Archive for Mario Bava

It Takes a Village, and other lessons children teach us

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2018 by dcairns

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED may have a rotten remake but it has an excellent sequel. (Remake it now, and you can digitally recolour the kids’ hair instead of relying on wigs, and you can have one boy and one girl play all the kids, so they’re identical as in the book. DO IT.)

CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1964) is niftily directed by Anton M. Leader (AKA Tony Leader) and it’s the busy TV director’s only feature save for THE COCKEYED COWBOYS OF CALLICO COUNTY, a 1970 Dan Blocker vehicle (???). I reckon Tony should have quit while he was ahead. But he does fine work here, continuing the dutch tilts and low angles of the first film and adding more modernistic touches too. Those eerie/cheap stills of the kids with glowing eyes in the first film are echoed by the title sequence, a series of ever-enlarging freeze-frames that look to have been taken from a crash zoom, so there’s weird blurring around our eldritch kid.

When the kids traipse through a deserted London, they’re in very, very subtle slomo. I’m reminded of Franju’s LA PREMIERE NUIT.

“Children are a doorway into the supernatural,” said Mario Bava. “Children don’t think as grownups do — they are mad, in fact,” wrote Richard Hughes.

I had somehow convinced myself that sci-fi writer Anthony Boucher had a hand in the writing of this, but his only screen credit is William Castle’s excellent MACABRE, and this is the work of John Briley — and indeed it brings together numerous of the motifs of a screenplay of his previously celebrated here, THE MEDUSA TOUCH. Psychic powers and a climax at a floodlit London church… Briley’s other main credits are earnest Attenborough snooze-fests. I wish he’d done more clever pulp fantasy.

Five genius children are born, but scattered around the world this time. A UN IQ test detects them and they’re brought together in London, where they become even more powerful. This is clearly a development of the alien invasion from the first film, but nobody ever refers to that case… I guess that would just pad out the exposition. But investigators seem able to intuit developments before they happen (“Does Rashid ever make you do things?”) so maybe they’re acquainted with the rulebook from the previous movie. No wigs this time — I think the black and brown and Chinese kids wouldn’t have looked credible in blonde Beatles ‘dos, so I support this choice.

I guess I get why some people don’t care for this film — no Martin Stephens, and a plot that’s imperfectly developed — but I love it. It has a great Quatermass/Doctor Who opposition of humane scientist to nasty government/military, and the two leads are terrific. Ian Hendry and Alan Badel may not be stars of the George Sanders magnitude, but like the spooky kids, put them together and their power is magnified. The dry, melancholic Hendry, occasionally erupting into what his pal calls “a Welsh tirade” — the sardonic, fruity Badel, who just can’t help make everything a sneer. One bachelor, living with another — somewhere between Holmes & Watson and Tony Hancock & Sid James. “There should be a whole series with these guys,” declared Fiona, something I think every time I see this, which isn’t often enough.

Also featuring Professor Dippet, Thumbelina, the shrink from PEEPING TOM and Oliver Cromwell. And Bessie Love, beginning the strange, psychotronic third act of her career (VAMPYRES *and* THE HUNGER!)

Because we’re in London in 1964 in b&w, everything looks like REPULSION — one pictures Hendry changing coats so he can pursue dirty weekends with Yvonne Furneaux between set-ups. Davis Boulton shot it, fresh from THE HAUNTING. Evidently he couldn’t get the defective Cinemascope wide angle lenses that make that movie so distinctive (they had to sign all sorts of papers promising not to sue if the distortion was TOO extreme) but he does fine work. His subsequent career is unaccountably appalling.

Ron Goodwin does the music again, really the only direct link to the original film.

The script, though flawed, has some killer lines and some fascinating developments. The children barely speak, their few vocal moments strikingly well-chosen. Barbara Ferris, the sympathetic aunt of the English boy, speaks for them, possessed, her high, clipped voice sounding remarkably like little Martin Stephens’ in the first film.

An eleventh-hour plot twist reveals that the kids’ cells are human, but from a million years in the future (how can they tell?). This is very interesting, and kind of goes nowhere, but it does make this a precursor of both LA JETEE and THE TERMINATOR. We’ve established that random mutations (or “biological sports,” to use the film’s quaint terminology) couldn’t account for six prodigies occurring at once. So evidently these kids were implanted in the womb back in time, through some process we can only guess at and for some purpose that never becomes clear. A third movie is obviously called for.

When Badel expresses his disgust with espionage cad Alfred Burke, it comes out as “What would you lot do if the whole world made friends — had a bloody love affair?” “Oh, I shouldn’t worry,” smirks Burke. “You know how love affairs go.”

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Chamber of Dreams

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2016 by dcairns

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One after another, the films in out POW!!! retrospective turn out to be far better when seen on the big screen than one would expect — DANGER: DIABOLIK’s somewhat episodic plot seems to flow more smoothly, MODESTY BLAISE’s jarring tonal shifts seem more thought-through, and BARBARELLA —

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I used to assume that of the army of writers on this film (including Hammer scribe Tudor Gates, also credited on DIABOLIK), Terry Southern was probably responsible for the funniest lines, but when I got ahold of the Grove Press (!) edition of Jean-Claude Forest’s comic strip, I found they’d been lifted straight from its speech balloons. (“A great many dramatic situations begin with screaming!”) All of them are enhanced, however, by Jane Fonda’s witty and inventive line readings. How many ways of doing wide-eyed innocence ARE there? An infinite number, apparently. Fonda not only makes the film funnier, she defuses offense in the more exploitative scenes, reassuring us that good taste, and the heroine, will not be violated altogether.

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Embodying a very up-to-the-minute view of the future, 1968-style (the swishy shipboard computer seems like a riposte to 2001, but surely can’t be), the film is also, by movie standards, comparatively generous towards its source, crediting Forest once for co-co-co-co-co-co-writing, and once for design. Combining his art with the craft of production designer Mario Garbuglia (THE LEOPARD) results in wonderfully Felliniesque settings.

In my intro I said that Roger Vadim’s direction was the weakest link, but after watching the film with an audience I would have to retract that halfway — true, Vadim’s marshalling of his resources into camera coverage sometimes seems a bit random, so that you frown at shapeless footage of clearly magnificent environments and crowds — not as bad as CALIGULA, say, but a milder version of that effect — “I know we’re in an amazing set, but we just can’t see it!” As if, having covered his wife/star, Vadim had no clear plan for how to present anything else, and just let the cameramen roam about as if in a behind-the-scenes documentary. But the pacing of the film is really good. Despite their charms, DIABOLIK and MODESTY BLAISE are both peppered with dead spots in their talking scenes, partly a result of rather thin sound design, partly a result of directors who are either not so comfortable with actors (Bava, I’m afraid) or with comedy timing (Losey, unquestionably). BARBARELLA, in front of an audience, really PLAYS.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Bava Lava

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

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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.

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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.