Who’s That Ghoul? Ghostly Goings On At The Villa Graps In Mario Bava’s KILL, BABY… KILL!

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow. 18

This review is respectfully dedicated to the memory of John Austin Frazier…

Any remote chance that noted Arctic Monkeys fan Gordon Brown ever had of winning the 2010 General Election and carrying on Tony Blair’s bullshit brand of pale blue Toryism evaporated, you may remember, after his unfortunate and inadvertently broadcast encounter with “that bigoted woman” Gillian Duffy. The balance of Gord’s political ambitions foundered on his inability to answer one of her questions… probably one of the most profound philosophical posers that has ever troubled the acutest minds in the entire history of human ideas… namely, “Where are all these Eastern Europeans coming from?”

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… somewhere in Eastern Europe… in what might be the late 19th Century… or possibly the early 20th… there’s a village in which the death rate is starting to approximate that in Midsomer Murders. People who recently reported sightings of a bratty little girl with a ball following them around have been stabbing themselves in the neck, throwing themselves onto spiky railings and so on…

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The latter demise prompts Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli) to call in Dr Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) in an attempt to find out what the hell is going on. A rugged rationalist in the mould of Dana Andrews’ character in Night Of The Demon (1957) or Peter Wyngarde’s in Burn Witch Burn (1962), Eswai dismisses all the local yokels’ mumblings about a curse while romancing comely nurse Monica (Erika Blanc), but the accumulating weight of  eldritch evidence forces him to face up to the unpalatable truth and, in a technically brilliant climactic chase scene, to the repressed streak of irrationality lurking deep within himself…

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In the rare interviews he granted, Mario Bava – a man for all horror seasons – would state his preference for subtle, suggestive scares over explicit gore, gristle and grue. Both traditions were represented in his (official) directorial debut, 1960’s La Maschera Del Demonio (“The Mask Of Satan” aka Black Sunday)… his 1963 brace I Tre Volti Della Paura (“The Three Faces Of Fear” aka Black Sabbath) and The Whip And The Body developed the understated gothique strand of his cinematic sensibility but it’s in 1966’s Kill, Baby… Kill! that he arguably brings to perfection his formula for creating an otherworldly phantasmagoria by the application of a gel or two here, a tricky camera angle there and a few puffs of smoke.

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Cited by Bava as his personal favourite among his own movies, Operazione Paura (“Operation Fear”), to give it its original title, has suffered at the hands of theatrical distributors who’ve lumbered it with even sillier titles than that (Curse of The Dead, Curse Of The Living Dead and – in Germany- Die Toten Augen Des Dr. Dracula / “The Dead Eyes Of Dr. Dracula”!) and cut significant chunks out of it (a whole reel for one US grindhouse release). On VHS and disc it’s suffered similar cuts in obscure public domain editions that play havoc with Bava’s artfully wrought colour palette.

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Yep, Arrow’s BD release has been well worth the wait, doing justice to the subtleties of Bava and Antonio Rinaldi’s cinematography while keeping grain gain within acceptable levels. Let’s get my major quibble out of the way right here… the titles play out over a clumsy freeze frame of the first victim’s impalement. The alternative rendering, included (as an out take from a German print) among the extras here, continues the action to suggest the presence of the ghostly girl responsible for all these deaths. This superior version has generally kicked off the DVD editions I’ve previously seen (most recently the one in Anchor Bay UK / Starz’s 2007 Bava box) and I wonder why it couldn’t have been integrated into the main feature here. Of course my wonderings proceed from a position of virtually total technical ignorance about what it takes to remaster a film in Blu-ray and presumably Arrow did their best with the elements that were available to them. There are probably notes on KBK’s restoration in this set’s liner notes and booklet, which were unfortunately unavailable to me at the time of penning this review.

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The supplementary materials I did get to check out were “Kill, Bava, Kill!”, an interview with Mario’s son (and assistant director on this film and several others) Lamberto Bava… “The Devil’s Daughter: Mario Bava and the Gothic Child”, a new “video essay” in which Kat Ellinger showcases her encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Gothic in a far-reaching discussion of the influence that KBK has exerted over subsequent film makers and those sources from which Bava might have drawn influence for it. Yellow, a short film by one Semih Tareen, seems to celebrate the visual influence that Bava had on Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980) more than anything. Tim Lucas handles the commentary track, relegating the recently ubiquitous Travis Crawford to an essay in that booklet I haven’t seen. Tim has barely drawn breath before he’s hitting us with a myriad of biographical details about the actress whose character perishes about thirty seconds in, so you know you’re in for a vintage Lucas performance, i.e. his patented mix of factoids and thought-provoking interpretations. We learn from him how the film was completed despite its already minuscule budget being cut to effectively nil (testifying, I guess, to the love and dedication Bava inspired in his collaborators), that you could actually (should the fancy take you) holiday in the Villa Graps and that yes, ghost girl Melissa was played (in a foreshadowing of our gender fluid times) by a boy named Valerio Valeri.

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This sublimely eerie achievement represents the peak of Bava’s ghostly dabblings (though spectral echoes would continue to be felt in the likes of Baron Blood, Lisa And The Devil, Shock and La Venere D’Ille) and brings the Golden Age of Italian Gothique to a suitably impressive close. Ironically, while Operazione Paura impressed the socks off of such Arthouse big hitters as Fellini and Visconti, it was his less personally felt forays into gore that had the biggest subsequent cinematic influence, over the interminable and lucrative stalk’n’slash cycle… ooh, the irony!

On account of some or other brainstorm I was suffering at the time, the initial posting of this review omitted any reference to the highly entertaining Erika Blanc interview and her introduction to KBK, which can be found among this set’s supplementary features… and how very pleasantly nuts she seems, talking us through her collection of stills from the movie. Great stuff.

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Premier League film, Sunday kickaround in the park poster…

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That’s better!

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