Monday, May 11, 2020

A Bay of Blood aka Twitch of the Death Nerve (Mario Bava, 1971)

In their native Italy, they’re known affectionately as giallo. Cheap, paperback novels so named because of their lurid yellow covers, their pages were filled with mystery and murder. While the genre had existed in the pages of pulp fiction since the 30s, it was director Mario Bava who brought the sensationalist themes of giallo to the big screen with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo) in 1962.

It was Bava, with his operatic direction filled with dramatic shadows and often drenched in colour, who established many of the trappings that would become familiar in giallo cinema. His heavily stylised camera work, expressive use of lighting and, above all, imaginatively brutal murders would have a profound, lasting impact on filmmaking, influencing such directors as Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento, who would go on to direct many classic gialli of their own.

Of all Bava’s gory epics, it was perhaps A Bay Of Blood (La Baie Sangliante) that would have the greatest impact on international cinema. Variously known elsewhere as Twitch Of The Death Nerve, or simply Carnage, A Bay Of Blood provides a clear bridge between the giallo murder mystery films of 60s and 70s Italian cinema, and the slasher movie genre that would hit US cinemas like an express train a few years after.

Inarguably the most graphically violent of any of Bava’s films, A Bay Of Blood‘s plot is torn straight from the pages of pulp mystery. In its opening scenes, an aged, wheelchair bound millionairess is brutally murdered by an unseen assailant who, in a nod to Hitchcock, remains immersed in shadow.

But then, just when we think we’re in familiar whodunnit territory, Bava confounds expectations in bravura style, first removing the killer’s anonymity, and then having him abruptly slain in a drizzle of lipstick-red gore.

It’s an opening scene that sets the tone for what is to follow, and Bava directs A Bay Of Blood with an expert surety and a macabre, midnight-black sense of humour.

A Bay Of Blood introduces each of its characters in turn, and every one is uniquely despicable. Among them there’s conniving real estate agent, Frank (Chris Avram), monosyllabic fisherman Simon (Claudio Volonté), entomologist Paolo (Leopoldo Trieste) and his scolding, fortune telling wife, Anna (Laura Betti, who spends much of the film fluttering around in a shawl like Kate Bush).

Almost every character has some claim to the titular bay, and are prepared to commit murder in an attempt to inherit the late millionairess’ land.

What follows is an occasionally jaw dropping procession of killing after killing, each more imaginative than the last. Even after some 40 years of slasher movies and increasingly obscene violence, the gleeful imagination of Bava’s death scenes still hasn’t lost its edge.

There’s a stunning machete in the face, more than one impalement by spear, some throttlings (one of which is surprisingly harsh) and a beheading by axe. In every instance, there’s a definite impression, as the camera revels in every strike of a blade or fountain of blood, that Bava is treating these scenes as a kind of visceral fireworks display, and in each instance there’s a distant air of mischief and grim comedy.

Early on, four unbearably smug teenagers show up in an open top car. They have no relevance to the film’s plot, and appear only for Bava to chop them up in a series of elaborate set pieces, which he does, of course. And when the murders are over, Bava cuts back to the open top car beside the bay, its chrome fender bent into a sardonic, rictus grin.

It’s this section of the film, with its horny teenagers and bloody murders, that undoubtedly influenced Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday The 13th, and it’s highly likely the young director would have seen A Bay Of Blood in one of its grindhouse or drive-in showings in the 70s. Quite apart from sharing the same premise (teenagers slaughtered next to a stretch of water), two killings in Friday The 13th Part 2 are almost identical to those in Bava’s classic.

In fairness, the influence of A Bay Of Blood can be seen in numerous US slasher movies of the late 70s and 80s, from the prowling camera work of Halloween, which appears to have its genesis in Bava’s sometimes stunning cinematography, to its graphic scenes of creative violence, which have echoed down the years in films such as The Burning, Scream, and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

What many of those lesser imitators lacked, however, was Bava’s flair for black comedy and, in most cases, his unfailing eye for startling images. The latter is illustrated in the unforgettable sequence of an octopus slithering across the face of a corpse, while the former can be seen most obviously in A Bay Of Blood‘s shocking and genuinely funny climax, which could be regarded as one of the most glorious rug pulls in cinema, or a wry comment on the corrupting nature of violence. However you react to that final sequence, it’s unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry.

A Bay Of Blood was a pivotal movie in screen horror, perhaps as important, in its own way, as Hitchcock’s highly regarded Psycho. Bava’s film marked the moment where giallo cinema tipped over into slasher horror, with A Bay Of Blood‘s murder mystery plotline taking a back seat to another, equally entertaining diversion: who was going to die next, and how gruesome would that death be?

The influence of Bava’s movie on US filmmakers is undeniable, and its status as one of Italian cinema’s horror classics is assured. Almost four decades on, A Bay Of Blood remains a hilarious, messy masterpiece. --DOG