the mystery genre, the script piles on improbably absurdities in a way that keep the story surprising, offering multiple murderers with differing agendas. The opening prologue perfectly sets the tone: a helpless old lady in a wheel-chair is strangled to death; less than a minute later, her murderer gets a knife in the back, dying before he ever had a chance to enjoy the titular bay that he hoped to inherit. The sick joke is that you need a scorecard to keep track of the motivations (the film offers a series of flashback at the end to clarify the plot points), but ultimately it doesn’t really matter because, with a very few exceptions, everyone is guilty or at least complicit.
Throughout the film, Bava cuts away to lovely location footage of sunsets, woods, and water, creating a visual contrast with the violence and depravity of humanity. People kill each other in horrible ways, but nature remains indifferent, beautiful (though not without death of its own sort, as illustrated by the fly that expires immediately after the opening credits, plopping into the bay like a pebble). The biggest threat that mankind represents is not to itself but to nature: the killings revolve around an attempt to aquire the bay and develop it, destroying the natural beauty in order to turn a profit. (The film’s Italian title Ecologia del Delitto translates as “Ecology of Murder”.) By the finale, you will find yourself cheering as the final murderers are abruptly terminated by an unexpected (and unintentional) avenger in what has to be absolutely the greatest surprise ending ever recorded on film – at once horrible and laugh-out-loud funny!
One other note: Bava was a cinematographer-turned-director. BAY OF BLOOD is the first film since 1962’s THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH for which he took credit in both capacities. Unfortunately, although the photography is brooding and atmospheric, it is not up to the visual qualities of his best work. Bava was most at home in the studio, where he had complete control. The location shooting here is good but a bit grainy; the use of available light, with little or no fill lighting, lends a slightly cheap look to the picture. Still, the interiors, especially during the long wordless opening sequence, show that he had not lost the ability to light a room with an atmospheric elegance that perfectly set the scene for murder.

DVD DETAILS

Image Entertainment released BAY OF BLOOD under the “Twitch of the Death Nerve” title in 2001. The disc featured a “Murder Menu” that would take you directly to the numerous atrocities; a psychedelic-looking trailer (using footage of the film that has been heavily re-processed), under another alternate title, “Carnage”; two radio spots, a Bava biography and filmography, and trailers for other Bava films. Unfortunately, although the video transfer was acceptable, the soundmix elicited screams of outrage from Bava fans, who complained that the audio was incompetently handled, with tinny sound that alternately dropped out and swelled up.
In October 2007, the title was re-issued as part of the Bava Box Set, Volume 2. This version retains the bonus features from the old DVD, improves the audio quality to satisfactory levels, and adds a commentary by Tim Lucas, author of the Bava biography All the Colours of the Dark. This is typically in-depth and informative, although not quite up to the standard the Lucas set with his commentaries for BLACK SUNDAY and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. Unfortunately, this disc is not for sale separately, only as part of the box set (although some rental stores may make it availabe as a discrete title).
In the audio commentary, Lucas offers some insights that might escape typical American viewers (e.g., the first victim is played by an actress who was a well-known star in Italy at the time, making her abrupt death particularly shocking). Also, he gives a good run-down of how the film came to be made (it was a sort of response to CAT O’NINE TAILS, a horror-thriller from younger upstart director Dario Argento). We also learn that BAY OF BLOOD was not merely dubbed into English but actually was shot in two different versions: one in English, one in Italian. The non-dialogue scenes are identical in both; whenever characters speak, the two versions use different takes, with some differences in execution and performance.
What is missing from the commentary is an assessment of where BAY OF BLOOD ranks in Bava’s oeuvre. Lucas mentions that horror star Christopher Lee (who had worked with Bava on HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD and THE WHIP AND THE BODY) was disgusted by the violence when he saw the film at a festival, and Lucas acknowledges that BAY OF BLOOD is a forerunner of the later slasher films. However, Lucas never quite makes a fully articulate argument for why BAY OF BLOOD deserves to be regarded more highly than its disreputable off-spring.
We do hear little hints as Lucas points out clever details and well done shots (like the close-up that resembles a full moon until a rack focus reveals it to be an eye). Obviously, Lucas does not believe the film is Bava’s “most complete failure,” but what does he believe? Is it a triumph of style over substance, or does he think the screenplay has some value beyond being a jumping off point for Bava to stage gruesome murders? Perhaps the closest we come to an answer is when he points out a cutaway shot to a Dune buggy after one of the many violent deaths: the grill and the headlights seem to form a smiling face, and as the shot serves no narrative purpose, Lucas suggests it is Bava’s way of telling us not to take the film too seriously.
I would tend to agree. BAY OF BLOOD may not be as refined as Bava’s greatest work, but it certainly is fun to see the maestro at work with his hair down, going for the grue with gusto. The film’s power to shock may have been blunted by the decades of graphic gore that followed, but it still shows that a little artistry can go a long way toward elevating subject matter of even the lowest common denominator.
RELATED REVIEW: Twitch of the Death Nerve

Hollywood Gothique: Bava Fest Update

There have been a couple of additions to the guest list for the American Cinematheque’s Mario Bava festival, which resumes this Thursday with a double bill of DANGER: DIABOLIK and PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. Actor John Phillip Law (who plays the titular master criminal in DIABOLIK) will appear between the films for a question-and-answer session. DIABOLIK is a classic example of a comic book character brought to life; even if you are not a fan of Bava’s horror films, you should give this one a gander. (Get tickets at Fandango.)

John Phillip Law and Marisa Mell in DANGER: DIABOLIK

On Friday, March 21, for the double bill of BAY OF BLOOD (a.k.a. TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE) and FOUR TIMES THAT NIGHT, actor Brett Halsey (who stars in the latter) will join Eli Roth to introduce the films.
The festival will continue at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood throughout the weekend with screenings of the excellent (despite its title) KILL, BABY, KILL; HATCHET FOR THE HONEY MOON; THE WHIP AND THE BODY; and more.
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