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DVD SAVANT

5 Dolls for an August Moon


5 Dolls for an August Moon
Image
1970 / Color / 1:85 flat letterboxed / 78 min. / 5 bambole per la luna d'agosto
Starring William Berger, Ira von Fürstenberg, Edwige Fenech, Howard Ross, Helena Ronee, Teodoro Corrà, Ely Galleani, Edith Meloni, Mauro Bosco, Maurice Poli
Cinematography Antonio Rinaldi
Production Designer Giuseppe Aldrovandi, Giulia Mafai
Film Editor Mario Bava
Original Music Piero Umiliani
Writing credits Mario di Nardo
Produced by Luigi Alessi
Directed by Mario Bava

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

When you're thoroughly sold on the merits of a single filmmaker, there always comes the moment when it must be admitted that not all of their works can be masterpieces.  In the case of Italian fantasist Mario Bava, his popularity is finally achieving mainstream cinema awareness, thanks in whole or part to the efforts of writer/publisher Tim Lucas, whose Video Watchdog magazine was founded on enthusiasm for filmmakers and whole subgenres undiscovered by the middleground press.  Fortunately, Lucas is not one of those critics who defends a favored director's every film, like a hunchback guarding a crypt with an axe.

 Image Entertainment's Mario Bava Collection also deserves a chunk of credit for the wider discovery of the Italian filmmaker; whereas normal DVD wisdom would put these arcane gems out as plainwrap, 'what ya see is what ya get' flat encodings of existing videotape masters, Image has done its darndest to make sure that they're rendered as faithfully and as vividly as possible.  5 Dolls for an August Moon is far from a Savant favorite, but still an interesting Bava murder mystery.

Synopsis:

A group of investment speculators try to talk scientist Gerry Farrell (William Berger) into selling them the rights to a new formula, while at a wild weekend retreaton an isolated island.  As the competitors try to cheat one another with secret bids, Farrell seems disinterested, and tempers rise with the stakes.  The wives and girlfriends along for the fun and games feel the tension as their men stray, or try to get them to use sex to close a deal.  But once the murders begin, the possibility of anyone trusting anyone is left far behind.

Allegedly a professional assignment given Bava with just two days' notice, 5 Dolls for an August Moon is a fair murder mystery in which even this director's visual tricks can't sustain interest.  The cast of connivers is interchangeable and hard to keep straight, and in some cases more easily identifiable by their now-hideous 1970 fashions than their faces.  The Agatha Christie-style succession of murders among a select group of villains is just as boring as Bava thought it would be when he took the job.  Shying away from showing most of the actual killing on screen, Bava tries to divert attention through some interesting setpieces, the best of which is a shower of glass balls that transports us from one tense situation, to a suicide in progress on the other side of the house.  Yet even it reads better in print than on the screen.

The actors do rather well with characters that reach top tension and total cluelessness early on, with no opportunity to vary the mix.  As in most haunted house movies, even as the corpses pile up, there's still a tone of 'business as usual', with people seducing one another or wandering off on their own, little troubled by the fact that there's a killer on the loose. In Ten Little Indians, the participants/victims at least undergo major behavior changes. Perhaps Savant's a bit rough on this point.

There are plenty of indications that the movie was meant to be sardonically funny, a black comedy of 'little murders', and certain touches carry out this line of reasoning.  But the garish tastelessness of the extended 'party' sequence that begins the film, doesn't convey to this viewer what Lucas interprets as Bava's Godard-like sense of 'contempt' for the assignment ... it's just an inadequate scene, one of many.  Perhaps the film's single most effective gag is the series of accelerating cutbacks (with an amusingly repeated jazzy theme) to the ol' meat locker, where the saran-wrapped corpses hang in a line like clothing in a dry cleaners'.  But a fun cat 'n mouse game can't materialize when so little information is offered to engage the audience.  The final revelations and twists pack little irony, or even surprise.

One of Bava's less-expensive productions, 5 Dolls has few of the extreme primary-color shots that grace his earlier work, and even the later Baron Blood, but this show is not a gothic piece, so that's appropriate. Unfortunately, the lushly shadowed portraits in the main poster art make one expect the visual intensity of Blood and Black Lace or Black Sabbath. His most over-used effect, the addition of a house or a castle to a beach hilltop with a foreground glass painting, is less convincing here than elsewhere: In one instance, the reflection of an actress can be seen in the glass, hovering in a stage wait and still reflected as she exits. This unusual flub is only one symptom of production haste. For every handsome trucking shot or deliriously caressing close-up, there's an unwelcome, debasing zoom. Early detractors to Bava  1 had solid ammunition as soon as he discovered the ability to give empty kinesis to static shots by overworking his zoom; 5 Dolls has a particularly trashy multiple smash-zoom right off the top.  2


Image Entertainment's Mario Bava Collection special presentation of 5 Dolls for an August Moon is one of the better-looking discs in the series.  The widescreen (but not enhanced) image is brightly colored and free of most wear, and the only real dirt on view would seem to be built-into the optical titles.  Having an Italian language track with removeable English titles, and an English dub track to choose from, covers all preferences.  There also an isolated music and effects track, a nice option for those who want to enjoy the quirky Piero Umiliani music score on its own.  Tim Lucas' fine Bava biographies and liner notes are a teaser for his upcoming book on the maestro della paura, and he does a masterful job of highlighting the grace notes of this mid-career murder romp, while acknowledging the shortcomings perceived by some viewers, and its own director.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
5 Dolls for an August Moon rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailers, Italian, English, and M&E audio tracks
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: May 13, 2001


Footnotes:

1. I showed my 16mm copy of Diabolik to a very successful animator-director friend in the '70s: his only response was that Bava showed no signs of direction whatsoever and that 'art direction doth not a movie make.' An opinion is an opinion, but Bava's always been the victim of critics who can't see beyond verbal scripts and narrative slickness.
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2. The real offender is Hatchet for the Honeymoon, a film which often looks as though half its scenes are shot from one camera position. Savant's not against the zoom per se, and thinks it's used brilliantly in Diabolik; heck, The Wild Bunch makes as much use of the zoom lens as the average Bava, and who criticizes that movie for its visual direction?
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