Thursday, April 29, 2010

The X-Files, Millennium, and Mario Bava?

It might not be much of a secret to people who have followed the work I do with The X-Files Lexicon, of my obsessional passion for Italian genre director Mario Bava. I regard Bava with rather high esteem, and his work reflects an example, a philosophy in action, of another favorite film director, who happens to have an exceptional intellect and fascinating mind, Nicholas Meyer, director of Star Trek II and VI, as well as the terrific genre film, Time After Time. Meyer has often argued that "art thrives on limitations," and I feel that this philosophy is equally demonstrated throughout The X-Files, Millennium, as well as the overall body of work of the Maestro himself, Bava.

Black Sunday (The Mask of Satan)

Since the time that I posted a thread on the Lexicon Forum recommending Bava websites, interest in that thread has remained high which just validates that others must share a curiosity about Bava’s work. While Italian genre directors Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci tend to be more celebrated, and were more commercially successful than the great director, Bava laid the groundwork that allowed for their later success. While I can’t argue that Bava’s visual sensibilities influenced the cinematographers that worked on The X-Files and Millennium, I can speculate that there was a second or third generation of influence.

The X-Files – Gender Bender

Having just made that point, I realize that comparisons could be made with any filmmaker. Chris Carter has cited Silence of the Lambs as an inspiration for the series, and of course, Tak Fujimoto’s visual sensibility in Demme’s classic cannot be ignored, but it becomes difficult to just gloss over or ignore, the visual sensibility and style of Bava’s work in subsequent film artists. No one creatively lives in a vacuum, and unconscious influences come into play.

About Mario Bava

Throughout his career, Bava embodied the philosophy of art thriving on limitations. He is now seen by many as the Italian Hitchcock of his generation. Mario Bava was born on July 30, 1914 in San Remo, Italy. He was the son of cinematographer and visual effects technician Eugenio Bava. The boy was so entrenched within the Italian film industry, and the influence of his father was so profound, that Mario gave up his initial desire to become a painter to pursue a career as a cinematographer. Bava started as an assistant, working alongside such cinematographers as Massimo Terzano and Jacquez Tourneur. Bava became a cinematographer in his own right by 1939. In 1956, after director Riccardo Freda left the project he was working on, I, Vampiri (The Devil’s Commandment), due to a dispute with the producers, Bava was forced to finish the film. Delivering the project on time and finished, Bava gained enough of a good reputation for saving pictures, that by the time Freda abandoned another project, 1959’s Caltiki, The Immortal Monster, Bava finished that film as well. It was during this period that Bava was the cinematographer of the Hercules films that starred Steve Reeves. Due to his impressive work, Galatea Films offered him to direct a film of his choice. That film, The Mask of Satan (Black Sunday) (1960), became of one the most groundbreaking debuts in the history of genre cinema, and made a star out of Barbara Steele. The film itself which was loosely inspired by Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol’s 19th Century short story, "Viy", was one of the most unique tales about vampirism and witchcraft ever produced. It demonstrated his mastery of filming in black and white, as well as crafting the template for the kind of period gothic horror films he was known for.

Clip from Black Sunday

Yet Bava was never a one-note filmmaker. He followed Black Sunday with a pair of sword and sandal adventures, Hercules in the Haunted World with Christopher Lee, and Erik The Conqueror with Cameron Mitchell (1961). He then produced one of the first Giallo thrillers, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962), starring a young John Saxon. In 1963, Bava directed his horror anthology The Three Faces of Fear (Black Sabbath) with Boris Karloff in one segment. This film is often considered his next masterpiece, and considered one of the best anthologies produced. The lesser known The Whip and The Body is regarded as one of the most darkly romantic horror tales produced, a ghostly psychological tale that starred Christopher Lee as a sadistic aristocrat, tormenting the stunning Daliah Lavi. Lee’s character, Kurt, had been engaged to Nevenka (Lavi) but was cast out by the family, when his affairs and sadistic desires drove another girl to suicide. Kurt returns, along with his sadistic ways, until he is murdered by unseen forces. Nevenka is driven to madness by sightings of Kurt’s ghost which builds to its darkly ironic ending.

In 1964, Bava tackled his first Western, Road to Fort Alamo, and his next Giallo thriller Blood and Black Lace (Six Women for the Murderer), which set the template for future slasher films, yet the fundamental difference between this film, aside from a wonderful visual flare, is the fact that there’s a dark, ironic, fatalism that separates it from later fare. In 1965, Bava directed his first Science Fiction horror film, Planet of the Vampires (The Demon Planet), a film whose influence could be very much seen in the first half of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). 1966 was a very prolific year, seeing another Western produced, Savage Gringo, a comedy sequel, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, another sword and sandal adventure, Knives of the Avenger, which manages to be more reflective than his previous sword and sandal epics, as well as another gothic horror film that is regarded highly by Bava enthusiasts, Kill, Baby... Kill (Operation Fear), a film that even Martin Scorsese has cited as an influence. In 1967, Producer Dino De Laurentis brought in Bava to direct Diabolik (Danger: Diabolik), which was based on an Italian comic book, co-starring John Phillip Law and Marisa Mell, Adolfo Celi, and Terry Thomas, as well as the only time that Bava worked with composer Ennio Morricone. The film was released at the start of 1968. Many comic book enthusiasts regard the film as one of the best adaptations ever, in part due to Bava’s understanding as to why the comic book format works. Diabolik is an anti-hero, and technically a terrorist, and yet outwits the authorities throughout most of the film, and considered by many to be one of the most enjoyable films he directed.

Clip from Diabolik

The general consensus is that Bava’s work started to go into a gradual decline from this period onward, in part due to struggles with securing financial backers, as well as having to pander to the type of exploitation fare that was marketable. In 1969, Bava directed another Giallo thriller with a clever psychological twist, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, as well as a sex comedy with a Rashomon theme, Four Times That Night. In 1970, he tackled a comedy western Roy Colt & Winchester Jack, as well as another thriller, Five Dolls for an August Moon. 1971 saw a film that would have a great influence, Bay of Blood (Twist of the Death Nerve). Filmmakers Sean Cunningham and Steve Miner admitted borrowing heavily from Bava’s film for Friday the 13th and its sequel. Yet, in spite of the fact that the film featured some brutal murders, there was a dark irony and fatalism to the film that distinguished it from the usual slasher film, therefore the various characters committing the mayhem are driven to do so out of greed.

Bava went back to a gothic horror film in 1972 with Baron Blood, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek film that co-starred Joseph Cotton and Elke Sommer. That next year, due to the commercial success of Baron Blood, he produced one of his best films, Lisa and the Devil in 1973, a Euro art house film that starred Telly Salvalas, and again Elke Sommer in a film that played like an extended dream or nightmare. In what should have been a triumph for Bava turned into a humiliation when the film was re-cut and new footage added to pander to the Exorcism craze, with the inferior House of Exorcism. 1974 saw the production of Rabid Dogs (Kidnapped), a taut crime thriller whose sensibilities predate the work of Quentin Tarantino. The film is more grounded in reality than his previous work, with one of the most bitterly ironic statements about human nature he was to make throughout the body of his work, but the film ran into trouble when its financial backer died, and the film was put on hold, not to be fully realized until it finally saw the light of day in 1996. His last film, co-directed with his son Lamberto Bava, Shock in 1977, was another contemporary horror film touching on the same themes of The Whip and the Body. That involved an uneasy relationship between a mother and her very young son, and the death of the father who was a criminal. Mario Bava died on April 25, 1980 due to a heart attack, just after providing visual effects to his contemporary, Dario Argento, for the film Inferno.

Bava once commented about his work and what drives his interests:

"My fantasies are always horrible. For example, I love my young daughter more than anything else in the world, but when I dream of her it’s always frightening. Do you want to know what character is haunting my subconscious? A violinist who serenades the woman he loves by playing on the tendons of his arms. Everyday life works on my imagination. Just this morning I found a letter--still sealed--from a friend who has since died, written to me ten years ago. It was like receiving a letter from a dead person. What would you do in my place? I burned it..."

Bava’s films were often criticized for the artificial aspects of their visuals, and yet the ends did justify the means. Many critics missed the point; there was a dream-like, heightened reality to his best work. Due to his background as second generation filmmaker, he had such a profound understanding of the medium of his craft, and this could be no better illustrated than in the black and white photographic work of The Mask of Satan. Nearly all old school cinematographers understood that color registers differently in the emulsion of black and white photography. The old masters understood this and used it to their advantage. For example, the work of photographer Authur Edeson, and make-up artist Jack Pierce in Frankenstein (1931). For the ending sequence where Princess Asa tries to take the life-force of Katia, the effect of her rapid emaciation was done with special make-up and a light dimming switcher with different color gels, one of countless examples of his mastery, as well with using glass-mattes, cutouts, and miniatures to create photo realistic visuals.

For a long time Bava’s work was dismissed as exploitation fare, and it was due to the acknowledged influences on Bava from directors like Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, and Quentin Tarantino, as well as the life long and tireless advocacy of critics like Tim Lucas and Troy Howarth, that his films have been reexamined. We will continue with examples of the Bava influence on The X-Files and Millennium.

To be continued...

Special thanks to Xscribe for her assistance. X-Files and Millennium still images courtesy of Chrisnu, Most stills from Bava films were primarily taken from this site, as well various sources, You Tube clips courtesy of Giantfish2, and Monster4josh.

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