Mario Bava’s return to the big screen

It is indeed a bay full of bloodThursday Nov. 15th marked what was probably the first time in maybe a decade that a 35mm print of a Mario Bava film was screened at Toronto’s Bloor Cinema as part of Rue Morgue’s monthly CineMacabre series. Not video projection, but a true film print of Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve / Last House on the Left 2 / Ecologia del Delitto), splashed onto a screen in front of an appreciative Toronto audience.

This is significant because over the past few years the local rep cinemas shrunk significantly after the Festival chain of theaters dissolved, and even when they were up & running, the offering double-bills tended to focus on Hollywood and foreign classics, vintage B-movies, 3-D flicks, and some recent blockbusters that had finished their first run in pricy megaplexes.

The variety was significant – a kind-of-annual 3-D festival included House of Wax, Dial M for Murder, Jaws 3-D, It Came from Outer Space, Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, The Stewardesses – but I can’t really recall regular doses of sixties and seventies exploitation films popping up as much.

The reasons may have been, at their simplest level, two-fold: print availability (if they hadn’t been ground into celluloid dust over 20 years), and cost. Compared to a double-bill of Truffaut, Hitchcock, or film noir classics, how many people would pay to see a sexploitation couplet, if not a singular offering?

My own ignorance of how many were screened over the past 10 years comes from being spoiled by cable TV and DVD, particularly the latter, since so much is available for purchase and rent throughout the city. Toronto has an awesome collection of rental and sales locales, and with independents like Bay Street Video, Queen Video, and Suspect Video going strong, not to mention many used shops carrying their own eclectic selections, a heck of a lot can be screened in your own home (or on your computer, if you live in a closet with paper walls and sensitive neighbours).

As Nov. 15th demonstrated, the experience of watching an exploitation film with an appreciative crowd – fans plus total newbies to Bava’s sick black comedy – is way different than watching it on TV.

At home, there’s the pause button for restroom runs, the shuttle button for dull spots, and cookies & milk or junk food for personalized munchies cravings; in a theatre, there’s a screen the size of a low-rise building, and audience members laughing at the intentional and unintentional nonsense that makes classics like Bay of Blood so endearing.

Bay of Blood is not quite Bava’s best; shorn of it’s bill hook-in-the-face shot, brain matter splatter, and an awesome speared-to-the-tree scene in the final reel, it’s got serious slow spots, has two wandering sets of double-crossing lovers that make things a bit of a focal jumble, and is capped by a twist ending that’s beyond ridiculous (though some fans adore its audaciousness).

But even if it wasn’t a significant stylistic shift for the director (containing the kind of bold gore that could’ve saved Five Dolls for an August Moon) and is regarded as a precursor to Friday the 13th (because at it’s core, it’s basically a violent body-count flick with a mystery killer), Bay of Blood would still please an audience wanting sex, boobery, eccentric characters, bizarre dialogue, and artfully filmed killings.

A few people ooed when the curly-haired astrologist had her skull lopped off with an exe, when two lovers were speared before their climax (or did it deliver the ultimate payoff?), and when a leggy German chick was clipped with a bill-hook before writhing to death like a dying canary on a cottage lawn. It’s a good bet the shock worked for newbies, and fans who never realized how grisly Bava’s killings looked on the big screen.

Just as grand was Stelvio Cipriani’s score piped loud through the speakers, enhancing the weird melodramatic extremes Bava placed between his killings.

The Rachmaninoff-like schmaltz preceding the film’s opening garroting sequence is painfully funny (which one has to assume was a deliberately cheeky cheat before the first killing), whereas the long percussion track of the main theme (riffing Henry Mancini, with In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida’s bass groove, and not present on the downloadable CAM album and DigitMovies CD), increases audience tension as Bava intercuts between the drunken astrologist futzing with her Tarot cards, sweeping tracking shots of the German chick hip-swinging in her uber-mini-skirt, and a killer making his way towards the house.

Collectively it's a great example of mood and montage that’s arguably been overtaken by fast editing and politically correct tease angles (although Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez did get it right in their Grindhouse opus, placing bums, boobs, and legs all over the Panavision frame).

To enhance the night's mood, Vagrancy Films provided a quartet of vintage trailers: Schizoid (the U.S. title for Lucio Fulci’s giddy Lizard in a Woman’s Skin / Una Lucertola con la pelle di donna), Fulci’s The Brute and the Beast (aka Massacre Time / Tempo di massacre), a psychotically strobing teaser for The Exorcist which got the biggest audience applause, and Dario Argento’s Phenomena (with Dutch subtitles).

Whether we’ll be treated to a 35mm print of another Bava film in the near future is up in the air, but some background on the screening, some nods to the people and companies that made it possible, and impressions of the event are collected in a short Q&A below with Rue Morgue Managing Editor Dave Alexander, who, along with Office Manager Audra Butera, made sure this rare treat came off without a hitch.

Mark R. Hasan: Producer Alfred Leone was the source of the print, and you mentioned it was created for theatre retrospectives. Just curious if Bay of Blood is a kind of test to see if there's an interest among Bava and genre fans to see the director's work on the big screen?

Dave Alexander: Unless you're into Italian genre cinema, Bava really is an undiscovered master. Now that Tim Lucas has published All the Colors of the Dark, his twelve-pound, 1000+ page tome on the director, and Anchor Bay has released its second Bava box set, "The Maestro of the Macabre" is set for a serious renaissance – it’s time he earned wider recognition because he was a very skilled filmmaker on both artistic and technical levels, and has a very distinctive style.

In terms of this being a test, we just thought it’d be cool to show Bava on film, especially since an excellent print was available. The Bava book and DVD set was a good tie-in.

Mark R. Hasan: The challenges in seeking out, negotiating, booking, and getting a film print of a rare or classic film probably isn't unique to Rue Morgue's CineMacabre, and I wonder, among the many films you were able to screen this year and past, was Bay of Blood among the toughest to make happen, and what was Anchor Bay's involvement in the process?

Dave Alexander: Anyone who programs classic films will tell you what a headache this can be between sourcing a good print, getting permission to show it, paying for right, rental and shipping. Plus, if you’re bringing it in from another country – Bay of Blood came from New York – you have to worry about the film being held up at customs. We’ve had film prints held at customs until it was too late and were forced to show projected DVDs, which is a real bummer-and-a-half.

Audra Butera: This was actually one of the easiest films to get a hold of. International Media Films is a pretty no-BS type of company. Alfredo Leone was great and got us the print - no hassles - in the matter of days. One of the first times I haven't just about had a heart failure on the day when I find out the film has been held up in customs due to anything from improper documentation to content. The cost in shipping prints back and forth, plus theatre rentals can be extremely high, so we are very thankful that AB jumped on board with their support on this one.

Dave Alexander: For Bay of Blood, we pitched the idea to Anchor Bay of showing a Bava film that was in their new box set, and they could tie-in a promotion. The only way we could afford to bring in the print was if they were willing to rent it for us and we’d pick up the other costs. It was a win-win kinda deal. And keep in mind that there are probably more cost-effective ways for a company to promote a DVD set, yet AB was behind it all the way because they agreed that, yeah, showing a friggin’ rare print of an important Bava movie is pretty cool. We’re pretty damn lucky to get that kind of support.

Mark R. Hasan: Getting 35mm prints under the dominance and ease of DVDs has to be a major hurdle, because some print owners may feel the cost of striking and maintaining a working print isn't worth the cost and effort if the film doesn't play to packed houses. Why do you think it's important to screen prints when many rare and classic films are available on home video?

Dave Alexander: Bay of Blood is the perfect example of why you want to see this stuff on film, in a theatre, with an appreciative crowd. Bava in particular works best on film, projected big, as part of his trademark style is the lush use of colour that really pops on celluloid, ambitious compositions that you don’t get as much out of on a small screen and the crazy gore gags are exactly the kind of thing that an audience can applaud or cheer for, enhancing the collective social experience one gets from watching movies with a crowd.

Plus, Vagrancy Films provided some film trailers that we showed before Bay of Blood, which added that moviehouse feel to the proceedings. Add to the mix that wonderful sound of a projector purring away, the warm glow of light on the screen and a bag of theatre popcorn and it’s an experience that you can’t replicate at home. A lot of films, including Bava’s works, were made specifically to be projected on a big screen, and it’s vital to have that theatrical experience if you really consider yourself a movie lover.

Mark R. Hasan: Lastly, do you think there might be other Bava films that might enjoy a return to the big screen in 2008?

Dave Alexander: Honestly, it's very unlikely as far as CineMacabre nights go. We didn't want to show a Bava print unless is was quality, 'cause otherwise you just aren't getting the full effect, so we went to the source - Alfredo Leone - and rented one of his Bava prints, which were struck in 2001 (according to the date stamp I saw on Bay of Blood) for a retrospective.

I can tell you that Bay of Blood is the most expensive print we've brought in, and if Anchor Bay hadn't been awesome enough to sponsor the night and pick up the tab (don't forget, Rue Morgue also has theatre rental, print shipping and promotions costs), we would've lost money on the night. We had under 150 paying customers, which isn't enough to make that bottom line without sponsorship.

The point of CineMacabre nights isn't to make money - when Rue Morgue founder and president Rodrigo Gudino started CineMacabre movie nights, they were always intended to bring horror fans together and earn the magazine a good reputation in the horror community - but we can't afford to take a big loss, either.

It’s a shame, actually. There are five million people in the GTA, Toronto is one of the biggest film cities in the world, this was an incredibly rare opportunity, The Bloor is centrally located and we promoted the heck out of it, yet we couldn’t get enough of a crowd to sustain a one-night screening (!). Maybe it’s apathy, maybe we’re overestimating the popularity of Bava – hard to say. The important thing is that the folks who did come out had a blast and really seemed to appreciate it. That makes it all worth it. Hopefully they’ll spread the word and someday we can try another Bava print.

Thanks again to Dave and Audra for their candid thoughts, and here’s hoping more genre classics are given the same chance again on the big screen. For another account of the evening by another attendee, click HERE.

New reviews uploaded at include Vol. 2 of Anchor Bay’s Mario Bava Collection, with reviews for Bay of Blood DVD (what’d you expect?) and Five Dolls for an August Moon / 5 bambole per la luna d'agosto (1970) with more to follow shortly.


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Anonymous said...

Hi Mark, interesting blog - found you via rue morgue. Your blog has some great content but is incredibly painful to read! The blue on blue makes my eyes bleed.....

I know there isn't too much choice with ye olde blogger templates, and maybe I am alone with my old person eyes, but.... ouch!

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