Italian genre cinema is among the most sumptuous, visually stunning, and tonally aggressive of any made in the history of film. Everyone’s probably heard of “Spaghetti Westerns,” of which hundreds were made in the 1960s and 1970s, but more prevalent and more influential, arguably, are Italian horror films of that same period, some of the most colorful, disturbing, and violent of any picture made before the gore boom of the 1980s. Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci both have their place in this movement, obviously, but they owe a great deal to the cinematic virtuoso of Mario Bava. Dubbed “The Maestro of the Macabre” by a number of scholars, Bava’s gorgeously grotesque horror films should be required viewing for anyone thinking about watching Suspiria or The Beyond.
Below, I’ve got what I consider the top five films by Mario Bava, and ones that I think you should add to whatever list of movies you have if you haven’t seen them already. Now, Bava did make other movies that weren’t horror, like Danger: Diabolik or Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (really), but I’m not going to include those, for obvious reasons. (It’s a horror movie list, duh.)
5) The Whip and the Body (1963)
While Roger Corman was making his cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in America with Vincent Price, Mario Bava was making a movie to emulate them with this ultra-atmospheric morality play steeped in longing and sadomasochism. Christopher Lee plays a cruel and violent man who returns to his family castle after a number of years to resume his violent affair with his sister-in-law, played by Daliah Lavi. He uses a whip on her, and she kind of likes it, though she’s terribly afraid. He is murdered, but his ghost continues to visit her and whip her repeatedly. It’s a twisted and surprisingly simple story but one onto which Bava applies amazing blue, green, and red lighting, and sweeping cinematography. Fun fact: In this movie, Bava is credited as “John M. Old”.
4) Black Sabbath (1963)
That’s right; this is the movie that gave Ozzy Osbourne’s band its name. Known in Italian as “I tre volti della paura” or “The Three Faces of Fear“, this film was a triptych of unrelated horror stories co-produced with American International Pictures, who supplied star Boris Karloff and supervised the heavily-edited American release version. Incidentally, don’t see that one if you can help it; the Italian version is the way to go, and also quite easily attainable. The three stories in question are very different, but all incredibly effective. In “The Telephone,” a French call girl gets a series of threatening phone calls from her former pimp, who has apparently just gotten out of prison and is heading for her; in “The Wurdulak,” Karloff plays the vampiric head of a 19th Century Russian family who returns to feast; and finally “The Drop of Water,” a kind of Tell-Tale Heart in which a nurse steals a sapphire ring from a rich deceased woman and is subsequently haunted by her horrible visage and the sound of the water of the spilled glass in the house.
3) A Bay of Blood (1971)
Both a true giallo (the name for Italian slasher mysteries) and the precursor to things like Friday the 13th, A Bay of Blood, also known as Carnage and, the best title ever, Twitch of the Death Nerve, is a movie where no one is safe, and no one is innocent. After the murder of a wealthy woman by her husband, and his immediate murder by someone else, a number of yuppies arrive at an idyllic bay resort hoping it will be they who get to inherit it. But someone wants to ensure no one gets the property and begins hacking people up left and right while the suspects/victims-to-be bicker and argue. It’s as close as Bava ever got to a true dark comedy (and boy howdy is it dark) but he still maintains his eye for gorgeous photography, with low camera angles and many POV shots, and the highest amount of exterior shooting he ever did.
2) Blood and Black Lace (1964)
It’s been said of Argento’s Suspiria that he was able to make murder and death somehow beautiful, but as great as that picture is, it can’t hold a candle to the best of Bava’s giallos. The Maestro had complete control of his set and camera in this stagey and vibrant technicolor shocker, in which someone in a mask and rain coat and hat invades a fashion show and begins stalking and brutally murdering the scantily-clad models in order, we discover, to obtain a diary that contains information on a scandal. Like most giallo movies, this one is also a Whodunit, with a great many suspects and red herrings to keep the audience guessing. However, the real reason to watch is the staging of the murders and the almost too-bright way in which they’re shot. They seem particularly horrible in the harsh light of a bathroom, let’s say. This one’s a little harder to find but possibly the most rewarding of the bunch.
1) Black Sunday (1960)
This is easily Bava’s most well-known film and still probably his best. Another period film, Black Sunday (also known as The Mask of Satan) is the story of a vampire-witch who is burnt at the stake by her brother after having a mask nailed onto her face who resurrects 200 years later in order to enact revenge on all of her descendants, including the young maiden who looks exactly like her, a chilling reminder of the fraternal crimes of the past. Black Sunday has amazing and beautiful cinematography as always, despite this being the only one on the list not to be shot in color. But black & white seems to suit the somber and funereal tone of the movie much better. Bava’s first major work is still talked about today, and for good reason. It’s eerie and bleak and that opening sequence, in which a mallet slams the spiked mask onto the witch’s face, is still gruesome and unsettling, even 54 years after the fact.
There you have my list. There are certainly other good Mario Bava films (Planet of the Vampires and Kill Baby, Kill are ones that very nearly made this list), but for a good cross-section of Bava’s horror work, you can’t go wrong with these five. What do you think? Would these all make your list? Let me know in the comments below.