THE CINEMATOGRAPHER TURNED DIRECTOR is a dicey proposition: For every success story such as Jack Cardiff’s or Nicolas Roeg’s, there’s Gordon Willis’s with Windows (1980) or Christopher Doyle’s with Warsaw Dark (2009), or other examples that aren’t even distinguished by true awfulness. And then there is the curious case of the Italian Mario Bava, whose cinema is so radically, disorientingly, sumptuously eye-filling that I all but gave up trying to categorize it years ago. These films are beyond understood categories of taste—they merely are.
The newly refurbished Quad Cinema on West Thirteenth Street is currently ending a weeklong run of a 2K DCP restoration by Kino Lorber of Bava’s Kill, Baby . . . Kill! (1966). As ever in such cases, I endorse waiting for the Blu-ray—but this is only an amuse-bouche before the main course, a twenty-film retrospective including thirteen 35-mm prints, which is sure to swell the ranks of the already robust Bava cult. To watch one of these movies is to enter a frothy Rococo construction, the monument of a mad king, an environment swarming with cornea-searing colors, ornate statuary, and bizarre outcroppings serving an uncertain purpose. Before such appearance of excrescence, it is tempting to throw up one’s hands.
This is not to say that Bava is immune to serious study—the critic Tim Lucas, for example, has made the hermeneutics of Bava something like his life’s work—but most subjects will submit to delirium before analysis can begin. Because his camerawork is so strong and self-assured and his visual syntax so deeply strange, I suspect that Bava has more fans among filmmakers than among cultural journalists. Martin Scorsese has name-checked Bava often, especially when promoting his Shutter Island (2010), observing how the director managed the appearance of excess with a minimum of means, through his “use of less being more, of a little bit of mist, a twisted branch, that sort of thing.” His impact on Italian pop cinema is enormous, and he is widely regarded as having inaugurated the genre of giallo, or suspense-thrillers, with his 1963 Hitchcock pastiche The Girl Who Knew Too Much, which is absent from the Quad’s program. However, they will play his Blood and Black Lace from the following year, an equally influential body-count thriller that makes prominent use of what would become a trope in the hands of acolytes such as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci: the stalker POV, with a black-gloved hand wielding the killing tool in the foreground. Tracking the trail of bodies amassed at a fashion house, Bava here helped to create the template for the 1970s slasher film, further refined in his Bay of Blood (1971), a ludicrously plotted whodunit that takes place in a contemporary Italy of total iniquity, features a quartet of promiscuous youths being led to the slaughter, and is brought to an unceremonious end by some tykes playing with a shotgun.
The effusive quality of Bava’s films may be linked to the fact that he was, as a director, something of a late bloomer, and was therefore making up for lost time. He came to the job with about as comprehensive a cinematic education as any filmmaker in history—his father, Eugenio, assayed his abilities as a sculptor into special-effects photography, and he took young Mario to work with him at the Instituto LUCE studios, founded by Benito Mussolini. The junior Bava eagerly learned every bit of business there was to learn around a set, and in 1939 landed his first credit as a cinematographer on a propaganda short called The Bullying Turkey, directed by a young Roberto Rossellini.
Working through much of the same period, Rossellini and Bava operated on very different sides of the tracks—Rossellini for many years produced what would be designated “art-house” cinema, while Bava, first as DP, then as director, rode every wave of pop cinema that came down the Tiber. At the Quad, you can see two of his ventures into peplum (sword-and-sandal action), Hercules in the Haunted World and Erik the Conqueror (both 1961); the mid-’60s sci-fi sex comedy Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966), starring Vincent Price and singer Fabian; the spy-thriller whatsit Danger: Diabolik (1968); a credible spaghetti western, Roy Colt and Winchester Jack (1970); and a crazed, claustrophobic take on the polizioteschi (police thriller), Rabid Dogs (1974).
Bava’s career was multifaceted, but his name will be forever most closely connected to the efforts he made in the horror genre, beginning with 1960’s Black Sunday, made for the Gallatea studio and released when Bava was forty-six years old. A gothic horror set in seventeenth-century Moldavia that features the most beautifully sculpted black-and-white photography you’ll find without a John Alton credit, it earned a bundle of money worldwide, gave Tim Burton his fog-and-gnarled-trees aesthetic in one stop, and made star Barbara Steele—playing a witch who returns from a grisly death in a spiked “Mask of Satan”—the scream queen du jour. Bava went on to work with Boris Karloff on his anthology Black Sabbath, a film that boasts cinema’s looniest parting-shot gag, and directed Hammer Films mainstay Christopher Lee as an undead aristocrat in the lavender-and-lime tinted supernatural s/m thriller The Whip and the Body (both 1963). In the years to come, however, Bava was mostly left to work with no-names, has-beens, and the occasional mid-level talent such as Telly Savalas or Edwige Fenech.
In the absence of big stars, Bava fell back on his own technical genius: Mario Bava the showman, Mario Bava the atmospherist, Mario Bava the trick-shot artist and his amazing caroming camera. Bava’s Black Sunday appeared the same year as Michelangelo Antonioni’s revolutionary L’Avventura, and though it was assigned a very different level of cultural cachet, Bava’s film was in its own way also an essay on the possibilities of an unchained camera, one whose movements didn’t always need to be obeisant to what characters in the frame were doing. The décor in many of Bava’s contemporary-set movies suggests that he had a more than glancing acquaintance with gallery trends from Op to Pop—Danger: Diabolik, based on a comic series by Angela and Luciana Giussani, particularly has a Zip-a-Tone feel—though his “modernism” seems more intuitive than intellectual. At times he recalls no one so much as Josef von Sternberg in his gluttony for beauty and his devotion to creating a sense of depth in the film image through layering of textures or delineation of multiple distinct planes of space within a single frame. (Here, he can be contrasted to contemporary hyperstylist Seijun Suzuki, half a world away in Japan, who was forever emphasizing the flatness of the screen plane.)
Bava was foremost an image-maker, and one tends to remember his cinema by moments rather than by films: a disembodied camera gliding through a great hall or crypt, usually whooshing by a floor-standing candelabra along the way; a human face distorted as it passes through various patches of theatrical gel light; a death rattle and a splash of blood red on a carpet of too-green grass. I have seen few of Bava’s films projected—a potentially transformative experience—but I will say that I often find them ravishing but lugubrious affairs, any tension courtesy of anticipating the maestro’s next coup de cinema rather than emotional engagement. Shoddy dubbing may at least be partly to blame. The aspect of 1960s Italian production that historically liberated the camera—shooting “MOS,” without synch sound—also tended to rob performers of their voices. Where many Italian filmmakers compensated by drawing on the rich national reserves of film composers, Bava’s distinctive scores—Stelvio Cipriani’s for Bay of Blood and Baron Blood (1972), for example—are the exceptions to a dreary rule. If Bava remains beloved today, though, it’s because every one of his works is a treasure trove of ideas about how to utilize light, color, and camera choreography in concert. To an extraordinary degree, he seems to have devoted his career to exploring the expressionistic possibilities suggested by the Sister Ruth meltdown scenes in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947).
Earning his chops in black-and-white, Bava became a remarkable colorist by using shadow to limit his palette, and he was always eager to improve on nature when shooting outdoors. These abilities are seen to great advantage in Lisa and the Devil (1972), featuring Elke Sommer in a shocking lime-green ensemble—shades of a getup that Monica Vitti wears in Antonioni’s The Red Desert (1965)—as a tourist waylaid in perdition, with Savalas playing a Mephistophelean butler and practicing the lollipop-sucking bit of business that became his Kojak trademark. By all accounts, Bava’s long understudy period forged him into an able improviser who could work miracles with nonexistent budgets, and he made one of his most sustained—if also atypical—films, Rabid Dogs, when completely backed into a corner, shooting the rancid little hostage thriller almost entirely inside the confines of a speeding vehicle.
Bava’s last years were marked by professional struggle, though he managed one final film, 1977’s Shock, codirected with his son and longtime assistant, Lamberto. It was a conscious passing on of the family business, as occurred between Eugenio and Mario decades earlier, and exemplary of the Renaissance atelier-like system on which the genius of Italian cinema rested—the system which produced this prodigious artisan, whose curious contraptions are still being stripped for parts.
“Mondo Bava” runs through July 25 at the Quad Cinema in New York.