“I make horror movies, my aim is to scare people, yet I’m a fainthearted coward; maybe that’s why my movies turn out to be so good at scaring people, since I identify myself with my characters… their fears are mine, too. You see, when I hear a noise late at night in my house, I just can’t sleep… not to mention dark passages! Sure, I don’t believe in vampires, witches and all these things, but when night falls and streets are empty and silent, well, sure I don’t believe, etc., but… I am frightened all the same.” – Mario Bava
“Violence is Italian Art.”
Mario Bava’s influence on the slasher movie, and the horror genre, cannot be overstated. While it’s clear that Bava’s work often fell outside the horror realm, his contributions to the genre are cited most often during critical analysis.
One film in particular, A Bay of Blood (or Twitch of the Death Nerve), became the unofficial template for many of the classic slasher tropes; notably the idyllic setting, high bodycount, promiscuous teenagers, and brutal murders committed by a mysterious assailant (usually revealed late on).
Bava’s early employment in Benito Mussolini’s Istituto Luce (Light Institute) film factory led to a brief partnership Roberto Rossellini on the burgeoning Neo-realism of the latter’s formative cinematic work. It was his skill behind the camera, however, that led to Bava filming a number of important stars of Italian cinema, including Gina Lollobrigida and Totò.
In 1956, director Ricardo Freda walked out mid-way through the production of I Vampiri, leaving Bava to finish the film. Bava also completed directing duties on Caltiki: The Immortal Monster in 1959 when Freda once again left the project, but his full debut as bonefide director would arrive just a year later.
On the 11th of August, 1960, Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio) was released and almost immediately banned in the UK (it would remain unseen by British cinephiles until 1968). Despite modest returns, the gothic horror would inspire a number of future works – Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula took a number of cues from the film.
Keen to not to be pigeonholed by genre, Bava followed Black Sunday with a number of sword-and-sandals films, including Hercules in the Haunted World (featuring Christopher Lee) and Erik the Conqueror. In 1963, Bava directed The Girl Who Knew Too Much, which, while not being the first Giallo novel adapted into a film – the honour for that goes to The Postman Always Rings Twice – is widely credited with being the first true Giallo.
The Gothic portmanteau, Black Sabbath, followed before Bava released arguably his most visually arresting and, at that time, graphically violent film, Blood and Black Lace
While elegantly directed and filmed, and responsible for the black-gloved killer trope that became a hallmark of the Giallo, it was the aforementioned A Bay of Blood that became the bloody blueprint for the slasher movie’s most brutal sequences.
Certainly Mario Bava’s most graphic film, A Bay of Blood‘s osmosis into the minds of burgeoning horror directors began immediately, though it was a full ten years before the Golden Age of the Slasher arrived. Black Christmas and Halloween also helped paved the way and continue to be regarded as true masterpieces of the genre, but it’s arguably A Bay of Blood that really created the monster. It’s bloody finger prints can be seen most clearly in Friday the 13th: Part Two. Both feature an almost identical sequence involving mid-coital impalement. Director Steve Miner and Friday the 13th series creator, Sean S. Cunningham, stated that they hadn’t seen A Bay of Blood before filming their impalement scene and this is entirely possible, but such is Bava’s influence upon the sub-genre that’s it’s very likely they’d have been aware of the film.
The Giallo is, viscerally-speaking at least, the European cousin to the slasher. While the slasher has ‘crossed the pond’ from time-to-time many of the most notable slashers are American constructs. It could also be said that the Giallo aims to match brutality with style; violence and nudity (both hallmarks of the American slasher) are of as much concern as architecture, fashion, current culture – at least of the time they were produced – and score. And while there are a great number of cash-in Gialli, as with the slasher, the cream always rises: from celebrated staples – Deep Red, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, and What Have You Done to Solange? to marginally lesser-known titles – Don’t Torture a Duckling, The Bloodstained Shadow, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times.
As the 1970s wore on, though, and Italian tastes changed, the Giallo began to fall away in both quality and number. Dario Argento, whose The Bird with the Crystal Plumage reinvented the Giallo following Mario Bava’s two-film stay in the sub-genre, began to pursue other interests at the turn of the new decade – though he never strayed too far, returning periodically with Tenebre, Phenomena, Opera and, to a lesser extent, Trauma and Sleepless, before reaching his and possibly the sub-genre’s nadir with 2009’s Giallo.
Bring horror into the home
In the US, the 1970s heralded the start of the true slasher movement via a handful of films destined to become classics of the sub-genre, including two holiday-themed efforts and another based loosely on notorious serial killer, Ed Gein, that left the cinema-goer under no illusions regarding the type of film they were about to see.
By the mid-70s, the Baby Boomers (variously described as cohort number two: born between 1956 and 1964) were coming-of-age, and they were ready for something more exciting, more relevant to their demographic, than supernatural stories. Filmmakers active during that period were already focusing on realism, often in reaction to the US cultural and political climate, particularly Vietnam and the Watergate Scandal. So, by natural extension, the horror genre was quick to follow suit – and in many cases lead the way.
Taking the notion of realism and noting the tastes of the teenage audience that they coveted, the nascent slasher brought the horror into the home, installed teens as its core characters, added nudity, a remorseless, relentless killer and a high body count. Despite the popularity of these new ‘stalk-and-slash’ films, it took the best part of the decade before the sub-genre really took off, with a number of high-quality efforts, and an even greater number of low-grade, exploitative ‘films’, which upped the body count, gore and nudity in the hopes of attracting large audiences.
The Golden Age of the Slasher film kicked off with John Carpenter’s Halloween, and continued apace until the mid-80s, but would Halloween have existed if not for Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and a chance conversation between the two directors about sequels?
In Part Four: Black Christmas and the night HE came home. Read part four here.