Today’s post features special guest commentary from Cinapse’s Liam O’Donnell. He and both do this “watch a shit-ton of horror in October and write about it” thing, and so we’ve decided to team up on a few films this month. His column his entitled “Journal of Fear,” and you should totally read it. He also does a podcast called Cinepunx with Joshua Alvarez, and it’s super-fun. Go listen. On to the film …
When you watch a movie that has influenced so many other pictures, it’s hard to separate what it was from what it now is. A Bay of Blood (aka Blood Bath, aka Twitch of the Death Nerve) was Mario Bava taking the violence of giallo and making it the focus of a film, rather than yet another stylistic element. However, seeing how much of Bava’s film would shape the next three decades of slasher pictures, one can’t help but see how many tropes were lifted from A Bay of Blood, as if its plot was the Ten Commandments, written in stone for later directors to use: teenagers getting offed in a decrepit location, overly-complicated deaths, a creepy character in the background, and even the one kid who’s super-awkward and weird around girls.
Divesting one’s self of the “oh, well, this has all been done before” attitude is paramount for enjoying A Bay of Blood, because in 1971, it hadn’t. This was all new, and watching it through unfiltered eyes makes it pretty astonishing. While gore’d been done before — Herschell Gordon Lewis’ films certainly set the standard a decade before — it’d never been done so realistically and so up-front. Bava set the stage with Blood and Black Lace, but that film’s an emotional step away from A Bay of Blood, and is as prototypical a giallo as this is a slasher.
It’s a strange and powerful movie that Bava’s crafted here, and the cross and double-cross plot keeps things moving along at a brisk clip, leaving you wondering who’s going to die next and how. Any character’s up for the killing, and the kills still shock. Bobby getting a cleaver to the face had me gasping aloud.
A good portion of A Bay of Blood‘s shock potential has to do with the absolute contrast between the pastoral long shots and sweeping piano pieces which accompany them and the tight, up-close and personal attacks. The atmosphere is absolutely crafted, and while there are a few moments of levity early on with the teenagers and their frolics, it only serves to make the shocks which follow that much more intense.
I carry the great and unavoidable shame that I have not seen nearly as many Bava films as I should have. This is only my third, and yet even with that little experience with his work, this felt like an intense shift. The violence in Bay of Blood is quite pronounced. It is in these shocking scenes I guess the film had the most influence on the forthcoming slasher subgenre. Indeed, some films, like Friday the 13th Part II — which I reviewed for this series — borrowed quite obviously from these kills. Strange though, because while I noticed the violence as an intense shift, and I could see how the way it was portrayed was such an important part of the future of filmmaking, it was largely insignificant for me. You so astutely point out, Nick, how difficult it is to see a work which has been so influential for what it is rather than for what it would become reflected in other films. That is true of this movie, but for me perhaps it allowed me to see how unique Bava’s film is compared to the horror films I am accustomed to.
There is something I am having trouble describing about the film, in that I am not sure if it is something anarchic or something nihilistic. That is specifically the way there is no good or bad character in the film, but rather a great net of murder and selfishness which cover the whole. Yes, one could argue the young people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time represent “innocent victims,” but do they really? It seems to me that Bava goes out of his way in this film to show something negative or grating or frustrating about most of the characters on the screen. More importantly, though the film plays at first as a giallo style mystery, it very quickly becomes a tale of murder which includes many many people. In spreading out the iconic role of “the killer” across so many, it is true that Bava creates some dynamic tension to a slightly over burdened script. No one could accuse Bay of Blood of being too kinetic, I don’t think. However, he also takes apart the structure of these kinds of movies, intentionally or no, that does not translate to the slasher films he seems to have inspired.
While classic slasher films do like to show us the moral failings of many of the victims of their insane murderers, they still maintain a classic good and bad structure. There is the killer and their are the killers victims. Perhaps we feel a certain sympathy or a certain disdain for the killer’s various victims, but of course they are victims. I am being a bit too broad, as there are certainly exceptions to this idea, though those films usually spill over into revenge narratives or wish fulfillment narratives. The point is that not only do so many characters kill in this film, they do it for so little. There is not even the noble wronged person but, rather, awful people killing each other. This seems in one way anarchic. It overthrows, possibly, our assumptions about relationships of power and good. Yet, it is also nihilistic, as it seems to assume that almost every person, given enough reason, could decapitate someone or embed a machette in their skull.
Of course, I am getting a bit too heady. At base, it seems that Bava was doing exactly as you suggested, that is highlighting the violence of the Giallo genre above all else. Do you think then there is more to the film then that? Should we thank him for the history of movies he spawned or regret his unintentional creation?
I think that the innumerable variations on the theme created by Bava demonstrate so very well the flexibility of what he created. Given that the slasher genre has been shown to take place in any locale, with any character, with any victim, and still manage to provide new and interesting twists over forty year on, I’m amazed that it took as long as it did for someone to combine the masked killer story with the Rube Goldberg deaths of b-movies. All the ingredients were there for decades, and yet, it took decades before someone thought to combine them.
I think your point of nihilism isn’t too heady at all. This film came at the very start of the ‘70s, and that was a decade of movies absolutely loaded with moral ambiguity. Be it Jake in Chinatown, almost any character in The Godfather, Travis Bickell in Taxi Driver, or even Han Solo in Star Wars, the decade became defined by characters who operated in moral gray areas. This was just a bit more black and white — well, almost purely, darkly evil. Do you think this is due to an Italian way of thing, like Sergio Leone’s pictures?
Well, one thing that did not originally occur to me was humor. In other words, is it possible that this stunningly dark turn is not — in some sense — comic? Certainly, the film has some comic moments, and I don’t think that would be outside of the Bava style. Then again, a darkly comic take on something so morally grey, or rather so intensely evil, would not be too far outside of Leone either. I can’t help but wonder if, as an American, I am inclined perhaps to take the film too seriously, which is perhaps to take it not seriously enough.
That is, am I not peering below the surface to how utterly comic it is to have a “murder mystery” where many of the supposed red herrings are still actually killers. There is just simply not one main killer, a sort of focus of our intention. Is Bay of Blood some sort of comic farce? Or is the film simply having fun with a genre Bava was, at this point, one of the pioneers of? Is it too simple, when it comes to these Italian films, to look for genre clarity at all?
I’m astonished at how many layers this movie ends up having, when you take a look at it. I didn’t even think about the humor. Upon further consideration, it really is almost a parody of giallo, if you really think about it. Rather than one killer, masked or otherwise hidden, you’ve multiple, all of whom are easily tied to the deaths they cause. The deaths aren’t shown in artily-framed shots, lit like a dream (or nightmare, depending), but are instead presented in a stark manner. This is almost the lead-in for the cannibal films which would later follow, as well — death as shock in and of itself, as opposed to some greater artistic statement. In this case, death is the statement, and it’s blunt: “Here, this is what you seem to enjoy the most.” And — going back to the humor — I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the future films which took this template and not only succeeded, but are still considered worth seeing, also have that strange sense of humor to them. Given that, is there a film that came later that you think a worthy heir to this progenitor?
I am actually not sure. From one perspective there are many, be they the F13 series or The Burning, slasher films that take a lot from this movie. However, to focus on them as directly from Bay of Blood does exactly what seems to have not been the point. It almost seems that Bava made a film similar to Hanneke, in that it pointed a finger at its audience and asked what it was they wanted to see. It then played with the feeling of tension, the fear and drama of the piece, until it becomes farcical. It pushes the boundaries between what is the dramatic real that we can accept, and when the performance goes beyond that. Not that I think Bava is attempting to make so complicated a point, but it is still the direction the film seems to go. Then again, Bava also claimed this was his favorite of his films. Perhaps this tension, between what is plausible and not, and between what the audience wants or does not want to see is the point. In that way, I am reminded of, say, Funny Games or similar films.
However, those movies are more literally “meta,” in that this commentary on a genre or condition is the entire point and content. Bava has made a suitably horrifying giallo, certainly one that bends and even transcends the genre, but is still what it is. The question is, are there any films that seem to push so far, but are not clearly satirical. I am reminded of another unlikely film, Mothers Day, but this is also more clearly a satire. The question for me, and perhaps you can give your insight on this, is whether Bava is laughing with the audience or at them.
If we are supposed to be in on the joke, so to speak, then I think Nightmare on Elm Street might be an interesting comparison. Not a comedy, but with some real humor injected. However, if he is laughing at the audience, something I think the ending suggests a bit, then I am at a loss as to what might be related. Do you think I am being too harsh on Bava? Is Bay of Blood a cynical commentary or simply a good time playing with gore and violence? If anything, does it say negative things about us that we enjoy the movie so much? I found it fun if a little confusing at times, and I am now wondering if I should have!
I think it’s meant to be fun. Given that everything else I’ve seen of Bava’s — Black Sunday, Blood and Black Lace, Kill Baby Kill, and Black Sabbath — has some element of humor to it (especially Karloff’s parched desert dryness of delivery in Black Sabbath), I can’t but imagine that this is supposed to be the film that’s an exercise in ridiculousness. Maybe Bava’s laughing at you while you laugh at the film, because that ending is just over-the-top in terms of one last absurd plot twist. However, I think he’s willing to let the viewer enjoy themselves, showing nudity, showing blood, and just generally amping up the ridiculousness inherent in giallo to an extent that he accidentally created a new genre along the way.
I think you are right and perhaps that is what he also did, as far as innovation: commentary with humor. That is to say, it really feels like Bava is in some way satirizing the audience’s desire for this violence, but I don’t think he is judging it. The film is having so much fun with it’s bevy of ridiculous villains, the various ridiculous character traits and odd ways they interact. In fact, even the kills are amazing, and done in such a way that I cannot believe Bava is not enjoying his art as much as we are in watching it. Yet that ending does seem to suggest to me some silly nod to his audience, he is not just performing at his art, which is creating this intense murder film. No, we are part of it, he acknowledges us, and thus implicates us in his fun I think. He is going over the top, to new heights of blood. Granted, here we are some 44 years later and it may not seem like much. It was a rough year for movies though. Bay of Blood was one of many to face backlash and censors for its extreme content. Bava, I think though, hints not just that he is pushing his art form to new extremes, but that this is where it is going. It is in many ways a watershed moment not only for film and the horror genre we both love, but for the culture as a whole. Bay of Blood is still powerful in it’s intensity, and while it may not be as extreme as it seemed then, it is an incredibly well executed bit of brutal fun.
Christopher Brown’s Video Nasties podcast did an excellent episode on the film, and you can listen to that here.