Italian director Mario Bava might well be the film industry's version of Rodney Dangerfield; he gets no respect, and even when he does get respect, it's only for a slice of his cinematic output. Bava was one of Italy's greatest cinematographers in the '40s and '50s. After this, he began silently co-directing under the tutelage of his mentor, director Ricardo Freda, before transitioning into directing full time. Bava's known as one of the founding fathers of Italian horror with movies like Black Sunday and Blood and Black Lace, but his career spanned all sorts of genres, at which he excelled. A recent reappraisal of Bava's work now means people have access to these more obscure offerings, and that's a very good thing.
Bava's penchant toward stylish, moody lighting proved perfect for the horror genre both in his work as cinematographer for Freda and in his own films (on which he was always also the cinematographer). But it's interesting how well that style can apply to Westerns, spy films, peplum epics, and even a randy sex comedy. Bava was so efficient and so frugal as a filmmaker that he started getting brought in by producers to save productions, often completely rewriting scripts on the fly as needed.
If not for 1960's Black Sunday, Bava may well not have been pigeonholed. But the Italian production—co-funded and distributed in America by infamous B-movie peddlers, AIP—ended up being a smash hit of Gothic horror, fully utilizing Bava's skills as a cameraman and practical visual effects wizard. Between '60 and '66, Bava gave the world the horror-tinged technicolor peplum (sword and sandal movie) Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), the giallo progenitors Evil Eye (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964), two spooky ghost movies in The Whip and the Body (1963), and Kill, Baby...Kill! (1966), the brilliant anthology horror Black Sabbath (1963), and even an intergalactic melange of Bram Stoker and H.P. Lovecraft in 1965's Planet of the Vampires. These are the movies for which Bava will always be remembered, but during that same period, he was turning out other fascinating, if not exactly brilliant works.
In addition to some co-directing and uncredited directing work, Bava offered up a pair of Viking adventure epics, beginning with 1961's Erik the Conqueror. Essentially a retelling of Richard Fleischer's The Vikings (1958), Erik the Conqueror concerns two Viking brothers separated as children; one, Eron (Cameron Mitchell), became the leader of the Vikings, while the other, Erik (Giorgio Ardisson), was raised in England to become the Duke of Helford. Eventually, the unaware brothers march toward an inevitable showdown for control of Britain, with a pair of comely twins (Alice and Ellen Kessler) egging them on.
Perhaps Bava's great unsung work, Erik the Conqueror is a tale of betrayal, espionage, familial revelations, and revenge the whole family can enjoy. Bava always knew how to stretch his budget to its fullest and made battle with a dozen extras look like thousands with a little camera trickery and judicious uses of matte paintings. There's no reason an Italian production shot on the cheap should look as good as this movie does, nor be as exciting as it ended up being.
Bava's new reputation as a wizard of low-budget filmmaking eventually led him to take over several productions that would have otherwise failed. One such case is his other Viking adventure, 1966's Knives of the Avenger. The movie had already fallen behind and run out of money after only two weeks production. The studio needed a trusted director to come in and rescue it, and star Cameron Mitchell recommended Bava from his previous work. Bava threw out the original script, used the exterior footage that had already been done, and wrote a new narrative. His film, a Viking version of the Hollywood Western Shane, would tell the story of a rogue warrior making up for past evils by helping a woman and her young son whom we're pretty sure our hero killed long ago.
The fact that this film is at all watchable, and halfway decent, is down to Bava's efforts. It's very obvious which scenes were directed by Bava and which were the scenes leftovers from the first two weeks of production. As a result, Bava chose not to take a screen credit. Bava did the same for a 1970 Western called Roy Colt & Winchester Jack, saving a production from a bad script, though that movie is far less watchable overall.
In 1968, Bava was given a lavish budget to direct the comic book adaptation Danger: Diabolik for mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis. Bava ended up only using a fraction of the budget and came in well ahead of schedule; naturally De Laurentiis was thrilled and wanted to work with the director again. However, Bava hated the hands-on (read: meddling) way De Laurentiis produced and turned down a lucrative offer for more films and more money. This ultimately led to a decline in Bava's output during the 1970s, but in between a number of first-rate giallo films and a couple other odd Gothic offerings, Bava directed one of his most interesting, underseen movies.
1971's Four Times That Night is a bawdy sex comedy (the only one of Bava's career) which Bava wanted to be the silly version of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. In the film, an evening's courtship and attempted hookups of a playboy (Brett Halsey) and a model (Daniela Giordano) is recounted by four different people, with four very different points of view. The playboy tells his buddies the model was an insatiable nymph; the model tells her mother what a cad her date had been; the lascivious doorman thinks they were both super randy; and finally a psychoanalyst tells us what "really" happened.
It's the kind of movie that would never be made today, nor could it have really been made at the time anywhere but Italy, with attempted rape in one of the versions played for something approaching laughs. The film's producer Dick Randall (who also played the Doorman) was known for making nudity-filled sex pictures, which is not the kind of thing Bava liked (a staunch Catholic, he'd leave the set and hand over the filming of sex scenes to his assistant directors). But Bava ultimately tried to take what he was given and weave an intricate story about modern dating and points of view changing based on who's telling the story and to whom. It was never one of Bava's most successful movies, but, as with everything he did, it bears his signature style and the vibe of a director who did his best and never took himself or his work too seriously.
In the past several years, Bava's lesser known films (along with his horror staples) have been given star treatment by Blu-ray distributors Kino Lorber and Arrow Video, each with an essential audio commentary by Bava's biographer, critic Tim Lucas. Erik the Conqueror is available now from Arrow, while Knives of the Avenger, Roy Colt & Winchester Jack, and Four Times That Night are all available from Kino.
Image: Kino Lorber, Arrow Video