Kill, Baby… Kill! (1966) Blu Ray & DVD (Arrow)
A time of superstition
Mario Bava’s gothic horror is set in an isolated village deep in early 20th-century Central Europe. It begins as a young woman named Irena Hollander (Mirella Pamphili) perishes in a mysterious incident whereby she falls onto some railing spikes. She’s merely the latest of a string of unexplained deaths. Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) is summoned to the village by Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli) to perform an autopsy.
When the doctor is near the village the coach driver says he won’t take him any further, telling him that the village is cursed. Before moving on, they watch as four shadowy figures carry a coffin across the horizon. As Dr. Paul tries to work out why these people are dying, he encounters resistance from the superstitious villagers who would rather rely on the quackery of a local sorceress named Ruth (Fabienne Dali) than allow his logical analysis of the situation to prevail.
A creepy villa
He discovers that the villagers are afraid of two things: firstly, the apparition of a young girl who peers through peoples’ windows and secondly, a mysterious old house known as Villa Grapps, where an aging Baroness (played by Giovanna Galletti). He decides to visit the place and question this baroness to find out why everyone is so afraid of it.
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A Bava classic
Kill, Baby… Kill!, also known as Curse of the Dead and its Italian name Operazione Paura (which translates to “Operation Fear”) is widely regarded as one of Mario Bava’s best films. It might well be my favourite of all of his films that I’ve seen (and I’ve seen many of them). Although not flawless, it works so well and so imaginatively in chilling the bones of the viewer.
There is a hint of an intelligent streak in the story as the superstitious world of this throwback village - crosses and garlic mounted everywhere to ward off evil spirits, barbarically painful practices purported to help in removing a curse from an innocent child - is contrasted with the more enlightened world outside that the doctor character comes from. Moreover, while the supernatural element does, in this case, turn out to be quite genuine, he still retains his determination to investigate and get to the bottom of things rather than rely on their naive and dangerous ways.
The director makes great use of colourful lighting and camerawork to conjure an otherworldly atmosphere of cobweb and fog-encrusted gothic majesty, as well as pulling off numerous nightmarish sequences. While the film takes time to build itself up, it does manage a couple of visually-imaginative shots during this slower early stretch which prove to be a harbinger of the fever dream to come. The first is an Expressionist silhouette of four men carrying a coffin across a crest of a hill against a spectacularly-coloured skyline. The second is a nighttime POV shot from a child on a swing, backed by a little girl’s laughter and a lullaby-style soundtrack.
As we head further into the film it increasingly abandons a conventional narrative and delves further into its surreal nightmare world. The haunting organ and lullaby music (actually a collection of library music assembled by Carlo Rustichelli) is the main constant as we experience such bizarre sequences as a woman being chased down a spiral staircase bathed in multicoloured light by a child’s bouncing ball, or the doctor pursuing his own doppelgänger through an endless series of identical rooms. There also seems to be a few vague references to Carol Reed’s masterpiece The Third Man in both the aforementioned staircase scenes as well as the tilted, silhouette-heavy shots of the haunted village’s dark passages.
As classy a gothic chiller as Kill, Baby… Kill! is, there are some weakness. The dubbing is awful, but that’s pretty much par for the course for Italian genre movies. However, there are other which can largely be attributable to the tiny budget Bava and shooting timeframe had to work with. It’s pretty obvious that parts were shot on cheap studio sets despite the director’s sterling efforts to make it look more lavish via canny decoration, lighting and camerawork. The film’s final stretch is rather hard to follow, although we can also argue that such an approach works within the film’s strange nightmare logic.
The film does have some fairly gory and nasty moments, including the opening railing impalement along with the later sights of a child being whipped with a branch and wrapped in a loop of barbed wire. These were undoubtedly quite shocking at the time, but nowadays seem fairly mild and simplistically-executed. It’s the haunting soundtrack and visuals which remain resonant now, ensuring the film a well-deserved reputation as a cult classic.
Runtime: 85 mins
Dir: Mario Bava
Script: Romano Migliorini, Roberto Natale, Mario Bava, John Davis Hart
Starring: Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Erika Blanc, Fabienne Dali, Piero Lulli, Luciano Catenacci, Mirella Pamphilli, Valerio Valeri, Giovanna Galletti
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Bava’s colourful lighting and the sumptuous gothic decor come out superbly in the High Definition format. There is the occasional grainy, lesser-quality insert, but overall this is definitely the brightest and clearest of the three UK release prints I’ve seen (including a near-unwatchable Cornerstone Media budget DVD and the rather better version from the Starz Home Entertainment Mario Bava Collection). The haunting music and sound effects are equally pristine.
“The Legacy of Melissa Graps: Creepy Kids of Italian Horror Cinema” by Travis Crawford takes at the central ghostly girl (Melissa Graps) and the character’s influence on subsequent creepy children in horror. He reveals that child who played her on-screen (Valerio Valeri) was actually a he; allegedly the son of a production office staffer. He goes on to talk about the careers of such archetypal Italian horror children as the red-headed Nicoletta Elmi (Bava’s Bay of Blood and Baron Blood, Dario Argento’s Deep Red), Lara Wendel (Francesco Barilli’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black) and Giovanni Frezza (who played the annoying Bob in Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery). Creepiest of all is Peter Bark a diminutive man who was in his mid-twenties when he played the role of Michael - a young boy who is sexually obsessed with his own mother in Andrea Bianchi’s gruesome zombie flick Burial Ground. Truly skin-crawl-inducing.
A fabulous commentary Tim Lucas, author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, who discusses the very film that inspired him to write this book. Not only is it his favourite of Bava’s work, but it was also the favourite of the director himself - despite it being shot in just 12 days at Titanus Appia Studios, who were in such dire financial straits that he never got paid for his work. We also learn that the script was largely improvised, that the chilling score was entirely composed of stock queues from earlier productions, and that Valerio Valeri’s angry facial expression was achieved by Bava taunting him by calling him by the feminised version of his Italian first name (Valeria).
Another interesting point is that Erika Blanc’s character in the film - Monica Schüfftan - was named after an FX process where miniatures where combined with actors in a shot by using a trick mirror. This was named the Schüfftan Process after cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan (who used it in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927), despite the fact that Bava’s own father Eugenio had actually used it earlier in the 1914 film Cabiria.
The Devil’s Daughter
This excellent video essay by Kat Ellinger takes a look at children in horror, from various literary sources through the pre-Bava cinematic examples (which were surprisingly rare due to the fact that the association of children and death was considered taboo) to the slew of 1970s hits such as The Exorcist and The Omen. She ends by mentioning how under-acknowledged Bava’s influence on other filmmakers has been - with the notable exception of Guillermo del Toro who openly admits to being a fan.
Kill, Bava, Kill!
An archival interview with Mario Bava’s son Lamberto, who acted as his assistant director on the film. He speaks with some fond nostalgia (understandably tinged with a little sadness) about his father, who had a fatalistic sense of humour; he enjoyed being photographed lying in coffins on his film’s sets. The bulk of the documentary talks about the various locations where the film is shot. He also visits the villages of Calcata and Valeria where most of the exteriors were filmed. The pair even wander down one specific street which was used during the film’s opening, despite the fact that it has been cordoned off as the houses are now structurally unsafe. It’s a must watch.
Erika in Fear
A 2014 interview with actress Erika Blanc, who talks about her experiences working on the film. She presents various lobby cards used during the film’s promotion and talks about the actors seen in the stills.
A short film from 2006 (directed by Semih Tareen) which homages Bava’s visual style. It revolves around a nighttime chess game between a young man an woman which culminates in murder. An ultra-cheap production (shot entirely in someone’s living room) lasting 7 minutes, it has some visual flair but not much else.
German opening titles
An alternative version of the opening credits scene which cuts away after Irena Hollander’s impalement to give us early glimpses of the film’s ghostly child.
A 1976 comic strip adaptation of the film from the French publication Film Horreur which uses film stills combined with comic captions. A curio to be sure, but not worth going through page-by-page unless you have a huge screen, can read French and are a major buff.
We also get a trailer, an image gallery, a brief intro by Erika Blanc and the usual Arrow reversible sleeve.
A creepy low-budget gem from an Italian director who remains undervalued even today -despite his gradually-increasing cult reputation. The extras are also some of the best I’ve seen on an Arrow disc.