"Death rules here," a coachman warns Giacomo Rossi Stuart shortly after dropping him off in a village plagued by mysterious deaths near the start of Mario Bava's 1966 chiller Kill, Baby Kill! He could easily be talking about most of Bava's films, five of which have been compiled in the box set The Mario Bava Collection, Volume 1. Bava found ways to invest even the most seemingly benign elements—a ringing telephone, Rome's Piazza Di Spagna—with a sense of mortal peril. With a pan or a zoom, the division between life and death could disappear.
So could the division between dreams and reality. Working, as usual, on a low budget, Bava turned 1960's Black Sunday into an experience akin to wandering into someone else's nightmare. The shadow-drenched, black-and-white film is ostensibly a gothic tale of vampires and witches, but the lurid, overheated, sexually charged, and (for its time) graphically violent images soon overwhelm the plot, suggesting what might have happened if Val Lewton and Alfred Hitchcock had ever teamed up.
Bava never tries to hide his debt to Hitchcock, from his suspense setpieces to a recurring theme of people who can't help themselves from looking at evil, thereby inviting it into their lives. From the title down, 1963's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (reedited and renamed The Evil Eye for U.S. release) pays explicit tribute to the Master Of Suspense, bringing his obsessions and techniques into the world of Italian pulp-fiction giallos. In the process, it helped kick-start a whole school of Italian thrillers, most of which forgot its easy humor.
Bava later returned to the gothic and giallo worlds, but he never stayed put. Kill, Baby Kill! plays like a color companion piece to Black Sunday in which history and the occult once again overwhelm modernity and reason. Knives Of The Avenger transplants Shane into a Viking setting (it was one of a series of Bava Viking films) with remarkable ease and considerable psychological complexity. And there's a little bit of everything in Bava's best-known film, the three-part anthology Black Sabbath (a.k.a. The Three Faces Of Evil). It opens with a giallo-inspired tale of obsession, segues into an emotionally wrenching vampire tale (starring Boris Karloff), and concludes with a dark-humored ghost story. Karloff also plays host, closing Sabbath with a shot that pulls back to reveal Bava's crew shooting the aging star atop a fake horse, riding into a wind machine. It's all an illusion, but with illusions this intense, that's little comfort.
Key features: This set collects the original, generally superior, Italian cuts of Bava's films, but it would be nice to have the American versions for comparison. Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas provides informative commentary tracks to Sabbath, Sunday, and Girl.