Monday, 20 September 2010

Kill, Baby...Kill! (1966)

Country: ITALY

Operazione Paura
Curse of the Dead
Operation Fear
Curse of the Living Dead

This sumptuous and extravagant slice of supernatural period gothic horror is among Italian filmmaker Mario Bava’s greatest achievements. The dreadfully titled Kill, Baby…Kill! was Bava’s third descent into the phantasmagorical and supernatural realm of the gothic following his debut Black Sunday (aka Mask of Satan, 1960) and ‘The Wurdalak’ segment of his portmanteau Black Sabbath (1963). His proficiency in conjuring an appropriate visual treatment for this period was illustrated amply in those earlier efforts, but in Kill, Baby…Kill! Bava and regular photographic collaborator Antonio Rinaldi take this a step further, bathing a mysterious and isolated rural Italian village in a weird and highly effective palette of colours. The film opens in media res with a distinctive and inexplicable suicide, and the briefest of appearances of a child who will haunt the film. This is typical of the brand of restricted narration employed by Romano Migliorini, Roberto Natale and Mario Bava in their screenplay. This enigmatic and inscrutable quality is maintained throughout. This of course is a complimentary way of saying that the film doesn’t make a lot of sense and has a slapdash approach to story and plot construction - Bava like many Italian directors prefers to tell his stories in visual terms, and few in the industry pulled it off with such style.

The village is a highly superstitious location, with a community that have abandoned god in favour of total belief in the supernatural. The church lies empty and in a state of ruination, while the local tavern contains locals extremely suspicious of outsiders. They mete out their own brand of justice and observe odd customs such as the insertion of coins into the hearts of the dead in order that they do not rise. They are led by an ineffectual burgomeister (the bald headed Luciano Catenacci) and are held in thrall by Ruth (Fabienne Dali) a witch who knows more than she is letting on. The invading forces of modernity are represented by Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli) and Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) who turns up to perform an autopsy on the Inspectors request. Eswai represents the forces of rationality and reason, he brings with him the confidence of the city and of science. Naturally he scoffs at the local belief in a curse and determines to prove that the spectral visitations of a young girl that always precede violent suicide have a rational explanation. Thus the tensions of the plot are set up with economy, and if this milieu isn’t unsettling enough we also have Bava’s visual flourishes.

The first is a simple but highly effective pendulum shot which mirrors a child on a swing, a technique he used again over a decade later in Shock (1977), another story which dramatises supernatural links to childhood. Occassionaly Bava’s use of the zoom lens fails, but at times it works very well. The most successful sequence involves characters going up and down a spiral staircase, with Bava’s camera spinning sometimes in unison and sometimes against the flow of the characters movements. When the action shifts to the villa owned by the decaying Baroness Graps (Giovanni Galleti), even Eswai begins to concede that there are forces he can barely comprehend. Our first glimpse of Melissa Graps (Valeria Valeri) peering icily through a window is terrifying, and every appearance of the spectral infant is heralded by childish giggles on the soundtrack. The girl is dressed in a glowing white dress, which emphasises an innocence that only magnifies the cruel deeds that occur after her visitations. We discover that she slowly perished in an accident whilst the villagers stood by, her visits and the ominous tolling of a bell in the towns square remind the villagers of their guilt and plunges them into despair as punishment is to be meted out.

The labyrinthine spatial dynamics of the villa Graps is one of the major successes of the film. The interior design is like something from a fevered nightmare and the uncanny qualities are brought out by Eswai’s continual return to the same rooms and corridors. Instead of illustrating the cheapness of the production, it adds to a sense of doom and despair, and even with the cheapest of props such as a child’s ball Bava is able to invest considerable menace and unease. A shot which blends Melissa in seamlessly with her collection of dolls is a marvel of colour and lightning and is one of numerous chilling moments within the villa. A subplot involving a long last daughter Monica (Erika Blanc) to the Baroness doesn’t really add much to the proceedings, but is another device to ratchet up the mounting tension at the end of the film. This film both looks forward to the rural gialli of Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) and House with Laughing Windows (1976) and looks back to Bava’s own experiments within the gothic period - the result is brilliant and unforgettable.

© Shaun Anderson - 2010


  1. I remember comparing this one to Burton's Sleepy Hollow, because it has a lot of similarities. A scientist visiting a town that keeps a family secret, everyone knows the secret, but no one is willing to cooperate because they are so scared.

    I read that a little boy is the one who played the spooky ghost girl, his name was Valerio, I could be wrong, but I do remember reading that somewhere.

  2. I've always much preferred Bava's gothic horror films to his giallos, and Kill, Baby…Kill! is particularly good.

  3. Thanks for the comments chaps - Yes I think Bava's movie and the gothic horror of Hammer were a clear inspiration on Burton. Yes I believe you're quite correct about the actor who plays Melissa.

  4. Brilliant review Shaun! Although I will always prefer The Wurdulak and Black Sunday, Kill Baby Kill has quickly grown on me over the years.


Related Posts with Thumbnails