Archive for Mario Bava All the Colors of the Dark

The Sunday Intertitle: Dramatis Personae

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , on September 6, 2015 by dcairns


Reading about cinematographer and effects artist Eugenio Bava in Tim Lucas’ magisterial study of his son Mario encouraged me to look at the 1912 QUO VADIS?, which he shot. It begins, in a manner familiar from many silent films but relatively new at the time, with the cast, represented by title cards and then by portrait shots, allowing the audience to know who they were watching. Very early silent films had no titles, but the audience’s appreciation of certain stars led to a demand to know who they were. Nowadays, it seems like everybody from the caterer to the wallpaper designer gets a credit, but in fact this is not show — really big movies still leave out the names of probably half the people who worked on them. Thank God.


Each of the portraits in QUO VADIS? starts with the actor looking off screen right, then each thesp slowly turns until they are looking right at the camera. The effect is of scanning the movie audience for a particular face, and then stopping once they’ve located US. After a while (cast of thousands = long title sequence), this started to creep me out very slightly. I’m not normally bothered by the fact that movies are populated by dead people, but these ambulatory corpses seemed to know too much. And they were being a bit over-familiar, if you ask me.



The Sunday Intertitle: Bava Lava

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by dcairns


I’m finally reading Tim Lucas’s magisterial Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. I can’t fault the scholarship — few filmmakers are lucky enough to get books as exhaustive and considered and respectful as this. It’s all the sweeter since Bava was such an underrated artisan in his lifetime.

I wouldn’t dare to contest Lucas’ unparalleled expertise in this subject, but one little bit where I think he’s not quite right gave me an idea for today’s piece.

The book not only examines Bava’s directorial legacy, it probes into his work as cinematographer, and also provides as full an account of the career of his father, Eugenio Bava, cinematographer and visual effects artist of the silent era. Lucas examines the legendary CABIRIA, whose effects are jointly ascribed to Bava Snr. and the great Segundo de Chomon. Chomon usually gets most of the credit, and Lucas thinks this is probably unfair — he claims Chomon’s effects “were usually rooted in the principles of stop-motion animation.” In fact, I think it’s going to be impossible to make any calls on who did what, other than that we are told Bava Snr. built the model Vesuvius. Chomon’s imitations of Georges Melies’ style saw him performing every kind of trick effect known to the age, to which he added the innovation of stop motion, cunningly integrated into live action sequences. I think it’s fair to say than any of the effects in CABIRIA might have been the work of either man.

Lucas goes on to focus on one spectacular shot of the erupting volcano, a composite in which the bubbling miniature shares screen space with a line of fleeing extras and sheep (do the sheep know they’re fleeing? Perhaps they’re just walking). Lucas notes that smoke pots in the foreground, placed near the extras, waft fumes up across the model volcano, which makes him think the shot could not have been achieved as a matte effect. He deduces that the volcano was filmed through a sheet of angled glass, one corner of which was brightly lit to reflect the extras.

I would suggest that the shot is in fact a pure double exposure, with no mattes. The volcano is dark apart from the bright lava. The shot of the extras is also dark apart from the extras, sheep, and smoke. Double exposed on the same negative, the bright parts register and the black parts stay black. Thus the white smoke can drift up through the frame, appearing transparently over both the darkness and the bubbling Bava-lava.

belle et la bete end

More examples of this effect: at the end of Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, two characters fly off into the sky. The highlights on their figures cut through the superimposed cloudscape, but the shadow areas become transparent, phantasmal, in a way I don’t think the filmmakers intended; and in CITIZEN KANE, Welles crossfades slowly into flashback, with Joseph Cotten remaining solidly visible long after his background has disappeared, a trick achieved by fading the lighting down on the set while keeping Cotten brightly lit — no matte was needed, and had Cotten puffed on one of those cigars he was talking about, the smoke could have drifted across the incoming scenery, provided a sidelight picked it out of the darkness.

Lucas’s reflection trick, a kind of Pepper’s Ghost illusion, would have anticipated the more refined Schufftan effect by more than a decade (Eugen Schüfftan used mirrors to combine miniatures with full-scale action within the same, live shot on METROPOLIS) and Lucas suggests that Mario Bava resented this claiming of an invention his father had anticipated, and makes his disapproval known by including a character called Schüftan in his movie KILL, BABY, KILL. Since I don’t believe Eugenio anticipated Eugen in this technique, I think we can say that the use of the name Schüftan for the film’s heroine is more of an affectionate tribute to a great cinematographer, effects artist and a near-namesake of his dad.

Quibbles aside, I repeat: this is an amazing book.

Venus Envy

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on December 14, 2013 by dcairns


LA VENERE D’ILLE is an awkward movie to consider for this blogathon — for one thing, it’s not so much a movie as an episode of an anthology show called I Giochi del Diavolo. For another, is it late Mario Bava (his last directorial credit) or early Lamberto? I’ve been inclined to refer to Lamberto as “the idiot son” on occasion but this is unfair — his uncredited co-direction of SHOCK resulted in some of that film’s most memorable moments. I’m just not sure, from the samples I’ve seen, if he’s ever managed a solo effort that could compare to his fathers’.

Since Bava Snr crept into film directing rather reluctantly, forced to pick up the slack when Riccardo Freda started taking longer and longer siestas (in an effort to compel his talented but reticent collaborator into the director’s chair), his first movies were really collaborations, so it’s fitting that his last ones should be too. SHOCK is a twisty, knotty, surreal affair which only suffers from a cheesy synth score and a rather dull suburban home location — Bava worked better with more baroque accompaniment, and I prefer what he did in the studio to his location-set thrillers (though the robustly unconvincing ways he combines the two are among the particular pleasures of his oeuvre).


The curtains Daria Nicolodi is filmed through seem to prefigure the flames licking around Venus in the image up top.

The most intriguing part of LA VENERE, which deals with an ancient bronze statue of Venus, possibly possessing supernatural powers, which is unearthed on a Portuguese country estate, is that it’s barely a horror movie at all. It’s bucolic fantastique, and it takes a certain effort from the Bavas — shambling nocturnal handheld shots inserted more or less at random — to try and amp up the suspense to suggest a horrific denouement may be en route from somewhere or other. Stretched out to the length of its slot, the show suffers a bit from a passive protagonist and not enough plot going on to occupy our attention, but the finale is very satisfying — it might have played even better without the directorial hints of sinister goings-on, as a purely left-field plunge into terror.


Visually, the film does feel like piecework, alternating from handheld to tripod-n-tracks from moment to moment. This isn’t necessarily the result of two directors sharing the workload, however — it might merely be the result of shortages of time forcing a more fast-and-loose shooting method in some scenes. Impossible to say without doing the research. I should buy the e-book version of Tim Lucas’s All the Colors of the Dark, which no doubt provides chapter and verse. Maybe for Christmas!

A minor work compared to the v. interesting SHOCK and the savage RABID DOGS, let alone LISA AND THE DEVIL which really serves as a madcap summary of all Bava’s film-making concerns.
Mario Bava : All the Colors of the Dark or better yet.


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