Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Black Sabbath is playing on MUBI in the US through November 13, and Bay of Blood is playing on MUBI in the US October 15 - November 14.
Starting as a cinematographer and director of documentaries and shorts, Mario Bava would ultimately explore a variety of genres, from spaghetti westerns and sword-and-sandal adventures, to a modish detective film and even a romping sex comedy. It is his work within the horror genre, however, for which he is most widely, and justly, lauded. Among the Italian filmmakers who rose to prominence on the international horror scene of the 1960s and 70s, few would attain his degree of diverse stylistic virtuosity, nor would they cover the genre in such an expansive fashion. As the years of his career happened to fall, Bava ended up documenting the horror film in the process of profound transition. Seen through the very course of his own filmography, these variants encompassed supernatural gothic horror, giallo, the slasher film, and a dubious entry into the period of demonic possession popularity (not entirely his doing).
Thirty-five years after his passing, if any question remains as to why Bava's horror films are so frequently cited as exemplary of the genre, the double-feature of Black Sabbath (1963) and Bay of Blood (1971) should nail the coffin shut on any doubts.
Black Sabbath, as it was known in America, was released in 1963 as the sixth feature Bava directed since his 1960 breakthrough, Bloody Sunday. Known in its European cut as I tre volti della paura (The Three Faces of Fear), this triptych in the tradition of the European omnibus so in vogue at the time has its stories derived, in one typically loose form or another, from a variety of time-honored tales of the past. Receiving star billing—and cementing the film's indebtedness to classical horror—Boris Karloff first appears before a psychedelic backdrop to introduce the trio of terrifying narratives (among its other deviations, including a reordering of segments and a less sexually suggestive tone, Karloff introduces each chapter in the American version of Black Sabbath).
The Telephone, starring Michèle Mercier as Rosy, plays out in a fairly standard terrorized lone girl scenario, though it instantly distinguishes itself with its garishly intoxicating color. For Bava, who studied to be an artist and was the son of a cinematographer, his painterly compositions characterize even his lesser films. Black Sabbath, one of his best, utilizes heightened color throughout, to radiate a kaleidoscopic illustration of depth, texture, and lurid ecstasy.
As Rosy settles in for the evening, she is plagued by an incessantly ringing phone, initially with no one responding on the other end. Eventually, a voice speaks, lustily threatening the young woman and revealing that he can see her, unnerving Rosy even further. Once a peeper peering through the window is seen by the viewer, Bava ratchets up the tension by stressing the proximity of the stalker and the suspense of now being privy to that which Rosy is not. The voice states a desire for revenge, though the reasons are not given. A newspaper clipping slipped under Rosy's door reveals Frank Rainer, her former associate, has escaped from prison (their relationship is ambiguous, though a pimp/prostitute connection is most likely). Rosy deduces that he is the probable offender and contacts old friend, Mary (Lidia Alfonsi), who similarly seems to share past animosity with Rosy. As the segment reaches its climax, it is revealed that Mary, Rosy, and Frank all share an overlapping association stronger than any realize.
Working in what is essentially a single setting is a cinematic challenge met with great results by the style-minded Bava, who superbly steps up his penchant for visual flourish and ingenuity with an assortment of camera angles, shot sizes, and movement. "I'm especially interested in stories that focus on one person," Bava once said. "If I could, I would only tell these stories. What interests me is the fear experienced by a person alone in their room. It is then that everything around him starts to move menacingly around, and we realize that the only true 'monsters' are the ones we carry in ourselves. Alas, the marketplace demands terrible papier-mâché creatures, or the vampire with his sharp fangs, rising from his casket!" With this in mind, Bava thus makes the most of the inanimate objects that adorn Rosy's room, which for a time serve as her sole costars. Before any other characters join her on screen, the red and black phone emerges to be itself an alarming object personifying the threats of the portentous speaker. With each ring, the impending murderer's presence is made all the more sinister as this channel for his terrorization comes alive.
With Rosy as the beautiful center of focus—ours and the malevolent spy's—Bava has the young woman waltzing around in slinky sleepwear, which gives her and, later, Mary, a sexy vulnerability, resulting in a titillating combination that remains a favored juxtaposition for horror filmmakers today. Adding to the sexual anxiety are suggestive comments from Mary, such as, "He always knew about us," giving more than a hint at the prospect of perhaps two jilted lovers scorned by Rosy.
Despite Bava's apparent disdain for vampire conventions, Black Sabbath's second section, The Wurdalak, is "one of the finest vampire films ever made," according to preeminent Bava scholar Tim Lucas. Here, Karloff stars alongside Mark Damon, Glauco Onorato, and Susy Andersen, and in this section, Bava opens up the perceptual setting of the film, with sequences shot in studio-bound and location exteriors.
Starting the segment off, Vladimire d'Urfe (Damon) happens upon a headless body with a knife in its back. With body and body's horse in tow, he arrives at the residence of Giorgio (Onorato) and his family. It turns out the knife belongs to Giorgio's father, Gorca (Karloff), who has been out hunting a criminal named Alibeq for five days. It seems he found his man. Now, however, as Giorgio comments, "the only one we have to fear is our father," an ominous statement that primes Vladimire, the family, and the viewer to a dangerously developing mystery. The trepidation revolves around the existence of vampiric creatures, "bloodthirsty corpses," in the words of sister Sdenka (Andersen), who, following a rather improbably rushed romance, falls for Vladimire and plans to run off with the stranger. What makes this particular breed of vampire frightening for the family is that this type must feed on, and subsequently transform, their own relations. When Gorca returns, Karloff is given a star entrance befitting his iconic status, as a quick zoom lands in dramatic close up punctuated by a musical cue. As feared, all is not right with the grizzled patriarch. He is short-tempered, has a sudden aversion to food, and is inconsolably cold and sore (in reality, Karloff's arthritic condition contributed to his stilted movements). As the terrible affliction becomes a family affair, the concerns prove to be well founded.
With dangling cobwebs, dogs howling, a fog-shrouded nightscape, and whistling wind, this tale of a family torn asunder by a hostile outside force contains more standard horror tropes than either of the surrounding stories. The period piece backdrop also helps validate the supernatural folk-tale element of its narrative, which further situates the film as the most clearly in a traditional vein.
The third episode, The Drop of Water, starts as Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux) is called out one stormy evening. She is a nurse (perhaps not quite the profession one assumes) and must aid one of her patients. Like the misperception of her occupation, the presumably alive individual to whom Helen tends is actually a gaunt-faced corpse lying in bed, eyes wide, face distended in agony, mouth open with teeth clenched in a cramped grimace; Bava's father, Eugenio, a pioneer of Italian special effects, created a number of these effectively haunting wax masks for the film. The deceased is a medium who, according to her caretaker, "has no friends, other than the ones who made the table shake." The caretaker says spirits of the dead killed the elderly woman, a heart attack induced by a séance. Whatever might have happened to her, Helen approaches the body with an unfussy routine. Instead, she is preoccupied by the dead woman's ring, which she slyly snatches. Though Helen soon leaves the ornate manor and returns home, the departed's spirit stays on to torment the nurse. Notions of deceptive perception are again questioned at the end of the segment, as the body of the medium reappears. But is it her actual presence, or some sort of hallucinogenic, guilt-driven manifestation? It is the most disturbing image of Black Sabbath either way.
What follows is a nine-minute, nearly dialogue free sequence where Pierreux, like Mercier, is basically the star of a one-woman show. More so that the legendary Karloff, it is Pierreux (mother of Jean-Pierre Léaud) who gives the best performance of the film, ranging the widest emotional expanse of exasperation, menace, and all-consuming panic.
Even more than the preceding two chapters, The Drop of Water packs a wallop with its intensely vibrant Technicolor design. Bava's gorgeous compositions reach their zenith with an astonishing barrage of pulsating hues that fluctuate as varied artificial light sources dictate. This cinematic showcase extends beyond the imagery, though. With the persistent buzzing of a fly, creaking doors, and, as the title implies, dripping water, this section also contains a complex and creative use of sound, as an element of horror and as an integral feature of the narrative. Of this "miniature masterpiece," as Lucas calls the film, Bava himself considered it the most technically perfect work of his career.
Karloff returns at the conclusion of Black Sabbath for one of the greatest endings ever filmed. Breaking the fourth wall, the Hollywood legend reappears to address the audience as himself (though still in his Gorca guise). In what is a carnivalesque exposé of filmmaking, the epilogue self-consciously and delightfully pulls the curtain back on the cinematic charade of the movie. It is tempting to look at this winking nod to classic, comparatively rudimentary filmmaking practice as a knowing bit of awareness on Bava's part, a signal that while this film was absorbing for its duration, it was, after all, just a movie. Bava once stated that movies were "a magician’s forge": "They allow you to build a story with your hands," he said, "… at least, that's what it means to me. What attracts me in movies is to be presented with a problem and be able to solve it. Nothing else; just to create an illusion, and effect, with almost nothing." And that is exactly what one sees in this clever admission of handcrafted artistry. With Black Sabbath, Bava joyfully revels in the romanticized sentiment of movie magic.
Cut to eight years later, and that sense of romanticism has moved by the wayside with Bay of Blood.
Bava served as his own cinematographer on this groundbreaking feature (something he essentially did on all his films, even if uncredited). While it was undoubtedly a role he eased into given his past credentials, this often visually striking film has considerably more haphazard bursts of color compared to the meticulous lushness of Black Sabbath. Yet even as Bava was typically less comfortable outside a studio, Lucas for one considers Bay of Blood to have some of the best location photography in all of the director's work. The landscape is indeed quite beautiful, and certain shots are noteworthy for Bava's trademark flair, but in general, the look of the film is grittier and more rugged, and the lighting is more naturally occurring than that of the overtly artificial origins in Black Sabbath. The film as a whole is less stylized from a photographic standpoint, and it therefore also seems less fabricated, which is just one sign of its placement in an increasingly realistic contemporary preference
Picking up not unlike the final segment of Black Sabbath, several minutes pass before there is any dialogue spoken in Bay of Blood. The crippled Countess Federica (Isa Miranda, star of films as diverse as La Ronde  and The Night Porter ) looks over her property next to the idyllic bay. Suddenly, she is murdered by her husband, Filippo Donati (Giovanni Nuvoletti), who is then himself swiftly stabbed to death. Just 10 minutes into Bay of Blood and there has been death after death, setting up a scenario that continues throughout the film, namely that no one is safe. All who enters from this point forward are as much a potential victim as they are a possible culprit.
Among the motley crew of greedy conspirators who gather to ostensibly settle/fight over the estate of the departed countess are real estate agent Frank Ventura (Chris Avram) and his "personal secretary" and partner in bed and business, Laura (Anna Maria Rosati). There is the devious Renata (Claudine Auger), the countess' daughter, and her husband, Albert (Luigi Pistilli), who arrive with their children under the assumption Filippo has disappeared (her discovery of his passing comes when she finds his battered corpse getting gruesomely face-hugged by a squid). Living on the grounds are Paolo and Anna Fassati (Leopoldo Trieste and Laura Betti), the former an entomologist, the latter some sort of hard drinking intuitive. Finally, there is Simon (Claudio Volonté), the countess' illegitimate son, whom Anna says Federica saw as a "constant reminder of her weak flesh."
With the inheritance of the titular bay up for grabs, the theme of covetous propriety results in a sort of moral justifier for the carnage that ensues—these are really nasty people and, in some ways, they all have it coming. Much of the mystery of the film therefore lies in the fact that basically everyone appears conceivably culpable of every murder committed. As the bodies start to pile up, potential suspects come out of the woodwork, and the revelations arrive fast and furious, all of which only adds to the tension when it is revealed just who is aiming for what and what they are truly capable of.
Almost as an aside, there is the random entrance of a quartet of freewheeling teens—always prime fodder for your standard horror film killer. In what would become archetypal fashion, the frolicking youth have sex on the mind, but theirs will be a more goregiastic conclusion. Their brief appearance serves to ramp up the body count, but also functions as a delaying tactic before getting to the ins and outs of the conniving land grab (though their stack of corpses does play a part later on).
As for the end of Bay of Blood, let's just say it is unexpected.
In sharp contrast to the more classical type of horror film that Black Sabbath represents, Bay of Blood features full frontal (female) nudity and boasts its fair share of graphic, admirably crafted bloodshed. As a precursor to the slasher film, Bava sets this early standard high with an impressive integration of make up effects (a stunning billhook to the face is shown in lingering, unflinching, and technically remarkable detail), and in an approach that would influence everyone from Brian De Palma to Sean S. Cunningham, the camera frequently adopts the prowling point of view of the killer(s) they he/she/they mill about the region. If so much in Bay of Blood seems so familiar, it is because so much has been so often emulated; this film is a vital turning point in the horror genre, ushering in the slice and dice subgenre. Where Bay of Blood falters in terms of style are the erratic and frequently unnecessary zooms, something Lucas says is actually more refined in the Italian version of the film.
Also released under titles such as Ecology of a Crime, Twitch of the Death Nerve, The Antecedent, and, most deceptively exploitive of all, The Last House on the Left, Part II (its initial release was actually before Wes Craven's film), Bay of Blood has the honor of being included on the (in)famous list of British Video Nasties. It must be said, for 1971, its violence is rather shocking, which was, of course, a major selling point. Distributors even attempted to market the picture as being rated "V" for violence; with Mark of the Devil (1970), one of two films bearing the fabricated and self-appointed rating (the MPAA was not amused).
The stories that comprise Black Sabbath and Bay of Blood are seen now as tried and true, though that is not to suggest they no longer remain engaging. Still, if one is to come away from this double feature with an acknowledgement and admiration of anything, the recognition resides in the visual. Such is the case with much of Bava's work, where even when illustrated in narratives clichéd or convoluted, the pictorial elements remain utterly enchanting. At the same time, these two films show Bava during key periods of his career, relishing in, yet simultaneously departing from, the customs of classic horror. Entering the modern age, Mario Bava has one foot steeped in the traditional tales and forms of the genre, just as he also takes great strides forward, bringing with him a new generation of shifting conventions and setting the tone for years to come.