Mario Bava’s relatively bloodless Five Dolls for an August Moon can be seen as a sort of dress rehearsal for his follow-up film, the far more sanguine slasher trendsetter A Bay of Blood. As though this weren’t enough to ensure the film’s dismissal among a certain fanbase, Five Dolls for an August Moon is a work-for-hire project on which Bava stepped in at the 11th hour to replace another director. Atypically, Bava exerted little control over the plotline, which he subsequently denigrated as a shoddy knockoff of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. (Ironically, similar allegations would be leveled with even less justification against A Bay of Blood when it was eventually released stateside under the more evocative title Twitch of the Death Nerve.) As a sort of revenge against the substandard material, Bava refuses to show most of the film’s frequent acts of violence. What’s more, he experiments with the narrative structure in some novel ways, and even plays around with the soundtrack, shifting its mode of employment from diegetic to non-diegetic in fairly sophisticated fashion.
Four tony couples occupy a flamboyant modernist island getaway with intentions that extend beyond simple R&R. Three of the men happen to be executives hoping to persuade the fourth man, a scientist who’s devised a valuable chemical process, to sell them his formula. When he balks at their offers, people start to die under mysterious circumstances. Such a blunt recitation of the storyline can’t begin to convey the formal conceits Bava employs to disorient the viewer. The opening scene unfolds with a riot of snap pans and zooms as we’re introduced to the as-yet-nameless occupants of the villa in the midst of a booze-soaked bacchanal complete with ritualistic mumbo-jumbo and mock sacrifice. (You also get scantily clad giallo queen Edwige Fenech writhing around most lasciviously.) Indeed, the humorous reveal that this initial “murder” has been a sham concocted out of thin air with nothing more than a retractable knife and some stage blood sets the mood for subsequent events. What you see will most definitely not be what you get.
Bava’s trademark gallows humor is on display throughout, most especially in the recurring scenes where the unseen killer’s latest victim, all swathed in a transparent plastic body bag, is hung up in the freezer alongside the others like yet another side of beef, all of which is accompanied by a jarringly jaunty number on the soundtrack. Bava’s eye for exquisite compositions is equally evident. One scene in particular stands out in this regard: The filmmaker shoots an otherwise humdrum fistfight through wooden latticework that breaks the action up into an abstracted mosaic effect. The fight culminates with a table being upended, which in turn unleashes a myriad crystal spheres. The camera follows along as the spheres tumble and cascade down a spiral staircase and roll across a tiled floor before plopping like so many bath bubbles into a tub. The scene concludes with the revelation of a recently deceased character caught in what you’d have to call a tableau morte. It’s a dazzlingly orchestrated sequence, easily on par with more famous Bava set pieces.
Late in the film, Bava performs a bizarre bait and switch. Characters who should be in one place (they’re unconscious, so there’s little chance they just wandered off) seem to suddenly vanish, then just as miraculously reappear right where they were. Of course, this being a Christie-style mystery yarn, there turns out to be a perfectly rational explanation for events, but the effect on the viewer is nevertheless strangely disorienting. Yet Bava saves his most effective rug-pulling for last, delivering a double-twist ending that registers strongly. Not coincidentally, perhaps, this revised ending was one of the few contributions to the storyline Bava managed, and the funhouse-mirror reversals of the film’s final minutes take it in a suitably bizarre direction. Five Dolls for an August Moon isn’t top-tier Bava by any means, but for those with eyes to see, there are pleasures aplenty to be gleaned from this playfully abstract jeu d’esprit.
Kino’s 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray transfer gives Five Dolls for an August Moon a whole new lease on life. Colors are more vibrant and deeply saturated than in previous DVD editions. The Blu-ray’s high-definition image is so clear that you can make out minor details that had been heretofore obfuscated. Altogether, the image is surprisingly clean, with little in the way of distracting artifacts, while grain levels are healthy. There’s only one audio option, a lossless PCM English-language track. It’s suitably dynamic, mostly free from pops and hisses, and does a terrific job putting across Piero Umiliani’s bouncy funk score. Dialogue is easily discernible, which is a good thing, since there aren’t any subtitles provided.
Other than a brace of trailers for other Mario Bava titles available from Kino/Redemption, the sole bonus feature here is a commentary track from Bava authority Tim Lucas, and it’s a most welcome addition, supplanting text-based liner notes and filmographies that accompanied earlier releases of the film with a bounty of new and intriguing information. Lucas covers Bava’s involvement with the project, his subversive decision not to show the majority of the film’s murders, and also provides a thorough overview of the careers of pretty much everyone involved with the film. Lucas’s commentary goes a long way toward rehabilitating this typically neglected entry in Bava’s filmography.
Five Dolls for an August Moon may be minor Mario Bava, but the film’s sly humor and eye-popping production design provide plenty to recommend it to devotees of European horror cinema, a claim that’s only reinforced by Kino’s excellent Blu-ray package.