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Bay of Blood, A (Blu-ray)

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Twitch of the Death, Nerve Carnage, Ecologia del delitto
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Directed by: 
Mario Bava
Claudine Auger
Luigi Pistilli
Claudio Volente
Laura Betti
Brigitte Skay
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A prime piece of riverside real estate in the Italian countryside is up for grabs, and is to become the site of brutal mayhem resulting in thirteen bloody murders after the weak, venal and greedy relatives of the deceased Countess Federica Donati (Isa Miranda) -- the former owner of the bucolic bay -- plot to remove each-other from the picture in order to get their hands on the idyllic prize.

With its grimly humorous parade of graphically staged murders and gore-soaked imagery, Mario Bava’s 1971 thriller “A Bay of Blood” seems a long way from the subtle Gothic splendour and elegant charm of the Italian maestro’s early genre classics such as “The Mask of Satan”, “Black Sabbath” or “Blood and Black Lace”. When Bava’s old friend Christopher Lee (star of the director’s 1963 classic of spectral sadomasochism “The Whip and the Body”) decided to go and see it at its festival premiere in order to find out what his talented filmmaker pal was then up to, he was reportedly dismayed at what he witnessed!

Distributed in the US under various salacious titles (the most well-known of which is the glorious “Twitch of the Death Nerve”) by the Hallmark Releasing Corporation, whose promotional ballyhoo resulted in the film becoming a drive-in staple of exploitation cinema for many years, this cheaply made proto-slasher does indeed eschew the distinctive dolly shots and gorgeous saturated colours that were eventually to make Mario Bava a hallowed name among cineastes and filmmakers alike. The unashamed pulp origins of the source material (from a story by the then twenty-seven-year-old Dardano Sacchetti, fresh off of Dario Argento’s “Cat O’ Nine Tails”) and the naturalistic lighting inherent in the film’s earthy photographic style (unusually, Bava acted as his own DP on this picture), display a new stripped-down and down-to-earth approach to the genre, which seemed brutally modern for a director such as Bava -- who had previously been instrumental in imbuing the Italian horror film with its unique otherworldly, supernatural flavour.

Yet, in many ways “A Bay of Blood” represents a natural progression and a logical development of the thematic constants that were always apparent in the works of Mario Bava. The director had always made use of pulp stories and cheap thrillers as source material for his films; these lowbrow genres were easily dismissed by ‘serious’ critics’ -- but Bava imbued them with his own stylistic flourishes and recurring themes. A film like “Blood and Black Lace” looks sumptuous and boldly colourful, but its subject matter is equally as cynical, violent and as brutal in its staging as “A Bay of Blood”, while even Bava’s more considered, gothic-tinged flights of fancy were marketed by their distributors with the aid of over-ripe titles such as “Kill Baby … Kill!” and “Hatchet for the Honeymoon”. 

“A Bay of Blood” was slightly ahead of its time and picked up a lot of flak for its relentless catalogue of vicious on-screen murders, but critics of the day failed to note the irony behind the cruelty, while the English translation of the Italian title (“The Ecology of Murder”) reveals the director’s perennial misanthropic themes: man’s inherently corruptible nature and the cyclical and unbreakable rule of bloodshed resulting from his dominion in the world.

Mario Bava was an amiable pessimist who rarely ventured beyond his native Rome, despite being much sought after abroad, and was content with low budgets and cheap special effects as long as he retained the freedom to craft his own vision out of the, often, very unpromising materials put at his disposal.  “A Bay of Blood”, despite its complete rejection of supernatural intervention or any kind of last minute moral reprieve for its thoroughly detestable cast of characters, is probably the purist distillation of this likable but shy director’s mistrust of and ambivalence towards the human race.  It comes just as Italian and International filmmakers were beginning to question the rule of the establishment in the wake of the student uprisings in Paris ’68, and just as the Vietnam War turned ugly.   A common theme in Italian genre cinema at the time, particularly the gialli of Aldo Lado, in films such as “Don’t Ride on Late Night Trains” and “Short Night of the Glass Dolls”, was that the young were being exploited and short-changed by a corrupt and venal older generation. It’s evident also in Sachetti’s original story for “A Bay of Blood”, a theme finding its way into the finished film in the form of the band of happy-go-lucky hippy teenagers who turn up at the bay during the film’s middle-section for an easy-going camping holiday, only to find themselves the victims of the film’s nastiest run of murders.

The film actually forms something of a bridge in the director’s filmography between the quaint Gothic story-form, consisting of a heady brew of film melodrama & murder, and the realistic, brutal style that would soon become the expected norm after exploitation cinema of the seventies turned increasingly towards shock tactics in films such as “Last House on the Left” and “I Spit on Your Grave”. Bava would never be fully comfortable in this era of sex and crude horror, despite seemingly wholeheartedly embracing it here.  A middling attempt to bring his former Gothic style up to date in “Baron Blood” and the lyrical but underappreciated (at the time) “Lisa and the Devil” failed to get box office success, despite the latter now being thought one of the finer examples of European arthouse horror.  Only the 1974 crime/kidnap thriller “Rabid Dogs” embraced the realistic settings and gritty stylistic trappings that were by then the fully dominant mode of expression in horror cinema.

However, “A Bay of Blood” is introduced with a ten minute sequence that fully embraces the subtle colour schemes and the crumbling Gothic settings of Bava’s greatest films, when we encounter the wealthy Countess in the darkened interiors of her isolated mansion (shot at one of Bava’s favourite and much reused locations, the villa Frascati), soon to be the first victim in what rapidly becomes a chain of murders committed by a diverse set of greedy people, all of whom intend to get their hands on a rather drab stretch of scrubland surrounding a dilapidated former nightclub -- the plan being to sell it on the estate market, where its development potential ensures it will raise a tidy sum.  From this first atmospheric sequence, in which the wheelchair-bound Countess is done away with by an assailant who, with indecent haste, is himself rapidly dispatched by an unknown hand, the film then moves into an area which unknowingly heralded the beginnings of a whole new horror subgenre: the slasher movie.

Bava’s intent was to create a semi-comic tragedy -- an ironic illustration of the web of greed and culpability that drives human relations, always leading to the same conclusion: death – and the bloodier the better! The script and the story are absurdly convoluted, with a chain of unpleasant and murderous characters, each one killing for their own reasons, but soon falling victim to the other as they each attempt to fulfil their futile money-making schemes. One-by-one we encounter them: the real estate agent Frank Ventura (Chris Avram) and his lover and Secretary Laura (Maria Rosati); Countess Federica’s evil daughter Renata (Claudine Auger) and her henpecked husband Albert (Luigi Pistilli); not to mention the Countess’s dispossessed illegitimate son Simon (Claudio Volente).

However, there are one or two innocent bystanders also, who fall in harm’s way through no fault of their own; but even here Bava can’t resist painting an unappetising portrait of humanity. The entomologist Foscari (Leopoldo Trieste) and his soothsaying wife Anna (Laura Betti) live in the same small house near the bay, but the distance in their marriage is best represented by the gulf between their completely unbridgeable belief systems, which sees Foscari obsessively scientifically cataloguing the indigenous insects of the Bay while Anna is portrayed as a gossiping busybody who lives in a world dominated by her reliance on Tarot readings. Neither one of them is spared the same fate as the group of carefree youngsters who turn up at the site for a weekend of skinny-dipping and lovemaking, though. With the aid of the special effects work of an un-credited Carlo Rambaldi, Bava sets about staging the most bloodthirsty set of screen murders of his entire career: a bill hook through the neck and a blade in the face – smack between the eyes; two lovers speared through the back, pinning them to the very bed in which they lie; a hanging, a knife in the crotch and a sudden decapitation – these are just a few of the bloody slayings Bava details with smoothly edited, beautifully photographed aplomb. Though the film was shot for next to no money, Bava crafts an attractive rustic atmosphere out of virtually nothing, often having to resort to waving bits of branch in front of the camera lens to suggest woodland where there was none. His stylistic use of the zoom lens often goes a bit far for modern tastes (notice the triple zoom out, followed by a fast pan in when Renata first discovers the pile of human corpses in Ventura’s cottage!), but the clever moneysaving technique of creating scene transitions which don’t require dissolve shots, by blurring the focus of the camera and then cutting to a different scene which starts out blurred but then comes into focus, lends the film a unique, disquieting air.

Anyone who has been exposed to any of the slasher movies that proliferated in the late seventies and early eighties will doubtless experience a sense of déjà vu upon viewing a great deal of this. “Friday the 13th” takes place in a similar woodland setting; but also several of its most famous murder sequences were shamelessly stolen from Bava’s film, most notably the axe in the face from part one and the bed spearing from part two. After “Friday the 13th” became a massive independent hit, the backwoods body count slasher movie (in which randy, pot-smoking teens would go camping in the woods only to fall victim to a crazed maniac) soon became a genre cliché, with films such as “Madman” and “The Burning” repeating the same formula with ever-diminishing returns -- but it all goes back to “A Bay of Blood”, and its middle section of artfully staged but deliriously bloody teen murders. The film also establishes one of the requisite conventions of the genre: the scene where the victims are discovered en mass by one of the main protagonists, usually carefully arranged in a pose, as though they are marionettes. “Black Christmas” takes that idea from “A Bay of Blood”, along with its famous ‘staring eye’ motif, which Bava also uses to great effect here (although he probably took it from Robert Siodmak’s “The Spiral Staircase”, as Tim Lucas points out on the accompanying commentary track).  

The film may have been hugely influential with many a filmmaker -- from Joe Dante to John Carpenter; from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino – but it retains a trademark Bava visual style with its carefully composed shots and clever lighting. The use of POV hand-held camera and a more ‘documentary’ freewheeling style are unusual in Bava’s filmography but with a classic seventies score by Stelvio Cipriani making excellent use of metronomic tribal drumming and lush lounge-core cues as ironic counterpoint to the bloody on-screen imagery, the film retains a unique Italian flavour that sets it apart from the many inferior US slasher movies that were soon to appear in its wake. The convoluted plot structure, with its last reel revelations and crazy plot twists, is indicative of the giallo film – a genre Bava almost singlehandedly invented -- but its graphic use of horrific imagery and violently staged murder set-pieces must have borne an influence on the development of that genre also. Dario Argento’s “Deep Red” is usually seen as a ground-breaking amalgam of horror and giallo thriller, but “A Bay of Blood” clearly beat Argento to it by three years, since the film retains its gialli roots despite its emphasis on savage imagery and horrific set-pieces.

“A Bay of Blood” is, as far as I know, the first Mario Bava film to make it on to the Blu-ray format. It’s always been a source of frustration that such an inventive creator of lush and beautifully composed imagery has never really been as well served on DVD as one would have hoped. Although vast improvements have been made in the presentation of his films over the years, only a few look anywhere near as good as they should, so the advent of Bava on Blu-ray is a cause for optimism that things can finally be rectified in that area.

The first thing to say about this new high definition transfer of “A Bay of Blood” is that it is definitely better than any version you will have ever seen before. The English language version of the film has been sourced from a nice looking print with solid, stable colours and a pleasing level of detail, which, although it won’t knock your socks off, adds an extra polish to the image that brings it much closer to its original appearance, although not quite all the way there. The mono English audio track is merely serviceable as usual – we can’t expect much improvement there!

The commentary track that Video Watchdog editor and author of “Mario Bava: All The Colors of the Dark”, Tim Lucas, recorded a few years ago, and which last appeared on the Anchor Bay DVD release, is included here once again.  It’s the author’s characteristic combination of meticulous research and lucid insight into a film he is clearly very familiar with and has an abiding love for, and is worth revisiting once in a while since there always seems to be a further nugget of info you missed last time round.

A curio for the true Bava fanatic comes with the inclusion of what has been termed here the ‘Italian cut’. It’s not in high definition (by a long way!), and the print is decidedly ropey with washed out, murky colours and some degree of print damage in the form of nicks and lines across the screen from time to time. The reason it has been included is not because it runs for longer, or has any extended gore sequences etc., but because of a quirk of the filmmaking process at the time which accommodated international film markets by shooting multiple takes of the same dialogue scene, intending them to be dubbed separately for whichever specific country they were destined for. Thus, any scene in “A Bay of Blood” that involves spoken dialogue was shot twice: once for an English speaking market (the version included here in high definition) and once for Italian audiences. Thus, the actors give quite a different level of performance in their own tongue than they do when they’re trying to give the impression of being fluent English speakers. The dubbed English dialogue is also often very different from the written subtitles in the Italian version, and, occasionally, even the shots themselves look a little different from their English language variants.

Arrow Video has included a nice selection of extra features to whet the appetite of all Bava fans out there:

“Argento! Bava! Fulci! The Giallo Gems of Dardano Sacchetti” is a lengthy interview with the screenwriter in which he talks freely about his individual experience of the three directors above and discusses what marks them apart from each other in terms of their approach to the writing of their screenplays. It offers a fascinating insight, with plenty of gossip and anecdote and a personal view of three of Italy’s most important genre directors.

“Joe Dante on Mario Bava” is a twelve minute featurette in which the director talks in glowing terms about Mario Bava and his influence on his own work, as well as recounting the history of the grindhouse circuit and how it sustained the name of Mario Bava when the film establishment derided these kinds of films.

“Shooting a Spaghetti Splatter Classic” is an interview with assistant cameraman (and later DP on Lamberta Bava’s “Demons”) Gianlorenzo Battaglia, who gives a lovely account of working with Bava  and delves into his methods of working, and particularly his skill with the camera and his ability to create all those amazing lighting effects.

There are several trailers included, each with an introduction and commentary by director Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”), who gives an amiable and enthusiastic account of what first drew him to the work of Bava, and to this film in particular.

Finally, several US radio spots offer us a fine example of the kind of over-the-top ballyhoo the film’s distributors were inclined to indulge themselves in.

The disc is packaged in Arrow Video’s customary attractive style, with alternative cover artwork, double-sided fold-out poster and a collector’s booklet with a piece by Jay Slater, author of “Eaten Alive” .

The overall package serves up an unmissable feast of Bava-related goodness, with a very nice HD transfer to top things off.

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