Written by: Romano Migliorini, Roberto Natale, & Mario Bava, John Hart (dialogue)
Directed by: Mario Bava
Starring: Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Erika Blanc and Fabienne Dali
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Say what you want about Mario Bava, but his films were almost always up to something, and they often skirted around the edges of innovation. By 1966, heíd already mixed up vampires with witchcraft, redefined space-horror, planted the seeds for both the giallo and the slasher, and crafted one of the finest anthology films of all time. During that time, you can argue that Bava was the pivotal Charon that ferried us from the classic gothic spook shows to more delirious and visceral horrors. As such, his 60s work often had a foot firmly planted in each mode, and never was this more evident than it was in the unfortunately titled Kill, Baby, Kill, a film thatís easy to relegate as a footnote when it falls between slasher landmarks like The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Bay of Blood. However, it may actually be the directorís most unsung masterwork in haunting sublimity, and to watch it is to witness Bava ripping 70s Euro-horror from the cobwebby womb of its screaming mother--four years before its time.
Another pastoral campfire tale, Kill, Baby, Kill opens with a call-back to one of Universalís earliest classics in Dracula, as Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Ross-Stuart) has been summoned to a rural village. His coachman suddenly drops him off in hasty fashion, insisting that he never goes this far into the countryside. Upon his arrival, Eswai is greeted by the locals, including Kruger (Piero Lulli), the inspector who needs assistance with a series of bizarre murders that have recently occurred. Both men are met with resistance by the superstitious locals that insist these corpses should not be defiled by an examination.
Eventually, they begin to uncover a sinister local legend thatís haunted the region for generations, and itíd be easy to say that Bava took the formula from Black Sunday and gave it a more painterly makeover. However, thereís more to it than that, as Kill, Baby, Kill is also more rough around the edges, almost intentionally so; gone is the refined, almost geometric black and white compositions of his earlier work, replaced here with cluttered mise en scene and jarring dramatic zooms. Bavaís photography is far from his more silken and garish British counterparts, too, which is not to say that this isnít a gorgeous film, and thatís the catch: Kill, Baby, Kill is bizarrely alluring in the exact same way Italian films would be over the course of the next two decades. Armed with so much illogical, dreamy weirdness between the bizarre S&M-style exorcism rituals and fever dreams, Kill, Baby, Kill is an exercise in style and mood.
If Black Sunday is like a half-remembered dream, then this is a ghost story as itís played back in your nightmares. It doesnít so much unfold as much as it glides and bounces back and forth between various threads that donít seem to connect until they need to. While it is beholden to the clunky mechanics that would come to define these films (thereís a couple of late movie exposition dumps to untangle everything), it still manages to be tightly wound in its simplicity. The mystery at the center is a cool one, as all of the ďmurderĒ victims have actually been manipulated into committing their own deaths; for example, the filmís opening scene, devoid of all context, sees a girl fall to her death when sheís impaled by spikes. At the scene of each crime (so to speak) is a little Melissa Graps, who has some connection to the Villa Graps, the haunted estate thatís whispered about but rarely visited by the locals.
The Villa itself is a triumph in haunted house film-making; conceived 14 years before Kurbrick would erect the Overlook, Bava created this abode thatís somewhere between the haunts in The Haunting and The Changeling (Melissa is even accompanied by a bouncing ball): it feels huge and baroque, but itís also decrepit and creaky, full of cobwebs and muddled interiors that invite you to get lost in a labyrinthine pile of junk and decorations. The exteriors are similarly suffocating, shrouded by an over-cranked fog machine, giving one the feeling that theyíve been transported to a purgatorial hamlet. Some of the best scenes Bava ever shot take place within the walls, especially during the frantic, nightmarish climax that wreaks havoc with spatial and temporal recognition. Characters loop around themselves and get caught in dizzying, vertigo-inducing staircases as Kill, Baby, Kill becomes a delirious slideshow of bizarre sights and sounds.
This is Bavaís show, and, as such, itís not exactly an actorís showcase. However, the Bava and his cast carve out some memorable characters and themes; Ross-Stuartís protagonist anticipates the ineffectual male leads that would sprout up in some giallo films. Almost immediately, heís rendered impotent since the Villa Graps is no place for modern science, and he actually all but disappears during the climax, where the film suddenly becomes Erika Blancís story. A young medical student who grew up in the area, sheís conveniently called back to uncover an even deeper connection to the storyís events. Bava routinely sublimates male authority and presence like this, as both Lulliís inspector and Luciano Catenacciís burgomeister are rendered as non-entities. The latter is especially curious; a creepy bald-headed Uncle Fester-looking brute, heís a prime suspect as the filmís weirdo; however, as it turns out, heís probably not even the fourth creepiest guy in the line-up.
Instead, Bava as assembled quite an array of women here. Catenacci seems to be working in concert with Fabienne Daliís raven-haired witch, and one might assume the two are cooking up something sinister. After all, theyíre providing some of the resistance against the ongoing investigation, and itís difficult to trust a lady who flogs a topless teenage girl in an attempt to exorcise a demon. But Bava and his screenwriters do manage to contort this story in such a way that roles are reversed and nothing is quite as it seems, as yet another memorable woman ultimately steals the show. Giovanna Gilleti is the Baroness Graps, and she can best be described as the grandmother to Argentoís Three Mothers--a deranged, disheveled lunatic, albeit not one without an underlying hint of tragedy. Sheís what Mrs. Voorhees would have been like if Pam had been wicked enough to conjure up demons to do her bidding.
And of course thereís Melissa herself, one of horrorís all-time great creepy kids; before we see her in full, sheís felt in a deeply unsettling shot where Bavaís camera dollies back and forth, a technique thatís revealed to mimic the little girlís movement in a swing. Itís a fantastically unreal shot and beautifully encapsulates Kill, Baby, Kill, a disorienting masterpiece thatís not only among Bavaís best, but among the best Euro horrors, period. Nearly each frame is a visual treat thatís matched up with a score thatís been cobbled together from previous films; the Frankenstein pastiche works since Bavaís film is so steeped in those gothic roots, and the score often warbles along like it would in a more vintage film. A lot of Bavaís films manage to feel embryonic, as itís hard to argue that the likes of Argento and Carpenter didnít refine the giallo and slasher films; not so with Kill, Baby Kill, which has few rivals in the Euro-horror canon.
Its most obvious descendant is Suspiria, but Kill Baby Kill manages to outclass it, if only because itís consistently oppressive and overbearing in its atmosphere. Argentoís film is more polished and operatic, but Bava faithfully replicates a nightmare with an impenetrable haze--there is no coming up for air in this film. It is arguably Bavaís last great film, as he would soon move into the 70s, where his work would be shorn of the gothic layer that enriches Kill, Baby, Kill. Even something like Baron Blood, which is ostensibly the same type of film, suffers from a lack of style and otherworld dreaminess, and his later films would buy too much into 70s schlock. This film has been released several times on public domain releases, but the best available version is found in Anchor Bayís first Bava box set, which features the Italian version of the film and a restored presentation that looks and sounds fantastic. The only extras are an international trailer, TV spots, and a Bava bio, but itís a set that features all of Bavaís best films, so youíll naturally want it for your collection. Kill, Baby, Kill earns its place in the set, easily. Essential!
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