His style is hard to put into words. He was, first and foremost, a very visual artist. He conveyed volumes of information through imagery. Barbara Steele said he would have made a terrific silent filmmaker and she’s quite right. But there’s a common misconception that people who are aggressively visual are awkward when it comes to story and so forth. I think he was a tremendous story teller, truthfully. He was able to convey things with great economy and his films were, I think, quite lucid and easy to follow. I guess you could describe his style – at least up until the early 70s – as Baroque. After that, he embraced a more realistic aesthetic… but the point of view remained the same. As to category… I guess it’s fair to call him a genre director – but not exclusively horror. He spread his talents over different genres. He made westerns, sci-fi, comedies… he did a little bit of everything – and he did it mostly very well.
What is his defining film?
It’s not my favorite, but there’s no escaping the impact that Black Sunday had on his career. It was his first “official” film as a director. What I mean by that is, he had completed other films without credit, even a couple basically from the get-go, but this was the first time he was a credited director. He was very reluctant to make the leap to directing, thinking he didn’t have the talent for it.
How did he come into film making?
He entered in the 30s, and was initially responsible for designing the Italian titles sequences of various Hollywood imports. He liked doing this job but needed to earn more money to support his wife and children, so he gradually made the transition to cinematography. He learned a great many tricks from his father – Eugenio Bava. Eugenio designed FX and did camerawork on Italian films of the silent era. Mario developed a passion for trick shots early on and would become much sought-after in this capacity.
Mario had wanted to be a painter, but realized it was a very unpredictable field – and again, lacked faith in his abilities. He was a very self-doubting person in many respects. He knew he was a good technician, but as a director he always minimized his talents. Indeed, it can be said that he sabotaged himself by basically denigrating his own work on those rare occasions when he granted interviews. I think that he liked being anonymous and as such avoided any attempts that writers would make towards putting him forward as a “serious” artist. I mean seriously, how many people would call their work “bullshit” in interviews? Many should, perhaps, but would never dare!
Who did he work with from other fields and film types?
He and Roberto Rossellini began together – Bava shot Rossellini’s first documentary film. He also photographed films for G.W. Pabst, Jacques Tourneur and Raoul Walsh, among others. They were all impressed with him. Walsh essentially said that if the industry had more people like Bava, it would be a lot better off.
What were his successes and failures?
Depends on how you quality success and failure. Most of Bava’s films failed commercially in Italy, and much of his work failed to secure much distribution in the 70s. He made two very personal “pet projects” back to back in the 70s – Lisa and the Devil and Rabid Dogs. They were very different films. Lisa was a very arty project, while Rabid Dogs was an attempt at a gritty thriller designed to reestablish himself as a presence in the Italian film scene. They both ended up being major disappointments. Lisa couldn’t secure distribution, so it was later reedited with some new footage as House of Exorcism. Bava reluctantly shot some of the new material before leaving to work on Rabid Dogs. Rabid Dogs fell into legal turmoil when the producer died and the money dried up; it would sit on the shelf until long after Bava’s death. These two experiences were especially dispiriting for him. In the international scene, he scored major successes with Black Sunday and Black Sabbath. Diabolik was a big film for him – a Dino De Laurentiis production with stars and a generous budget… but he hated being micromanaged and resisted further offers to work with De Laurentiis again. He preferred making small films with low budgets and total creative freedom. But even on Diabolik, he managed to retain control – he brought the film in very much under budget. Producers loved him and trusted him.
Was he open to criticism?
He was certainly open to collaboration and would welcome ideas and contributions… his films were not well reviewed as a rule, and he would laugh this off – but those who knew him said that it did bother him. He put a lot of heart and hard work into his films. But he wasn’t seen as “intellectual” by the press, so his work was dismissed as trash. He was very devoted to his father but, reading between the lines of various comments, it seems that Eugenio was rather hard on him. I think this stayed with him.
Who influenced him and who did he influence?
He wasn’t overly influenced by many filmmakers that I can see. I see a bit of Cocteau here and there… but in general, his influences were more literary, believe it or not. He was a voracious reader and he adored Russian literature, especially of a fantastic nature. He certainly loved Charlie Chaplin, however. Who did he influence? Quite a few, ranging from Dario Argento and Joe Dante to Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin. Scorsese, Friedkin and Quentin Tarantino have all singled him out for special praise. You can see elements of Bava in Scorsese’s Shutter Island and Cape Fear, for example, while Dante’s recent film The Hole contained an explicit homage. Fellini also borrowed from Bava – the image of the ghostly girl in Kill Baby Kill! inspired his short film Toby Dammit, which was part of the Edgar Allan Poe anthology, Spirits of the Dead. The critics may not have taken him seriously, but people like Fellini and Visconti certainly did.
Who did he prefer to work with, actors, crews?
He wasn’t crazy about actors as a general rule, though he became friendly with some of them. He became a bit embittered towards Barbara Steele when she passed on The Whip and the Body – he thought she was becoming snooty about genre films as she had just done 8 ½ for Fellini, but then she did Castle of Blood for Antonio Margheriti. I think he saw it as a bit of an affront and would make some uncharacteristically catty comments about her in later interviews. That wasn’t like him in general, so I think that irked him and he misunderstood what had happened. He liked Cameron Mitchell immensely. He adored Boris Karloff. He must have liked Christopher Lee, as he used him twice – and was set to use him again on a project that fell through. He loved Daria Nicolodi. He used a couple of character actors numerous times: Gustavo De Nardo and Luciano Pigozzi. But he was most comfortable with his crew. His son Lamberto assisted him for many years. He used his father on his films up until his death in 1966. He was very loyal to his crew.
Tell me about the music in his work..
Not much has been written about his use of sound and music, which is a pity. He used certain composers a lot – Roberto Nicolosi and Carlo Rustichelli come to mind. I think he liked working with them and responded to what they brought to it. Many of his films were rescored when American International acquired the English language rights. You only have to hear the soundtracks they did without his input to realize how carefully he used music – and more importantly, silence! – in his films. A great many of his films have marvelous soundtracks. He only did one film with Ennio Morricone, sadly, but it was a great collaboration: Diabolik. I can’t say for sure, but I think he may have been the first director to have used a rock song in a horror or thriller context. I’m thinking of the use of “Furore” by Adriano Celentano over the titles of The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Dario Argento would get a lot of credit for this later, on Deep Red and Suspiria, but Bava beat him to the punch. He would also use a rock song at the end of Five Dolls for an August Moon. But the piece of music he was most obsessive about in a certain film was “Concerto d’Aranjuez” which he played on the set of Lisa and the Devil – the Paul Mauriat arrangement is used extensively in the finished film, and it suits the melancholy mood beautifully.
Your top three Bava films?
Lisa and the Devil, The Whip and the Body and Blood and Black Lace.
Was there anything he wanted to do but did get around to, unfulfilled projects?
He wanted to do a Lovecraft adaptation but worried that it would be impossible to realize his peculiar brand of horror on screen. I think he could have done it, though. Hercules in the Haunted World, Planet of the Vampires, Kill Baby Kill! and Lisa and the Devil all have elements that can be called Lovecraftian. He also wanted to adapt the same story that inspired Elio Petri’s A Quiet Place in the Country; he liked the film that Petri made, however, and wasn’t about to try and compete with it. He was busy developing projects to the day he died… you can read about these in-depth in the book when it’s released.
Give me the title of THE one to see, if I wanted to watch a good example of Bava..
If I wanted to show somebody a Bava film that could potentially ease them into his universe, I’d say Black Sabbath – or rather, the Italian version, The Three Faces of Fear. American International ruined it when they released it in English – they were able to get Karloff to dub it, of course, but they changed the editing and the music and greatly diminished the impact. The Italian edit is a great “primer” to all things Bava, however.
What is the 'ALIEN' (1979) Bava connection?
This is a point of contention among the creators of the film. If you watch Alien and Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, you will see there are some similarities – not enough to make the Ridley Scott film an imitation, by any means, but enough to show an influence. I frankly believe that the screenwriter Dan O’Bannon – a genre nut who had worked with John Carpenter on Dark Star and would go on to direct the marvelous Return of the Living Dead – borrowed a few ideas from the Bava film – but he never copped to it. Anyway, the proof’s in the pudding, as they say….
What do think he would have hoped his legacy to cinema could have been?
I think that although he acted like he didn’t take himself seriously, he would be pleased to know that his work continues to inspire filmmakers. Above anything else, I think he would love to have been remembered for his technical prowess – his ability to conjure up something out of nothing, like a magician.
Tells us about the twist in how his life ended
It’s sad – he was preparing to make a film, and he had to get a physical for insurance purposes. Tim Lucas goes into all of this in his book: the exam showed no problems… but he would die of a heart attack just a few days later. He was a workaholic and he smoked like a chimney… he aged very rapidly in his last years, so he looked much older than his years, but he was only 65 when he passed away.
And finally, the book why reissue?
Ooooh, this is convoluted. Pull up a seat and stay a while. Ha! I undertook the book in 1996 on a whim. I never would have thought I could write a book. I intended to write a magazine article. I couldn’t figure out why there were books on Argento and Fulci, but nothing on Bava. So I decided to write an article… then it developed into a monograph. I had no idea that there was another book on Bava in the offing – if I had known, I probably never would have followed through with it. It was a professor at college who gave me the encouragement to follow it through and get it published. I submitted chapters to FAB and McFarland, and they both were interested; I went with FAB because of the production value they could give it. It was a flawed book. I was very young when I wrote it and I like to think I’ve improved since then, so I was keen to revise it at some point – but FAB couldn’t commit to it due to other projects and their rights lapsed, so I shopped it around. I wasn’t getting anywhere, but then I tried Midnight Marquee and Gary was very enthusiastic. He and I were on the same page: we wanted to make it a better book than before and add in as much new material as possible.
The key thing to understand is this is not a reprint: it’s literally a new book. It’s updated, revised and expanded. It’s been a dream getting to go back and make it much better. One of the things I was happy to do was jettison the majority of the plot synopses. They were a necessary evil when I did the first edition – FAB was insistent that they be lengthy as the films were hard to see at that time. Now most of them are available, so we can get away with not going into that kind of detail… thank god! I hate plot synopses. I never read them and I hate writing them. In my reviews, for example, I put in a basic plot intro… and then an ellipsis… If you’ve seen the film, you don’t need a recap; if you haven’t, chances are, you don’t want to read too much of the plot ahead of time. Anyway, I was able to revise opinions that have since changed, tighten the prose and correct errors I made in good faith so many years ago. I’m frankly very happy with it now, and I never say that of my writing.
Finally, finally . . Four words that sum up bava, his life and work?
Style… humility… imagination… humor.