Since he’s begun being rehabilitated (i.e. since his enormous influence has been recognized by numerous filmmakers and critics), it is not rare for Mario Bava to be nicknamed the Italian Hitchcock. Naturally, the comparison isn’t in favor of the creator of giallo, who’s more often perceived like a craftsman skilled in the Hitchcockian style than like the infinitely personal innovator he was.
According to Tim Burton, in an interviewed for Garry S. Grant’s documentary Mario Bava, Maestro of the macabre, the universe staged in La Maschera del demonio aka “Black Sunday” (the cornerstone of Italian style gothic horror) is more “real than reality”, inasmuch as the sinister crypts and creepy castles filmed by Bava better reflect his innermost personality than an authentic autobiography would. Starting there, and taking in consideration how the Internet crawls with websites chronicling the director’s career (which spans over nearly every genre from 1960 to 1980) and exploring his recurrent themes (sadism, erotism, Goth and death), we will try instead in this here piece to sketch the psychological portait of the artist (but not the man) according to the nature of his work.
In 1956, Bava completes the shooting of I Vampiri, which his fellow director friend Riccardo Freda abandoned after a conflict with the producers. The film launches Italian gothic horror. In 1957, over at Hammer, Terence Fisher lays the foundations of British gothic horror with The Curse of Frankenstein. In 1960, the Corman/Matheson tandem begins its Poe cycle with an adaptation of The House of Usher, offering an American counterpoint to the emerging cinematographic tendencies of England and Italy. Finally, the same year, Bava, after about 20 years as cinematographer, special effects supervisor and salvager of troubled productions, directs his first film, La Maschera del demonio, which will traumatize generations of moviegoers. While the picture’s charged sadism (notably in the infamous opening scene) isn’t as troubling as back then, it remains no less fascinating, but for different reasons that we will now observe more attentively.
General consensus has the gothic genre (from the point of view of narrative arts, not architecture) recognizable by its settings (isolated castles, sinister cemeteries, ominous forests, etc.) and its atmosphere (melancholy and macabre). Alas, whereas the aforementioned elements do come back from film to film, their signification differs in depending on who’s holding the camera. More often than not, the gothic genre constitutes the virtual canvas upon which the creator’s subconscious is projected. The worn-down and decrepit aspect of the locations relates to the notion of suppressed feelings (dust and cobwebs), the various torture instruments (often straight out of the Inquisition) evoke some of the psychological mechanisms that torment us (jealousy, paranoia, frustration, etc.), the countless and sinuous hidden passages suggest the inextricable meanders of the human mind (who was never startled by one of his own thoughts, springing out like a character coming out of one of those revolving bookshelves?) and, of course, the characteristic isolation of a castle perched upon a vertiginous cliff is nothing but the symbolic representation of the realm of dreams, beyond the prosaic grounds of awaking. In Bava’s cinema, through the rich sprawling sets, the warm kaleidoscope of the lighting and the languorous camera movements (ah yes, languorous!), the gothic genre presents itself like the reflection of an unconscious freed from the consequences of morality where, in the shadows of death, reigns the drunkenness of the senses.
“Movies are a magician’s forge, they allow you to build a story with your hands.”
With this declaration from Bava himself, summing up his passion for the elaboration of special effects, sets and the various elements of photography and filming, we’re able to reach even further towards the essence of his art: sensuality. For the director of Sei donne per l’assassino aka “Blood and Black Lace”, sculptor’s son and Beaux Arts student, existence is apprehended foremost by the senses, notably sight (lights, camera, action) and touch (the sets, special effects and actresses). One only has to look at the enthusiasm he provokes in fetishist filmmakers (Argento, Tarantino, Burton, etc.) to accept this hypothesis. However, Bava is above all a director of horror films, something that always coincides with a pronounced taste for the extreme (otherwise he’d be chronicling the lives of modest villages of Italian fishermen, right?). Henceforth, if he can be fascinated by the exquisite caresses you want to provide to a voluptuous young woman, nameless tortures also ignite his curiosity (1963’s La Frusta e il corpo aka “The Whip and the Body”). For the immoral explorer he is, these are only two diametrically opposed degrees of the same specter of physical sensations. On the other hand, this sensual covetousness culminates in lucidity. By interweaving lust and suffering, tenderness and sadism into a breathless longing for pleasure, his artistic process always crashes into what ineluctably ends the realm of the senses: death. In this regard, an image from La Maschera del demonio proves revelatory. When the vampire-witch Asa (personified by Barbara Steele, sublime nymph of gothic horror, in whom Poe himself would have retrieved his lost lovers), recovers her beauty, the young doctor Gorobek, fooled and attracted by her demoniacal charm, tries to embrace her but, in removing her cape, he discovers the exposed guts of a rotting corpse (a sight still shocking some 45 years after its creation). Putrefaction shamelessly reveals to be the ultimate destination of beauty. Cinema rarely offered, the way paintings do, such an effective representation of Vanitas. This obsession with the duplicity both seductive and repulsive of beauty (generally the female body) constitutes in Bava a capital dimension of the artist’s nature.
Then again, even though he always more or less flirted with Goth, Bava didn’t limit himself to this genre, more so considering that he’s credited with literally creating one: Giallo (in reference with the yellow color that adorns the covers of the sadistic-themed books from which it’s inspired). Certainly, if Giallo is in itself a sub-genre of the thriller, the reversal it operates in the manner with which psychopathic killers are portrayed in thrillers in general is considerable and underlines manifestly another dimension of Bava’s personality. In Sei donne per l’assassino, (first official Giallo in 1963), the main character, whose return we await incessantly, who always instigates the action, in a word, the star of the film is none other than the killer himself. When he emerges and charges on his prey (always a woman), the viewer isn’t asking himself, like in a Hitchcock picture, for instance: how will she get out of it? But: how will he kill her? Because Bava’s mise en scène voluntarily develops no identification between the audience and the characters (they each have only ten minutes of exposition), concerning itself instead with the deranged but human pleasure of watching the wolf devastating the sheepfold (or the fox the henhouse, your pick). Hence, in Sei donne per l’assassino, through its killer with a white mask occulting his physiognomy and wearing a trench-coat, gloves and a black hat, Bava doesn’t try to present an unbalanced individual with a past, a psychology and a well defined mobile (like today’s “profiler movies”, in the vein of The Silence of the Lambs). To the contrary, the idea is to give a human silhouette to our own destructive violence, which has no other foundations than our own communal blood thirst. Consequentially, the mystery, the mask and the anonymity of the killer are less the consequences of the obligatory uninspired “whodunit” than essential elements aiming to identify and formulate the murderous side growling in each of us. Based on that, is his cinema more the exorcism of a blind rage which he never could appease or the satisfaction by proxy of an unforgivable ecstasy he never tasted, namely murder? Hard to decide.
Whichever it is, in the 1970s, with such films as 5 bambole per la luna d’agosto aka “Five Dolls for an August Moon” and especially Reazione a catena aka “Bay of Blood”, Bava sails away from the coasts of his unconscious to accost in the real world and, consequentially, his killers, confounding themselves more with actual death (inexpressible, invisible and irrational), imperceptibly slip into off-screen abstraction, revealing themselves only by the intrusion of their weapon (generally knives) in the frame. At age 55 the explorer who, ten years earlier, teased death to electrify his senses, begins to properly glimpse his own mortality. The hands and the eyes with which he always “confected” his sublime films will soon sink into inertia and this will make him bitter. In the spirit of this image from Reazione a catena, where a cadaver is slowly devoured by an octopus, Bava loses his warmth and becomes authentically ghastly, even though he remains lucid, not unlike the ever more crude photography of his movies. He dies in 1980, three days before Hitchcock, like whom he also leaves behind an apparently purely commercial filmography that actually, more than many others, gives all its sense to the “auteur theory”.
translation by K. Laforest