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Mario Bava (#110 of 6)

Mario Bava on Blu-ray Kidnapped and Black Sabbath

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Mario Bava on Blu-ray: Kidnapped and Black Sabbath
Mario Bava on Blu-ray: Kidnapped and Black Sabbath

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.

Night’s Black Agents Jean Rollin’s The Grapes of Death and Night of the Hunted

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Night’s Black Agents: Jean Rollin’s The Grapes of Death and Night of the Hunted
Night’s Black Agents: Jean Rollin’s The Grapes of Death and Night of the Hunted

The most recent Jean Rollin films to make their Blu-ray debut from Kino and Redemption Films mark a significant departure for the filmmaker. Forced by financial exigencies to eschew the timeless fairy-tale quality of his early-’70s vampire films, Rollin sets these more politically inflected (infected?) films squarely in the present day. Without entirely abandoning the atmosphere of off-kilter surrealism that dominated his earlier films, Rollin proves equally adroit at fashioning emotionally affecting and thematically resonant modern-day morality plays, films that bear comparison with the works of emerging genre visionaries like George A. Romero and David Cronenberg. With its high-rise setting and emphasis on sexualized violence, Night of the Hunted would provide an ideal double feature with Cronenberg’s Shivers, while The Grapes of Death is often compared to Night of the Living Dead, owing to its shambling hordes of pseudo-zombies, the Romero film it most closely resembles in theme and approach is in fact The Crazies.

Both films are linked at their most literal level. Each features a protagonist named Elisabeth, and taken together as a matched pair, the films provide a thoroughgoing critique of the dehumanizing and destructive forces unleashed by (post)industrial capitalism. The Grapes of Death opens with the mechanization of agrarian vineyards and prominently features that emblem of the Industrial Revolution: the locomotive. Night of the Hunted culminates by invoking the routinization of wholesale extermination during the Holocaust via cattle cars and incinerators. The creatures in these films aren’t Romero’s reanimated dead; they’re normal people slowly dying from an incurable disease, a fate that all too easily could befall any of us. The films derive their terrible poignancy from examining the ineluctable process by which their victim-killers’ humanity is progressively leached away.

Death by Art Andrew Cooper’s Dario Argento

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Death by Art: L. Andrew Cooper’s Dario Argento
Death by Art: L. Andrew Cooper’s Dario Argento

“What the fuck is this bullshit psychoanalysis?” are the wonderful words spoken by Jeremy Irons’s Beverly Mantle in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), and if you follow the arguments of L. Andrew Cooper in his new book, the films of Dario Argento often share a similar opinion. Cooper claims Argento, though labeled early in his career as the “Italian Hitchcock,” spent his early, gialli-focused years lambasting and lampooning “Freudian proclivities,” most notably in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969), which positions itself as a Psycho (1960) homage, only to jest at Hitchcock’s insistence upon closure via psychological ends. In fact, Cooper argues that aesthetics, especially beginning with Deep Red (1975), become a replacement for both psychoanalysis and narrative in Argento’s films, leading him toward an interest in visual excess, which would culminate in Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), films that “in their combinations of wild visuals and storylines that challenge storytelling itself, were unlike anything the world had ever seen.” If the previous claim reads slightly clunky and definitely hyperbolic, it’s likely because Cooper’s book, on the whole, is torn between its academic and populist inclinations. Unlike Maitland McDonagh’s revelatory Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, which strikes an invigorating balance of analysis, theory, and historicizing, Cooper states from the onset his desire to “eschew a traditional auteur approach.” Necessarily, this leads him down a rather predictable post-structuralist path, replete with deconstructionist close-reading after close-reading—all of them informative and knowledgeable, certainly, but few, if any, of them truly illuminating the depths of Argento’s oeuvre, beyond relatively fundamental distinctions between form and content and Argento’s non-normative subversions.

Bloodsuckers, Hatchet Murderers, and Lollipop-Smacking Devils: Three by Mario Bava

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Bloodsuckers, Hatchet Murderers, and Lollipop-Smacking Devils: Three by Mario Bava
Bloodsuckers, Hatchet Murderers, and Lollipop-Smacking Devils: Three by Mario Bava

Undisputed maestro of the macabre, Mario Bava put Italian horror cinema on the map in the late 1950s with I Vampiri, the first horror film to come out of Italy since the silent era. Gothic horror was in the air, you might say, in those days: Witness the roughly coeval resurgence of the genre at England’s Hammer Films, with their muscular and bloody take on classic Universal monsters (Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula), as well as the cycle of gaudily decadent Edgar Allan Poe adaptations helmed by Roger Corman (House of Usher). Unlike those Technicolor terrors, Bava preferred, at least initially, to work in moody monochrome. Drawing on his training in the fine arts, as well as his background working as cinematographer for renowned neorealist filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, Bava developed his own inimitable style. Most noticeably, he displayed a marked affinity for economical, and often improvisatory, effects work, especially the exquisitely detailed matte paintings that often help to enrich the pictorial density of his films.

Review: Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento

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Review: Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento
Review: Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento

In winning over new converts, champions of Dario Argento’s horror films have to fight a nose-bleed-inducing uphill battle. First off, his kinky, surreal chillers have been consigned to that special circle of exploitation purgatory reserved for Euro-schlock, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, as Argento has always half-boasted and half-lamented, most of his films have been censored and subsequently released in multiple cuts (he’s pretty much the Terrence Malick of Italian sleaze).

This has made the man and his acolytes extra-defensive, as is evinced in Maitland McDonagh’s interview at the back of the new edition of her Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento. By the end of their Q&A, he seems exhausted (“Why don’t you just make up a reason for me,” he retorts, as if he were ready to limply dangle a white flag above his head). And this is after McDonagh, a dogged defender of the man’s work, playfully teases him with a non-question like, “Do you lie on the beach thinking of disgusting ways to kill people?”