[Diving into a new cinematic topic can be daunting. This series provides some suggestions on where to begin exploring a director’s body of work, a genre, style or theme. The three suggested films serve as a brief introduction; they’re not complete or authoritative, but will in some way be representative of the topic and hopeful inspire you to watch more, outlined in recommended further viewing.]
Mario Bava is an Italian director who made dozens of genre films throughout the 60s and 70s. Bava is often associated with the wave of giallo films—strange, colorful and vibrant horror/thrillers—that flourished at the time. While Bava’s films share the often schlocky, low-budget aesthetics of the giallo, they showcase Bava’s elegant construction, boundless creativity and sophisticated camerawork.
Working in both color and black-and-white, Bava shows a painterly eye for framing and lighting in films like Black Sunday and Black Sabbath, two spooky supernatural films. He delights not so much in the shock of horror, but in slowly and patiently ratcheting up the suspense. Information is systematically revealed through pans and tracking shots, with an understanding of the space both on- and off-screen. This reliance on formal cinematic technique rather than gore makes Bava’s films feel somehow both more classical and more modern. No viewer would confuse his style with today’s—crash zooms in particular have fallen out of fashion—however his power as a formalist keeps his films fresher and more potent than most Italian horror films.
But all this talk of Bava’s style fails to capture just how fun his movies are. They’re clever, witty, occasionally campy, always supremely effective and never overlong. Many of Bava’s films are available to stream on Netflix Instant, making them a great option for fans of classic horror.
1) Black Sunday (1960)
A classic gothic witch story, Black Sunday demonstrates Bava’s rich, atmospheric mise-en-scene and textured black-and-white photography. The film concerns a witch who’s gruesomely executed in the Middle Ages only to reawaken hundreds of years later thanks to a fateful drop of blood. The plot, however, takes a backseat to the film’s genuinely creepy ambiance. Using a mobile camera and staging in deep focus, Bava evokes horror from the tone of the film rather than its content. Watch out for an impressive special effect late in the film which ages the witch right before our eyes.
2) Black Sabbath (1963)
Black Sabbath is a Technicolor anthology film hosted by Boris Karloff and comprising three short horror pieces. Karloff’s introduction of each chapter keeps the tone light and winking and the segments themselves recall the simple setup of Twilight Zone episodes. Bava lives in the elongated spaces between the core concepts of these short episodes and their eventual payoff, patiently extending passages with a general mood of dread and bathing his sets and the actors’ faces in shadows, fog and vibrant, multicolored light.
3) A Bay of Blood (1971)
Often credited as the first slasher film, A Bay of Blood shows a different side of Bava and Italian horror. It’s much more violent and nasty, trading in the heightened gothic spookiness of Black Sunday and Black Sabbath for bigger scares and a higher body count. The setup will be familiar to slasher fans: residents of a secluded bayside community begin to die mysteriously at the hands of an unknown killer. Like the more influential Halloween seven years later, A Bay of Blood features ominous point-of-view camerawork. The distinctly 70s visual aesthetic is a bit distracting, but there’s plenty of creativity on display, in particular with the film’s totally gonzo ending.
Recommended Further Viewing:
Danger: Diabolik, a cheeky James Bond-esque caper film about a suave master criminal; The Girl Who Knew Too Much, a winking goof on Hitchcock.