Mario Bava once bet an American producer that he could shoot a film in 12 days. The result, largely improvised from a 30-page script was one of his finest achievements, & a sure testament to his incredible ability to create great cinema from virtually nothing. It’s an utterly remarkable film, where every frame reeks of the pure essence of dread, creating an overwhelming atmosphere of pure irrational fear that refuses to dissipate.
The film was titled “Operazione Paura” (Operation Fear) in a blatant attempt to market the film as a relation to the “Operation…” spy films featuring Paura’s star Erika Blanc, whilst the English alternative “Kill, Baby, Kill” crudely suggests a giallo-style blood fest. Neither title really captures the mood & feel of an astonishingly creepy, quiet, & subtle film, where (as in Argento’s later Suspiria & Inferno) supernatural violence threatens to erupt out of every frame.
Bava always was a master at utilising standard gothic horror conventions, & here no matter how clichéd or obvious some of the devices may seem to a modern audience, their effectiveness is undimmed. The film plunges us into a ceaseless nightmare, where the normal rules of time, space, death, & reality no longer apply – it’s a dive into the abyss of insanity which compels the hapless viewer to return to its hellish milieu time & time again.
We follow Dr. Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), a coroner sent to the lonely Transylvanian village to investigate the death of a young girl. What he finds there is a village trapped in the grip of a fevered curse, held under a deathly shroud, where being afraid is the very nature of being. A phantom child is appearing across this decaying landscape, and all who see her die. As Dr Eswai tries to understand what is happening, he is aided by Monica (Erika Blanc) a young lady who grew up in the village, but has only recently returned. What happens next is some of the most creepily effective, hallucinatory horror sequences of Bava’s career – & indeed the whole of the horror genre – which it is best to know as little about beforehand as possible. What is possibly most remarkable about these sequences is how little is explicitly shown, & how much is achieved through subtle suggestion. Small, creepy moments arrive in succession, with no moments to relax in between, creating a cumulative effect that is quite overpowering. There are even some surprisingly touching moments to be found.
The crumbling, decaying location for the village is one of the films strongest points; seemingly growing out of the scenery it’s an amazingly atmospheric place that serves Bava supremely well. It’s also an incredibly beautiful film to watch, showcasing Bava’s painterly use colour to amazing effect, even if, as with several of Bava’s films, it is Antonio Rinaldi who receives the cinematography credit. I must give credit here to the excellent score by Carlo Rustichelli. Whilst it is (occasionally intrusively) a little too content to simply recycle his score for Bava’s “The Whip & The Body”, it is mostly very effective. In particular, the signature motif that appears with the ghostly child is sure to send chills down your spine every time it appears.
However, as much as I adore this film, & no matter what my rating may say, it’s not quite a perfect film. In particular, the character of Dr. Eswai – whilst essential as a guide into this world, the Alice in this twisted wonderland of terror – is a bit too straight-laced & clean-shaven, & not the most interesting person with which to spend the bulk of the film. Indeed, the character of Ruth (Fabienne Dali – giving probably the best performance in the film) is much more interesting & I rather wish we could have spent more time with her. Also, the English dub – whilst surprisingly well acted – suffers from some rather clumsy dialogue.
But frankly, I don’t care. The sheer weight of the stifling atmosphere Bava creates washes all my reservations aside. It’s a film that has crawled right under my skin, & I don’t think I will ever be rid of my need to continually return to it, & re-experience its clammy mood of distilled fear one more time.
I’ve got the US DVD from VCI, which is in Region0/NTSC format. First off, I have to say that this release is nowhere near as good as their excellent releases of Blood & Black Lace and The Whip & The Body (which it is available in a good value triple back with). The picture is presented in 1.33:1 P&S, which does unfortunately lose some information off the side of the screen. The transfer is OK, but the colours are not quite as rich as they should be, & there’s quite a bit of print damage, particularly in the very first scene. The audio isn’t much better, with just a 1.0 track that features an annoying amount of pops & hiss. For extras, all we get is a trailer reel consisting of Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Blood & Black Lace, & The Night Visitor, plus a brief bio/filmo of Bava.
Overall, this is a release worth getting if the price is right (it makes a good freebie with B&BL and TW&TB) as the film demands to be seen, but it will hopefully be improved upon in the future. This is a film that richly deserves the kind of restoration treatment meted out to TW&TB, & rumours are rife that such a version will be prepared soon. I’m just happy to be able to see this film at all & the quality of the film makes me able to overlook some of the imperfections in the A/V. In the wait until such a release appears, this version will do. Just