Archive for Mario Bava

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.

Robinson in Space

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2015 by dcairns


ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, directed by sci-fi old hand Byron Haskin, is a movie I should really have seen as a kid, but I only just saw it now. Fiona kept insisting that we had watched it already, but that she wanted to see it again, only the second of which was true, apart from the “again” part. I may sometimes entirely forget the details of a film I’ve seen, but I’m generally right about what I’ve seen and what I haven’t.

Fiona likes monkeys. I like them too. Maybe I should say Fiona loves monkeys. So as far as we were concerned, Mona the monkey, billed only as “the woolly monkey” — to protest sensitive young minds to the fact that Mona was played by Barney — a monkey in drag, the obscenity! — was the star of the show.


Fiona read up on the movie beforehand and was able to point out that when Man Friday is being agonized by his electric slave bangle, Barney/Mona started spontaneously copying actor Victor Lundin’s writhings.

Barney being so charismatic and so adorable in his spacesuit is kind of unfair to Paul Mantee, who holds the film together with a really committed and credible performance. I don’t really believe Mantee knew what oxygen starvation is like, necessarily, but I certainly believe he chose a way to play it which is compelling and disturbing. I do wish Haskin hadn’t introduced him hanging upside down, pretending it’s zero gravity: Mantee’s forehead veins look fit to burst. Mantee being main character, he ought to have been right-side-up, with co-star Adam West inverted. After all, West was good at defying gravity, look at all those wall-climbing scenes in Batman.


Some really attractive Mars-scapes seal the deal. This is probably Ib Melchior’s finest hour, certainly finer than REPTILICUS! or JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES looks gorgeous and has some interesting sci-fi ideas to boot, but I always struggled with the boring characters and lack of humanity. The leads are so bland Mario Bava was able to replace one of them halfway through filming and hardly anyone notices (thanks in part to the dubbing, I guess). But I must confess I have yet to watch ANGRY RED PLANET, which always fascinated me when I saw stills of it. Old Ib, who passed away this March, had what you would call an interesting career — no masterpieces, but working in a genre if not despised then at least loftily patronised, he contributed to a bunch of amusing or fun movies and made them better than they might have been.

Fiona would also like you to know that co-star Lundin’s bizarre song, which he would perform at conventions, is available to enjoy on YouTube here. Few songs can be said to evoke so many emotions at once, none of which really belong together.

Movie is available with a really nice package of extras (including the song) from Criterion.

The Dada Book

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 29, 2014 by dcairns


Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK is getting lots of favorable attention, and the low-budget Australian horror deserves it, though we weren’t wholly captivated. But the minus side — too much generic running around, recycling of tropes from Mario Bava’s SHOCK and THE SHINING*, neglecting the unique possibilities of its original ideas, like the scary pop-up book — is pretty well balanced by some strong pluses.

I’m going to play the game of not spoiling the storyline, but you might pick up hints from the following, and if you want to see the film with a virginal mind, see it first before reading the rest.


The title is really delightful — Fiona was convinced she’d heard this word before, which is testament to the word-sound’s grip on the collective unconscious. It’s like onomatopoeia for something that doesn’t exist.

The performances, particularly the two leads, are just extraordinary. Little Daniel Henshall Noah Wiseman has one of those wildly expressive, photogenic faces, eyes like fishbowls, porcelain skin, and disconcerting FANGS (like he hasn’t quite grown into his teeth, or like they just grew into him) — he transfixes the camera. Essie Davis as his mum is just perfect too, maintaining sympathy as long as possible as things start to get really, really bad.

The movie is playing an elaborate game with the genres of psychological and supernatural horror, so expect some slide between believing the Babadook is a real monster and thinking it’s all in the mind. Some of this journey is rocky, with promising avenues closed off too soon, and the part of the film where it comes down strongly on one side gets kind of dull and uninvolving — we feel we’ve lost sympathy, and for all the running around, this can only end really badly, which is depressing. But then the movie pulls off an eleventh-hour recovery and goes somewhere quite unexpected and possibly unique in the genre.


Fiona: “Magicians are scary. Child magicians are very scary.”

Basically, the Babadook — a crow-like caped man with dagger-like fangs, somewhat Tim Burton-like — also a mysterious hand-crafted children’s book with some highly inappropriate content — comes to have a very clear metaphorical significance. He’s the embodiment of a repressed emotion, and ultimately the way of dealing with him seems quite apt and may even have helpful real-world applications for the viewer. Grief isn’t dealt with by violence, and it can’t be effectually shut away and forgotten, and it is a dark, all-consuming monster… I can say no more.

The movie has a jittery, juddery, propulsive editing style which keeps you nervous most of the time. Mom walks towards the front door — the sound of the door opening breaks in before she gets there — we cut to her midway through opening the door, now shot from outside — which smooths over the jumps just enough to feel like smooth continuity, but has an undercurrent of nervous anticipation. This is kept up, which means the film doesn’t get to creep us out much with slow, building suspense, but it’s also a world away from the traditional, conventional 1-2-3-BOO! approach of teen horror. It has its limitations but it’s at least a fresh approach.

*Anyone who has seen LET US PREY, co-written by Fiona & I, will be able to point triumphantly to a lot of SHINING-influenced business in that one, but we already have our answer worked out, which is to deny all responsibility for anything you don’t like, okay? As long as we can take credit for anything you DO like. The ultimate powerlessness of the screenwriter has to confer SOME advantages…


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