Mario Bava: One of Horror Cinema’s Most Underappreciated Geniuses

Il Maestro

Of the “Big 3” of Italian horror filmmakers—Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci—Bava seems, on the basis of my admittedly unscientific research, to be the least well known. If one were to do even a cursory perusal of those corners of the internet that care about such things, one would find ample discussion of Argento and Fulci but relatively little about Bava. In most cases, there is perhaps a passing reference to him as being one of the giants of Italian horror, maybe even briefly something about him influencing Argento (an understatement, if ever there was one), but usually nothing of much substance. It seems that when it comes to Bava there is more awareness of him and less an actual familiarity with his work.

Surely this lack of familiarity is why appreciation for Bava lacks the fervor of Argento-mania and Fulci worship (or Argento worship and Fulci-mania, for that matter). This seems odd, as Bava is not just one of the giants of Italian horror, but the original giant upon whose shoulders others stood. In a genre known for being highly cinematic—so often in horror films style and substance go hand in black-gloved hand—Mario Bava is, in many ways, the quintessential filmmaker. He was a master stylist who wielded the tools of the craft with total control and precision to unnerve and amaze in equal measure.

No Mario, No Dario

Bava has had a deep and far-reaching influence on filmmakers both within and outside of the genre, including both Argento and Fulci. It’s fair to say that neither Argento’s nor Fulci’s filmographies exist—at least not as we know them—without the influence of Bava. In the case of Argento, he was significantly younger than Bava and began directing films nearly a decade after the release of Black Sunday, Bava’s 1960 directorial debut (Bava was already 46 at the time, but had been working on films in various capacities since the 1930s). Argento’s first several films—all those prior to Suspiria (1977), in fact—are Giallo films, a subgenre Bava essentially invented and certainly popularized in the 1960s, with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964).

The latter of the two is probably the most notable example of Bava’s masterful use of vibrant, highly saturated color palettes, something Argento would borrow heavily from for Suspiria. Indeed, Suspiria is a prime example of the disturbing but engrossing blend of aesthetic beauty and gruesome violence so closely associated with Argento. No doubt, Argento deserves his reputation as a master of this very particular kind of horror, but it should be acknowledged that Bava got there first. Whether Argento would ever have gotten there without following Bava’s lead is debatable.

A close up shot, in heavily saturated red, of a woman's face, eyes turned toward the camera in fear, her mouth open in mid-scream.
Seeing red in Bava’s Blood and Black Lace.
A medium-close shot of Susie, the protagonist from Suspiria; she is bathed in red light, with the curtains behind her bathed in red and blue light, on her face a look of frightened surprise and in her hand a small, thin dagger.
And again in Argento’s Suspiria.

From Jack of All Genres to Godfather of Gore

Fulci was clearly influenced as well, though he was closer in age to Bava and had directing credits prior to the release of Black Sunday. Interestingly, Fulci’s earlier movies were in almost every genre but horror, so perhaps one of the biggest ways Bava influenced Fulci was in the latter’s decision to move into horror. For Fulci, as with Argento, this began in the 70s, with horror-adjacent Giallo films like A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) and Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972). In the late 70s and into the 80s, Fulci shifted to supernatural horror known for its striking, often grotesque imagery and confusing, dreamlike (non)logic e.g., City of the Living Dead (1980) and The Beyond (1981). While Bava certainly didn’t invent the use of macabre imagery and reality-bending narratives, he exhibited a unique talent for incorporating both in films like Kill Baby, Kill (1966) and Lisa and the Devil (1974). It is difficult to imagine films like these didn’t provide inspiration for Fulci’s later gore-soaked takes on surrealist horror. 

In black and white, a close up shot of the face of Katia's corpse, partway through its resurrection; her face is covered in puncture wounds and her eyes are all-white orbs.

Emily, the blind woman from The Beyond; her long, blonde hair frames her face, her mouth is partly open and her eyes, which face the camera, are filmy white orbs; visible behind her over her left shoulder is a mantel with knickknacks and an oval portrait of what appears to be a young girl sitting on a sofa.
“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes. Okay, you can fire now.” Above: Katia, mid-resurrection, from Bava’s Black Sunday. Below: Emily, the mysterious blind woman from Bava’s The Beyond.

Auteur on a Budget

I would confidently say that, for the entirety of the ’60s and even into the early ’70s, Bava was the best and most important filmmaker working in the horror genre. I would add that perhaps no director working in or adjacent to the genre at any time was as dominant as Bava during this period. Arguments could be made for Carpenter, Cronenberg, or Argento having comparable runs in the ’70s and ’80s; however, it’s important to note that all three were contemporaries working at essentially the same level during a particularly fruitful period for horror cinema. In contrast, Bava was working during a relatively dry period for horror (that stretch of the 60s following Hitchcock’s Psycho but prior to the “birth” of modern horror in 1968 with Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead).

The fact is that no one else at the time was putting out quality horror films with the consistency of Bava. His output during this period is even more impressive given the fact that for the majority of the films he was also a writer (or co-writer), cinematographer, and special effects designer. Additionally, Bava routinely worked with small budgets, time constraints, and even language barriers amongst cast and crew (many of his films involved actors and crew from different European countries as well as the US). That so many of his films are as good as they are is a testament to Bava’s talents as a filmmaker. 

A Brit, an American, and an Italian Walk Into a Haunted Castle

The only other notable and consistent producers of horror films during the 1960s were England’s Hammer Film Productions and American International Pictures (AIP). Hammer is best known for its series of films—beginning in the late 50s—that featured classic horror characters and usually starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. AIP was an independent film production company started in the 50s which specialized in low-budget genre films aimed primarily at teen audiences. The best of AIP’s horror films were directed by the legendary Roger Corman, with his famous Poe cycle in the 1960s arguably being the high point of the studio’s horror output. Interestingly, AIP would also handle American distribution for some of Bava’s films. These AIP versions usually featured significant changes from the original releases e.g., different titles, new music, and often extensive cuts—mostly aimed at material considered too controversial for domestic audiences.

Against a black background, to the left of the frame, we see from the chest up the figure of the Red Death, depicted as a figure in a red, hooded cloak, their face covered by a fringed red mask; to the left of frame is a red shape resembling a kind of rounded off hexagon.
Death, from Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death, the most ambitious and stylized (one might say Bava-esque) entry in Corman’s Poe cycle. Notably, the cinematographer on Masque was Nicolas Roeg, who would later direct the classic, Giallo-inspired psychological horror film Don’t Look Now (1973).

One key difference between both the Hammer movies and the AIP movies, on the one hand, and Bava’s on the other was that both Hammer’s and Corman’s films were usually tied either to the classic monsters of the Universal era or to classic horror literature, namely Edgar Allan Poe. As a result, as fantastic—in both senses of the word—as these movies often were, they nonetheless felt grounded in familiar, relatively safe tropes. They were largely set in the past—often the distant past—and they usually involved the supernatural. This set them squarely in the realm of traditional horror, even if their often sensational (for the time) depictions of horror might have diverged from the relatively staid conventions of the classic horror films. 

There’s Always Room for Giallo

While Bava’s films sometimes took place in the past and involved the supernatural, they often did neither. As early as his second film, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (his most overtly Hitchcockian movie, as the title suggests), Bava was dealing with the non-supernatural and in the process creating a new subgenre—the Giallo– that would have a profound impact on the future of horror. Two years later, with Blood and Black Lace, Bava would further solidify the template for the Giallo, including its most defining elements: the twisty—sometimes downright confusing—whodunnit plot and a distinct visual aesthetic defined by beautiful women, lavish set designs, and spectacular murders. While the Giallo is primarily associated with the 1970s—in particular the early 70s—it is interesting that the formula was fully formed several years earlier. In this regard, Blood and Black Lace was well ahead of its time; if any film from the 1960s other than Psycho deserves to be called a proto-slasher it is Blood and Black Lace.

Seen in heavy shadow, the masked killer from Blood and Black Lace, in fedora and trench coat, peering around what appears to be a piece of upholstered furniture, a brick wall visible behind him.
Blood and Black Lace was one of the first films to feature a masked killer, one whose unique look would influence later cinematic characters both within and outside the horror genre, including the killer in Sergio Martino’s Giallo/proto-slasher Torso (1973), Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), the title character in Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1990), and the graphic novel antihero Rorschach brought to the screen in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009).

From A Bay of Blood to Camp Blood 

Bava would later return to the Giallo, with Hatchet for the Honeymoon (a terrible but understandable title) and Five Dolls for an August Moon (an amazing but incomprehensible title), both released in 1970. In 1971, in his final turn at the Giallo, A Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve, aka Chain Reaction, aka Ecology of Crime, aka…you get the idea) Bava reinvented—or, perhaps more accurately, re-intensified—the subgenre by introducing violence far more graphic than what had been seen to that point. In fact, one can readily see in A Bay of Blood the blueprint for the entire slasher subgenre that would explode 10 years later in the wake of Friday the 13th. It is particularly evident in the section of the film featuring the party-loving young people who show up seemingly only to be violently murdered in a series of grisly set-pieces. Indeed, the first two Friday the 13th films in particular bear a striking resemblance to A Bay of Blood. Friday the 13th Part 2 even features two kills lifted directly from A Bay of Blood (one involving characters taking large blades to the face is at least arguable, another involving a double spearing of a couple in flagrante delicto is absolutely not). 

An Earth-Changing Anthology 

Notably, this trio of early-’70s films is decidedly non-supernatural and features realistic, contemporary settings. Though much of his output prior to these films did feature supernatural elements, this was not always the case. In his 1963 anthology, Black Sabbath—whence came the inspiration for a certain British blues-rock band formerly known as Earth to change their name—one of the three tales is set in the present and does not involve any supernatural elements. However, the AIP version recut for an American release does add one, while also downplaying elements such as the suggestion of a romantic connection between the two female characters and the fact that the man menacing the female protagonist is her former pimp.

In 1965, Bava chose for a setting neither the past nor the present but the future, in the misleadingly titled sci-fi horror film Planet of the Vampires—a film with some remarkable similarities to Alien (1979). The film marks Bava’s only foray into sci-fi horror but bears all of his characteristic visual styles, as Bava again conjures up fantastic imagery through his skilled use of color, lighting, and set design. As usual, it was a case of doing a lot with a little, as Bava managed to convert a mostly bare soundstage into an eerie landscape befitting the titular Planet.

Two crew members, one man and one woman, walk through the smoky interior of an alien spacecraft; visible behind them is a gigantic skeleton of some unknown being.
From Planet of the Vampires: Crew members explore an abandoned alien craft, on which they find mysterious, giant skeletal remains.
Three helmeted, space suit-wearing crew members approach what appear to be giant skeletal remains of a being seated at some kind of control panel.
From Alien: Crew members explore an abandoned alien craft, on which they find mysterious, giant skeletal remains.

Final Thoughts and a Shudder Plug

All of this to say that while superficially Bava’s films may appear cut from the same cloth as other horror films of the period, they largely aren’t. They both look and feel different, which—as noted—can in some cases be partly attributed to their being more grounded in reality. However, they also stand apart thanks to the sheer quality of the filmmaking on display. This is not to say there were no other exceptionally well-made horror films during this time—including some of the Hammer and Corman films—but rather that no one else was producing them as consistently as Bava.

Nor, for that matter, was anyone else quite the “one-man-band” that Bava was. This is not to dismiss the collaborative effort required to make any film, but rather to emphasize the particularly heavy workload often taken on by Bava. Granted, this was as much out of necessity as anything else, but we know what they say about necessity. And in this case, the inventions certainly speak for themselves. 

Nevertheless, there remains progress to be made before Bava is as much a household name in horror circles as Argento, Carpenter, Romero, or Craven. However, there are positive signs, most notably the eight Bava films—aptly titled The Bava Collection—currently available on Shudder. For any horror fans not familiar with Bava or for those with only a casual awareness, these films should be considered essential viewing. While not comprehensive, with eight titles, the collection serves as a fairly thorough introduction. It covers a broad span of Bava’s career and includes many of his most important contributions to the genre, from 1960’s Black Sunday up to 1977’s Shock, the last film Bava would direct before his death in 1980. 

The Mario Bava Collection, available on Shudder (in chronological order):

  • Black Sunday (1960)
  • The Evil Eye (1963) *This is the retitled AIP cut of The Girl Who Knew Too Much.
  • The Whip and the Body (1963)
  • Black Sabbath (1963)
  • Kill, Baby Kill! (1966)
  • A Bay of Blood (1971)
  • Lisa and the Devil (1974)
  • Shock (1977)

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Written by Corey Callahan

My name is Corey Callahan. In terms of my background, I am from the village of Minerva. In terms of education, I have a bachelor’s degree in sociology, a bachelor’s degree in history, a master’s degree in public administration, and a master’s degree in communication. I have been a horror fan in times good, and I have been a horror fan in times bad. If you read my articles, I promise each and every one of you I will hit the ground running, come out swinging, and end up winning. Finally, I will not apologize for my tone tonight (or any other night, for that matter). Thank you.

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