Monday, 26 February 2007

A Bay of Blood

Is it possible to say anything new about A Bay of Blood? Chances are that, if you are reading this you have seen the film, or at least know of its importance: You will know that it was released on a double-bill on the US drive-in and grindhouse circuits with Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham's Last House on the Left, before itself being opportunistically re-released as Last House on the Left: Part II, and that Cunningham drew liberally from it in the first two Friday the 13th films.

And, if you are familiar with both Bava's giallo and Cunningham's slashers, you will also know that the former is by far the superior film, not just at a technical level - with the possible exception of Carlo Rambaldi's make-up effects when set up against those of Tom Savini; not however a criticism of Rambaldi's work as much as a recognition of the massive advances that took place in the area over the course of the 1970s - but also for what it does and, equally importantly, does not do elsewhere.

Take, for example, the ironies of the opening sequences:

Following a series of leisurely shots suggesting the tranquility of the Bay, accompanied by Stelvio Cipriani's elegant yet trashy theme, the camera frenetically follows the flightpath of a buzzing insect on its fatal plunge into the bay. The message seems clear: this place, supposedly a haven for wildlife, is in fact inimical to it as well. There is fundamentally no point to the slaughter that is about to ensue.

Like the swinging sign and telephone receiver that bookend Blood and Black Lace, we have an end (“Gee, they're good at playing dead, aren't they”) that answers the beginning: each scene might be complete in itself, as set piece or little experiment in tone and technique, but they all work together to produce something that is more than the sum of its parts.

Now compare such intricacies to Crazy Ralph warning the kids not to go to “Camp Blood” or the sudden shock re-appearance of Jason Vorhees, supposedly dead all these years, and the difference is clear.

Next consider the introduction of the Countess, whose murder will set the whole chain of events into motion. Cipriani pushes the romantic piano theme to the point of near-parody as the wheelchair-bound woman looks out mournfully on the bay, culminating in a shot of the hut within which, retrospectively, we learn her illegitimate son and legitimate heir Simon lives – an attention to detail that rewards careful and repeat viewing – before she is unceremoniously dispatched by the familiar black gloved hands.

But, wait a minute. Rather than introducing a traditional giallo enigma – who is the assassin? - Bava then pans up to reveal the man's face, before he is then in turn dispatched by a second, this time unidentified, killer. Clearly, we are playing by a different set of generic rules to those Bava had himself earlier established with The Girl Who Saw too Much and Blood and Black Lace.

True, an element of mystery is introduced at this point, as the body of the Count – for it is he – is dumped in the bay and his daughter, wondering what might have happened to him, is amongst those who converge on the slayground, but it always remains secondary to more purely cinematic considerations. Bava, that is, is now visibly less interested in the mechanics of plot and suspense than he is in those of composition and editing.

And here the way he constructs things at the level of shot – racking focus from the abstract streaked blue of the raindrops on the window overlooking the bay to the bay itself here, for example – and sequence, or manages the transitions between them – a sudden cut; zoom out / in on an associative detail or abstracted form; now some inserts of the bay, still utterly indifferent and implacable – that makes all the difference. Though it is the murder set pieces that conventionally get all the attention, in truth almost every moment has that bit more to it. Again, then, the contrast with the typical American slasher film, as something that typically does little more than go through the motions, nothing more, nothing less, is remarkable.

Nevertheless, the most obvious – and commented on – difference between A Bay of Blood, as giallo, and Friday the 13th, as slasher, is of course their respective moral senses. In simple terms, Cunningham's film exhibits a dubious puritanism that is alien to Bava's. Thus, the four party-hearty youths are killed here not because of any particular transgression but rather because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and are in way of “progress”. Morover, their killer is less the self-appointed moral avenger or sexually confused monster – qua two slasher types that are too easy to keep at a safe distance; as safely “other” – but rather normal men and women much like us, whether marked by avarice or simply a desire to have a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

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