Our review of Baba Yaga (Blu-ray), published February 20th, 2012, is also available.
The psychedelic shocker based on the erotic comics of Guido Crepax.
Guido Crepax reinvented the Italian comic book. His cinematic structure and psychedelic storylines sparked the creative spirit of director Corrado Farina. Farina wanted to bring Guido's lesbian S&M fantasies to life on the silver screen. He cast nubile young beauties and set them in a confusing world of dark forces, erotic dominance, and weird killer dolls. The premise is sound and the adaptation periodically works, but the result is far too uneven to satisfy.
Facts of the Case
Valentina (Isabelle De Funés) is an accomplished young photographer living the life. She stays out all night and sleeps till noon, when attractive models come over to bare their goods for the eye of Valentina's camera. One night she walks home to avoid the advances of director Arno Treves (George Eastman) and is nearly run over by a cold blonde in a fancy car. The woman is Baba Yaga (Carroll Baker), a spooky witch whose name provokes peals of laughter in even the most cynical audience. Baba pilfers a garter clip from Valentina with a vaguely ominous promise to return it tomorrow.
Mistress Yaga shows up at Valentina's apartment looking like a strung-out trophy wife in mourning. She fetishistically fondles Valentina's camera, then tries to return the garter clip to the thigh from whence it came. Valentina, shocked at this clumsy advance, points out that she is naked under her clothes, so there's no place to put the garter clip. Curses! Foiled again! Baba leaves her address and invites Valentina over to photograph the place.
In contrast, Arno's pathetic pick up lines seem positively sophisticated. Valentina changes her mind and accepts Arno into her boudoir. Inexplicably, she visits the Yaga mansion. Baba rests ominously in her rocking chair and fondles wooden runes that look like they were made in 7th grade shop class. Valentina encounters some frightening bottles, knick-knacks, and an evil sewing machine. But worst of all is a porcelain doll decked out in S&M getup. Baba encourages Valentina to take the doll with her for "protection."
Valentina has fevered dreams of Nazis, underwear, and big holes in the ground. Meanwhile, everyone she films with her cursed camera meets an untimely doom. That's it, she's getting to the bottom of this! What will happen when Valentina confronts Baba Yaga? Will Arno get there in time to save her? And what's up with the really hot chick dressed just like the freaky doll?
This film was also known as "Kiss Me, Kill Me," but not the version you're thinking of. Baba Yaga is a rudimentary giallo film. Giallo is Italian for "yellow"; the genre moniker comes from the yellow color of the pulp crime novels that inspire the films. Giallo films are hit or miss. There are a couple dozen that stand out from hundreds of others in the pack. This one is squarely in the pack, with less gore, shock, and anarchy than its brethren.
It isn't entirely the film's fault. The comic books it is based on succeed through spare wisps of ink that tell a provocative, languidly hallucinatory tale. Baba Yaga is supposed to include several dream sequences that invite you to question the reality of the rest of the film. Problem is, the viewer just won't get it. There are no visual or conceptual clues to indicate shifts in reality, so the whole affair seems badly edited. Coincidentally, it was badly edited (much to Farina's chagrin; he gave a scathing interview lambasting the film editors who ruined his vision). Baba Yaga wants to be a supernatural tale of lesbian dominance and seduction colored by political subversion and the audacity of youth. Enough about what Baba Yaga wanted to be…how did it turn out? Uneven at best.
Acting is a central component to most movies, so we'll begin there. Isabelle De Funés does a fair job, although I had real difficulty perceiving her motivations. She just did stuff and I couldn't fathom why. But at least she had spark, which is more than I can say for Carroll Baker. Carroll was miscast. She had the completely wrong look for the part. In the comics, Baba was an androgynous wench with an overbearing physical presence. Carroll is neither androgynous nor overbearing; she is slender, feminine, and thoroughly attractive. They spent much effort to make her look spooky and skeletal. Poor girl couldn't just act, she had to hold her head just so to catch the right shadow on her sucked in cheeks. I find Carroll free of culpability in this matter, but the truth is her performance was stiffer than the porcelain doll's.
The plot was meant to capture shifts between reality and dream, but it just shifted. First we're here, now we're there. First we're Nazis, now we're glamorous models and artists. Look out for that spooky footage of attic junk! Whew, we're back in the luminous safety of my apartment. The plot is not as abysmally horrific as efforts like Le6ion of the Dead, but it doesn't gel either. For example, there is an S&M doll that may or may not be alive. She may or may not have stabbed a model that Valentina was photographing. The doll may be channeling Baba Yaga. We never really know because the clues dance around like the rest of the film. What of the wooden runes? Do they mean anything? Somewhat ominous music plays when we see them. Maybe if they swarmed around Baba Yaga's head and buzzed towards screaming naked women in an orgy of mayhem…maybe then we'd know why they were ominous. But they just sit there like discarded puzzle pieces.
The transfer is very clean, but the cinematography is average '70s horror. The set design is good, with a great apartment and a convincingly spooky mansion. There are moments of great camera work and artistic expression. The balance of the movie is awkward attempts to capture panels from the comic book. Not bad cinematography, but not remarkable either.
The film is dubbed into English from Italian. The Italians must take their sweet time to say things because lips were moving all the time with no words. I almost found myself wishing I could watch it in Italian with English subtitles. But after the debacle that was A Woman Possessed, I have learned that the original language isn't always the way to go.
The direction is okay. The problems with Baba Yaga are casting, concept, editing, and technical issues. The scenes have internal consistency and clear direction. I was never confused within a scene by what was happening or how the characters were feeling. The director had an ambitious vision that simply did not materialize.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You have to appreciate Blue Underground's treatment of the movie. They found a clean master for the transfer, presented it in the original aspect ratio, and restored 10 minutes of excised footage. They also included scenes that were inexplicably censored. Must have been the pubes. Anyway, giallo fans can rest easy that this is a great DVD treatment. The extras are not as engaging as some of the other Blue Underground titles, but there is a good variety of them. There is a remarkably honest interview with the director, who saves critics trouble by listing the film's faults and achievements. The Freud documentary sounds much more exiting than it is, much like the film itself. The comic book comparison demonstrates an attention to detail, but essentially demonstrates the superiority of the comic book over the film adaptation. Overall, the extras package is a nice supplement to the film and consistent with other Blue Underground releases.
The opening song is catchy. Once you hear it, you can't help but wonder whether the theme song to Snatch was influenced by Baba Yaga. Unfortunately, the rest of the soundtrack is a nondescript rehash of better Bruno Nicolai soundtracks.
The women are easy on the eyes, particularly Valentina's muse. As my esteemed fellow Judge Gibron pointed out, erotica is dead in the 21st century (at leas thus far). Baba Yaga is no bed burner, but the skin on display is worth a look.
Baba Yaga is further proof that it is difficult to adapt conceptual comics to cinematic constraints. The erotic undercurrent of lesbian seduction never swept me away. Unconscionably brief shots of nubile women are not enough to compensate for the dreary remainder. Baba Yaga could have been more, but it wasn't in the tarot cards.
The court believes that supernatural forces manipulated the downfall of this picture. After all, if hot women grew wise to the ways of seductive witches, the targets would be harder to snare. Mistress witch must protect her mystique to have any chance for survival. Can't blame the dark forces for protecting their investment.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
• Theatrical Trailer
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