A new restoration brightens the corners of Mario Bava’s superb gothic 1966 freak-out, crisply rendering each open grave, rotting skull, Limeade cobweb, and tendril of swirling mist. As always in the films of the Italian horror master, death grooves in Day-Glo moodscapes, with Bava’s restless camera snaking through crypts and boneyards, a shuttered town and a haunted villa, all tinged with the psychedelic, the shadows shot through the director’s gelato gels. Few horror films of the period are as committed to soaking us in their atmosphere, to touring us through the sets. Bava is often fascinated by labyrinths, by riddles of place, and Kill, Baby, Kill’s simple ghost story allows him plenty of time to set his characters wandering in terror, through rooms that duplicate themselves, up and down a staircase that seems to spiral not to other floors of a crumbling villa but into madness and memory.
The movie is an immersion as much as it is a narrative. As such, it might not be the most thrilling of Bava’s thrillers — I’d name Black Sunday (1960) or A Bay of Blood (1971), both showing on 35 mm prints at Quad Cinema’s 21-film salute to the director — but it’s a powerfully controlled one, inventive in its hauntings, innovative in its camera work (dig that ghost’s-eye POV shot from a child’s swing!), disorienting in its whirl of locations.
The specifics of the scares matter less than their accumulation, as this ghost’s m.o. is to stir a suicidal delirium in the women it targets. Bava, then, is liberated from making sense. As the ineffectual square-jaw hero (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) investigates a series of murders in a remote village, the film is generous in its eeriness: surprises at an autopsy, revelations on gravestones, a child’s ball bouncing down empty corridors, corrupted dollies turning up where they shouldn’t be, doors and windows slamming shut, the townspeople’s kink-torture treatment of a young girl’s being cursed. And there are frequent manifestations of a pioneering creepy-girl ghost, played with unsettling stillness by Valerio Valeri. The story’s women — Erika Blanc and Fabienne Dali — prove more interesting than its man, but Carlo Rustichelli’s score proves more fascinating than everyone. (It boasts perhaps the greatest of all chiming-celeste nursery-horror themes.)
Bava trains us, as the film goes, to study each mirror and window in his world for spectral fingers or faces. He zooms, as always, to show us what his characters don’t want to see, and even today, in the age of whip-fast handheld cinematography, that lunging lens still seems flamboyant, even reckless, the director chucking everything staid and stately about even Hammer and Castle horror. In Bava’s movies, you’re never safe — the terrors don’t wait around until the climax to spook you. They’re always there.
Another restoration of note in the Quad’s series: 1965’s Planet of the Vampires, best known as a proto-Alien. Here, too, is a chance to wander Bava’s fog-choked sets, this time the lime-and-purple planes of the planet Aura, which the crew of a spaceship visit upon receiving a distress signal. There’s something wicked there, of course, and our heroes face it while wearing yet more evidence of Bava’s continuing influence: yellow-trimmed leather suits that are totally the source for the costumes in Bryan Singer’s original X-Men.
Kill, Baby, Kill
Directed by Mario Bava
Opens July 7, Quad Cinema
July 14 through 25, Quad Cinema