"A chi potrei rivolgermi per fare un reclamo?" asks rookie Judge Gordon Sullivan.
Our reviews of Baron Blood (Blu-ray) (published December 17th, 2012), Kidnapped (2010) (published December 2nd, 2011), Kidnapped: The Complete Series (published April 24th, 2007), and Lisa and the Devil / The House of Exorcism (Blu-ray) (published September 28th, 2012) are also available.
Eight films from the "King of Italian Horror."
One of the supplements included in this set claims that if Bava had made films in England or America, he would have been hailed as the equal of Hitchcock. While I won't go that far, it's not a stretch to say that both men were master stylists, consistently using the camera in novel ways. However, even if working in America wouldn't have earned Bava the attention accorded Hitchcock, it would likely have resulted in greater availability of his films in this country as he intended them to be seen. Anchor Bay goes a long way towards correcting the spotty release history of many of Bava's films, giving even the less significant works fair treatment. For fans of Bava's work, this set is an easy recommendation. For those looking for the "canonical" Bava films, other options might be better.
Facts of the Case
The Mario Bava Collection, Volume 2 contains 8 films in 6 slimline cases housed in a flimsy cardboard sleeve:
Lisa and the Devil
Elke Sommer (A Shot in the Dark) stars
as Lisa, a tourist who becomes separated from her tour group. While lost, she
encounters the Devil (Telly Savalas, Kojak), and hitches a ride with a
couple (Eduardo Fajardo and Sylva Koscina)
House of Exorcism
Because Lisa and the Devil didn't sell, and because gore and an exorcism plot make every movie better, producer Alfredo Leone went back, with Bava's grudging approval, and shot extra material to make Lisa a more marketable film. In this cut, Lisa is possessed by the Devil, which explains the events at the villa, while the added character of a priest (Robert Alda, Imitation of Life) works to exorcise the Devil, curing both Lisa and saving the souls trapped in the villa.
Bay of Blood
When a countess (Isa Miranda) who owns an idyllic bay is murdered, those with claims to property—including a daughter (Claudine Auger) and illegitimate son (Claudio Camaso)—travel to the bay. Someone begins killing those with a claim, or who hope to have one, in gruesome ways. Everyone is a suspect, and anyone could be a victim, including four teenagers who get caught in the crossfire, as the factions use murder to ensure their control of the Bay of Blood.
Returning to his ancestral home in Austria, Peter Kleist (Antonio Cantafora, The Card Player) hopes to learn more about his family's patriarch, the man the local villagers call The Bloody Baron. Using an incantation written by the witch who banished the baron initially, Peter resurrects his ancestor with the aid of Eva Arnold (Elke Sommer). While locals start to die, the mysterious Alfred Becker (Joseph Cotton, The Third Man) appears to purchase the baronial manor. Peter and Eva must find a way to rid the castle of Baron Blood once more.
Three robbers on the run (Don Backy, George Eastman, and Maurice Poli) take a woman (Lea Lander) hostage to escape. When her car becomes too conspicuous, they steal a car containing a man (Ricardo Cucciolla) taking his sick son to the hospital. As they try to escape the authorities, the men begin to break down, abusing their captives and each other.
Roy Colt and Winchester Jack
Two cowboys, who begin as friends, go their separate ways at the start of this comic Italian western. Roy Colt (Brett Halsey, Return of the Fly) ends up a sheriff, while Winchester Jack (Charles Southwood) comes into possession of a map that leads to gold. The two try to fool one another while keeping the treasure from a Russian dynamiter called The Reverend (Teodoro Corrà). The love interest is an Indian prostitute (Marilù Tolo) who just wants to marry on of the heroes.
5 Dolls for an August Moon
Professor Fritz (William Berger) has developed a new formula for an industrial plastic, a formula worth millions of dollars. To convince him to sell, three industrialists take him and his wife (Ira von Fürstenberg) on a vacation to a deserted island. Joining them is house boy Jacques, as well as a number of attractive women (including "giallo goddess" Edwige Fenech, recently seen in Hostel: Part II) . Between bouts of fornication, and repeated scenes of the professor's reluctance to divulge his formula, the island's inhabitants are picked off, Ten Little Indians style.
Four Times that Night
In this "swinging orgy of mod design," a rich playboy (Brett Halsey) meets a gorgeous virgin (Daniela Giordano) in a park. Sparks fly, and they end up going out for a night of dancing before retiring to his bachelor pad. However, things are not that simple in this Rashomon inspired tale, as the film presents four different versions of what happened that evening, all of which must explain why she returned home late with a ripped dress.
While the first volume of the Bava collection showcases his work in the horror/thriller arena, this second volume jumps around, offering the horror that Bava was known for, in addition to his forays into other genres. Representing the tail end of his film making career, with his budgets becoming increasingly unstable, these films offer a diverse viewing experience.
As my first foray into the films of Mario Bava, Lisa and the Devil was a frustrating experience. The box refers to the film as a "meditation," which I have discovered is often a code phrase for films that are short on plot, but long on some other attribute. In the case of Lisa that attribute is the visuals. Fully utilizing the streets of Toledo, as well as a scenic villa, Bava creates a highly symbolic, surreal film which is beautiful to look at, but offers little else. Slight attention is paid to character development, so the actors have little to do other than occupy the frame. The story seems fairly cliche: a beautiful traveller becomes lost in a remote location and discovers that she has a resemblance to a relative of one of the inhabitants. Upon this simple frame, Bava attempts to layer commentary about the eternal return of the criminal to his crime, as well as the circularity of time. The inclusion of the "Devil" is half formed at best, since Telly Savalas is never really named as such, and he doesn't occupy any of the typical roles (tempter, corrupter, or even sinner) generally ascribed to the devil. The film finally comes off as too art-house for the horror genre, and too steeped in horror conventions to appeal to the art-house crowd.
House of Exorcism tries to tack a more overt plot on the experiences of the lost Lisa, explaining her strange experiences in the country as a product of her possession. Riding the post-Exorcist wave to international success, this version of the film is less frustrating because it firmly plants its roots in horror, giving the more surreal moments a contextual anchor. However, the plot is still not a great one, and the film doesn't have the narrative drive to make it enjoyable as anything other than a (by today's standards) tame drive-in movie. The film is more interesting as an example of film making, as the scenes that are added to the Lisa and the Devil material are integrated, for the most part, seamlessly. Many of these new scenes feature a foul-mouthed Elke Sommer, which has its charms.
The Bava film I was most anticipating (mainly for its prefiguring slasher gems like Friday the 13th), Bay of Blood did not disappoint. Full of lush locations (the titular bay), Gothic atmosphere, and some wonderful kills, Bay offers a typical story of individuals fighting over an inheritance. Throw some sexy teenagers into the mix, and you've got pre-slasher heaven. Sure, the film is light on characterization, with characters introduced only to be killed, and yeah, the plot meanders, but that isn't the point here. Instead, this film seeks to whet the audience's appetite for atmosphere and gore, both of which the film provides in spades. Perhaps the only aspect which keeps Bay from full blown slasher-dom is the fact that there is no final girl, no character who emerges from the film battered-but-innocent. No one escapes this film untainted, making this an interesting entry into the gore-film sub-genre.
Another fairly gory feature, Baron Blood was the film that first united Elke Sommer and Mario Bava, and its success paved the way for Lisa and the Devil. The film's main strength is its casting. Antonio Cantafora looks an equal mix boyish and rakish, making it believable that he would have the combination of stupidity and bravery necessary to summon the ghost of his ancestor. Elke Sommer looks cute and a little naive, but her character demonstrates intelligence in the face of the mysterious killings. Finally, Joseph Cotten is pitch perfect as Alfred Becker. Retaining his handsome features and velvet voice, Cotton simultaneously exudes comfort and menace. The film's big weakness is that you've seen this story before, many times. Bava doesn't bring anything new to the "we accidentally summoned a monster" sub-genre, and the old-hat story makes me wonder if they chose Joseph Cotten because Vincent Price was busy that year. My other quibble is that Bava doesn't do enough with the castle location. It's obviously an impressive building, but I was left with the nagging impression that Bava could have made it more menacing, improving the film. That said, the films works as historical curiosity, an example of the kind of horror coming out of Italy in the early '70s.
Also like much of the films coming out of Italy in the '70s, Kidnapped is a dark and gritty picture. Following the trail blazed by Last House on the Left, the film is a tense thriller where criminals hold innocent individuals hostage, torturing them for their sick pleasure. Although lacking the revenge aspects of Last House, Kidnapped tells the story of three robbers who take a woman hostage. When they need to ditch their car, they steal another which contains a man and his son. They systematically degrade the man and woman while trying to make their escape. Kidnapped is visually assured, making the most of the car setting. Bava lets the story unfold in real time, keeping his visuals from becoming ostentatious as they often are in his other films. The disc contains two cuts of the film, one a rough cut assembled before Bava lost the rights (the Rabid Dogs version), and another completed with the help of his son Lamberto and his producer Alfredo Leone. The Kidnapped cut might be more polished, but the rough cut form of Rabid Dogs serves the story well. In either cut, it is a hard film to recommend, but if you're interested in the genre the film is a worthy entry.
Another genre exercise, Roy Colt and Winchester Jack plays like a mash up of Gunsmoke and The Dukes of Hazzard. While that could be an excellent combo, there's about enough plot for 45 minutes of television, stretched out to 85 minutes of run-time. The film is supposed to be a comic western in the Italian tradition, but the film's just not funny. The characters are flat, the situations cliche, the visual presentation bland. The story is padded with tedious fist fights and ridiculous interludes, including a stop in a brothel that devolves into, you guessed it, a fist fight. I tried, in vain, to find something positive to say about this film. Even the so-so films in this collection have Bava's remarkable visual sense to recommend them, but not Roy Colt and Winchester Jack. I would like to have seen an interview/commentary with Tim Lucas explaining more about how/why this film got made, considering it looks like a director-for-hire situation. Instead, this film sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the horror/thriller themed films in the set.
Like Baron Blood, you've seen 5 Dolls for an August Moon before. Ten people in a remote location each have a reason for killing at least one other person on the island, and surprise, people die. Money is the main motivator for the murders, and greed is the only force driving the narrative forward. The problem is that almost all the characters are indistinguishable, which makes it hard to care about the victims, and harder to want to identify the murderer. What saves this film from being totally forgettable is Bava's amazing visual style. 5 Dolls might be worth watching just for the scene in which marbles flow down a spiral staircase and come to rest at the feet of a murder victim. Moments like these make the film all the more frustrating, as I wanted to see Bava's talents used on a script that had some substance. Edwige Fenech's role deserves a nod, as her work is becoming more recognized, as her role in Hostel: Part II demonstrates.
It's difficult for me to talk about Four Times That Night. On the one hand, it's exactly what you would expect from an Italian sex comedy from the '70s, with lots of leering shots of women, funky costumes, and shady perverts. On the other hand, the movie is really about who coerced whom into having sex. Playing on the Rashomon theme, the film presents a date between a rich playboy and a young virgin from four perspectives. According to her story, told first, the playboy took her back to his place, ripped her dress and tried to rape her, so she scratched him. In his story, they went back to his place, and she was a vixen who used him for sex, ripping her dress and scratching him in the process. According to the doorman of the playboy's building, after the couple got back to his place, a man and a woman show up. The doorman is convinced that the playboy is gay, while the newly arrived woman attempts to seduce the virgin. A scientist appears to tell us that none of this really happened, and the ripped dress and scratch were accidental. However, in this final scene, the playboy suggests that the virgin tell her mother that he tried to rape her to explain the ripped dress. Bava handles the narrative well, but the film wants to be both a light sex comedy and have sexual coercion as its main focus. The film never resolves the tension between these desires, leaving me with a conflicted feeling. The box describes the film as "an orgy of mod design," and I suspect that those who enjoy the film will do so because of the high camp factor of the costumes and setting.
Anchor Bay's technical presentation of this set is serviceable. None of the films look stunning (although this is almost certainly the best they've looked since initial theatrical distribution), but none made me cringe either. The audio is also middle of the road. Original mono tracks are provided, in English or Italian, depending on the film. There is some hiss and distortion in the tracks, but I never found it overwhelming. Considering the age and probable condition of the source materials, this DVD demonstrates love for Bava's films.
The extras, like the technical presentation, are serviceable. Five commentaries (Four by Tim Lucas and one by Alfredo Leone and Elke Sommer), trailers, radio spots, a still gallery, and a lone featurette provide interesting context, but I was left wanting more. Tim Lucas, author of All the Colors of the Dark and editor of Video Watchdog, is obviously a writer first. While he is neither dry nor monotone, he does seem to be working from notes. The information Lucas provides is uniformly excellent, providing an interesting mix of personal and professional background, as well as discussion of the reception of the films. However, because little of his discussion is screen specific, I would have preferred a fat, Criterion-style booklet. This option could have covered the same information but not required the viewer to sit through the films again (and avoided the problem of the occasional moments of silence that plague these commentaries). The commentary by producer Alfredo Leone and star Elke Sommer provides another valuable perspective on House of Exorcism but suffers from the same problem as Lucas' commentaries: the same information would be more useful in another format. Elke Sommer says very little, and Leone's comments, while interesting, get repeated a number of times throughout the commentary. Interviews with both figures would have covered the same info and probably taken no more than 30 minutes.
The included trailers look about as good as the films they introduce, and the radio spots are a fun novelty.
The lone featurette, "End of the Road: Making Rabid Dogs and Kidnapped," is exactly the kind of documentary I would liked to have seen for each of the films, especially the ones without commentaries by Tim Lucas. Using interviews with principles like Lamberto Bava and Alfredo Leone, the documentary covers the background, filming, and fate of Kidnapped. At a little over 15 minutes, the featurette conveys its information well without overstaying its welcome.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While this set is a no-brainer for Bava aficionados, the neophyte is not well served by either volume of the Bava collection alone. For the casual fan, looking mainly for canonical Bava films like Black Sunday and Bay of Blood, buying both sets are overkill considering some of the lower-quality offerings in each. I would prefer to see Anchor Bay release a set of the more "essential" Bava films, along with a second collection of his lesser work, like Four Times That Night. However, this is a fairly minor quibble, as the set's low MSRP makes it worth it, even if you only enjoy the better films in the set.
Bava fans my scream that I am a heathen for my general dislike of the maestro's work, but regardless of my feelings for these films, Anchor Bay has treated them with respect.
Anchor Bay is found not guilty for its treatment of Bava's work. The individual films are dismissed, and ordered never to appear before this judge's bench again.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, 5 Dolls For An August Moon
Perp Profile, 5 Dolls For An August Moon
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, 5 Dolls For An August Moon
Scales of Justice, Roy Colt And Winchester Jack
Perp Profile, Roy Colt And Winchester Jack
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, Roy Colt And Winchester Jack
Scales of Justice, Bay Of Blood
Perp Profile, Bay Of Blood
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, Bay Of Blood
• Commentary by Tim Lucas
Scales of Justice, Baron Blood
Perp Profile, Baron Blood
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, Baron Blood
• Commentary by Tim Lucas
Scales of Justice, Four Times That Night
Perp Profile, Four Times That Night
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, Four Times That Night
Scales of Justice, Lisa And The Devil
Perp Profile, Lisa And The Devil
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, Lisa And The Devil
• Audio Commentary by Tim Lucas
Scales of Justice, Kidnapped
Perp Profile, Kidnapped
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, Kidnapped
• Commentary by Tim Lucas
Scales of Justice, House Of Exorcism
Perp Profile, House Of Exorcism
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distinguishing Marks, House Of Exorcism
• Commentary with Producer Alfredo Leone and Elke Sommer
• DVD Verdict review: Mario Bava Collection, Volume 1
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