Shameless cement their position as the leading UK purveyor of cult exploitation on DVD with this, the first ever uncensored director's cut of the classic cult favourite "Baba Yaga". The film was famously blighted before its original release in Italy in 1973 with having to survive at least two rounds of excisions by various interested parties. First of all it was placed at the mercy of its producers, who deleted much of director Corrado Farina's socio-political material from the theatrical cut; while the Italian censors then seemed to take exception to some of the erotic content, mainly brief but full-frontal nude shots of female leads Isabelle de Funes and Carroll Baker respectively, and clipped out quite a few of these as well, although what exactly guided them in the choice of what to leave be and what to remove remains a mystery, since the censored material seems no more explicit than that which remained. In any case, because these cuts were made to Farina's original negative, the full version, the director's intended vision, remained unseen: even when Blue Underground released their restored version a few years ago, they had only the theatrical cut to work with.
Now, working closely with Corrado Farina himself, Shameless have taken that Blue Underground restored transfer and added-in the missing material from various other sources; mainly, what looks to be a scratchy 16 mm print. This means the video quality tends to jump about a bit, but fans of this unusual Italian gem will doubtless be intrigued to discover just what Farina's original version looked like. This cut re-creates that as far as is humanly possible, apart from very minor cuts, usually consisting of a frame or two, often removed in the middle of a panning shot.
The film is an adaptation, based freely on the work of cult Italian comic-book artist Guido Crepax. With the popularity of adult themed comic books in Italy, engendered by the success of the legendary super-criminal character Diabolik, Crepax developed a hugely influential approach to this 'Fumetti' form (as comic books came to be called in Italy - named affectionately after the speech bubbles coming from the characters' mouths, because they looked like puffs of smoke!). Many of the techniques Crepax developed, such as his adventurous, figurative use of framing, gave his floridly detailed art work a visceral appeal that recreated an effect often akin to the fast-paced style of film editing itself. Most of all Crepax became associated with his surreal, dreamlike narratives and erotically charged imagery. His work mixed references to literature, pulp fiction and left wing politics — no more so than in perhaps his most famous creation, the bob-haired '60s photographer heroine of the titular 'Valentina', originally inspired by American star of silent movies, Louise Brooks ("Pandora's Box" - 1929) and who in this film version is played by French actress Isabelle de Funes.
This all seems to occupy a similar area of obsession to the work of Jess Franco, who might seem to have been the perfect choice of director for such a project as this. Indeed, his own "Succubus" (made four years earlier) does indeed seem very similar in theme to "Baba Yaga", being ostensibly about a modern, sexually liberated young woman who is tempted into a dream world of Sapphic intrigue and sadomasochism by a spectral witch-like figure whom only she seems able to see and interact with. Franco was also obsessed with comic-books, monster movies and outlaw literary figures such as the Marques de Sade, and has always filled his work with an eclectic mix of references to suchlike. The main difference between he and Farina though seems to be in how they deal with socio-political themes. Franco has always been adamant about not preaching overt political messages in his films. For him, the 'meaning' of a film seems to emerge somewhere in the gap between the film maker's intentions and the audience's actual reception of the material. Farina's version of "Baba Yaga", though, is full of the politically charged rhetoric of the times — characters expound at length on matters of politics and society. Valentina's lover, the film director Arno (George Eastman) worries over the ethics of advertising and the commodification of art. 'Today, I shot a series on ecology; tomorrow - I start a series of soap commercials!" he despairs. While the film's outlandish collision of pop culture and political debate results in perhaps the film's most hilariously mad line of dialogue: "even Snoopy, in his own way, is antiestablishment", deadpans a guest at a groovy '70s party.
Farina's film begins with one of those previously missing sequences: quite a long pre-credit sequence which establishes the playfully surreal atmosphere, while also providing the most overt political statement in the entire film. It shows a stage-bound graveyard set at night in which a semi-nude woman dressed as a cowboys-and-Indians-style Native American is being pursued by a bunch of Civil war era American soldiers — it all turns out to be an elaborate political 'Happening' staged by some of Valentina's Champagne-radical friends, culminating in the American flag being burned just as a squad of police officers arrive to break up the party!
After being pursued and initially rejecting the advances of hirsute film directing hunk Arno Treves, in one of those grandiose-looking piatzos that often feature so heavily in the gialli of this period, Valentina rescues a stray dog from being crushed beneath the wheels of a speeding black mercedes out of which emerges the suspiciously fetishistic lace-up black boots of a sinister, strangely ageless older woman who calls herself Baba Yaga (Carroll Baker). Those familiar with their Russian folklore will be aware that a Baba Yaga is the name given to a crone-like witch woman who eats babies in some traditions, while in other stories she can be a helpful, almost beneficent figure. This ambivalence permeates Farina's treatment of this supernatural figure and the relationship between the two women in the film. Is Baba Yaga a catalyst for Valentina's political and psycho-sexual awakening or merely a symbol or a metaphor for the conditioning power of advertising: assimilating the social liberation of the Sixties to serve the establishment system of power relations, creating as well as sating the desires which lead to Capitalist exploitation? For as Yaga herself says when she encounters Valentinia once again in her own flat-cum-photography studio: "there are forces which control our actions and our feelings".
Such concerns seem a long way from the usual subject matter of exploitation films these days, but it was quite common for popular Italian movies of the day to marry the two. Perhaps this is another reason why the film largely eschews the pop-art aesthetics that dominate other live action comic-book-influenced films, both then and now. The colourful kitsch and dazzle of, say, Mario Bava's "Danger: Diabolik" is nowhere in sight, let alone the camp theatrics of the '60s "Batman" series. The closest we get to any of that is in the oversized floppy hat, stripy ankle-socks and bright red stack heeled boots of one of Valentina's photography models. Indeed, "Baba Yaga" isn't afraid to court an almost visceral Neo-realist look at times. As well as all those architecturally significant squares, we also get to see some startlingly grimy and run-down shots of suburbs around Milan, with streets full of rubbish and abandoned cars left outside crumbling, derelict buildings, reminding us exactly why the political debates of the day seemed so critical. Instead, Farina attempts to conjure the comic book stylings of Crepax by including some experimental sequences where the film dissolves into a series of still-frame black & white images, usually depicting Valentina's sexual fantasies. Mostly though, the film relies on increasingly bizarre dream vignettes to achieve its unreal effect. Valentina capitulates to these phantasies after her first meeting with Baba Yaga. In the first one she is a prisoner of some foxy-looking female Nazi storm troopers and being directed to jump naked into a dark pit inside a cave by a cartoonish German officer smoking a cigarette from a cigarette holder, while coddling a Blofeld-style long haired cat on his knee!
The film's most prominent and best remembered sequence, the key one of the film and perhaps the reason why the film achieved its cult status at all, comes midway through when Valentina finally visits Baba Yaga's rather Gothic-looking pile. Like the kind of creepy old villa cob-webbed with dark Freudian secrets familiar from many a classic giallo, the house is like a visual manifestation of the psycho-sexual pathology of the heroine. While the downstairs area is furnished in lace and tattered velvet, Baba Yaga herself rocking in a bath chair, looking much like a decedent old Mrs Farren from Val Lewton's "Curse of the Cat People", Valentina's exploration leads to her finding yet another bottomless hole hidden beneath an old rug at the foot of the staircase! Upstairs in the attic is a sinister collection of old sewing machines, broken toys, medieval torture implements and, most memorably, an antique doll dressed in fetish gear! The doll, called Annette, is Baba Yaga's familiar, and creepily, it can come to life in human form (Ely Galleani), both to do its mistress's bidding and take part in sadomasochistic whippings in front of a mirror! This is where the film takes on its most Franco-like form, the attic room and its contents unleashing a fever dream of sexual experimentation for Valentina, while her camera — on being touched by the witch — becomes cursed and causes her photographic subjects' souls to be damned!
"Baba Yaga" is a crazy somewhat incoherent film, firing in several different directions at once; but it captures a unique time in European movies, representative of an attitude where experimentation and exploitation are seen to compliment each other, politics and sex equally ripe for each approach! This DVD edition, as well as providing the most complete version of the film possible, also presents two short documentaries made by Corrado Farina - one, "Freud A Fumetti", is a look at the history of Fumetti and Guido Crepax's place in its development; the other, "Fummettophobia" is a sort of visual essay, a political defence of the form and of children's need to dream and escape into the imagination. We also get another Wilson Brothers text commentary, full of the usual mixture of info and offbeat humour, plus a trailer, a photo gallery and the Shameless promo reel.