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A popular sentiment: Limitations fuel creativity. In cinema,
it’s often a question of budget, or producer notes, or a list of things you
can’t do that ultimately brings out what you will do to be marveled at.
Recently, I gorged myself on the films of the esteemed Mario
Bava, Godfather and patron saint of Italian horror. I dove into three pictures
to familiarize myself with a filmmaker who until recently, I had a limited
grasp on. The films, selected by Kino for new Blu-ray releases—BLACK SUNDAY,
LISA AND THE DEVIL, HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON—all stem from various points in
the maestro’s career, but when viewed back-to-back-to-back seem a perfect and
poignant representation of his life and work. And when coupled with the
accompanying commentaries/context, leave one wondering just how the
aforementioned adage applies to psychological and personal limitations as well.
Lush, surreal, hypnotic, stylish, colorful, meandering, reverent,
singular; the list of hallmarks and tropes of the then-coming wave of Italian
terror Bava encompassed and pioneered goes on, and are expectedly ever-present
in the three films that span 13 years of his oeuvre. What’s most exciting about
them though is just how many of the flourishes feel intimate to Bava, himself.
For all his creative genius, from directing to visual FX,
personality-wise Bava is described over the course of commentaries by Video
Watchdog editor Tim Lucas and producer Alfredo Leone as reserved (prudish,
even), a quiet homebody who famously refused to leave Italy. Was he trapped
there, by this refusal? A look at BLACK SUNDAY, HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON and
LISA AND THE DEVIL could suggest so. The meat of each film is steeped in and
confined to sprawling, historic homes, shrouded in old-world macabre, unable to
escape their own legacies. Barbara Steele’s Katia (BLACK SUNDAY), the spitting
image of the condemned witch Princess Asa, is doomed to—even if for a moment—resurrect
her family’s history/misdeeds. In HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, John Harrington (Stephen
Forsyth) is restricted by both the house and business he inherited from his
murdered mother, as well as his own blurry psyche that drives him to kill new
brides. LISA AND THE DEVIL, meanwhile, feels the culmination of this recurring
theme. A tale of an ensemble chained to a manor of misery, Lisa (Elke Sommer),
the seeming reincarnation of one murdered Eleanor is drawn back to her home on
a surreal journey by the devil, while her young would-be lover Max, is driven
mad by his desire to leave. Of course, they’re all in the hands of Satan in a
cruel illusion as the fantastic opening titles foreshadow and a motif of
This quality of the inescapable, or the inevitable, is what
lends Bava’s work so much dread. With his own passion palpable, the audience
too feels the consequences are dire, which cannot often be said for some of the
visually exciting, but often shallow, wholesale rip-off nature of later Italian
genre work. So, in the face of the requisite off-dubbing and the old-fashioned
charm (BLACK SABBATH is positively Hammer-esque), Bava’s own energy and deathly
grip on the terrors of fate prevail. What’s more is just how wiling Bava is to
explore these aspects that seemingly frighten or hold him down. He may not
leave the home, but he and his camera know it deeply, roving the halls and
rooms fluidly, animatedly.
Bava was 46 years-old when he directed BLACK SUNDAY, his
debut feature. This feels telling, as if he had settled into who he was, and
always would be; a peace that allowed him to do such exploring of said themes
and an acceptance—as the dummies and mannequins in both LISA AND THE DEVIL and
HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON indicate—that we’re all pawns in the hands of the
universe and the consequences of our choices. Nowhere, do these two hit harder
than HATCHET. John Harrington is a man imprisoned by his insanity and childhood
trauma and finally, and most wildly, punished for that which this trauma drives
him to do. In an incredible, transcendent twist, Harrington becomes literally
haunted by the specter of a wife he so callously murdered for refusing to leave
Of course, not all of Bava’s films come with such a personal
signature (luckily, most retain his visual flair), but with several standout
works that do, it certainly isn’t difficult to understand his own legacy (which
perhaps, ironically, Italian genre may feel beholden to) or significance far
outside a country he barely left.
Kino’s fantastic new editions of BLACK SUNDAY, HATCHET FOR
THE HONEYMOON and LISA AND THE DEVIL/THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM are available now.
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