Arguably the finest genre effort by Mario Bava, himself one of the grand old men of Italy's cinematic Golden Age, Kill, Baby... Kill! (original title Operazione Paura, or ?Operation Fear?) is a milestone in the horror genre, and a must-see for anyone who wants to learn how a true artist can transport an audience into a dark and beautiful fantasy world with only the most basic tools.
Set in 1907, the story follows skeptical, city-bred coroner Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) after he arrives at the eerie, fortress-like Balkan village of Kremingen at the behest of a government-appointed inspector, to perform an autopsy on a woman who (as shown in the pre-credits sequence) was strangely compelled to jump to her gory death. A man of science and reason, Paul is confounded by the all-consuming superstition of the townsfolk - every one of whom is in a state of constant, paralyzing fear. The quest for clues to unlock the town's dark secret leads the doctor on a path of grim discovery in which no one remains untainted by evil ? not even the seemingly innocent Monica (Erica Blanc, in one of her early roles), who left the village as a girl and has returned to visit her parents' grave.
What follows is, if you will, a kind of baroque precursor to Twin Peaks, as Paul and Monica encounter all the bizarre denizens of the village in their quest for the truth: from the morose Burgomaster (a shaven-headed Max Lawrence), to the local witch (Fabienne Dali) to the innkeeper's virginal daughter... all of whom share a morbid secret and a shared doom. But the real answer lies in the crumbling, cobwebbed villa of the reclusive Baroness Graps (Giana Vivaldi). It is here that Paul is first visited by the specter of a glassy-eyed, silver-haired little girl, whose demonic presence is preceded by a white bouncing ball and a cruel little laugh. Once she crosses his path, Paul is forced to leave science and logic in the dust, for to look upon this little girl is to seal one's own doom.
In storytelling terms, Kill! is a straightforward murder mystery with supernatural overtones ? one which you've probably seen countless times in movies of considerably lesser quality. But in Bava's masterful hands, this ghostly who-done-it becomes a voyage through the dark recesses of the subconscious, employing clever psychological subtext, Freudian visual metaphors and a pervasive sense of dread seldom achieved in films of the same era. Today's jaded horror audiences, weaned on slick, in-your-face Hollywood product, might find the deliberate pacing, stylized performances and low-key special effects a bit stodgy, but for my money there's hardly a filmmaker today who can create the same essence of beautiful nightmare, much less on the meager budget Bava was forced to contend with (the cast and crew reportedly stayed aboard to finish the film after the financiers' support ran out).
To be fair, with such a fantastic location (the centuries-old villages of Calcata & Faleria) to work with, just keeping the camera in focus would be enough to create heady Gothic atmosphere. But that's only the starting point for Bava's vision: all his trademark techniques - constantly-moving camera, psychedelic lighting effects and practical photographic trickery - come into play in this film, turning the crumbling walls of the village into a labyrinthine landscape of the mind, populated by surprisingly complex characters - particularly the women.
Blanc is, as usual, radiant (in that slightly eerie way that made her a European genre superstar in the '60s and '70s) as the tormented Monica, whose past is intimately bound to the nightmare that grips the village; French sex star Dali oozes smoky sensuality as the gypsy sorceress Ruth, who is feared by the townspeople but maintains a secret affair with the Burgomaster; Michaela Esra is intense as the teenage Nadienne, who is literally sickened with terror at the prospect of her own imminent death after locking eyes with the ghost-girl... and by the protective ?remedies? issued by Ruth and her superstitious parents (she is whipped with stinging nettles and forced to wear a barbed cord around her body).
Of course, the most chilling inhabitant of this nightmare world is undoubtedly the spectral girl herself, whose unearthly features, made even more disturbing by shooting her closeups in reverse (not to mention the fact that she is played by a boy), have haunted more than a few subsequent films. The most blatant appropriation of the character came the following year from none other than Federico Fellini, who used her to represent the devil in the excellent ?Toby Dammit? episode of Spirits of the Dead; a more recent incarnation (again almost identical to Bava's version) came in William Malone's oft-maligned FEARDOTCOM. You can't blame them for lifting from the best; the ironic blend of sweetly innocent looks with homicidally evil intent - one of Bava's recurring themes - is a potent brew indeed.
Kill! has endured several less-than-flattering home video incarnations since the advent of the medium... but thanks to Dark Sky films, a promising new player in the genre DVD arena, this surreal classic finally receives the Special Edition treatment it so richly deserves. Presented in uncut form (restoring footage excised by the American distributors), this print is in fairly decent condition, preserving the psychedelic color palette and intense black levels with little print damage (although I caught a slight frame jump or two and a few instances of hair in the gate). The 1.85:1 anamorphic image captures the dark wonder of Bava's compositions and the sheer size of the impressive locations. The digital mono soundtrack (English-dubbed only) is clean and punchy, emphasizing some surprisingly effective aural jolts and the theremin-laced musical score (which is, for budgetary reasons, mostly borrowed from other Bava films, including The Whip and The Body).
Supplemental features are modest, but very informative: film historian and Bava biographer Tim Lucas (editor of Video Watchdog magazine) provides a feature commentary filled with great trivia and some amazing revelations (to wit: Bava taunted the boy playing the ghost-girl by addressing him with a girl's name off-camera in order to elicit the proper look of rage); also of interest is an interview with Bava's son Lamberto, who takes us on a brief tour of Faleria as it appears today (many of the structures seem on the verge of collapse at any moment, and Bava is clearly apprehensive about walking too close to them), while citing his father's many influences on his and many other filmmakers' work. Rounding out the package is a gallery of promotional stills and the garish domestic release trailer.
Any true fans of classic horror ? or classic Italian cinema, for that matter ? owe it to themselves to take in the wonders of Bava, and Kill, Baby... Kill! is a perfect place to begin. Some may consider Black Sunday to be his masterpiece, while others prefer Blood and Black Lace, but there is a certain doomed magic about this one that pulls you in like no other; it's a key work from an artist of the macabre at the top of his game.