Monday 9 January 2012

Viva Bava, Part 1: A riot is an ugly thing, and it's just about time we had one

This is the first post in a series exploring the films of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava. Not, I should clarify, a proper retrospective. Italian genre cinema of the post-war period being what it is, Bava's filmography is an extraordinarily ragged mess. As a workhorse, Bava did shedloads of second-unit direction, uncredited work and films that have nothing to do with the origins of the modern horror film I'm interested in tracing here.

Bava's father was a cinematographer, and the young Mario earned his spurs shooting other people's films in the late forties and fifties, when pepla, Italian sword-and-sandal pictures in which strongmen like Hercules and Maciste performed deeds of heroic valour, were ripping off  American epics like The Ten Commandments. Bava himself directed his share of pepla, from Hercules in the Haunted World (Ercole al centro della terra) to the Viking-themed Erik the Conqueror (Gli invasori).

I shan't consider those films here, nor will I discuss his forays into Spaghetti Western (Roy Colt and Winchester Jack/Roy Colt e Winchester Jack) and crowd-pleasing comic-book adaptations (Danger: Diabolik). I'll restrict myself instead to the horror films credited to Bava, although I may come back later for The Devil's Commandment (I vampiri) and Caltiki - The Immortal Monster (Caltiki - il monstro immortale), both of which Bava salvaged when the temperamental director Riccardo Freda walked off set.

That means that the first film for our consideration is Bava's official directorial debut, 1960's La maschera del demonio. Titled Black Sunday and The Mask of Satan in the United States and Britain respectively, the film was an international box office smash, although it barely made back its production costs in Italy itself. The Mask of Satan (which I keep misspelling 'The Mask of Stan') fell foul of the British Board of Film Censors, who refused to grant the film a rating; it was thus not seen in the UK until 1968. Despite concern over its outré gore effects, Bava's debut immediately found a devoted fanbase including many critics.

We open with an execution: in seventeenth-century Moldavia, a vampire witch, Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele in her star-making turn, even though the opening credits misspell her name as 'Steel'), is about to be burnt at the stake together with her accomplice Javuto (Arturo Dominici) by her brother. She places a curse on his descendants before a heavy mask bristling with spikes on the inside - the titular mask of Satan - is hammered on her face, killing her in a scene that's no less harrowing fifty years on.* A heavy downpour, however, prevents the customary destruction of the body.

Two hundred years later, we meet Dr Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Dr Andre Gorobec (John Richardson), who are crossing the Moldavian landscape by coach on their way to an academic conference. They bribe Nikita the coachman (Mario Passante) to take a shortcut through the woods the locals fear is haunted. The carriage breaks down, and while Nikita fixes the damage the scientists explore nearby ruins, where they discover the tomb of the long-dead witch, who's prevented from rising again by a cross fixed to her sarcophagus.

After Gorobec has gone outside again, Kruvajan is attacked by a 'bat' that's obviously a rag waved into shot by a PA. In the process of subduing the beast, the clumsy professor manages to smash the cross into pieces and injure himself a minute later, dripping blood onto the witch's face when he attempts to remove the satanic mask (which, as we know, is just bad archaeological practice). I mean, seriously. What is with these people? Having both fed the vampire and destroyed the safeguard holding her in place, our idiot scientists travel on to a nearby village, not before meeting Katia (also portrayed by Steele), the beautiful daughter of Prince Vajda, with whom Gorobec is instantly smitten.

Asa, reanimated but too weak to leave her coffin, commands Javuto to rise and do her work for her, which he does by attacking Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani). He's warded off with a cross and flees, but when Katia and her brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri) call Dr Kruvajan to help their delirious father, the scientist is abducted by Javuto and turned into a vampire by Asa. Now Gorobec must figure out what's going on before Asa is able to consume Katia's life-force and rise to resume her satanic service.

The Mask of Satan is elevated to classic status by Bava's stylish direction. It's difficult to single out moments, but an absolutely terrific pan after the carriage drives off near the beginning of the film that feeds into Bava's use of branches as a visual theme is among the most impressive. Bava, acting as his own cinematographer, uses the monochrome colour scheme to highlight contrast and emphasise shadows: when a door Kruvajan has passed through falls shut revealing Asa's griffin symbol, it's one of the most beautiful black-and-white scenes I've ever seen, confirming the sinister undertones we already suspected in a single striking image.

The film's stunning special effects, courtesy of Bava himself and his father (one wonders what Eugenio Bava, a deeply religious man who also created sacral art, would have made of his son's later splatterfests), make it worth watching even now. For a film from 1960, The Mask of Satan is quite extraordinarily gory: a vampire is staked through the eye, another is burnt to death, and bugs and scorpions crawl over the undead witch's face before she is reanimated in a really terrific sequence, to become the iconic spike-scarred face below.

Unfortunately The Mask of Satan is bedevilled (ho ho) by cheapness. A portrait referred to as 'canvas' in dialogue is obviously goddamn paper glued on wood, and they would have done well to omit animals: supposedly frightened Dobermans are cheerfully wagging their tails at the actors, while an allegedly panicked cow is peacefully masticating, suggesting the set was a less terrifying experience than the final product. (And look, I'm the descendant of a long line of farmers, and no-one milks their cows late at night.)

Nor are the performances all that great, and they're butchered by absolutely dire English dubbing, complete with wildly inconsistent accents. The exception is Steele who - despite being, as she says, 'drunk, barely over eighteen, embarrassed... not very easy to be around' and annoyed with Bava's very exploitative insistence on emphasising her body - makes a good Katia and an outstanding bloodsucking sorceress. (The film seems to think 'witch' and 'vampire' are synonyms, and presents a decidedly heterodox spin on both.)

There's a moment in The Mask of Satan in which the inglorious future of horror cinema is suddenly glimpsed. In the film's third act, Prince Vajda's servant Ivan (Tino Bianchi) is killed by being strangled from behind with a piece of rope. The way this murder is filmed is very giallo, slasherish even: it could be straight out of Twitch of the Death Nerve or Friday the 13th, and just for a second, the road that led from the shores of Italy to America's grindhouses is laid bare. 

*Tim Burton cites the influence of The Mask of Satan on his work. I'm no Burton fan, but it helps that Sleepy Hollow, my favourite Burton feature, is the one that bears the mark of Bava most clearly.

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