Mario Bava revealed himself as a master of funereal lyricism with Black Sunday (1960), his directorial debut. A breakthrough film for Bava and his striking leading lady, Barbara Steele, it set in motion a new genre of Italian horror that was to enjoy a remarkable growth in the next two decades. This disquieting, flamboyantly romantic adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s ghostly folktale The Vij was enhanced by the finest black-and-white cinematography of any fright film made since the 1930s. Bava’s father had been a cameraman in the early days of the Italian film industry, and Mario himself worked as cinematographer for directors as diverse as Roberto Rossellini, Jacques Tourneur, G.W. Pabst, and Raoul Walsh.
Bava served as his own lighting cameraman on Black Sunday—a gorgeous and brutal tale about a seductive princess, killed as a witch, who returns from the crypt 200 years later, her features hideously scarred from the iron mask that has been clamped to her face. The film is built around the physical presence of British actress Steele, appearing in her first starring roles—as madonna and whore, portraying both the vampire sorceress Asa and her virginal descendant Katia. Her operatic gestural style evokes memories of silent film divas; with her chalky face, high cheekbones, and flowing raven hair, she’s a nightmarish Medusa figure. La Steele later appeared in a number of auteur films—by Fellini, Malle, and Schlöndorff—but she had become established as a “queen of screams,” and remains indelibly associated with scary Italian movies of the ’60s.
Bava, too, later strayed into other genres. He made sword-and-sorcery and sci-fi epics, Viking sagas, spaghetti westerns (under pseudonyms), spy spoofs, and even a softcore sex romp—mostly routine affairs. But although he never surpassed Black Sunday, it was still in the mainstream Italian horror movie that his visual imagination and flair with lighting and decor were put to best effect. His disciples there include Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and his son, Lamberto Bava; on this side of the pond, Tim Burton and Martin Scorcese are flat-out enthusiasts.
Planet of the Vampires (1965) is a cheap but elegantly designed space fantasy in which the actors rush around with unrelieved seriousness as if the script actually made sense to them. In Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970), the director tops a fuddled slasher movie with pop-art decorative frosting in a story set at a beach house where guests are murdered picturesquely, one by one. More of the same in Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971), an ecological slasher flick in which 13 murders are all motivated by attempts to take over a piece of choice real estate. Death is by axe, knife, spear, and garrote—you name it. Bloody good fun, up to a point, unless you’re allergic to the incessant zoom shots to which Bava unfortunately became addicted mid-career. Four Times That Night (1972), the director’s sole foray into groovy sex comedy, is of interest mainly for its Rashomon recounting of the story in quadruplicate. Lisa and the Devil (1972), the standout among his later works and a morbidly poetic exercise in necrophilia, coops up poor Elke Sommer in a decrepit Spanish villa filled with putrescent corpses and the dubious company of Telly Savalas, the butler from hell. Completist aficionados should be advised that two of his boldest films—The Whip and the Body (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964), neither one in the BAM series—are available in a letterboxed DVD box set.