Let’s face it folks, when it comes to real horror that pulls no punches and takes plenty of chances no one does it better than the Italians. They don’t shy away from the good stuff, and by that I mean gruesome gore and sizzling sex. If a Mount Rushmore of Italian horror filmmakers was ever erected there are only three faces that could go on it: Lucio Fulci, the deceased maker of many a classic of phantasmagorical zombie horror; Dario Argento, maybe not the Hitchcock of the Boot (and a bit too preoccupied with filming his daughter Asia in the nude) but needless to say he took the giallo in visually and mentally stimulating new directions; but towering above them all is the late Mario Bava, not just Italy’s best horror filmmaker but perhaps one of that European country’s finest filmmaking talents.
From sordid tales of witchcraft and revenge (Black Sunday) to sweaty, lurid crime dramas (Rabid Dogs) Bava has conquered practically every genre of cinema and did it better than most filmmakers dare even dream. Not even his own progeny, son Lamberto, could follow in his footsteps. When Bava departed this mortal coil on April 27, 1980, two days before Alfred Hitchcock went to his final reward, his passing seem to have a greater impact on horror filmmaking in Italy than he could have possibly imagined. With the exception of Michele Soavi (Cemetery Man) few filmmakers have emerged since Bava’s death who could pose the slightest challenge to the man’s legacy. Without question there is only one Mario Bava!
For those of you looking to get into the master’s work as I was a good entry point is his 1971 thriller A Bay of Blood. Alternately known around the world as both Twitch of the Death Nerve and Carnage, A Bay of Blood is a wildly entertaining cocktail of black comedy, gore epic, and country house mystery. Bava’s film is considered by many to be the first true “body count” horror. Even though Herschell Gordon Lewis’s early films such as Blood Feast and 2000 Maniacs laid the groundwork for modern blood-drenched hack-’em-up flicks, A Bay of Blood established the formula that every slasher classic from Halloween to the Friday the 13th franchise ultimately adhered to in some way. It’s simple science: get a small group of people out to a rural locale isolated from the outside world and then dispatch each one in the bloodiest ways possible. But A Bay of Blood is unique among the films it inspired because even as it established the slasher movie template Bava (along with co-writers Giuseppe Zaccariello and Filippo Ottoni, working from an original story by Dardano Sacchetti and Franco Barberi) was tweaking the very formula cooking up in the laboratory of his imagination.
On a cold and dark evening the wheelchair-confined Countess Federica (Isa Miranda) is seemingly alone in her vast mansion by the bay. While wheeling herself through the house her husband Filippo Donati (Giovanni Nuvoletti) suddenly appears and kills the countess by putting a rope around her neck and forcing her out of her wheelchair, strangling her to death. Filippo’s pretty satisfied with his handywork until an assailant emerges from the shadows and stabs him. Real estate broker Ventura (Chris Avram) hears of the death of the countess and leaves for the bay to finalize his purchase of the countess’ house and property, unaware that Donati, the man he’s expecting to sell him the property, is also dead but nowhere to be found. Federica’s death is ruled a suicide after a note taken from her own journal is discovered by her body.
More characters come out of the woodwork. Paolo (Leopoldo Trieste), an entomologist, lives in a smaller house by the bay with his wife Anna (Laura Betti), a fortune teller who also specializes in tarot readings (just like Alejandro Jodorowsky). Close to where they live is Simon (Claudio Volonte), a handyman and fisherman with his a mysterious connection to the countess and Donati. The dead Donati’s daughter Renata (Claudine Auger) arrives at the house with her husband Albert (Luigi Pistilli) and two children (Renato Cestie and Nicoletta Elmi) with an eye on a healthy inheritance. Duke (Guido Boccaccini) and his friend Robert (Roberto Bonanni) tear ass around the bay with their new respective girlfriends Denise (Paola Rubens) and Brunhilda (Brigette Skay) and break into Ventura’s cottage for one helluva fun night. They have no bloody idea what they’re in for because Countess Federica’s home and fortune are up for grabs and everyone involved has motive enough to kill in order to claim it, and they most certainly will. They don’t call this flick A Bay of Blood for nothing!
Being a jaded horror fan who’s seen more than his fair share of dull slasher movies, I was genuinely surprised by A Bay of Blood. Smart, stylish, and very sexy, Bay is the kind of hardcore horror I like to see. Devotees of Mario Bava’s filmography tend to dismiss this film and they are mistaken for doing so because this movie is great fun for adult horror fans. Bava turns his distinctive visual eye on full blast and you can clearly tell that like great horror filmmakers from James Whale to John Carpenter he enjoys playing with the expectations of his audience. From the very beginning when we watch as Donati coldly murders his own helpless wife and then as we are now believing that this is the villain we’ll be keeping an eye on during the story he himself is brutally killed. That’s a pretty great way to start a horror movie! Now we have no idea what to expect. Watching this for the first time I sure as hell was hooked.
You see, there is no one killer in Bava’s film. This isn’t about some mongoloid running around in a hockey mask eternally avenging the death of his mother. There are no summer camp caretakers burned beyond recognition hacking up horny teenagers with a pair of gardening shears. In A Bay of Blood the stakes are much higher. Bava presents us with a group of opportunists all with very good reasons for going on a bloody rampage. For some it’s about revenge, but for the rest it’s all about having their cake and eating it too. The murders are motivated mostly by sheer avarice and we have a sizable list of suspects to choose from, much like the mysteries of Agatha Christie. All we need is Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to gather the remaining suspects together in the drawing room at the end and cleverly deduce which one is the killer. Imagine Robert Altman’s Gosford Park with bleaker humor and infinitely more violence and sex and you might have something close to the greed-driven mayhem of Bava’s Bay.
The movie probably most indebted to A Bay of Blood is Friday the 13th Part II. The scene where the two lovers in bed writhing on top of one another are impaled with a spear was taken verbatim from Bava’s film but of course Steve Miner, the director of F13II, isn’t even 1/1000 of the filmmaker Mario Bava is and Bava never had to worry about bowing to the whims of prudish censors and Hollywood studio executives as soullessly avaricious as the characters in Bay. Another scene from F13II I noticed that was ripped off from Bay was the scene where Kirsten Baker’s character goes for a nighttime nude swim in Crystal Lake. Much like the impalement murder Bava’s movie does it best because in Bay the scene takes place during daytime and the voluptuous Brigette Skay is worlds sexier than the virtually anorexic Baker and there’s a dreamy erotic quality to watching Skay swimming nude in the cool, sunlit waters of the bay, even when Bava puts another dark twist on the scene.
Serving as his own cinematographer Bava uses bright bursts of color and strange camera angles to heighten the tension and draw the viewer into the mystery. Even the ugliest, more vicious moments in A Bay of Blood are made into works of depraved beauty thanks to Bava’s painterly compositions and the art and production design of Sergio Canevari. Next to them the star of Bay is the standout make-up effects work by the renowned maestro Carlo Rambaldi, a true artist who has had one of the strangest career trajectories of any VFX master going from crafting the brutal gore of Bay and classic giallo such as Lucio Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Dario Argento’s Deep Red to winning Oscars for creating the iconic creatures of Alien and E.T. Rambaldi may have ended his career nestled in mainstream respectability but years before names like Rick Baker, Tom Savini, and Greg Nicotero emerged he was creatively killing off unsuspecting victims on the big screen with the best of them, and his work in A Bay of Blood is first-rate and would prove to be highly influential in the years to come. Here Rambaldi is granted license to serve up a hearty full-course FX meal with plenty of meat and sauce in the gore pasta. The double impalement is just the tip of the iceberg because we’ve got dudes getting meat cleavers in the face, decapitations shown in grisly close-up, multiple stabbings, and a beautiful woman’s neck slashed with lots of the red stuff splashing across the screen. Plus I couldn’t forget that time-honored staple of the slasher genre, the scene where one of the survivors finds the dead victims lovingly displayed in the most convenient of places like a nightmarish art gallery exhibit. Even if the twisty narrative doesn’t hook them right off the bat, gorehounds will still find plenty to love about A Bay of Blood.
The cast is a mixed bag of performers, but frankly that’s to be expected of an Italian horror film. The standouts include: Claudine Auger as the scheming Renata and Luigi Pistilli as her jellyfish of a hubby; Leopoldo Trieste and Laura Betti as the mysterious Fossatis; and Claudio Volonte as the instant suspect Simon. The actors playing the partying teens fare the worse as they’re no more or less talented than the punks you’d usually find cast as cannon fodder in slasher flicks but they do just fine under Bava’s direction, and did I mention that Brigette Skay was a major fox? If she was a president she’d be Babebraham Lincoln. In French she’d be known as la renard and would be hunted with only her cunning to protect her. She’s a babe, a robo-babe, and I’ll wager a hundred bucks that you probably never thought you’d live to see the day when you could spot Wayne’s World references in a review of a Mario Bava horror film. Party time! Excellent!
A Bay of Blood is a movie that should be seen by anybody who calls themselves a horror fan. It’s not merely a watershed event in the evolution of modern horror, but a supremely twisted and entertaining flick with memorable moments out the wazoo. I love it, and so will you ya sick freaks!
– Robert Morgan