Mario Bava had spilled plenty of blood by the time he reached his 1974 swan song, Kidnapped. But the film, originally titled Rabid Dogs, remains his leanest and meanest trip through hell’s outer rim. A group of ruthless robbers has just jacked 500 million lira, leaving a string of dead bodies in their wake, concluding their daring escape by kidnapping a father, his deathly ill child, and a young woman. From this point on, Bava sticks us right in the backseat of a sky-blue Opel Rekord with these lunatics and barely shows the decency to crack the window. Nor for that matter does he allow us much time outside the caravan once we’re there, but from these confined environs, the filmmaker provides a master study in crime-world nihilism, slathered in sweat, blood, and stink.
Consider if the hippies from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hadn’t kicked the hitchhiker out of the van and went roadtripping instead and you’re in the vicinity of what Bava has in mind here. Like Tobe Hooper’s classic, also produced in 1974, Bava strips the film of stylistic excesses, making the instinctual savagery of the murderous trio—Blade (Don Backy), Doc (Maurice Poli), and 32 (George Eastman)—all the more direct and frightening. Of course, Doc, the mastermind for all intents and purposes, serves as more of a moderator between the yawping hyenas that are Blade and 32, and their traumatized captives. Though compliant, Riccardo (Riccardo Cucciolla), the father, constantly and subtly prods at the control exerted over him, whereas the young woman, Maria (Lea Lander), is gripped by hysterical fear that only grows with intensity as the film progresses.
The woman, ultimately, is a victim of all the men. 32 constantly humiliates, gropes, and drools over Maria, who Blade is intermittently entertained by, but Riccardo has his own agenda (a reveal too wildly cynical and bruising to ruin here), which makes it clear that he’s been stoking the coals of Maria’s panic along with the robbers from the beginning. It’s class and that thing called “taste” which Bava is ultimately skewering, as he insinuates the immediate physical threats of desperate, violent, but low-level criminals are no more or less insidious than those of the seemingly docile upper-middle class. In fact, the former often serves as an allowance for the latter, making its perpetrators looking more dignified and inconspicuous by comparison. And though he never directly addresses it, the film’s thematic interests have a tenuous but unmistakable alignment with Bava’s personal beliefs and body of work, which was often discarded or debased for its graphic, sometimes unappealing, and “tasteless” depictions.
Left unfinished due to bankruptcy and seized by the Italian government until the mid 1990s, when Bava’s son finished the film with help from producer Alfredo Leone, Kidnapped feels more aggressive than any other Bava work, and strikes me as his most unforgiving and naked film, doing away with the visual embellishments, the niceties of fiction that had dominated his now rightly heralded style, and letting the skeletal remains speak for themselves. Indeed, the work that Bava expressed most pride in, Black Sabbath, shares a similar distrust in the pillars of the status quo, but adorns them with elements of the macabre and grotesque both sly and grandiose, not the least of which being Boris Karloff.
An omnibus film made up of three shorts, bookended by Karloff, our host, Black Sabbath speaks to the vastness of Bava’s abilities in the realms of the terrifying and the supernatural. Beginning with a series of unnerving phone calls, opener “The Telephone” finds him in a stylistic mode close to Hitchcock, detailing the stalking and intended murder of a young woman, Rosy (Michele Mercier). The terror and suspense of the film is complicated by satirical melodrama, as the vengeful return of Rosy’s ex-squeeze, the gangster Frank Rainer (Milo Quesada), is initially just the pretense for a cruel expression of social jealousy from a slighted friend. Visually, it’s uncluttered and told with a brisk mastery, as each shot moves the story ahead with stunning exactitude without limiting the scope of the story or confining the impressive hash of furious emotions in the film.
On the other hand, “The Wurdalak,” the film’s centerpiece, is drenched in fantastical detail, including 19th-century vernacular, wardrobe, and mythology. Like Bava’s classic Black Sunday, it centers on a cursed Russian family, the patriarch of which (Karloff again) returns home from an extended trip, acting strange and baring certain vampiric tendencies. The director matches the fear and terror of the supernatural with an unexpected, near-hysterical vision of misguided familial passions, as a mother’s love for her child, and a young woman’s love for her father, are responsible for just as many lives as the elusive, titular beings. It’s a (literally) dreadful melodrama, and Bava amplifies the simple horror story with his reliably potent sense of desolate, haunted atmosphere. The sequence in which a tot, presumed dead, calls out for his mother while heading into the surrounding, wind-whipped forest is almost unbearable in its depiction of helpless parental instinct.
Instincts of a less sympathetic breed spark the final tale, “The Drop of Water,” which involves the robbery of an exquisite ring from the body of a recently deceased woman by her nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux). There are echoes of “The Tell-Tale Heart” here, as guilt and grief of this seemingly minor crime summons a host of visual and auditory shocks and prods, the eponymous one being the most perpetual. It’s stripped down, but in a much different way than Kidnapped. Bava uses minimal dialogue to set the sequences, and then leans on filmic language almost entirely, from the flamboyantly expressive lighting to the actors and their makeup to the all-important sounds of water and a buzzing fly. Greed is punished, but the robbery is also a matter of vanity, culled from the nurse’s need to not only look like a natural caregiver, but like she’s worth as much fiscally as she does morally. At the center of Bava’s alluring and grotesque artistry, whether in early masterworks like Blood and Black Lace and Black Sunday or Kidnapped, is a ferocious humility, an unfettered focus on what’s important in filmmaking, and an unrelenting hostility toward and suspicion of those who seek false virtue in art.