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Italian horror is known for its lush visual style, brutality, and its own, well-regarded sub-genre of horror called Gialli. Auteurs like Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, Michele Soavi, and many more have staked a claim on the genre and left a lasting imprint. But Mario Bava, an essential Italian filmmaker that worked in all genres of film from the early ‘40s up until his death in 1980, is responsible not just for influencing Italian horror but modern horror as we know it today.
Beginning his film career as a cinematographer, a role that no doubt played into his stunning visual style, Bava would transition into directing horror films in the ‘50s, though uncredited, as well as work in special effects. But when he began to work under his own name starting in the ‘60s, everything changed. His opulent cinematography, inventive use of modest budgets, innovative storytelling and atmospheric style not only contributed to the birth of giallo and modern slashers, but played major influence on filmmakers that would further shape both horror and film itself. While there’s an extensive filmography of great Bava films worth seeing, here are the six most influential horror films that shaped the genre:
Black Sunday (1960)
Bava’s directorial debut, or at least the first in which he actually received credit, launched his career and that of lead star Barbara Steele’s. It was a huge success in terms of box office and critical reception, made more impressive considering its censorship for being very gruesome for its time. Opening with an inquisition that sees a witch sentenced to death by her own brother for her dark ways, she vows revenge in the form of a curse. 200 years later, she returns to possess her young descendent and enact her retribution. A tribute to black & white Gothic horror of the 1930s, Bava keeps it modern with the level of bleak violence, especially the opening scene featuring the iron maiden. The most well-known of Bava’s films, it’s played a major influence on films like Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow.
Black Sabbath (1963)
A horror anthology with a trio of tales introduced by iconic horror vet Boris Karloff, Black Sabbath was made with foreign financial backing with the intent of putting it in American theatres. The segments “The Telephone,” “The Wurdalak,” and “The Drop of Water,” spin tales of a stalked call girl, a vampiric creature terrorizing a family, and a nurse haunted by her stolen ring’s rightful owner. Be sure to seek out the Italian version, as the American edit cuts out more controversial plot elements and rearranges the segment order that places the best of the bunch first (“The Drop of Water”). The most obvious influence from Black Sabbath would be its name appropriation from Ozzy Osbourne’s heavy metal band, originally titled Earth before they saw the film in theatres. The film’s story structure played a vital role in the creation of Pulp Fiction, as well.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
This bright Technicolor murder mystery is often cited as the origin of the giallo, or at least what brought it into prominence and served as the template of gialli that would follow. With a murder whodunit plot surrounding a killer decked in black that brutally dispatches fashion models, the saturated colors, vicious slayings, and even killer trademarks like black gloves would set the blueprint for films to come. It’s a film that had a notable influence on filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Dario Argento.
Planet of the Vampires (1965)
The plot follows a group of astronauts responding to a distress call coming from a strange planet. Upon descent, the crew initially turns on each other and attack, but once that passes they begin to be hunted by a strange, unknown presence. Sounds like a 1979 horror sci-fi classic by Ridley Scott, doesn’t it? While writer Dan O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott have denied seeing Bava’s film during their creation of Alien, the resemblance can be uncanny. Bava fully embraced the pulpy nature of the narrative, making it feel like a brought to life sci-fi comic. The ideas introduced here seem to play a vital role in similar films besides Alien, like Pitch Black and Prometheus.
Kill, Baby…Kill! (1966)
A return to gothic horror, this highly regarded feature was centered on one of Bava’s favorite themes; fear. Following a village haunted by the ghost of a homicidal little girl, Bava’s use of saturated color keeps this gothic tale of ghosts and witchcraft feeling like a fevered dream. Exploring themes of distrust and a haunted past, this film also played a major influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Argento’s Suspiria, and Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
A Bay of Blood (1971)
Also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve, this giallo was also Bava’s most violent. When a wealthy woman is murdered by her husband, it triggers a series of murders where no one appears to be safe in the surrounding area. Bordering on dark comedy, it features a gory body count filled with beheadings, stabbings, and strangling. It is essentially the outline for modern slashers as we know it. Between the one by one body pile up and the POV shots, this is the one Bava film that’s perhaps most obvious in its legacy. The giallo influence is clear, but more than that is its influence on Friday the 13th. Even a major death in Friday the 13th Part 2, in which a couple gets skewered mid-coital, seems borrowed from this Bava classic.