Widely recognized as one of the finest Italian gothic horror films ever made, the late, great Mario Bava's Kill, Baby... Kill! is a testament to the director's skill at combining painterly and atmospheric visuals with unusual and otherworldly storytelling. A ghost story at it's core, on the surface the film might seem to be little more than a well made exercise in style over substance but a bit of digging and it's obvious that there's a lot more going on in the movie than simply a little blonde ghost making trouble for a small town.
Giacomo Rossi-Stuart (of The Crimes Of The Black Cat) plays Doctor Paul Eswai is a coroner who has been sent to a small, run down village where he is to investigate a bizarre series of deaths which he suspects could be murder. With the help of Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli of Sergio Leone's My Name Is Nobody), it isn't long before the good doctor meets up with the lovely Monica (Erika Blanc of The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave) who has just returned to her hometown with some medical training. Eswai, in order to carry out his investigation, decides he'll have to perform an autopsy on one of the victims, a maid who was impaled on a sharp fence when she feel from above, but the villager's protest. He carries on, thinking them to be primitive, and soon finds that the corpse has had a golden coin pushed into its heart.
Eswai soon hears of a young girl named Melissa Graps (Valeria Valeri) who, years earlier, was killed in the streets of the town by a gang of drunks and, as legend tells, she has returned to exact her revenge. The townsfolk, including the Burgomeister (Luciano Catenacci of Crime Busters, credited here as Max Lawrence), all believe that if her ghost appears and looks at you, then you are not long for this world. Unfortunately, a young woman named Nadine (Micaela Esdra) saw the ghost recently and both she and her parents are convinced that soon she's going to die. Eswai meets up with Ruth (Fabienne Dali of Lenzi's Desert Commandos), a witch, and then later a strange older woman named Baroness Graps (Gianna Vivaldi) who ties into the strange happenings, and slowly but surely starts trying to put the pieces of this macabre puzzle together – but is the ghost real or simply local superstition?
Proof positive that creative filmmaking is far more important than a big budget, Bava (whose budget was so low for this picture that it forced him to pillage soundtrack bits from his own earlier films) keeps things looking spooky right from the start and never lets up. Decrepit old buildings, strange colored lighting, plenty of smoke and fog and some genuinely macabre looking interiors give Kill, Baby... Kill! more atmosphere than a movie made on the cheap over a couple of weeks has any right to have. The film is a non-stop visual feast for the eyes and perhaps it was because he was working without the aid of big financial backing that Bava here makes every shot count for all its worth. In addition to the lighting and the art direction the cinematography is also fantastic and quite creative. The camera follows Melissa as she plays on her swing set and periodically zooms in, Leone style, right into the character's eyes to emphasize certain key moments in the movie.
As beautiful looking as the film is, however, Kill, Baby... Kill! isn't perfect. The story isn't particularly original (though oddly enough one could reasonably argue that it's had a big impact on a lot of recent Japanese horror films which play with many of the same ideas and there are similarities here to Stuart Gordon's Dagon as well – this has become a film of some influence!) in that it simply places a more sophisticated and educated man in amongst some superstitious rural types only to have him find the error of his ways. Like in The Wicker Man, we have a central character attempting to convince a secluded group of people with beliefs different from his own that their ways are wrong. It works and it's certainly sufficient but Dr. Eswai just sort of wandering around the town makes up a large portion of the story. Adding to that is the fact that Rossi-Stuart doesn't exactly set the screen ablaze with his charisma (though in his defense part of this could be the English dubbing more than his actual performance).
With that said, Kill, Baby... Kill! still gets a lot more right than wrong. There is some truly chilling imagery here, particularly when the Melissa character presses her small hands and face against the dirty glass and curses those she looks upon. Bava foreshadows much of her diabolic activity by cleverly using a white ball that bounces around the town. It's interesting to see how the director uses an innocent child's toy to foreshadow the sinister acts to come. The story builds nicely to a satisfactory if somewhat predictable conclusion and the last twenty-minutes or so of the film really go get quite tense. Dr. Eswai's reality collides with that of the townspeople and he's forced to confront a reality which he doesn't truly understand and which the rational part of his brain tries hard to reject. It's this ending that ties the film up so well and which adds a certain level of surrealism to the picture, giving it considerably more depth than you might have expected it to have based on the first two thirds of its running time.
Previous DVD releases of Kill, Baby... Kill!have always looked more than a little rough around the edges, and most of them were taken from 16mm elements and cropped from the original 1.85.1 widescreen aspect ratio to 1.33.1 (the PAL German release from Laser Paradise being the exception, though it was German language only without any English subtitles). Thankfully with this release, Dark Sky Films presents the film in its original 1.85.1 aspect ratio, enhanced for 16x9 sets and properly flagged for progressive scan playback and the results are quite impressive indeed. The first thing you'll notice is how fantastic the colors look, with plenty of green tints used throughout the movie and plenty of primary color hues used to accentuate the locations and the performers. It all looks quite creepy, just as it should. There is some moderate film grain present in a few spots and if you look for print damage hard enough you will see some minor instances creep into the picture but for the most part there's really nothing worth complaining about here in terms of the film's visual presentation. Detail levels are very strong in both the foreground and the background of the image and the blacks stay consistently solid throughout playback. Flesh tones look lifelike and natural and there aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or serious edge enhancement. This re-mastered release is a huge visual improvement over the VCI release from a few years back and all of the 'public domain' discs that have appeared over the years from the likes of Diamond and Brentwood and in short, the movie looks fantastic.
On a personal note, this reviewer didn't particularly care for the film until finally getting the chance to see it by way of this re-mastered DVD. Despite being a big fan of Bava's work and Italian gothic horror films in general, this one just didn't click. Seeing the movie in its original aspect ratio really does make all the difference in the world, especially when the film in question relies so heavily on the visuals as is the case with Kill, Baby... Kill!.
The Dolby Digital Mono English language dub track supplied on this DVD isn't bad but it's not as strong as the video presentation. It would have been nice to have the Italian language track here as well, but that didn't happen. There is some background hiss present on the track that you'll be hard pressed not to notice, but thankfully it isn't overpowering and while it is there, it doesn't really interfere with the dialogue or the score very much. Optional English subtitles are also included.
The most important supplement on this disc is a fantastic audio commentary from Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog fame and author of the upcoming Mario Bava – All The Colors Of The Dark book. Having long been a champion of the director's work, Lucas knows his stuff and it shows throughout this interesting and insightful examination of the movie and the man who made it. He details everything from the various alternate titles that the film has gone by in various international markets (Lucas refers to it by its Italian title, Operazione paura, or, Operation Fear) which musical cues have been recycled from earlier Bava films to the shooting locations to the casting and more such as little details like the red hoods that the pallbearers wear in the opening scene. The most interesting aspects of the commentary are how he offers up different interpretations for various scenes in the movie (who knew you could realistically tie this movie into the writings of Sigmund Freud?) that might not be so obvious to those less fluent in the director's technique. He makes some interesting comparisons between the characters of Eswei and Ruth that aren't that obvious, such as how angles are used and how an unknowing kinship between these two and Monica develops through the movie. Alongside the loftier aspects of the talk, Lucas also fills in the basics as far as the history of the film and those involved in the production and he keeps it all coming at a quick enough pace to keep our interest without going too fast as to make things indigestible. There is a lot of great information in here and it's scholarly enough to be believable but still completely accessible even to those less familiar with the genre or the director. Good stuff!
The other major extra feature on this disc is an all-new featurette entitled Kill, Bava, Kill! in which David Gregory interviews Lamberto Bava in the small Italian town where the movie was filmed. Bava talks about how his father and his grandfather were filmmakers before he was and how his father started out in the film industry before getting into specifics about Kill, Baby... Kill!. At just over twenty-five minutes in length it is a fairly in-depth piece and Bava makes for an interesting interviewee, particularly because he explains how his father was a bit of a fatalist and how he taught him the art of filmmaking and how we get a modern day look at the small town where the feature was shot.
Rounding out the extra features is a photo gallery consisting of a set of German lobby cards and some promotional photos and an English language theatrical trailer (2:30 in length and enhanced for anamorphic sets!). Animated menus and chapter stops are also included.
While it certainly took long enough for Kill, Baby... Kill! to get a proper DVD release in North America, the wait has been worth it. Dark Sky has done a fantastic job with the extra features and the transfer and if the audio isn't quite perfect, it's easy enough to overlook that when the package is as strong as it is here. Easily one of Bava's finest moments, the movie holds up really well as a fine example of Italian gothic horror at its creepiest and most atmospheric and this disc comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.