Kino Lorber // 1970 // 81 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // September 11th, 2013
Your conscience...that's a laugh.
Mario Bava (Hatchet for the Honeymoon) is a director who has been in my life for a very long time, but whose films I've seen sporadically over the years. I've seen (I think) all of his pictures but, unlike other directors in the same vein like Dario Argento (Suspiria) or Lucio Fulci (Zombie), I will go years in between viewings of his work. As such, I haven't seen the exquisitely titled Five Dolls for an August Moon since its original DVD release (also the movie's US debut) over a decade ago. Back then, I didn't really care for it; found it dull, poorly placed, and unnecessarily extravagant. Well, thankfully, tastes change, because now I find it to be one of his most underappreciated pictures. Now I can toss that cruddy snap case away because the new Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber is, without a doubt, the definitive version of the film.
A super-rich industrialist invites a group of friends and colleagues to his island mansion for a party in the high life, but he has an ulterior motive. He's brought them all together specifically for the purpose of wooing Professor Farrell (William Berger, Keoma) into selling his newly-developed plastics formula that could revolutionize the industry. While he doesn't want to sell, he soon has another problem on his hands as members of the group start turning up dead. As they drop off one by one, the survivors must act quickly to discover the killer before they've all been murdered.
During his life, Mario Bava would talk about Five Dolls for an August Moon with contempt and disdain, and it isn't hard to see why. First, he was a hired gun on the project, replacing an original director who already had a cast and much of a crew assembled. Second, Bava took one look at the screenplay and saw it for what it is: a cheap knockoff of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians which, I'm sure, he found unseemly. Finally, he was given a mere week to prepare for the shoot, so he came into the project, no doubt, with a terrible attitude. It makes sense, then, that he would retain sour memories of the experience, but those feelings also make the movie one of the most interesting of his career.
By its story and the customs of the time in Italian cinema, Five Dolls for an August Moon was meant to be a sexy, blood-drenched mystery. It has all the trappings, especially with the casting of the ultra-sexy Edwige Fenech, who was constant in Italian sexy mysteries during this time, in one of the major roles. Bava subverts those audience expectations at every turn, though. He minimizes the skin and, with Fenech involved, that's a little surprising. There are plenty of opportunities for it, too, with infidelities and barely closeted lesbianism thrown around all over the place, but he keeps everyone strategically covered. Likewise the violence, which was Bava's forte, is more muted than almost any movie he ever made. Many die, but I'm not sure that a single actually killing is shown.
So, no sex and no violence, why would someone want to watch this? It's not as though the story is original or surprising. What it does have going for is some of the most ostentatiously stylish scenes Bava would ever produce. As much as I love Italian genre movies, the constant fast zooms and weird cuts have always been a little bit of a joke for me; not that I don't like it, I do, but it sometimes seems so silly. Here, this kind of stuff is all over the place, from the in out-in out of Fenech's introduction to the swinging camera mimicking another character swinging on a rope, Bava goes to town on these sorts of things. Unnecessary, sure, but you have to respect Bava's vision and the skill of cinematographer Antonio Rinaldi (Danger: Diabolik) to be able to pull off some of the camera tricks that litter this movie.
Credit, too, should go to composer Piero Umiliani (Baba Yaga), whose jazzy score is hilariously inappropriate for the material. In what might have been another case of subversion, Bava uses the music to almost make fun of the onscreen action. Somebody discovers her husband dead; I know, cue the samba! It's certainly intentional, very strange, and makes the movie much funnier than the script would have one believe. Otherwise, the performances are acceptable and the groovy design always delivers something neat to look at. It's a fun mystery; it isn't substantial and the plot isn't terribly complex or original, but it's a much more enjoyable time that I ever remember it being.
Five Dolls for an August Moon receives a lovely Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. It's not perfect and the extras are thin, but it's a massive upgrade from the old DVD release. The 1.78:1/1080p image, overall, looks excellent, with a gorgeous new high-definition transfer that well-represents how beautiful this film is. It features a nice grain structure, bright, saturated colors that really help to highlight the almost gaudy cinematography, and very deep black levels. There are a few instances of hairs, a little bit of dust here and there, and one brief scene with a small bar down the center, but outside of that, which last but a few seconds, any problems are very minor. The sound is also good, though not as strong as the image. A simple lossless PCM mono mix, there is minimal dynamic range, but no background noise to be found. Like the image, there is one short instance of buzzing, but it is again brief.
Outside of the usual Mario Bava Collection trailer bank, the only extra feature is a commentary with Bava guru, Tim Lucas. As usual, he presents a very knowledgeable and enjoyable talk that gives context about the director, all the performers, and the crew. Few people have such a handle on Italian genre cinema and he continues to show why. For the litany of facts he runs down, he's surprisingly engaging, so it's most definitely worth a listen.
Bava may have hated Five Dolls for an August Moon, but it stands up to time better than some of his more famous features. Sure, all the camera motion may seem a little overblown at times, but it really does show the kind of artistry the director came at projects with, even those he had contempt for. It's a fun little mystery that, with this new and gorgeous Blu-ray release, is a must-own for Bava fans.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Not Rated