Nightmare Logic and the Cinema of Mario Bava
If you don’t know Mario Bava, you should. He is, without a doubt, one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, regardless of genre. He was responsible for the first Italian horror and science fiction films after he took over direction on I Vampiri for Riccardo Freda and made The Day The Sky Exploded, despite credit having been awarded to another director.
Bava started in film as an assistant cinematographer and worked with his father on special effects. He eventually became a cinematographer and worked with Roberto Rossellini. His skills as a cinematographer gave him a matchless eye as a director, making his black and white films some of the most gorgeous ever made and giving his color features that same distinct beauty. Much is made of Dario Argento’s use of colored gels in Suspiria, and rightly so, but it’s likely that Suspiria’s brightly colored horrors would not exist without Bava’s Blood and Black Lace.
The genre owes Bava a huge debt. His films paved the way for both the giallo and slasher subgenres. If you watch his films such as the aforementioned Blood and Black Lace and A Bay of Blood, his impact on the genre becomes clear, from specific setpieces referenced in films like Friday the 13th to the escalation of violence and visual cues such as black trench coats and begloved hands that became staples of the gialli.
While most gialli and slashers are not known to be plot heavy, Bava’s movies were creations of equally decadent visuals and ideas. While their plots may not be complex, many of his films have much in common with the gothic subgenre and are surprisingly and sweepingly romantic. Bava was also one of the first to work with the idea of what horror fans refer to as nightmare logic, a plot that is absurd or fantastical in a way that you would normally only see in dreams or nightmares. Instead of a gritty reality, you see the characters trapped in surreal and seemingly inescapable situations that become more and more grotesque with every passing moment. It’s all a dream, but it’s one that you can’t leave.
Shudder’s Mario Bava Collection features seven of Bava’s most beloved and iconic films, and I’m here to tell you about each of them.
Black Sunday (1960)
Black Sunday is a gothic tale about the cursed Vadja family. A striking black and white film starring the unforgettable beauty Barbara Steele in a dual role as Asa and Katia Vadja and John Richardson. When two doctors arrive at the Vadja castle due to a broken carriage wheel, they meet the lovely Katia. When one of the doctors accidentally awakens Asa, the witch who placed the curse on their family two centuries earlier, she is ready to kill anyone who stands in the way of her vengeance. Not to be missed, Black Sunday contains some of the genre’s most ravishing and iconic black and white imagery.
Black Sabbath (1963)
In this horror anthology, Bava burst into the world of color with none other than the eminent Boris Karloff as his host and star of the second segment, The Wurdalak. The opening segment, The Telephone, features a young woman (Michèle Mercier) who is terrorized by a mysterious caller. I can’t help but think of the opening of Scream every time I watch it. The Wurdalak, meanwhile, is the tale of vampires hungry for the blood of their loved ones. In the third segment, A Drop of Water, sound is used to create a mounting sense of tension as a nurse learns the consequences of stealing from the dead.
The Whip and the Body (1963)
Christopher Lee stars as the dissolute Kurt Menliffe. The son of a count, he was banished after the suicide of his mistress before his marriage to a young woman named Nevenka (Daliah Lavi). Lee, quite young in the film, is a very lively and sexual presence as the sadist with the titular whip. The film was censored because of its sado-masochistic love scenes, despite some of them being intensely romantic. There is a great rapport between the two actors that shows the act in a different light, offering a tender and mature handling of the subject. Then, as a bonus, the story becomes a mystery and a ghost story. Watch it with someone you love.
Kill Baby Kill (1966)
In this film, a village is under the curse of an evil child. Working again in the gothic tradition, the scenic design is lavish with elegant deterioration and is beautifully shot. A scene in the tavern when Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) arrives looks like a painting from the Dutch Golden Age. Considering that Bava originally wanted to be a painter, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Bava plays with the audience’s mind with the use of a loop of repeated action that is pure nightmare logic. See if you can spot the moments that undoubtedly inspired Frederico Fellini and The Changeling.
A Bay of Blood (1971)
A Bay of Blood is widely regarded as the prototypical slasher with a high body count and vicious murders, particularly those of a group of carefree young people who break into a home by the bay to party and have sex. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both this film and Friday the 13th are set near bodies of water, and there’s even a submerged decaying body that surfaces to touch a naked beauty’s butt. A number of greedy people seek to take control of the bay to turn it into a tourist attraction after the murder of the wheelchair-bound Countess Federica Donati (Isa Miranda) who owned the land and opposed any development. Just when you think you know who is going to come out on top, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Trust me when I say you aren’t prepared for how this one ends.
Lisa and the Devil (1974)
Bava was never one to shy away from controversial topics and Lisa and the Devil is no exception as it ups the ante with the depiction of necrophilia. It is so committed to its nightmare logic that it crosses over into the surreal and is filled with selfish and reprehensible people who can’t seem to stop trying to have sex with anyone they aren’t supposed to. It stars Telly Savalas as a surreptitiously snacking demon that has to be seen to be believed. Despite all of this, it still manages to be as romantic as it is unsettling.
This is Bava’s last feature before his death and stars Daria Nicolodi as Dora Baldini, John Steiner as her husband Bruno, and David Colin Jr. as Dora’s son, Marco. Dora had survived a bad marriage to a brutal husband and was committed after his suicide. But when the family moves back into the home she’d shared with her first husband, she feels her sanity start to slip. Through Bava’s direction, Daria Nicolodi gave one of her best performances, and he captured her beauty in a way no other director had before or since. You may recognize its most notable, mind-bending scare as it had a lasting impact on the genre, influencing filmmakers for generations. Of all of these films, it’s the most modern and psychologically horrifying.
Mario Bava was an excellent cinematographer, a brilliant director, and had an indelible impact on the horror genre thanks to his gifted and clever sense of the bizarre. With the Bava Collection, Shudder has given you the opportunity to watch some of his best and most provocative films. Watching this series is like attending a masterclass in cinema while being effectively terrified. I know, because I did just that, and my mind is still brimming with inspiration and delight. Take Bava’s hand and let him lead you into his gothic world. Allow yourself to be transported into this wild Italian country and open your mind to his breathtaking and romantic vision.
The Mario Bava Collection is available to stream now on Shudder.
Dolores Quintana is a film, theatre, and television critic, actress and journalist who regularly contributes to Nightmarish Conjurings and her personal blog on Medium.com. Previously, she has written for FANGORIA, We Like LA, We Are Horror, Pocho.com, late period Buddyhead, and The Blog @ Boston Court. As an actor, she is part of Native Voices at the Autry, Alone: an Existential Haunting, Screenshot Productions, and Warner Brother’s Horror Made Here.