Saturday, September 18, 2010

KILL BABY KILL (1966) Movie Review


After the death of a young woman in an isolated village in the early 20th Century, coroner Dr. Iswai is brought in by the inspector to do an autopsy to try and determine if the death was suicide, accident, or homicide. Circumstantial evidence rules out suicide, but the townsfolk are terrified to speak about what has happened. The town's burgomeister intones that the supernatural is involved, and that there is a conspiracy surrounded the local Villa Graps. After Dr. Iswai performs his autopsy, much to the town's disapproval, he returns to the inn he is staying at and witnesses a magical protection ritual performed on a young woman, who claims to have seen the ghost of the dead girl that haunts the village.

After seeing the sorcery performed, Dr. Iswai becomes obsessed with bringing logic and reason to a town he believes is merely being crippled by poverty, ignorance and superstition. Meanwhile, the inspector has gone missing after taking a trip to Villa Graps, and Dr. Iswai follows in his footsteps to the crumbling mansion. It is there that he crosses paths with Melissa, a little blonde girl who seems to disappear before his very eyes. When he once again returns to the village, the story about the little girl is finally revealed. And as the night slowly slips by, with death floating through the foggy air, Dr. Iswai soon discovers that not all things can be explained with science and reason.

Filled with classic imagery of gothic horror, from cobwebs and candelabras to shadows and yellow light, KILL BABY KILL (originally released as OPERAZIONE PAURA which translates to Operation Fear) is made unique by director Mario Bava's use of color schemes and a perpetually moving camera, which swirls, pans and dollies through the scenes like an ghost. Bava also filmed mostly on location in several small Italian villages, which adds a level of creepy authenticity to the period piece, in that such places do exist, and such events could very well take place within the cracked and crumbling buildings.

Beyond the set piece atmosphere, subtle practical effects play an important part generating and maintaining the uneasy mood that drifts along in the picture. It should be noted that Mario Bava's father, Eugenio Bava, was a cinematographer and the father of Italian special effects. Mario, who worked for Eugenio before making a name for himself, uses the many secrets of the trade he learned as a cameraman to create the full array of effects that seep into all of the viewer's senses, from reverse photography to swinging cameras, and colored gels to warped glass. They are inexpensive, yet effective tricks that create a very unnerving feeling.

Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, whose long and lustrous career has taken him across all of Italy's trademark genres from spaghetti westerns to gialli, is right at home here in the lead role. His crisp and striking features, coupled with the character's modern suits, fits the bill perfectly as the supernatural skeptic as he is set against his co-stars dirty peasant-like appearance. As the film goes on, he subtly brings out a spectrum of emotional nuances as his logic begins to lose out, before going for broke in the final sequences.

Much like SLEEPY HOLLOW would do almost thirty-five years later, the story here pits a man whose heels are firmly dug into science and logic against a town where curses and the supernatural do exist, and it is hard to deny that this film had an effect on Tim Burton. Likewise, it is hard to deny that the story here, which was co-written by Bava, was influenced by 1963's THE HAUNTING. Indeed the first half of the film here is set-up with masterful ambiguity, so that it is quite unclear whether there is anything supernatural happening at all.

For those unfamiliar with Bava's work, KILL BABY KILL may be an ill-advised place to start. Despite the title, there is very little killing in the film, and despite the fantastic and grisly opening murder, almost no gore. Bava's more accessible BAY OF BLOOD or BLOOD AND BLACK LACE would be a good place to start, before returning to and appreciating this one. What this film does offer, however, is pure atmosphere that will have fans of ghost stories and slowly-unwinding plots sleeping with their lights on. Bava himself was a firm believer in ghosts, and his love of the supernatural permeates each oddly-angled scene and multi-layered image.

Whatever title you may know this film as, with the film featuring several name including CURSE OF THE LIVING DEAD, it is an important piece of cinematic history and an influence of filmmakers over the last quarter century. Much of Bava's work was steeped in the supernatural and the unexplained, and among them this can easily be ranked as one of the highest. Bava made films that he would personally enjoy as a viewer, and thus was able to turn his movies into personal art pieces, regardless of the finance gain or loss. For that, he is truly to be respected and remembered as a filmmaker.


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