Black Sunday

aka La Maschera del demonio
D: Mario Bava (1960)
with Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Ivo Garrani, Andrea Checchi.

Bava's directorial debut was one of the last of the great black-and-white Gothic horror films and the springboard for British-born horror diva Barbara Steele's lengthy career. Steele played Princess Asa, a witch who had been burned at the stake (after a metal mask with spikes was pounded onto her face). A hundred years later, she returns from the dead, enraged, full of hate, and bent on revenge. Asa summons her vampire servant and proceeds to take over her living doppelganger, Katia (also played by Steele). Steele was a perfect piece of casting for the film; her offbeat looks are gorgeous and spooky by turns. With the dual roles of the virginal Katia and the seductive Asa, Steele brought dimensions of sexual tension and erotic overtones to the film. Though the plot may sound rather familiar, the strengths lie in the story's execution. Bava takes the elements and creates a film that is both derivative and wildly original at the same time. Cobwebs, creaking doors, flapping rubber bats, and cemeteries are such familiar conventions of the vampire film that they'd become laughable clichés even by l960, but Bava was able to breathe new life into them. Scenes like the ghostly black stagecoach rolling in slow motion through a foggy landscape, or the doctor (who had become a vampire) dying by having his eye pierced by a twig (as opposed to the old standby stake through the heart) are memorable not only in Italian horror, but also in film history in general. With Black Sunday, Bava created a claustrophobic, macabre masterpiece that combined terror and great beauty, a nearly poetic take on the tenets of the vampire film.

Planet of the Vampires

aka Terrore nello spazio
D: Mario Bava (1965)
with Barry Sullivan, Norma Bengell, Angel Aranda, Evi Marandi.

Italian director Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires

Italian director Mario Bava's
Planet of the Vampires

Usually Italian sci-fi is about as interesting as watching paint dry, but here's an exception. A crew of Earth astronauts land on a misty, volcanic planet, and soon things start going awry. The crew members go crazy and fight each other; the astronauts find another Earth ship full of astronauts who killed each other, an area full of giant humanoid skeletons, and the remains of a gigantic alien spacecraft. While much of low-budget American sci-fi from the Fifties and Sixties was rather insipid storywise (hence the term "space opera"), Planet of the Vampires takes a dark, menacing tone throughout. Bava took his limited resources and created a beautiful, deadly world bathed in the oversaturated primary colors that were the visual trademark from his work in the low-budget giallo genre. His astronauts wore the coolest black leather spacesuits since Japan's Monster Zero; even the minimal sets of the spaceships have a distinctly Euro look. More importantly, though, Bava brought along a shifting sense of reality from his murder-mystery films, a filmic setting where nothing is quite what it seems on the surface. Though the pacing lags a bit at times, Planet of the Vampires succeeds in its downbeat mood, striking set design, and directorial signature. It transcends a skimpy budget to work on much more than a simple camp level, creating a finished product to which later films like Alien owe a considerable debt.

Rabid Dogs

aka Cani Arrabbiati
D: Mario Bava (1974)
with Lea Lander, George Eastman, Aldo Caponi, Maurice Poli.

Bava's foray into the Italian crime films so popular in the Seventies is a radical departure from his other work. Rabid Dogs was never released, since the producer fell into bankruptcy, but star Lea Lander rediscovered it a couple years back and brought it to the public (although it's only available on DVD). Four ruthless criminals hold up a car for a bag of payroll money, and when the cops close in and kill one of their crew, the gang takes off. Unfortunately, the carabinieri also shot a hole in their gas tank, so they commandeer a car and take hostages instead. Bava's budgetary limitations wouldn't allow for a rear-projection screen or a permit to film on the Italian interstates, so to film the hostages in the back seat, the director crammed the actors into the car, drove it onto a flatbed truck, rolled up the windows, and did all the filming on this "rolling set." The hot Roman summer resulted in all the actors being drenched with sweat inside the car. The end result is a nerve-wracking, claustrophobic crime film, with a particularly nasty twist ending and an air of downbeat fatalism that rivals Wes Craven's Last House on the Left. Bava made a total break with his other films in this utterly realistic story, filmed in real time, with none of his trademark lighting or camera techniques and a brutally unpleasant grounding in reality. His subject matter had previously been far removed from the real world, or at least had filtered reality through a splashy visual style. Rabid Dogs, on the other hand, deals with stark fear and true-life urban horror, done in a technique as raw and urgent as cinéma vérité. If it had seen the light of day at the time, Rabid Dogs would surely have been one of the classics of Seventies Italian crime films; thanks are due to Lana Landers for rediscovering it. --Jerry Renshaw

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