Director: Mario Bava
Aka: Operation Fear ; Kill, Baby…Kill! ; Curse of the Living Dead ; Don’t Walk In The Park
By Roderick Heath
Mario Bava was an experienced cinematographer who worked with the likes of De Sica and Raoul Walsh before becoming a features director around the same time as Sergio Leone. Bava’s background is obvious in his films, with their creative camerawork and orchestrated lighting. Bava is still far less famous than Leone, partly because of the genre he worked in, partly because of the vagaries of distribution that made his films hard to see, and because he rarely worked with the same level of acting collaborators (one notable exception being Telly Savalas in Lisa e il Diavolo, ). So the realms of artistry found in Mario Bava’s work still rank as hidden treasure to most filmgoers.
Not that he was without duds. Even Elke Sommer’s miniskirt couldn’t save Baron Blood (Gli Orrori del Castello di Norimberga, 1972). Scripts usually stank, but in the hands of stylists of the calibre of Bava, this became a plus because they could cut back on dialogue and required acting and concentrate on flights of cinema. Bava contributed to the first film of the ‘50s Horror renaissance, I Vampiri (1956), predating Terence Fisher’s Curse of Frankenstein by a year, when director Riccardo Freda walked off the production because of the absurdly tight budget, leaving Bava to get the film finished in four days.
Freda was a great stylist in his own right. Splendidly morbid images dot his L’Orribile Segreto del Dr Hitchcock (1962)—the ghostly brilliance of a funeral procession in a sun shower; the black lace curtains around the bier-like bed that the title character (Robert Flemyng) sweeps aside; Flemyng’s desperate attempts to gain access to a corpse in a clean, white, hospital morgue to satiate his necrophiliac desires; the distant patch of light that steadily grows as the heroine nears the end of the tunnel not knowing what awaits her; the jagged flash edits that reveal a mysterious shroud-wrapped figure playing a harpsichord in a lighting-lit house; and most iconic, gothic muse Barbara Steele’s face screaming in silent anguish through the glass face-plate of a sealed coffin. These survive long after the dumb dialogue and stick-figure dramatics are forgotten.
Yet Freda never conquered those limitations as effectively as Bava. Bava made the last few great Gothic horror films, including La Maschera del Demonio (1960) and Operazione Paura, and helped invent the stalk-and-slash film with Sei Donne Per L’Assassino (1964) and Ecologio del Delitto (1971), cited by John Carpenter and Sean Cunningham as the source for the stylistics of Halloween (1978), and Friday the 13th (1980), making Bava a shibboleth for horror directors at that time. Operazione Paura, probably Bava’s best film, benefits from a tight screenplay (penned by Bava with Romano Migliorini and Roberto Natale). In 1900, investigator Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) arrives in the small Mittel Europa village of Kermigen, a very un-Germanic Italian hamlet, with that look of such towns of being both partly organic and partly hewn over centuries out of solid rock. Eswai has been called to this hillbilly realm to perform an autopsy on Irena Hollander, whom we’ve seen in the pre-title scene run screaming across a field, climb some stairs, and throw herself onto a spiked iron fence. Eswai is there at the behest of Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli), who had received a letter from Irena raving about danger and evil in the town. Kruger’s having trouble getting anyone to talk. Even the town’s Burgomaster, the bald, nervously sweaty, but seemingly sane Karl (Max Lawrence, real name Luciano Catennachi) can’t explain the situation, only give warnings about the grim nearby mansion, the Villa Graps, the name of which elicits a camp gasp of fear from everyone. Whilst Kruger goes to investigate the villa—he’ll be right back—Eswai gets an assistant in the comely form of Monica Shuftan (Erica Blanc), a medical student who has briefly returned to her home town to visit the graves of her parents, and the pair perform the autopsy on Irena. They discover a silver coin buried in the body’s heart. Monica, familiar with local folklore, knows it is a charm designed to save the soul of the deceased from evil spirits.
Eswai is soon attacked by villagers, who insist he die for performing the autopsy, but he is saved by the commanding appearance of a black-clad witch named Ruth (Fabienne Dali). She disappears before Eswai can thank her. Later, Eswai spies on her performing a ritual on Nadienne (Micaela Esdra), daughter of the owners of the inn he’s staying at; Nadine has seen the spectral face a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl peering through the window at her, a sure omen of death. Ruth, despite her cruel exorcism practices (whipping the girl’s back with a branch and forcing her to wear a girdle of thorns) and somber demeanour, comes across as the most pleasant person in town, with her throaty, sorrowful voice and calm, protective attitude. It’s no wonder she’s getting it on with Burgomaster Karl, who ruins the mood of their tete-a-tete by delivering the body of Kruger for Ruth to perform her solemn duty for the town’s dead—putting that coin in the heart.
Eswai, still looking for the Inspector, ventures into the Villa Graps,and find a lone occupant, the crazed-looking old Baroness Graps (Gianna Vivaldi), who, when alone, sweats and suffers as swelling voices suggest tormenting ghostly presences, tying her to the sleeping Monica’s nightmare involving freaky dolls (one of the many horror visual clichés that Bava invented) and dark tombs. Eswai encounters the blonde girl in the halls of Villa. She says her name is Melissa, and behind Eswai on the wall, unnoticed, is her portrait, which sports the dates of her birth and death.
Yep, Melissa’s a ghost, raining sorrow and bloodshed on the village, forcing people to commit suicide by sheer will. Why? Years before, during a feast, someone knocked her down with a horse, and the villagers, who loathed the Graps family, ignored her as she bled to death. Since then, the embittered Baroness, gifted with mediumistic powers, has been the conduit by which Melissa maintains her vengeful presence. Monica is revealed to be Melissa’s sister; the Shuftans, the Graps’ former servants, had rescued her as a baby from the villa. Karl gives his life to reveal this secret, prompting Ruth to finally defy the prophecy that she will die in the villa and confront the Baroness. Ruth strangles the Baroness, though the old bat has lanced Ruth through the chest with a poker, and the two women fall dead.
Operazione Paura stumbles in points, especially in Paul’s throwaway rescue of Monica from a cardboard balcony. The film also suffers at the hands of its lead, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, whose emoting consists of narrowing his eyes and bending his limbs at angles resembling a Ken doll. Bava was at his best in keeping a stately tempo of mystery and atmosphere. Action is virtually perfunctory in his work (as are traditional heroics). In Operazione Paura his slow-build mastery is in full evidence.
The film takes across the course of one night. Eswai arrives at dusk, the sun still giving a watery glow across the flat, bare plains around the town, which is anxiously closing up for the night. The dead woman’s coffin is being hurried through the narrow, crumbling streets. Once darkness has fallen, Melissa is introduced in a POV shot; the camera, accompanied by rusty, yawing sounds, is swinging back and forth looking out upon a cemetery. Then the camera ceases swinging and drops down, and a child’s stockinged legs and trailing dress sweep into view from their place on the swing, and the amused giggle of Melissa’s that punctuates appearances and murders is heard. Melissa stalks the Kermigen night, the shadows of her hands reaching up to windows, then her gliding form forming in view (ironically, Melissa is played by a boy in a wig). That Melissa’s appearances are usually clearly foreshadowed by such flourishes clears the way for the film’s best shock, when Karl ascends to his attic to fetch a letter for Monica; opening a locked cupboard, he screams as Melissa is revealed hiding inside, clutching the letter and smiling with sublime menace.
Probably my favorite scene involves nothing; when Eswai and Monica are locked outside by the innkeeper for causing Nadienne’s death, they are left despairingly tolling a bell for non-xistent help. Bava cuts through the deserted town, which quivers with shadow and unnameable menace, as composer Carlo Rusticheri’s eerie music composed of unusual, sonorous instrumentation tickles the backbone. Equally memorable for sheer style is Monica’s prophetic nightmare—Monica pleads and moans as the menacing doll advances on her from behind, a shot that perfectly evokes the aware-but-helpless sensations of a bad dream.
Bava’s sense of symmetry is crucial, and it drives the whole narrative of many of his films, which usually end by closing a circle. His characters often find themselves trapped in cycles of behaviour and fate (incest is the grim heart of many of his films). “The circle of death is finally broken,” Ruth gasps in her last breath. In Operazione Paura, this circularity is even visualised when, after Monica has vanished with a scream, Eswai chases a mysterious intruder through the Villa Graps, through identical rooms, catching up gradually until he grips the figure’s shoulder and spins it around to find he has been chasing himself.
Bava’s women are often avatars for condensed pathologies in the Western psyche over female sexuality. Bava invented the stalk-and-slash horror film that became epidemic in the ’80s with Sei Donne Per L’Assassino (Seven Women for the Killer), a title that says it all. This film that lays down a familiar blueprint; Cameron Mitchell’s psycho killer struggles vainly to exterminate female sexuality whilst nominally pursuing a fiscal motive, a viewpoint usually radically missed by the sadistic spectacles of its legion of imitators. Bava’s women usually inhabit multiple, contradictory roles, toying with familiar Western/Christian stereotypes; Asa/Katia in La Maschera del Demonio, who threatens to become both sexual predator and victim; Daliah Lavi’s Nevenka In La Frusta e il Corpo (1963), both submissive and murderer; Daria Nicolodi’s Dora in Shock (1977), who is both mother and lover of her possessed son; Lisa (Elke Sommer) in Lisa e il Diavolo, who finds herself bound eternally to the identity of a dead woman.
Operazione Paura is cited as slightly weaker than La Maschera because it splits its pathological women into multiple parts, yet with characteristic awareness, Bava inverts the usual imagery by making the image of evil the blonde little girl and the force of good the black-haired witch. Although the structure puts Eswai front and centre, he is actually a useless representative of male arrogance; his “sensible” intervention with Nadienne, stripping her of Ruth’s barbed protection, results in Nadienne’s terrible death. When he catches himself trying to rescue the girl, it’s the logical end for Eswai, confronted by his own egotism.
In Kermigen, the patriarchy of the village has been punished by the matriarchal rage of the Baroness, which has become so crazed it blights everything in reach, even the Baroness’s remaining daughter. The only person free to do anything, though she knows it will spell her end, is Ruth, who inhabits the guise of the most threatening form of female sexuality, the “dark” woman, familiar literary twin of the pristine “fair” woman (here, Monica)—single, mysterious, engaging in S&M-like “exorcism” practises on young women. Usually she’d be burnt at the stake, but now she’s the saviour. The film’s finale, dark woman and warped mother die in each other’s arms, one choked and the other fatally penetrated, in a potent image loaded with erotic and symbolic import, leaving virginal beauty Monica safe and sound.
Despite his status as an Italian horror maestro, Bava rarely indulged in gore for its own sake, though his early films are violent in a way that would not be permissible in British and American horror for some time. The opening of his first full feature, La Maschera del Demonio, is one of the most brutal in all of cinema, and the end of his last film, Shock, has one of the most wince-worthy, yet oddly pretty throat slashings ever filmed. His jolts of violence are always pungent, effective moments, with a certain horrible beauty.
The quagmire of financing in the ’70s killed the European genre cinema traditions and institutions within whichBava worked. The technical and artistic fluency he strived for was degraded by a forced reliance on time-and-money saving devices, such as zoom lens shots. Signing on with Spanish filibuster Alfred Leone didn’t help; Lisa e il Diavolo, a dark, suffocating dream of a film, was butchered, and 20-odd minutes of unrelated footage featuring Robert Alda as a priest was inserted. The film was released as Beyond the Door II (the original film, long a virtual myth known only to Spanish critics, is, thankfully, available today on DVD and video).
Bava’s influence has been undeniable, and even if his best characteristics—his intelligence, his sense of cinema as a plastic medium, and his richly artful eye—are sadly lacking in a lot of contemporary horror, today they’re becoming better and better appreciated in themselves. Bava’s son Lamberto, an assistant director on Operazione Paura, became a successful horror director in the ’80s. l