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Kill, Baby... Kill! is the last of Mario Bava's classic-era Eurohorror films, a visually expressive and often experimental ghost story that's now acknowledged by many as his masterpiece. A non-star cast continued filming even after the production collapsed and salaries weren't paid. Even the soundtrack was cobbled together from bits of scores from previous films, leaving Bava's technical and creative artistry to carry the picture almost on its own.
Savant reviewed a compromised VCI version six years ago, in 2001. This Dark Sky/MPI release is an enormous visual improvement. A reissue of the old Image Bava series is expected on April 3 from Anchor Bay, hopefully all with transfers as good as this one.
Mario Bava apparently thrived when creating without resources. He had no difficulty completing several films abandoned by the frustrated Riccardo Freda, when promised production budgets vanished. Using a style borne of technical improvisation, Bava turned out fascinating pictures under conditions that would cripple any other director. Kill, Baby... Kill! is ninety minutes of expressive Bava camera magic. He almost neutralizes the effect of a budgetary crisis, thanks to a cast and crew that agreed to work for free. Curiously, on his next picture Diabolik Bava spent only a fraction of the production money allotted by big-time producer Dino de Laurentiis.
Kill, Baby... Kill! has Bava's unique style to maintain interest, but it still suffers from repetitious plotting and a conflict between superstition and rationality that generates little tension. Giacomo Rossi-Stuart's noble doctor struggles to convince the villagers that their backward beliefs are the real problem, but we learn almost immediately that the powers of the occult are indeed in control. Bava's images of the spectral ghost child Melissa Graps are everywhere, but we must patiently wait for Dr. Eswai to see one and be convinced.
Rossi-Stuart generates no romantic sparks with Erica Blanc's nervous heroine. That leaves the mystery of Kill, Baby... Kill! in the hands of three other females: The compelling sorceress Ruth, the vindictive Baroness and the creepy blonde child with the white ball. With the drama spread out over so many characters, the actual plot consists of Dr. Eswai's endless walks from one locale to another, always too late to take action.
Eswai's inability to stem the irrational threat eventually generates a compelling nightmare state, and Kill, Baby... Kill! would maintain full interest if Bava's visuals were more surprising. We've seen his 'haunted window' effects in pictures like Black Sabbath and they're beautifully executed here. But most of them simply aren't very surprising. Once seen, the blonde ghost child is only intermittently spooky. Perhaps the sloppy music has something to do with it. Even without being able to identify most of the sources (we can definitely spot The Whip and the Body on our own) we can tell that the soundtrack is letting the images down.
All of those problems disappear at the film's conclusion, where Bava successfully mounts a rapid crescendo of frissons. With the horrible truth in view -- Melissa finally revealed to him -- the film's contextual reality simply snaps. Dr. Eswai suddenly finds himself in a mind-twisting, self-contradictory zone. It's all done in a few simple cuts and pans, yet we're convinced that The doctor has captured his own doppelgänger. One more perfectly engineered cut, and Dr. Eswai has been ejected clear out of the haunted house. Horror films often attempt these kinds of dislocation effects, usually producing hollow gestures begging to be accepted on credit. Bava whips us through the funhouse before we have a chance to get our bearings.
Dark Sky's new DVD of Kill, Baby... Kill! is likely to be snapped up by Bava devotées already familiar with previous versions and eager to finally see the show in a properly colorful presentation. Image-wise, there are no complaints. The champion for saturated-hue Bava bliss is still Image's old Black Sabbath disc, probably because that film's color textures are more deliriously detailed than this cheaper picture. But this DVD still looks darn good.
Sadly, the only audio track is the familiar English dub. Although the dubbing isn't terrible, it still puts Kill, Baby... Kill! into the realm of down-market import work. Inane dubbed voices are what kept Savant from taking seriously both Euro horror films and Spaghetti westerns when they were new. I say this admitting that no small measure of cinema snobbery is sneaking into my appreciation for Euro fare: Black Sabbath in its original Italian may be no better dubbed than its English track, but it sounds like an exotic foreign import when compared to the cartoonish dub tracks on Black Sunday. For these ears, that makes a big difference in Euro horror: An English dub seems like an act of vandalism compared to an original Italian track that may have been supervised by the film's actual director. Caltiki, il mostro immortale in English has always been an embarrassment, which makes the promised NoShame Italian version extremely desirable. (late note: According to a Feb. 3 post at Video WatchBlog, the Anchor Bay Kill, Baby... Kill! coming April 3 will have an Italian track.)
On to the extras. Label-hopping genre docu producer David Gregory provides a solid featurette called Kill, Bava, Kill!, introducing us to director Lamberto Bava's memories of his father Mario. He talks on the steps of the hillside town where it was filmed, and later strolls to other nearby locations, some of which are now deemed unsafe because of crumbling walls. The well-paced featurette cleverly assumes familiar camera angles on the real locations, and then dissolves to the matching angle from the film. It uses a minimum of film clips, which always makes a value-added extra stand out.
Topping that special extra is Tim Lucas' insightful commentary, in which he even divulges the film's odd place in the development of his horror obsession. Lucas clearly knows more about Kill, Baby... Kill! than anybody, and makes dozens of original connections and observations regarding its cast and production before jumping into his analysis of the film per se. Only occasionally does he verge on overstatement -- the doctor's unimpressive struggle with some thugs is not an inspired piece of action staging -- but in general Tim's take on the film's psychology is illuminating. His idea of character 'twinning' is a clear sale, and I also go for his explanation of the inversion of iconic symbols: Dark witch good; blonde child bad.
Lucas rattles off the source of every music cue as if he's been memorizing them over his breakfast cereal for decades. He also explains the film's many deplorable titles. The Italian Operazione Paura is almost as pitiful as the American title. What I didn't hear, or what wasn't said, is the film's intended shooting title. Perhaps Kill, Baby... Kill! should revert to whatever that was.
These last paragraphs should be filed under good-natured chiding. The disc featurette displays an end card announcing the 'availability' (!) of Tim Lucas' long-delayed Mario Bava book, which has been 'expected very soon' going on eight years -- long enough for the Bava DVD release craze to go through one complete cycle, like the comet in Caltiki. Tim has raised the level of fantasy film discourse far above splatter 'zines and Trekkie idolatry. He's established academic-quality film research where fan delirium once ruled. Best of all, Lucas hasn't fallen into the Fan Authority trap of claiming 'ownership' of his chosen genre turf.
That's one reason why we've stuck with the rabid WatchBlogger through the years of waiting. Now that Dark Sky and Anchor Bay are warming up the DVD presses for a new wave of fans too young to remember the 2000-2001 Bava releases, perhaps the time has come ... perhaps the tome foretold in the legends will now finally appear. The world of Bava worship needs that book!
Dark Sky's disc will also be a waiting game. It doesn't officially come out for almost 60 days, yet here I am dashing off a review in an effort not be the last reviewer out of the gate. Maybe I should remind readers of the release come March 15 or so.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Kill, Baby... Kill! rates:
A response from Robert Monell, 2.08.07: