Sunday, 11 May 2008

Reazione a catena / A Bay of Blood

Discounting the more fantastical Shock, A Bay of Blood was to be Bava's final contribution to the giallo. Having established the filone in the early 1960s with The Girl Who Knew too Much (1963), Blood and Black Lace (1964) and 'The Telephone' segment of the Black Sabbath (1963), he had spent the remainder of that decade working in other popular filone.

Though he had scripted Schoolgirl Killer (1968) as a return to the it, the project left his hands and was eventually directed by Antonio Margheriti, this loss of control perhaps especially galling given the professional rivalry between the two men. (This information comes from Tim Lucas's indespensible study of the director, All the Colors of the Dark, to which all subsequent commentary can only be a mere footnote.)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Bava made three gialli. A Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1969) represents a natural Hitchcockian companion piece to The Girl Who Knew too Much, neatly inverting Psycho by having its schizophrenic killer introduce himself as such while also demonstrating that he would “hurt a fly” and featuring dreamlike waltzes that seem inspired by Shadow of a Doubt.

The opening double murder

Five Dolls for an August Moon and this film meanwhile conclude the so-called “greed trillogy” inaugurated by Blood and Black Lace.

These are high bodycount murder-mysteries in which the crimes are motivated not by psychopathology but by greed, the raw desire to possess. To be sure, a more sophisticated theory could not doubt connect the two, pointing to the psychotic logic of capital accumulation or suchlike – especially given that in Blood and Black Lace the police investigation is fatally led astray by their presumption of psychosexual motivation and aetiology for the crimes.

The second and third films of the trilogy, however, see Bava in increasingly ironic, deconstructive mood.

The keys to both film, I would argue, lie in their opening sequences.

In Five Dolls, we slowly move in on the modernist villa on an isolated island before the mise-en-scene breaks down into a series of shock zooms and fragmented close ups all but guaranteed to offend the aesthetic sensibilites of just about anyone as the idle rich protagonists are introduced. One of their number, mockingly identified as the “virgin of the tribe” is then sacrified to the god Kraal, the playful scene momentarily turning serious as the lights go out and it seems someone has taken the game of murder in the dark too far. Then, however, the fake blood is washed off with a few sprays from the soda siphon and everyone laughs.

Like Marcus Daly's remarks to his student in the opening of Deep Red, as he tells them that their playing is “too formal, too precise; it needs to be more trashy,” Bava is telling his audience to watch out, but unlike Argento he is also telling them that his film is essentially one big joke, not to be taken terribly seriously. (Here we might note the slapstick connotations of the soda siphon.)

The biggest part of this joke is the absence of the traditional murder set-pieces. In this regard the film is like an inverted Blood and Black Lace: we never see the murders, only the discoveries of the victims' bodies, most of which end up being stored in the meat locker to the strains of the same carrilon.

Here, we begin with the flight of a fly over the titular bay and its fatal plunge into the water. Though the bay is later identified by one of those opposing its development as a haven for insects, the ironic message seems to be that this place this is a place which is fundamentally inimical to all life.

The gaze and its objects

Following this, we enter the villa of the wheelchair-bound Countess Federica as, to the romantic-bordering-on-kitsch strains of Stelvio Cipriani's swelling piano and string based theme, she looks longingly over the bay towards her illegimate son Simone's hut.

Suddenly, the moment accompanied by a musical sting slighly reminiscent of Friday the 13th's ka-ka-cha the obligatory black gloved killer strikes, throwing a noose around the Countess's neck and kicking her wheelchair away. Something is immediately wrong, however, as once the Countess has breathed her last the camera pans up her killer as he removes his black gloves, revealing his identity, soon to be confirmed as that of Count Donati, Federica's husband.

A giallo, a murder-mystery, is not supposed to do this.

What is going on, what are the rules Bava is playing by?
The Count deposits a faked suicide note, and, a few moments later is them himself unceremoniously stabbed to death by an unseen assailant. This time, at least, we don't see the murderer. Yet, as the narrative itself starts it soon becomes apparent that no-one is particularly interested in finding out whodunnit compared to taking advantage of the Countess's death.

A week passes. The Countess's death has been adjudged a suicide, while the Count has disappeared.

Architect Franco Ventura (Chris Avram) heads out to the bay expecting to seal the deal that will allow him and his partners to further develop it into a holiday resort. On the way he is passed by four youngsters, two couples, looking for some fun at the bay.

Meanwhile, Renata (Claudine Auger) and her husband Alberto (Luigi Pistilli) and have already arrived. They observe Simone (Claudio Camaso / Volonte) and Signor Fossati (Leopoldo Trieste) from the undergrowth as the two men discuss the Countess's demise, Fossati also making veiled references to murder.

Though their attitudes to life differ, it is also clear that the semi-feral Simone and the harmlessly eccentric insect-obsessed Fossati are alike in one respect: both regard the bay as their home and would be hostile to any more changes.

Renata is more concerned with finding her father, her 'masculine' control over her weak-willed husband evident from the way she takes the binoculars (i.e. the gaze, the phallus) off him.

The four youngsters arrive, break into the night club and apartment, drink, dance, make love and generally behave like their Friday the 13th descendants.

One very giallo difference, however, is that none is marked out as a “final girl” type. Instead, all four are quickly killed off. Though again we could no doubt read something sexual into the death spasms of skinny dipper Brunhilda (Brigitte Skay) and the couple who are impaled by a spear mid-coitus were we so inclined, their deaths are really more the result of territorial transgression than anything moral or sexual: Brunhilda discovers the hitherto submerged body of the Count and thus threatens someone's scheme, so she must die; Brunhilda's friends will soon notice her absence, so they too must die.

Sex and violence, and double penetration splatter style

By this point, the structure of the film has also become clear: an alternation of scenes focusing on violent set-pieces and on narrative and character development. (For the record the murders occur at 5, 7, 32, 34, 36, 56, 58, 68, 73, 77 and 80 minutes, somewhat belying Mikel Koven's 20 / 40 / 20 breakdown of murders / development / murders.)

Despite the duration and number of the former – there are no fewer than seven more murders still to come, the body count totalling more than those of the two previous films in the trilogy combined and surely setting some kind of record for the giallo – each of the main characters is reasonably well defined and personified, albeit with some not quite escaping from the realm of the 'type'; in addition to those already mentioned, we also have the likes of Ventura's opportunistic secretary and lover Laura (Anna Maria Rosati) and Fossati's boozy, tarot-card reading wife Anna (Laura Betti).

We cut from an extreme close up of a victim to the mirror image in the hub cap

The dialogue is also better than might be expected, with some amusing references thrown into the mix. One of the red-blooded Italian males tells the Nordic Brunhilda “hold the culture” as she makes a passing reference to Sibelius, for example, while it the Countess's own reluctance to 'convert' to “modernism” in consenting to her husband and his erstwhile associates' plan to concrete over and develop the bay that precipitates the whole chain of murders.

Bava cuts from the bloody stump of a severed head to a dropped pottery head

Similarly though Bava's direction again foregrounds many of the 'wrong' kind of techniques, most prominently the zoom, its also clear that this is part and parcel of his own modernist formal experimentation, insofar as he also often transitions from one scene to another with a matched cut on a zoom in or a zoom out or pulls focus to create dissolve type effects.

In sum, a film that there is a lot more to than meets the eye.


Anonymous said...

This is out of topic, but I wanted to point out that I have offered my 2 cents on your September question concerning Greece and giallo.

K H Brown said...

Sorry for not replying sooner - thanks for your insights into Greece and Giallo, which were very informative.