The Macabre Movie Magic of Mario Bava

By David Konow

Appreciating the movies and cinematography of gothic filmmaker Mario Bava.

This April, an opera was performed in L.A. to the sixties movie Hercules in the Haunted World. Yes, you usually don't equate a sword and sandal flick with opera, but this was no mere gladiator movie, it was directed by legendary Italian director Mario Bava. Primarily known for the horror classics Black Sunday, Black Sabbath (where the heavy metal band took their name), and Planet of the Vampires, Bava also worked in many different genres, and his movies were never run of the mill.

Bava originally studied to be a painter, and fans of his work clearly noted his movies were a step above the usual grindhouse fare. These movies were the work of an artist, not a B-movie hack. Not to mention that Bava was a master at delivering clever special effects for practically nothing.

Bava's fans include Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, and Tim Burton, among other top filmmakers. In his native homeland, Bava was also respected by the Italian masters Fellini, Visconti, and De Sica.

As Scorsese once said in an interview, "I like Mario Bava's films very much. Hardly any story, just atmosphere with all that fog and ladies walking down corridors – a kind of Italian gothic. I would just put them on loops and have one going in one room in my house, one going on in another…creating a whole mood." (The Bava film Kill Baby Kill was a big influence on Scorsese, as well as Fellini, and both used Bava's metaphor of Satan appearing as young girl in The Last Temptation of Christ and Spirits of the Dead.)

Tim Lucas, founder of Video Watchdog, has practically dedicated his life to keeping Bava's work alive, and he once wrote, "Black Sunday is a stylish and relentlessly visual film, clearly the work of a man who once studied to be a painter." And indeed, Bava wanted to be a painter when he was younger, then he followed in his father's footsteps in the film industry.

New York Times film critic Dave Kehr notes, "Bava added a level of compulsive visual refinement complex in-depth compositions, full of varying textures and insinuating shadows." As Kehr continues, whether working in color or black and white, the man certainly knew lighting and texture, "projecting pools of hot, electric colors onto his sets – great washes of golden yellow, emerald green, inky blue." And the film many consider Bava's masterpiece, Black Sunday, resembled "a throw-back to the 'calligraphic' period of Italian filmmaking."

Another critic, Paul Malcolm of L.A. Weekly, noted that "the glory of [Bava's] Grand Guignol remains his use of color…the purples, greens and yellows of his palette are the sinister stained glass of his expressionist horror cathedrals."

Bava's father, Eugenio, was a cinematographer who shot Quo Vadis and he was also an assistant on Cabiria. In addition, Eugenio was a master of special effects, and as his son Mario recalled in an interview, "[He was] a real artist, and incredibly gifted and sensible man. I grew up following his footsteps. I learned all his secrets and skills."

Once Mario became a cinematographer himself, he worked with directors like Roberto Rossellini and Raoul Walsh. Bava then finished a low budget movie, Caltiki the Immortal Monster, when the original director, Riccardo Freda, walked off the film. Bava also created the immortal monster of the title, which was essentially melting cat tripe.

Bava didn't become a full-fledged director until he was forty-six years old, helming Black Sunday, and his son Lamberto says, "I think my father was more than ready. Even when he was just a cinematographer, he used to have a lot of ideas, most of all practical ones on the set, so the smart directors loved him. The crew of Black Sunday loved him because he really knew how the camera worked." (Bava would bring his father's Mitchell camera to the set of his films, and would shoot scenes with it to honor his father's memory.)

Bava shot Black Sunday in black and white because as Lamberto recalled, "My father's choice was conditioned by the conviction that horror cinema was deeply connected in the mind of the audience in black and white." Because of Bava's skills as a cinematographer, his camera set-ups on Black Sunday came together very quickly, seven to twelve minutes for lighting.

Bava's movies didn't have big budgets, and he used these limitations to his advantage, coming up with many ingenious ideas for camera shots and special effects. In Blood and Black Lace, Bava used a little red children's wagon for a camera dolly, and a seesaw for a crane, with members of the crew sitting on one end to keep Bava up in the air.

In Tim Lucas's biography of Bava, All the Colors of the Dark, John Phillip Law remembered Bava's remarkable low budget ingenuity on the classic Danger Diabolik. The character of Diabolik was to have an elaborate, high-tech hideout, like Bond or Batman, which Bava created with elaborate glass mattes.

"I walked onto this big empty set," Law said. "There wasn't a set, you know? I took a look through this camera. [Bava] had two big pieces of glass that held all these cut outs of that whole cave where Diabolik lived. When producer Dino DeLaurentiis saw that in the rushes, he was going, 'I'm going to tell Paramount this set cost $200,000!'" (DeLaurentiis also wanted Bava to do the FX for his 1976 remake of King Kong because he knew the director could create movie magic on the cheap.)

Danger Diabolik wasn't the first time Bava had to invent incredible sets out of an empty studio. On Planet of the Vampires, which was an influence on Alien, Bava recalled, "I had nothing, literally. There was only an empty sound-stage, really squalid, because we had no money. And this had to look like an alien planet! I took a couple of paper – mache rocks from the nearby studio, probably left-overs from some sword and sandal flick, then I put them in the middle of the set, covered the ground with smoke and dry ice, darkened the background. Then I shifted those two rocks here and there and this way I shot the whole film. Can you imagine it?"

Some of Bava's effects were almost childlike in their simplicity. As Lucas once pointed out, for the credit sequence of Hatchet For the Honeymoon, Bava animated colored sand like finger painting. When he was a child, Bava would fool around with chemicals in his father's lab, and loved to play with potassium cyanide because of its red color, mixing it with white hydrosulfate.

When you see a director create great effects with little to no money, you often try to imagine what they could do with a big budget, but on many movies, the lower your budget, the more freedom you have. And as many filmmakers have had to learn throughout their careers, the more somebody else is paying for your movie, the less you have to say about it.

On many movies, the lower your budget, the more freedom you have.

"Considering his original way in making cinema, I think a low budget could allow him to have complete control of the movie," says his son Lamberto Bava. "Big budget productions don't allow that. He did the best he could and I don't think bigger budgets could have improved the quality of his films. Then, of course, if you're a smart director and you also have the money, who knows…" (Mario once told Lamberto that the simplest way to do a shot or an effect was usually the best, advice he still practices to this day.)

As Mario would later say, "We had to do everything by ourselves, and to solve problems using only our brains and our enthusiasm. It was the result that mattered, not the money."

Bava, who passed away in 1980, was not appreciated in his time, but he was very self-depreciating, and would often say he was merely a craftsman, "a romantic craftsman." Many felt he could have made a major name for himself if he made a movie in the States, but he was comfortable in his native country, and stayed in his low budget comfort zone for the rest of his career.

If you're a newcomer to Bava's work, we recommend you watch his movies like Scorsese does, by enjoying the moody, spooky atmosphere, and taking in the vibrant, colorful visuals. It's a lot like walking through a wonderfully macabre gallery, and you'll really enjoy the artistry behind the terror.