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A Bay of Blood Review

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by Chris McEneany Dec 29, 2010 at 1:51 AM

    A Bay of Blood Review

    If Agatha Christie's Poirot or Miss Marple happened to be staying at the mansion on the side of this Bay Of Blood, odds are they would be conducting their final unveiling of the killers to a room-full of mutilated bodies. In fact, one would be forced to surmise that if they were the only ones left standing, then it would, indeed, be they who had committed the crimes in the first place. The Dame of Crime would be spinning in her grave.

    When Mario Bava, the grand master of Italian Horror, and one of the chief architects of the cherished-yet-reviled giallo genre of gory whodunnits, released A Bay Of Blood (aka Bloodbath, or the more exquisite Twitch Of The Death Nerve amongst many other titles) back in 1971, he created something of a catalyst within a field whose parameters he, himself, has already considerably broadened throughout the sixties. He practically invented the bodycount flick that has been perennially popular ever since. John Carpenter owes him a huge debt of gratitude, as do all the other practitioners of the bloody serial killer romps that dominated seedy cinemas and video rental shelves during the early 80's, right on until Wes Craven made the style fashionable again with the Scream franchise and a whole slew of remakes of the old slashers found a new market with audiences eager for slasher-flicks even today. But there is one man in particular who is always cited as being hugely influenced by what he saw in Bava's early stalk 'n' slash opus, and that would be Sean S. Cunningham, once partner-in-crime to Craven (they shocked audiences with the dreaded Last House On The Left), but founder of the immensely successful and highly iconic Friday The 13th series. Jason's killing sprees in Camp Crystal Lake were undeniably inspired by the audacious butchery seen in Bava's film – several acts of blood-spilling were lifted from it wholesale, in fact – as well as the very setting, itself, but it is the modus operandi of the original Friday that doffs its blood-spattered cap to the master most of all.

    Bay Of Blood, you see, doesn't have just one indestructible killer at large, who we already know the identity of from the outset. Oh no.

    By now, all these years after the film has done the rounds and its theme of wanton annihilation has bled into cult favourite and Z-grade dross alike, it can be no spoiler to happily claim that almost everyone who contrives to end up in this isolated and chilly country retreat has got blood on their hands.

    Bava got himself a cast of fading stars, career hopefuls and a couple of genuine oddballs to line up for decimation. As the Countess Donati whose will and testament provokes the whole madcap scramble of greed and blood-lust, we meet one of Italy's old dames of the theatre, Isa Miranda, who had been seeking to expand her already vast repertoire and had actively demanded that the critically lauded Bava employ her in one of his films. I'm not quite sure what she made of the role he eventually granted her in his 1970 Western Roy Colt And Winchester Jack, but Bay Of Blood, at least, gave a celebrated demise. As the doomed Lady McBeth-alike of Anna Fossati, Laura Betti strikes an odd gypsy nobility that makes her the film's most strikingly loopy character. Betti had also appeared in Bava's Hatchet For A Honeymoon (a far better film than this one in my opinion), which was released the previous year. Luigi Pistilli, so good in both For A Few Dollars More (as El Indio's most trusted bandit) and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (as Tucco's priest brother) for Sergio Leone, as well as other Spaghetti Westerns for the likes of Sergio Corbucci and Guilio Petroni, makes a brave stab of things here as Albert, one of the main conspirators in line to inherit the mansion. Bava also scored big with the casting of Albert's wife, Renata. Claudine Auger, a former Miss France and one of the most alluring early Bond Girls as Domino in Thunderball, has a lot more up her sleeve than we may first suspect, as the un-doting daughter of the Count and Countess. With her hair dyed red because Bava preferred carrot-tops, she strikes a glamorous yet hard-faced facet amidst the wintry gloom and low-light of the body-strewn enclave.

    Another couple enter the fray with plentiful scheming on their mind. Chris Avram's Frank Ventura, who has a luxurious pad just along the lake from the Countess's gaff, looks like Man In A Suitcase's Richard Bradford, but his little bit on the side, Anna Marie Rosati's Laura, is possibly the most attractive woman in the whole scenario, even besting Auger, in my opinion. When she arrives, a little late in the day, perhaps, with half the cast having already been killed off, she looks absolutely gorgeous in that turn-of-the-decade white ensemble of boots, extremely high-split skirt and long coat. And you have to thank Bava's change of heart during a later murder that he opted to remove the eye-gouging that he had actually originally filmed. They are such lovely eyes.

    Among the four fun-loving teens who make a profound error by stopping over in the area, we get to meet the frequently clothes-ditching Brigitte Skay, a natural redhead who,after this, would appear in Bava's sex comedy, Four Times That Night, and was commanded by the director to only ever wear green whenever in front of his camera. Providing the film's booby-bobbling nudie highpoint, she is also the recipient of perhaps the most shocking murder. The others in the group are merely offal to be sliced and diced, but be sure to check out Roberto Bonanni as Bobby, who looks just like TV's Declan Donnelly from Ant & Dec fame. Those with an aversion to the duo (and I like 'em, I hasten to add!) will surely love the moment when a boat-hook is plunged deep into his face, bisecting it from alarming his curly mop right down to his chin.

    But possibly the most interesting character and certainly the most intriguing performer is Claudio Volante, who plays the sinister Simon, the local fisherman, grounds-keeper to the lakeside mansion … and possibly a whole lot more. Dark and swarthy and incredibly intense, Volante looks and acts like a young Oliver Reed. Unpredictable, volatile and brooding, Simon lurks on the periphery, a blazing eyed force of nature who may have a huge part to play in the grim proceedings. Spaghetti Western fans should immediately recognise that surname of Volante, for Claudio is, indeed, the brother of the great Gian Marie Volante, cult villain in both Leone's A Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More. Claiming the same balefully insane glare as his more politically active and decidedly more operatic brother, Claudio was also weaned from Spaghetti Westerns, such as Antonio Margheriti's Vengeance and the bizarre John The Bastard for Armando Crispino, but there was clearly something wrong with his wiring. In 1977 he would stab another man to death in a quarrel and, having given himself up after first going on the run for a number of days, would commit suicide in his cell. It is actually difficult to extricate the macabre turn that events that overtook him in real life from his inordinately shady character seen here in A Bay Of Blood.

    In a perverse twist of fate, Luigi Pistilli would also take his own life, when the grief over his lost wife finally overwhelmed him. Pistilli is actually a much better actor than his performance here would have you believe, by the way.

    As well as the brilliantly apt Chain Reaction, one of the original titles for the film was The Ecology Of A Crime, and this is certainly a clever little pun on Bava's part, since the movie ladles on an ethical coating of his characters having to go through a survival of the fittest type of ordeal – in other words, who can outwit who and who can last the longest. The murders are all apparently committed in the desire to gain the lakeside mansion and its surrounding grounds, an area that can be used to build nightclubs or apartments or garages – all things that we are told will disrupt the natural harmony of the place. The image of the octopus, so wonderfully evoked on one of the film's wild posters, and on the UK video edition under the title of Bloodbath, is a curious one. Italians loved to have animals or insects in their horror films, either as elements within a beautifully enigmatic title (Lizard In A Woman's Skin, Four Flies On Grey Velvet, Black Belly Of The Tarantula etc) or as ingredients in a convoluted plot boasting grotesque murders (Suspiria, Inferno, say). Bava seems to be interested in the natural wildlife of the lake. His opening shot is of a fly spinning crazily around the air and then apparently crash-diving onto the surface of the lake and drowning. He has Paolo Fossati (Leopoldo Trieste) as a butterfly collector and entomologist, eagerly scampering along the banks of the lake trying to catch new specimens with his net. By contrast, we have Simon out fishing in the lake, literally catching other creatures with his own nets, creatures that include the very octopus that we see him bite into during one early scene in which he and Paulo seek to justify their murderous actions. Later on, we will see a bug skewered through with a pin – a moment that Bava apparently wished he had never filmed – in a striking parody of the lovemaking couple who are speared right the way through in a double-murder that was shamelessly pilfered for Friday The 13th Part 2. Paolo even has a pet insect that he we see him toy with occasionally, which may be some form of metaphor for how glibly manipulated most of the cast are. Each one is but a puppet on a string – used until their worth has ended.

    Not entirely sure that you get octopus in lakes, though.

    Bava's reputation as a master of visual style gets a double-edged treatment with this film. This was the first production since 1962's The Girl Who Knew Too Much on which he is credited as being the cinematographer, although he almost certainly had a huge creative influence over his subsequent DOPs, so you would justifiably expect great things from A Bay Of Blood. On the one hand, his compositions, his lighting schemes, his subjective killer's POV shots and his tracking of characters through the environment are certainly of the standard that you would expect from the man behind The Mask Of Satan, Planet Of The Vampires and Blood And Black Lace. But his insistence on zooms and fade-out, fade-in edits swiftly becomes aggravating and, for some reason, this assemblage of tricks comes over as unbelievably tacky – almost as though this is from someone who is aping Bava's grand style, as opposed as coming from the man who created much of this genre trope, himself. His linking together, in sequence, of various characters at the same point in time is a neat flourish, and something that he had done successfully before, yet in Bay Of Blood it lacks impact and even looks a little messy. On the plus side there is a wonderful cut that makes you think you are looking into an eyeball – peeping eyes are a major component – but the resulting reverse-zoom actually informs us that we are peering into the sinking sun. A satirical image is of the dune-buggy that our hapless quartet of young revellers have been riding in. Right after their massacre, Bava cuts to a shot in which the front of the vehicle resembles a smiling face.

    One thing that is immediately apparent is that his use of colour is nowhere near as opulent or as striking as seen in the glorious Blood And Black Lace, which is a garish comic-book horror come to life, or in many of his other titles. In fact, the film looks horribly dated and even kitsch, the flamboyance that the director/photographer is revered for squandered on a seriously less-than-idyllic lake and its surrounding environs. Bava loved sets, or interiors – things over which he could assume complete creative control – and he was not a great fan of locations and exteriors. With Bay Of Blood, you can see why. His clumsy and ineffective day-for-night shots stand out a mile, diluting the suspense of some sequences of people furtively creeping about between the various dwellings. Even Hammer was much more accomplished and convincing at this sort of thing. The wooded areas are actually incredibly sparse and scrub-like, looking more like someone's overgrown allotment than the highly desired locale that people are willing to commit murder for. It is known that Bava actually placed plants and small trees right in front of the camera during some of his tracking shots to give the impression of the area being more densely foliated than it really was. Sadly, it doesn't convince.

    He has several instances when we see evil eyes staring at unwitting potential victims from afar that are quite effective, but he blows this sort of eerie watcher-in-the-woods deal by having numerous moments when we are then allowed to join in with the spying session by various antagonists who are hiding in the shrubbery. This also leads into the rather woeful to-ings and fro-ings from one location to another that almost everybody makes at some point or other, literally criss-crossing the threadbare location in an effort to garner more activity than is strictly necessary. He actually seems to be milking his material dry at times.

    The gore, which is what the film became infamous for, is actually incredibly tame by the standards that overtook it. Yet, we cannot help but admire the glee with which Bava handles the numerous killings. He makes no bones about it – characters are simply placed in front of the camera in order to be despatched via a variety of ingenious and often visceral methods. He once boasted that the film offered us thirteen explicit murders – in fact we really only see twelve, but let's not quibble - and the film is definitely a packed roster of slaughter, the once peaceful lake becoming a veritable abattoir as the corpses begin to pile up. The opening double-murder is a classic. A noose is slipped around the crippled Countess's neck and her wheelchair kicked from under her, leaving her dangling and choking to death in contortions of agony, her hands and feet spasmodically drumming with that twitch of the death nerve that is probably the film's best title. We then witness her murderer, in turn, getting stabbed to death … and this brilliantly reveals, during a wonderfully atmospheric and wordless ten-minute introduction, the notion that in Bava's deliciously skewed world, all bets are off. Everyone is fair game. Most gialli directors would go on to employ such devices as having the main suspects bumped-off at some point, forcing us to drastically rethink who the killer really is (Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper being a major case in point), but few would be able to convey the utterly random and abstract nature of murder most foul as immediately and as engagingly as Bava.

    Soon after this bravura opening, we have boat-hook mayhem, further strangulations, that infamous double-impaling by spear, a spurting decapitation by axe, and yet some more splashy fun with a spear. Although uncredited at the time of the film's release, these effects, which were groundbreaking for the period, were accomplished by Carlo Rambaldi, the little Italian innovator who would go on to create the big animatronic ape-parts for the Dino De Laurentiis King Kong remake, the bloody 3D delights for Flesh For Frankenstein, the utterly grotesque creature in the perversely nasty Possession and, of course, that beloved intergalactic turd, E.T. The boat-hook in the face is especially effective. It makes a solid and violent impact, and it really appears to have gone in some distance. A subsequent shot of the wicked blade being wrenched back out of the victim's face – eyes still blinking - also leaves, ahem, a deep impression. This was another murder that was pinched for Friday The 13th Part 2, in which the recipient is a wheelchair-bound unfortunate who winds-up with the splitting headache.

    Arrow's release contains two versions of the film. The first, and the one boasting far better AV quality, is the English language cut of the film, the version that has been more commonly seen worldwide. The other version is the Italian cut of the film. In this one, the actors are all speaking Italian and we get to read the English subtitles, which actually provide quite a new slant on the story and the characters. The dialogue, this time out, is better constructed and much less contrived, dynamic or ridiculously and illogically overt. Some characters even have different names – the four teeny-boppers, for instance – and some scenes play in a different fashion, with alternate angles brought into play. There is a glass-plate shot of the lakeside mansion at the start of the film – no building actually exists where Bava wanted to place his prized edifice, so he effected this special optical – and it looks different in the separate cuts of the film. The Italian version, I should say, looks remarkably fake in this respect, whilst the English cut actually looks very good in comparison. To be honest, it is better to stick with the English cut, which actually runs a minute shorter than the Italian (you are not missing anything, folks) - the essentials are all the same, and at least this version has been restored.

    A Bay Of Blood is a cult item and its status as such remains undiminished. But it is not the class act that it could have been. Bava was very proud of what he accomplished on such a minuscule budget, but there is a choppy style to the film that leaves me unsatisfied come the admittedly neatly poetic conclusion. (It is possible that the famous Hammer House of Horror episode, The House That Dripped Blood, was inspired by this twist ending.) The technical side that makes Bava's work stand out in many of his other films seems to have been boldly encouraged here yet, at the same time, it can come across as having been rushed and even botched on occasion. The zooming is off-putting here, where it had worked dazzlingly in the past. The use of real location work doesn't suit his more flamboyant style. Bava had worked in almost every genre, including the Western, the historical epic and even soft-porn, but he is best remembered for the otherworldly quality of the atmosphere he was able to evoke in his horror and thriller films. Sadly, there is precious little of that on display here.

    But, despite these misgivings, Bay Of Blood has some choice killings, a wacky and weird cast, some gorgeous ladies and that tempting flavour of the illicit that those “Previously Banned” films all carry like a stamp of taboo disapproval to some … and approval to others. Like us.

    I continue to be impressed with Arrow Video and the lavish packages they put together for such niche items as these dark and bloodthirsty horrors. For those of us with jaded tastes and fond memories of those halcyon days of videocassette corruption, labels such as this, as well as Blue Underground and Shout Factory, with their delirious Roger Corman offerings, have proved to be a dream (or a nightmare) come true. And long may this slew of slayathons from yesteryear continue.

    As influential as A Bay Of Blood undoubtedly is, I am still only awarding it a 6 out of 10. Bava has done much better than this.