Compared to the other giallo films that comprise most of Mario Bava’s canon, A Bay of Blood (also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve) represents a more stripped-down and economic filmmaking from the Italian master. Notably absent are the supernatural undertones and fetishistic sexuality, and Bava even suppresses the vigorous impulses and desires that drive his characters to exteriorize their feelings in vicious bursts of violence by offering no valid (or convincing) psychological explanation. Despite being one of Bava’s simpler works, or perhaps because of that very reason, A Bay of Blood has proven to be the foremost progenitor of the slasher film, the one in which the Jason Voorheeses and Ghostfaces owe their blade of choice to. But it’s only the basic tenor of a psychopath slaying victims one by one that’s remained intact within the subgenre in the 40-plus years of this film’s existence. It’s in this film’s elementary plotting that Bava, by withholding information and leaning more on animalistic themes dictating bizarre character motivation, unveils a deceptive depth that A Bay of Blood’s acolytes can’t discern among the copious amounts of blood spilled within its frames.
In a wordless prologue, crippled Countess Federica (Isa Miranda) is murdered by her husband in a way to make it look like a suicide, but then her killer is quickly offed within seconds. The murder releases a torrent of violence within the secluded bayside community in which Frederica holds influence, where everyone is capable of committing murder, and most likely already has. With Federica gone, prime real estate by the bay is up for grabs, which draws in the scheming personalities of her illegitimate son, Simon (Claudio Volonté), suave realty agent Frank Ventura (Chris Avram), and her Lady Macbeth-like stepdaughter, Renata (Claudine Auger), who drags her husband Albert (Luigi Pistilli) into the mess. It’s La Ronde if Ophüls gave his characters axes. While the story may seem unhinged, Bava’s reluctance in clearly divulging his narrative gives the film’s underlying implications more breathing room, as the overtly contrived machinations of the numerous murders and convoluted roundelay of characters is meant to distract.
Bava shrewdly lays breadcrumbs throughout to develop a formidable subtext. The ultimate prize everyone covets is nothing more than property with a bayside view, whether enveloped in a luxury resort or in the overgrown boonies Federica would have preferred. By the time some poor guy has gotten a billhook to the face, the act of killing becomes more than a means to achieve goals, but a complete manifestation of people’s base desires, with Bava’s collection of killers effectively embracing this by ignoring years of human progress and tapping into animal instincts. Bava streamlines this Freudian effect in his entomologist character, Fassati (Leopoldo Trieste). Early in the film, Fassati argues with Simon, a fisherman, over the merits of their trades. Simon makes Fassati feel “like a murderer,” but Fassati mentions the years of human civilization behind them. “I don’t know about that…I wasn’t there,” Simon replies. Since the characters in the film manipulate and kill for their wants before their sense of humanity dissolves, it’s no surprise when Simon and everyone else fail to follow through on their words. Given the lack of psychological complexity and remaining in one location throughout, the characters resemble specimens in Bava’s insectarium.
More explicit to these themes is the seemingly inconsequential appearance of four teenagers, unbridled in their animalistic sexuality. It’s no spoiler to say they’re killed rather quickly, and gruesomely, by the residents of the bay, who have no obvious reason for doing so. While the killers might achieve a sort of sexual fulfillment with each murder, Bava taps into fundamental carnality with the teenagers, therefore ridding the film of any “human” character. In one scene, two of the teens are pinned down by a spear through the chests in the midst of copulating. Before dying, they finish their lovemaking, as if this merging of violence and sex were the ultimate pleasure to their primordial desires. But as the thoroughly modern-looking teens invading and dancing in a blown-out and abandoned house might signify, their arrival could read as human infiltration on a natural landscape; where as much progress civilization makes, nature will find a way to “hack” back. One might also see these passages as Bava’s response to the new giallo blood making a splash, as Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was released the previous year.
Yet Bava’s thoroughly unique and snarky mise-en-scéne doesn’t give the impression of a mere retaliatory work, the nail in the coffin to this reasoning being a denouement Joe Dante has called “the best ending since Citizen Kane.” Bava proverbially pulls out all the stops: the rare horror ending that offers one last shock while committing fully to the film’s ideals, a final punchline that Bava makes sure doesn’t go down easy.
The film’s colors, from the candy-apple red blood to the blue hues of the nighttime bay, all pop with bright clarity, with color grading potent and at just the right levels in regard to the many scenes at night. Given the age of the film, it’s remarkable that Kino’s superlative transfer looks this polished. Not so much the case with the sound, which suffers from hollow and reverberating dialogue that unfortunately stays inconsistent in volume during the duration of the film. But Stelvio Cipriani’s mesmerizing tribal/rock score, while sometimes overwhelming the soundtrack, is calibrated great in this LPCM audio.
An informative commentary by Tim Lucas, Bava biographer and author of the definitive behemoth tome on the director, Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, is the highlight here in the scant but worthwhile features. Diving into the biographical aspects of the director and the film’s cast, Lucas is a deliberate and easygoing speaker, with a conversationalist approach that never becomes effusive. He details the film’s production as well, providing a few notable stories, but occasionally becomes silent for long stretches of time. Regardless, it’s a rewarding listen. The European version of the film, Reazione a Catena, is included as well, and is essentially the same film with minor variations as well as different dialogue spoken in Italian. It’s nice to compare the two, and also see the remastering done by Kino in the main feature, since the European version certainly shows its age. Also included are trailers for A Bay of Blood and other Bava films.
The granddaddy of all slasher films, Mario Bava’s brilliant and deceptive giallo arrives via an invaluable transfer from Kino.