5 Dolls for an August Moon (1970)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2012-08-01 00:28

Written by: Mario di Nardo
Directed by: Mario Bava
Starring: William Berger, Ira von Fürstenberg and Maurice Poli

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

“So what was I telling you?"
"That I'm a dirty whore. That's why I'm taking a shower... at least now I'll be a clean whore."

While Mario Bava ostensibly started the giallo genre with The Girl Who Knew Too Much, he never really seemed to be very interested in refining it, preferring instead to riff on the formula and lay the groundwork with some proto-slasher and body count flicks. This was a movement that reached its crescendo with Twitch of the Death Nerve, which piled up corpses in almost absurd fashion, dispensing with the notion of a singular plot or motive. While it may not be as sprawling, one of Bava’s preceding stops on his way to the Bay of Blood was 5 Dolls for the August Moon, a film that’s no less slapdash in execution, falling somewhere between a giallo and a spoof of an old fashioned murder mystery.

Its setup recalls the likes of an “old dark house” movie, only, in this case, it’s an old dark island, I suppose, where a group of friends have gathered for a retreat. Among them are a scientist (William Berger) who has unlocked some kind of formula that’s of value to a few businessmen that have joined him; he insists that his motives are altruistic and refuses to sell. This doesn’t stop Nick Chaney (Maurice Poli) from hammering Professor Farrell, even going so far as to offer outrageous sums and the services of his wife (Edwige Fenech). All of this is interrupted, however, when someone begins murdering the party-goers.

Yet another oddball in the Bava canon, 5 Dolls for an August Moon doesn’t quite fit into the giallo glove (mostly because so many murders happen off screen), but it has all the markings otherwise, right down to the nonsensical title (it was also known by a more relevant title, Island of Terror). It’s particularly prescient of the 70s gialli, with its sexual undertones and casual misogyny, not to mention its swinging, swanky style. This is the film that ushered Bava into the 70s, and he came out with guns blazing, abandoning the dreamy Technicolor of Blood and Black Lace and trading it in for a grittier garishness, full of loud fashions and even louder set pieces. Though the opening party scene has some residual 60s chic mod stylings, this is a very funky 70s film steeped in sex and murder, complete with a jangly score.

It’s a good thing Bava came in blazing, too, because 5 Dolls is a bafflingly dumb movie; if you’ve seen it in retrospect after seeing dozens of giallo films, you’ll be tempted to see this as a take-off. However, this was released before the formula had really been well-trod (Argento’s first stab at it, Bird With The Crystal Plumage, was released during the same year). 5 Dolls feels almost prophetic in its refusal of coherence; that this is credited to only one writer seems to indicate the work of some mad genius in Mario di Nardo, but it’s just as likely that this movie was being made up as it went along. In reality, this is just a riff on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which Bava would co-opt again for Death Nerve two years later. That almost explains 5 Dolls, as it very much feels like training wheels for that opus, what with its swerving, darting narrative that jumps from one point to the next with little use for letting the viewer settle in. Barely any of it seems connected to any sort of reality--murders casually happen, which result in the cadavers being shoved into a meat locker in amusing fashion The characters often seem rather nonplussed about being stalked by a maniac, choosing to sleep through the night and not even putting themselves on guard until we get down to the final four. Whether it's intentional or not, the morbid black humor is one of the film’s strong points and is entirely vital to its effectiveness, considering it wouldn’t make much sense otherwise.

It’s mostly funny in that antiquated sense, especially in the banter shared amongst the cast (which is so huge that it’s hard to keep up with who’s who at some points--not that it particularly matters when they all end up on ice anyway). The show-stealers are Poli and Fenech as the outrageous husband and wife that should probably be suspects number one and two. She’s the notorious slut of the group, though none of these people seem to be too beholden to one lover, as free love reigns in the form of illicit affairs and lesbian trysts. Most humorous is how none of it really matters--the only through-line in the whole thing is the stuff concerning the scientific formula, which sets up Berger as the hero (doing a low-rent Kinski act). Except even this doesn’t quite follow the expected path when the narrative plays havoc with characters’ fates, seemingly tossing them to the wind as they’re gutted and gunned down, almost in montage towards the end. A good chunk of the film is dedicated to slogging through Poli’s attempts to buy off that formula, with a couple of murders scattered in; things don’t really ramp up until the hour mark, where Bava seemingly realized he needed to wrap this thing up.

And wrap it up he does--barely. Most of his bodies pile up off-screen, and it’s here that Bava made his biggest refinement with Twitch, as this one lacks any sort of signature murder sequences. Some occasional aftermath images are eye-catching, but 5 Dolls seems more concerned with teasing out an outrageous method to all of the carnage; the eventual reveal is a real knee-slapper or groaner, depending on how you take it. In the fine tradition of these things, it doesn’t really make much sense, so Bava again seems like a prophet who knew that the next decade would be awash in this kind of nonsense. This was one of his more obscure movies for years, but it’s been released on DVD twice, with the best version belonging to Anchor Bay’s second Mario Bava Collection, where it’s housed on the same disc as 4 Times That Night. 5 Dolls gets a sterling anamorphic transfer, plus both English and Italian language options, but there are no extras. Basically, it functions as it should--as a footnote to the better films in Bava’s career, though this one is at least interesting because you can see him working the kinks out before delivering one of his most infamous films. Rent it!

comments powered by Disqus Ratings:
Average members rating (out of 10) : Not yet rated   
Votes : 0