Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre (2000)
Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre attempts to address the injustice by bringing together filmmaker fans such as Tim Burton, Joe Dante and John Carpenter with film writers and scholars to review Bava’s rich legacy (and to simply gush over some of the most visually striking work that the horror genre has ever known). Bava, the son of a film effects technician, got an early start in films at the age of 14 as an assistant cameraman. Soon he was working the camera for some high-powered directors: Raoul Walsh, G.W. Pabst, Roberto Rossellini, and Jacques Tourneur. The documentary credits director Ricardo Freda and cinematographer Bava for coming up with the first Italian horror film (at least of the sound era) with the moody, neo-gothic Lust of the Vampire (aka I Vampiri; 1956). Bava finished directing the film for Freda, who reportedly couldn’t keep up with the grueling shooting schedule and argued with the producers. In the next several years Bava would finish two more films when the directors walked out: Caltiki, The Undying Monster (1959) and the sword and sandal epic Giant of Marathon (both released in 1959). Thus, a fascinating genre director was fashioned from a very talented cinematographer.
The documentary celebrates a unique filmmaking career and at the same time speculates about what might have been. AIP’s legendary Sam Arkoff invited Bava to come to the states, but Mario found the language barrier too daunting. One of those interviewed in the film wonders if he might have attained the status of an Alfred Hitchcock if he’d had the budgets of a “real” Hollywood director. Joe Dante (The Howling, 1981; Gremlins, 1984) also wonders, but ultimately is thankful for a body of work that perhaps could only have come from a leaner, but more richly imaginative, European environment.
More than one commentator remarks on the surreal, dreamlike quality of Bava’s work. Tim Burton (Batman, 1989; Sleepy Hollow, 1999; Corpse Bride, 2005) is the most adulatory: “He really captured film as dream.” Others point to Bava’s influence, some of it unacknowledged, on later, much more expensive projects. Friday the 13th (1980) plays very much like an American remake of Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood, 1971), and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1980) lifted the general look and feel, not to mention a whole sequence, from Planet of the Vampires (1965).
Behind all of the dark, macabre dreams was a gentle man with a good sense of humor. Composer Carlo Rustichelli describes Bava as the antithesis of his films, a joyful man. Grandson Fabrizio “Roy” Bava explains his grandfather’s choice of subject matter as a penchant for going against the grain: “too many people speak about love, so maybe I [Mario Bava] can put together love and death.” Perhaps most touchingly, biographer Tim Lucas relates that the night before filming a scene for Twitch of the Death Nerve involving a beetle pinned to a desk, Bava didn’t sleep a wink, because he didn’t want to take responsibility for the insect’s life.
Despite attempts like this TV documentary, the maestro remains overlooked and undervalued. He was a pioneer and an inventor, and many of his films featured graphic violence that was shocking for the time, but most of all he was a master stylist who knew how to light up the night to reveal surreal, nightmarish landscapes that have the power to haunt even today.