Martin Scorsese’s impassioned voyage through Italian cinema, Il Mio Viaggio in Italia (My Voyage to Italy), played major lip service to the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. The lack of discussion regarding the films of Mario Bava would suggest that Italy’s most revered giallo director had little or no influence on Scorsese. (On the contrary, not only have people pointed out connections between Bava’s Kill, Baby…Kill! and Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and, more explicitly, between The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Cape Fear, but Scorsese writes the introduction to Tim Lucas’s new book on Bava, All the Colors of the Dark.) But perhaps this blind spot can more accurately be blamed on the pervasive belief that horror films are inferior to most genres of film and therefore unworthy of serious critical thought.
Mario Bava was born on July 31, 1914 in San Reno, Italy. His father was Eugenio Bava, a famous sculptor, set designer and cinematographer who worked prominently in the days of Italian silent cinema. (Curiously, two of Eugenio’s three credited works as photographer, Cabiria and Quo Vadis?, feature prominently in Scorsese’s My Voyage to Italy.) Around the time Eugenio went to work as director of optical effects at the Istituto LUCE in 1926, Mario frequently worked as his father’s assistant. Early on, the budding director made a name for himself with his collaborations as a cinematographer with Robert Z. Leonard (Beautiful But Dangerous), Roberto Rossellini, G. W. Pabst, Jacques Tourneur and Raoul Walsh. Bava directed a series of small documentaries in the late ‘40s and later helped save two Riccardo Freda productions, 1957’s I Vampiri and 1959’s Caltiki il mostro immortale (Caltiki the Immortal Monster), before directing his first film, 1960’s now-classic La maschera del demonio (Black Sunday).
In 1962, Bava directed The Girl Who Knew Too Much, considered by some to be the origin of the giallo. In her book Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, Maitland McDonagh notes that Bava’s gialli all seem to lack a “peculiarity present in Argento’s mature work.” But this peculiarity is noticeably present in Bava’s more fetish-driven masterworks (namely The Whip and the Body), which are often dismissed as campy affairs by hardcore fans of Bava’s more popular gialli (in addition to The Girl Who Knew Too Much, there’s Blood and Black Lace, Hatchet for a Honeymoon, Five Dolls for an August Moon, and Twitch of the Death Nerve). 1966’s Kill, Baby…Kill! (also known as Operation Fear) is arguably Bava’s greatest achievement, a coolly unnerving and aggressively stylized tale of ghostly obsession that appeals both to fans of Bava’s whodunnit gialli and his more psycho-sexual jaunts.
In a nameless European city in the early 1900s, Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) arrives to perform an autopsy on a woman who bled to death under mysterious circumstances. With the help of the sexy Monica Schuftan (Erika Blanc), Paul stumbles across the mystery of ball-bouncing Melissa Graps, an eight-year-old girl who was trampled by horses during a festival in 1887 and now haunts the townspeople by driving them to suicide should they glance at her ghost. When Paul’s scientific reasoning fails him, it’s local sorceress Ruth (Fabienne Dali) to the rescue. “Why do they call you as if you are practicing medicine?” he asks her. After infiltrating the mansion of Melissa’s reclusive mother, Baroness Graps (Gianna Vivaldi), Ruth inexplicably ascertains that the old woman has been killing the townspeople and merely using the memory of her daughter as a not-so-elaborate cover-up.
Paul doesn’t make for a very interesting or complex protagonist per se, but his blank-faced naivete does bring to mind David Hemmings’s weakling protagonist from Argento’s masterpiece Deep Red. Both men scoff at the idea of woman in positions of authority: Dali’s all-powerful witch and Blanc’s student of medicine in Kill, Baby…Kill!, and Daria Nicolodi’s overzealous reporter in Argento’s film. Because both films disclose their killers as females, perhaps Bava and Argento mean for their last-act revelations to be taken as deadening blows to the male ego. Paul condescends to the superstitions of the film’s townspeople and is blamed for the death of the young Nadienne (Micaela Esdra) after he scoffs at Ruth’s bleeding rituals as a means of preventing the girl’s death; soon after he imposes his medicine on the girl, Nadienne is seduced by Melissa’s ghost into impaling herself against a deliriously portentous iron object that hangs from her bedroom wall.
This conflict between modern medicine and superstition lends Kill, Baby…Kill! a moral urgency that’s noticeably absent from some other films in Bava’s canon. Far more savory, though, is Bava’s dizzying mise-en-scène. Some have curiously identified an underlying Oedipal trajectory in the film but there’s no mistaking the Escher-like warping of time and space, none more famous than Paul’s repetitive, seemingly endless trip through the same room in Baroness Graps’s mansion (the scene informs a similar sequence in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me). In Kill, Baby…Kill!, Bava evokes Melissa’s ghost rocking back and forth on a swing inside a graveyard by allowing his camera to take on the point of view of the swing itself. Bava’s violent use of zoom shots was often criticized but, more times than not, this technique only served to emphasize the already-disorienting nature of his films.
There’s an overwhelming sense here that the horror that plagues the film’s characters is a response or manifestation of their fears and deepest desires. The film’s aggressively baroque exteriors are often in sharp contrast with the spare, almost Brechtian interiors. Because Bava meant to create a strange dialectic between a hallucinatory, pastoral exterior and a deceptively sterile interior, there’s a heavy emphasis on doors and windows closing on their own or blocking Melissa’s passage between worlds. The girl’s gaze, though, is unavoidable, as is her bouncing ball, which has a way of defying space and teasing the film’s characters, even in death. (Another point of reference: Guillermo del Toro would rework the film’s infamous shot of Melissa peering through a window at Nadienne for El Espinazo del Diablo.)
Equally baroque (or maybe trashily succinct?) is the film’s dialogue. Anyone remotely familiar with Italian horror films has learned to accept their requisite English dubbing as part of the overall package. Erika Blanc’s lines are an artifice all their own (not to mention Carlo Rustichelli’s trippy, quintessentially Italian-lounge score). Who knows who dubbed her English lines, but the voice-over artist’s performance is a work of tongue-in-cheek genius. “Something in this town is supernatural. Tell me, why did they abandon the church? I’m scared, I almost think the devil’s here,” she moans in near-rhyme as Blanc clings to Rossi-Stuart’s Paul. Luchino Visconti purportedly led a standing ovation of the film at its Italian premiere. Indeed, what with all its violent explosions of colors and labyrinthine, almost-monochromatic alleyways seething with expressionistic shadow-play, Kill, Baby…Kill! often plays out like Bava’s answer to Visconti’s equally artificial, sensuous, and deliriously campy Senso.