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Halloween and Mario Bava


The early 90s were a time of exciting transition for this horror fan.  As I said goodbye to my teens and hello to my 20s, I attended my first horror convention, I signed my first distribution contract for a movie I’d directed, and I was introduced to the cinema of Italian filmmaker Mario Bava.

My first Bava film was the classic Black Sunday (1960).  This also happened to be the first feature film for which Bava received director credit.  (He had previously stepped in to complete a few features abandoned by other directors - but did so uncredited.)  Black Sunday became, and still is, one of my all time favorite horror movies.  

Also known as The Mask of Satan, this drenched-in-atmosphere movie jump-started the career of actress Barbara Steele (Pit And The Pendulum, Castle Of Blood, Pretty Baby).  Bava’s first “official” feature film as director, Black Sunday gives hope to late bloomers – he was in his mid-40s when he made it.  

I saw my second Mario Bava film, Baron Blood (1972) four or five years later.  I’m pretty sure Bava’s A Bay of Blood (1971), also known as Twitch Of The Death Nerve, came next.  However, it was not until my early 30s that I began to actively explore the filmography of Mario Bava.  He quickly settled into my list of favorite directors.

He has been called “the Italian Hitchcock” – but Mario Bava never gained the fame that Alfred did – primarily due to Bava’s refusal to move from Italy to Hollywood.  Still, Bava’s place in cinema history is just as significant as Hitchcock’s – if not more so.

Bava can take substantial credit for launching Italy’s horror film industry.  Initially just the cinematographer on the project, Bava stepped in to direct (uncredited) I Vampiri (1956) after the original director left the production.  Film historians point to I Vampiri as the birth of Italian horror cinema.  Horror films had been banned there previously.

Bava was a pioneer in many genres.  He was the cinematographer on the classic Hercules (1957), starring Steve Reeves - the film that launched the “sword and sandal” genre in Italy.  Bava co-directed (uncredited) The Day The Sky Exploded (1958) - the first science fiction film to emerge from Italy.  Bava’s Planet Of The Vampires (1965) is acknowledged as inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).  Bava could be considered the father of the slasher film - his A Bay of Blood aka Twitch Of The Death Nerve first presented the slasher as it came to be mimicked for decades.  The Friday The 13th movies, for example, were most certainly cast from Bava’s Twitch Of The Death Nerve mold.

Deemed the first Italian giallo film, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) was directed by Bava.  He was also an exceptional cinematographer, blazing trails with his bold use of vibrant colors in his lighting.  Later, horror legend Dario Argento (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, Suspiria) would achieve greater notoriety and box office success by following in Bava’s footsteps - in both giallo cinema and indisputably Bava-influenced lighting.  It is safe to say that without the Mario Bava guidebook, Dario Argento would not have become the filmmaker we know.

Mario Bava was the son of Eugenio Bava, a cinematographer during the infancy of the Italian film industry.  Third generation filmmaker Lamberto Bava jumped into the game next, first working as his father’s assistant, then becoming a director himself.  I’m not a Lamberto Bava fan, but I do enjoy his film Demons (1985).

Upon his death in 1980, Mario Bava’s amazing career should have been more celebrated by filmmakers and film fans around the world.  Had this happened, more people might know his name today.  Certainly, his contributions to world cinema would have been better documented and paraded for all to see - but ol’ Hitch got the last laugh… the very last laugh.  Alfred Hitchcock died only two days after Mario Bava passed away, stealing the film world’s attention away from his Italian counterpart.  Many believe Hitchcock’s death, and the headlines it dominated, played a part in Bava’s talent and accomplishments going unrecognized for decades.

I would like to have revisited more Bava films this month, but my October has been jam-packed busy.  I’m working on a new screenplay, which has taken up the bulk of my time this month.  I’m under pressure to achieve as much progress on this script as possible before Halloween - because November 1st, I dive into a big editing job that will likely remain my focus through the end of the year.  

Despite my intense writing schedule and a small mountain of other work tasks, I’ve been trying to enjoy as much Halloween fun as possible.  This includes setting time aside to sit on my butt and watch horror movies.  My Halloween Season Must-See Viewing List so far has included Black Sunday and another Bava classic, Black Sabbath (1963), starring horror legend Boris Karloff.  These two outstanding movies rank up there among my favorite Bava films, sharing the category with Hercules In The Haunted World (1961), Planet Of The Vampires (1965), Knives Of The Avenger (1966), Kill, Baby, Kill (1966), Baron Blood (1972), and Rabid Dogs (1974).

If you have yet to familiarize yourself with Bava’s impressive body of work, I encourage you to begin as soon as possible.  His achievements span many genres, but as this is October, I recommend you begin with his horror masterpieces Black Sunday and Black Sabbath.  You’ve still got a few days left to work ‘em into your Halloween season movie list.

Thanks for reading.

- Eric Stanze