In the stark hued nightmare world of Italian maestro Mario Bava cinema is art. He trained in the fine arts eventually followed his father Eugenio—a special effects artist and cinematographer—into the film industry working his way through the ranks as a DP on classic film such as 1956’s I VAMPIRI, which Bava completed shooting in the wake of director Riccardo Freda’s dismissal. Bava, having been born of the visual construction of cinema often added a painter’s touch to his filmed works. A Mario Bava film is like a dream construct, where narrative is often subordinate to the overall image presented through the lens. Considered by many to be his greatest triumph, 1966’s KILL, BABY…KILL! (Operazione paura or Operation Fear) is definitive in its hallmarks, personifying the arresting style, which Bava made his own in productions such as PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES and BLACK SABBATH.
Giacomo Rossi-Stuart stars as Paul Eswai a doctor called to a small village to perform an autopsy on a local woman. Once he arrives, he discovers a coin embedded in her heart and a group of townsfolk who are none-to-pleased with his intrusion. With the aid of a local nurse (Erika Blanc) the pair will uncover a secrecy surrounding the ancient Villa Graps, its sole inhabitant The Baroness, and Melissa a mysteries blond child with icy blue eyes who’s path precipitates the death of those unfortunate enough to meet her.
KILL, BABY…KILL! is a triumph of style over substance. It’s arguably not as good a feature as BLACK SUNDAY or TWITCH OF THE DEATH NEVE, but cinematically it’s Bava at his most prolific. The saturation of primary colors that bathe the backdrops of the film’s ancient set pieces lends an equally ethereal and garish element to a simple Giallo-style story. But for Giallo, the mystery is weak so Bava focuses on the films supernatural elements. Still, there too the script leaves little opportunity for introspection or grand theory.
Dr. Eswai is the skeptic. His job is to prove the villagers unfounded fears are all grounded in delusion. The film, however, makes it’s perfectly clear that the spirit of Melissa Graps is in fact very real, which—while it never hurts the film—only makes the Doctor’s point moot. In the end, it really doesn’t matter because in Bava’s gothic universe Eswai is trapped in a purgatory of psychosis. His linear mind-set cannot grasp the reality of the situation—a point the director hammers home with a climactic chase sequence through the Graps estate—a scene, I might add, that clearly inspired the final surrealistic reels of Dario Argento’s opus SUSPIRIA.
Bava’s films have inspired a host of other directors from Ridley Scott to Tim Burton but KILL, BABY…KILL! is probably most notable for encouraging Martin Scorsese’s casting of the young girl as Satan in his controversial classic THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Bava himself even borrows from his film, and the casting of Fabienne Dali as the sorceress Ruth is as much a direct homage to Barbara Steele’s performance as Katia Vajda in BLACK SUNDAY as his casting of Luciano Catenacci is foreshadowing the performance of Telly Savalis in LISA AND THE DEVIL. Due to budgetary constraints, Bava even cribs music cues from his previous production to flesh out the soundtrack for the film—a point, hardcore fans will pick up on with ease.
The DVD special edition of the film from Dark Sky is a perfect example of how classic horror should look, and the re-mastered picture is a mile ahead of anything that has come before. The DVD also features an exhaustive audio commentary from Bava historian Tim Lucas (Video Watchdog) and a featurette from esteemed supplemental filmmaker David Gregory which follows the Bava’s son Lamberto (DEMONS) around the shooting locations of the production. Dark Sky has put together nearly the definitive version of the film. In fact, the decision not to include an original Italian language track seems to be the only notable omission from this must own release.
Many might be able to dismiss Bava’s film as yet another Italian splatter film, or a production that was trying to compete with Hammer Studio’s market, but despite it’s seeming unimportance at the time of release, KILL, BABY…KILL has proven it’s mettle over the years by it’s sheer range of influence. And, with Bava beginning to receive the critical attention he so rightfully deserves. 2007 looks to be a banner year for the filmmaker who passed away 27 years ago. With the publication of the long gestating biography All the Colors of the Dark by Lucas and Anchor Bay’s upcoming DVD Box set it appears that the maestro of the macabre has finally met his audience.